Cities That Are Hard To Read

Los Angeles: A City That Is Hard To Read

The New Yorkers are at it again. In the pages of the New York Times, two reporters—Tim Arango and Adam Nagourney—referred to Los Angeles as “A City That Never Quite Came Together.” That reminds me of that old chestnut about Los Angeles being seventy-five communities in search of a city.

From the time I heard I was accepted by the UCLA Motion Picture History and Criticism graduate program, I scoured the Cleveland Public Library for books about Southern California. One of them wrote at great length about mudslides along the Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1) in Pacific Palisades and Malibu, and posited a fictional type of super-salesman called a “Pro-Cal,” who regarded L.A. as the best of all places—diametrically opposed to the boo-birds from the East who were intent on digging up dirt about the Golden State.

This kind of thinking negatively affected what I thought about L.A. when I first moved here in 1966. All those stucco apartment buildings painted in pastel colors struck me the wrong way. Why couldn’t they use good red brick, like we had in Ohio? Then I endured my first earthquake in 1971 and understood why they used stucco: It was the brick buildings that collapsed. Only in the 1970s that I began to actually like California. The fact that that coincided with the way I felt about myself was no accident.

My friend Lynette—who was born in California—sent me a reference to a Los Angeles Times article published on February 8, 2018  and written by Christopher Hawthorne. In it, he compares L.A. to Houston, Texas:

If I had to put my finger on what unites Houston and Los Angeles, it is a certain elusiveness as urban object. Both cities are opaque and hard to read. What is Houston? Where does it begin and end? Does it have a center? Does it need one? It’s tough to say, even when you’re there — even when you’re looking directly at it.

The same has been said of Los Angeles since its earliest days. Something Carey McWilliams noted about L.A. in 1946 — that it is a place fundamentally ad hoc in spirit, “a gigantic improvisation” — is perhaps even more true of Houston. Before you can pin either city down, you notice that it’s wriggled out of your grasp.

People who are accustomed to making quick sense of the world, to ordering it into neat and sharply defined categories, tend to be flummoxed by both places. And reporters at the New York Times are certainly used to making quick sense of the world. If there’s one reason the paper keeps getting Los Angeles so spectacularly wrong, I think that’s it. Smart, accomplished people don’t like being made to feel out of their depth. Los Angeles makes out-of-town reporters feel out of their depth from their first day here.

This is not a city on a hill, such as can be found in Tuscany. You can’t just take it in at a glance and say, “Yeah, this is Los Angeles, all right!” I like to surprise visitors with forays to ethnic enclaves like Koreatown, Little Tokyo, and East Los Angeles (or “East Los”). Then there are mountains within the county boundaries that are two miles high. The fact that there are mountains here at all is a surprise to most people.

L.A. no longer wriggles out of my grasp. I recognize it as a conglomeration of landscapes, cultures, and even architectures. So don’t think you can spend an afternoon on the Sunset Strip or the Bel Air Hotel and think you’ve scoped out the city: You haven’t even begun.

 

 

The Smugness of The New Yorker

Postcard from Los Angeles

I have always loved reading The New Yorker, but I continue to be dismayed at the peculiar relationship The Big Apple has with Los Angeles. It grates me like that scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) in which Allen is ordering lunch at a Sunset Strip eatery: “I’m going to have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast.” Another line from the same movie: “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn at a red light.”

We know that Woody Allen doesn’t like Los Angeles, and the feeling is more or less mutual. It tends to be shared by The New Yorker, which seems to include half a dozen articles each year that come under the heading of slumming in the sticks. Witness the following, which is shown on a hand-drawn cartoon of an L.A. postcard:

Greetings from Los Angeles, California. Come for the sunshine, stay for the dream that may or may not happen, but feels as if it’s going to happen like … four years in, when you score that big meeting and everyone says, “This is it—don’t blow it!!,”  but on your way there there’s a huge backup on the 5 and you’re forty minutes late so they never call you again.

Oh, come off it! This is that same Annie Hall Los Angeles that consists of the film studios and the Sunset Strip, leaving out EVERYTHING ELSE. It’s as if they’re still stuck on that Nathanael West image of The Day of the Locust.

IMHO, if you miss that big meeting, you should have gotten on the freeway earlier. No biggie! Get there early, have a coffee, arrive relaxed. Leave your Gotham edginess in the trunk of your rental car.

 

 

Farmers and Hipsters

Seafood Stand at the Old Farmers’ Market

Originally, there was the Original Farmers’ Market at Third and Fairfax. Even on the hottest days, it is a cool, shaded place with dozens of good restaurants and interesting stores. Naturally, this being Los Angeles, the real estate developers couldn’t leave well enough alone. Adjacent to the old market sprang up The Grove, consisting primarily of chains oriented toward young hipsters.

In the original market, I can take a book or Kindle and sit down for hours reading without being bothered. Oh, I buy lunch there, and maybe have a cup of tea when I arrive—and maybe even some snacks to take home.

At The Grove, there is no place to sit and read. After all, hipsters don’t read. It’s just not cool enough.

Hipster Duds at The Grove (Yawn!)

Fortunately, the presence of The Grove has not killed the Original Farmers’ Market. It’s still a major tourist attraction. So is The Grove, for that matter. Both are full of people taking selfies. I think that if The Grove swallowed the old market, people would protest loud and long. Also, I have a sneaking feeling that The Grove may require several re-designs as the new hipsters replace the old. The Farmers’ Market, on the other hand, should be preserved exactly as it is.

Today at the market, I finished reading the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and then started in with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Plus I had two great vegetarian tacos at The Lotería, one with nopalitos (marinated prickly pear cactus) and potatoes with poblano chiles. With it, I had a delicious watermelon agua fresca.

 

Los Angeles Place Names

The Dining Room of the Rancho Dominguez Adobe

History in Southern California has a decidedly Spanish flavor. By the time that American settlers began to trickle into the Mexican Province of Alta California, most of the agricultural land had been surveyed and distributed among over a hundred grantees. Their names today—not coincidentally—are place names across the land. In Los Angeles County, there are grants named San Pedro, Los Nietos, San Rafael, Los Feliz, Las Virgenes, Topanga Malibu Sequit, Palos Verdes, San Antonio, Rincon de los Bueyes, Las Cienegas, La Brea, Rosa Castilla, San Pascual, Santa Gertrudes, Paso de Bartolo, San José, Sausal Redondo, La Ballona, San Vicente y Santa Monica, Boca de Santa Monica, Tujunga, Los Nogales, Azusa de Duarte, La Puente, La Cañada, San Jose de Buenos Ayres, Cahuenga, Aguaje de Centinela, and others.

Now take a detailed map of Los Angeles, and you will see these same names replicated as names of streets, communities, hills, and waterways. The road that winds around the UCLA campus is called Buenos Ayres. There are Verduga Hills in the valley, around which snake an endless number of streets with Verdugo in their names. If I were to take a bus downtown, I would go on or past streets names Santa Monica, Centinela, La Cienega, San Vicente, and La Brea—all within ten miles.

A Map of Spanish Land Grants in Los Angeles County

Scattered throughout the county are the various adobes, or what remains of the grantees’ ranchos and haciendas. I have visited the Centinela and Dominguez adobes, and there are others I’d like to see. They are usually staffed by enthusiastic volunteers and stocked with furniture of the period. The oldest house in the City of Los Angeles is the Avila Adobe, which belonged to an early alcalde and is part of the Olvera Street tourist complex.

By the way, let’s call the city by its founding name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula. That translates to the town of our Lady Queen of the Angeles of Porciúncula. (Curiously, one place name that’s widely missing in L.A. is Porciûncula—too long, I guess.)

 

Southwest

A Place Onto Its Own

Until late in 1966, when I took a train from Cleveland to Los Angeles, I had never been farther west than Detroit. My only notion of the American Southwest came from watching Roadrunner cartoons. Then, early one morning late in December of that year, the El Capitan went through the Mojave Desert. It was d-r-y, yet there were little puddles beside the track that were frozen over. It was the beginning of my adjustment.

More than half a century later, I am still adjusting. Where back East, rain was a frequent occurrence, here it was rare, though occasionally tumultuous. In our last rain, some 17 people in Santa Barbara County were buried in mudslides when a heavy rain hit an area that had been affected by the Thomas Fire.

If you have never been “Out West,” you won’t get the picture over a short weekend. There is an element of time in the deserts of this Earth that has to be experienced. It’s not like Woody Allen breezing into town and complaining about mashed yeast and the legality of making right turns at stoplights. Experiencing L.A. will probably involve some discomfort. This ain’t no Paradise, nor yet is it Valhalla.

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

What helps is to travel around the Southwest to see the variety of strange scenery, from the Grand Canyon to many of the other National Parks—one vastly different from the other.

After all these years, I’m just getting started on the road to understanding what life here is all about.

 

Revisiting the Cold War

Entrance to the Wende museum in Culver City

Today, Martine and I visited the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City. Located in an old armory building, the museum specialized in the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in the period between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of Communism around 1989.

Although I was not born under Communism, I am an American of mixed Slovak and Hungarian parentage. From my earliest days, I remember my mother putting together packets of clothing to send to our relatives in Hungary. They were packaged in strong white sackcloth, buttressed with rope, and addressed in indelible blue ink.

I had heard of the Wende Museum before. Only within the last few weeks has it moved to its present site on Culver Boulevard just west of Overland. Admission is free, and there is a gift shop.

In 1977 I visited Hungary and then People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia. My parents had flown there separately and met me at Ferihegy Airport in Budapest. We traveled by train to see a festival in Szeged (featuring the opera Aïda), and then went by rail to Kosiče . We were picked up there by my father’s relatives and driven to Prešov-Solivar, where Imre Hrasko and family lived.

Bust of V. I. Lenin

The Wende Museum consisted of several rooms with Soviet and other Cold War memorabilia, including statuary, photographs, posters, models, toys, electronic equipment, thousands of books, and a few videos. Among the videos was a cute East German cartoon about Santa Claus trying to understand what Sputnik (the Soviet satellite launched in 1957) was because it was on so many childrens’ wish lists. So he goes back to the moon, where the Man in the Moon sends him back to Earth. There, at a scientific institute, he finds his answer and looks at a model of the satellite. There were a number of exhibits relating to Russia’s early accomplishments in space.

Hungarian Farm Girl Operating Tractor

It takes about an hour to visit the museum, and guided tours are available. It was interesting to see how clueless the younger visitors were about the Cold War era. Maybe that’s why Trumpf is president today.

 

Tophet

Sky Full of Ash: The View from My Front Door

The wildfires to the north of us have filled the sky with ashes. When I wake up in the morning, I have to blow my nose to lessen the irritation. The air smells burnt.

According to Wikipedia:

In the Hebrew Bible Tophet or Topheth (Hebrew: תוֹפֶת‎; Greek: Ταφεθ; Latin: Topheth) was a location in Jerusalem in the Gehinnom where worshipers influenced by the ancient Canaanite religion engaged in the human sacrifice of children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive. Tophet became a theological or poetic synonym for hell within Christendom.

The traditional explanation that a burning rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem gave rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to Rabbi David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13. He maintained that in this loathsome valley fires were kept burning perpetually to consume the filth and cadavers thrown into it.

In any case, it doesn’t sound very appetizing. There are times when Los Angeles is beautiful and fresh, but that’s only after a rare rain. Other times, it’s like a slow oven. And it could even be cold. When there’s a major earthquake, it feels that you can slide at any moment into a deep crevice near to the fires at the center of the earth.

But, still, it’s better than Cleveland.