"When you first arrive in Los Angeles..."
by Jennifer Mapes
Geography graduate student describes her first semester in L.A.
Raban (1974) describes city life as a melodrama, where his experiences help him understand its plot (16). My encounter with Los Angeles is a crash into a culture that is antithetical to all I knew on the East Coast, to the small towns I grew up in and loved. It is a city, a big city, lacking in just about every quality I had treasured in the places from my past. And yet it was not the place I expected. My experiences accumulate into a new account of Los Angeles, one that both corresponds with and contradicts the city that I imagined. For Raban, the city goes soft to its residents, and allows them to remold it from concrete reality into a creation based on their perceptions (9). I suggest that the city also begins soft: before we see it, we see it represented by others, we form our own opinion about it, we imagine it. In this essay, I use stories and mental maps to explore my relationship with Los Angeles as it moves from hard to soft, from imagined to real, and back again.
I began my exploration of Los Angeles at its edges and worked my way towards its center. My first home was in Santa Clarita, a city an hour north of Los Angeles in the high desert. I then spent four days living in Redondo Beach, south of L.A., before moving to my long-term home only about two miles from downtown. In these three places, I commuted, shopped, and lived. I learned what it was to be an Angeleno in myriad conceptions of the term, intertwining my interactions with the built landscape and my perceptions of what constitutes my Los Angeles. These are my stories of Los Angeles: two months, 3,500 miles from home.
Before Los Angeles
It is a surreal experience to be living in a place as mythologically entwined in the American landscape as Los Angeles. I live in Hollywood. I drive along Sunset Boulevard, through the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, and walk along the Santa Monica pier at sunset. I drive down the Pacific Coast Highway through O.C. territory. There is Los Angeles and there is Hollywood, and it is hard to separate the two. Before moving here, like many East Coasters I was disgusted with L.A. but enamored with Hollywood, unsure what to make of this contradiction.
I dont know cities the way most urbanites do. I know small cities of thirty or forty thousand well, but my experience with large cities is limited to a year in Washington, D.C. and a few months in Durban, South Africa. For a non-urbanite, the experience of the city is often difficult to extract from a city. The city to me is about divergence from the easily known, easily traversed small town to the overwhelming immenseness of population and infrastructure of an urban center. Los Angeles was no secret from me before I moved here. It was a living entity, one that I believed I wanted no part of. Living in Washington, D.C., was a lonely experience, so I grouped big cities in a category of places I didnt want to live. Los Angeles was at the top of this list as it seemed perpetually at risk for natural disaster, and like any other city, densely claustrophobic.
Hollywood was one part of the Los Angeles I thought I knew before I moved here. It figures prominently into my mental map of the city. I remember South Central and the 1992 riots and, more recently, Michael Moores attempt in Bowling for Columbine (2002) to show South Central as safer than portrayed by the media. I knew the beach in only a vague sense, as the Pacific Ocean could have been one or five or fifty miles from downtown Los Angeles in my cognitive map of the city. I knew Los Angeles was on the West Coast, and I could locate it on a map. It was in California, south of San Francisco (rated highly on my city list because of its location on my political-cultural map of the 1960s) and north of Mexico.
I knew about earthquakes, in part because of my memory of television coverage of the 1994 Northridge quake, and in part because of the movie Earthquake, one of my fathers favorites. A few years ago, I read Control of Nature, John McPhees (1989) story about rockslides just outside of Los Angeles, and so I knew about this danger and its place (somewhere) near L.A. I moved to Los Angeles to study because I knew, again only in a vague sense, of massive amounts of sprawl around the city. My mental map (Figure 1) shows an area filled with potential dangers and ugliness, drawn from scattered stories and other representations. For all the reasons I did not like Los Angeles, I was fascinated by it and drawn to move here.
The day I arrived in California, I moved into my temporary home: a large one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clarita a few miles from Six Flags: Magic Mountain. My host told me that I would be living in Valencia, a place well-marked on my Rand McNally map of Southern California. He said I would live near Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, and Ben & Jerrys, so I pictured a tree-lined Main Street in the village of Valencia. But Valencia, as a town, city, or village, does not exist. Valencia is a development project conceived of in the 1960s, and built between the 1970s and 90s.
Valencia is an attempt to create a somewhere out of nowhere. Visit the Valencia website, and you find that Valencia is not a town, but a corporation. Great communities dont happen by accident, the website reads. It was a new town, built as a result of what citizen-historian Leon Worden calls manifest destiny (1997), at the confluence of increased development elsewhere, the establishment of water lines to the Santa Clarita Valley, and the construction of Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and Sacramento. Built Valencia is an amalgam of apartment complexes, housing developments, office buildings, and shopping centers. A street, complete with diagonal parking, trees, sidewalks, and benches, leads up to the entrance of Valencia Town Center, which is a mall, not a civic center, although in Valencia, it seems these two forms have merged. I visited the mall one day as the sun was setting and an evening concert was getting underway outside. It could have been in any small-town bandstand, were it not for the mall entrance on one end and the Pottery Barn and Starbucks on the other.
I saw in Valencia the ability to live in Los Angeles without ever really living there. My map shows the disconnect between the suburb and the city, felt more strongly by a newcomer who knew little beyond the three hour daily commute to Los Angeles (Figure 2). I drove to the train station, boarded the Metrolink to Union Station, and took a shuttle from Union Station to the University of Southern California campus. It was safe: everyone was just like me. It wasnt a matter of race, but more a question of our destination, which was equivalent to class. The cost of commuting this way, more than $100 a month, was restrictive enough to assure a middle class travel experience. We had nothing to fear from each other.
Commuting this way, I never saw downtown Los Angeles, only the inside of Union Station, carefully policed for those who would disturb commuters. From Union Station, I took the shuttle to USC. On both legs of my journey, there were no stops along the way that werent meant for commuters. Women applied makeup on the Metrolink, while other passengers slept or drank coffee. There was no searching for a place to sit on the train, or park at the station. Even when I took the commuter bus (cheaper at $4 a day, rather than $12 for the Metrolink), it was the same crowd; they were a quiet group, most slept on the drive home. I felt safe in Valencia, as was intended. But I also felt claustrophobic, and distanced from my new city.
After Valencia, I lived for a week in a house in Redondo Beach. It was another experience at living at the edge of L.A. I add Redondo as a story of Los Angeles because it confirmed my Valencia perceptions. It was another community tied economically and geographically to Los Angeles, yet experientially far apart from the city. I lived in a house not far from the beach, in a neighborhood of look-alike homes. They all had large windows on the second floor, with screens that could be left open all day to let in the sea breezes. Garages were central to the homes architecture, and their backyards were gated off and covered with Beware of Dog signs. The family I lived with had locked rooms filled with guns and a baseball bat by the front door. It was remarkable to me that a family so far away from the realities of Los Angeles, and so well-blended with their neighbors (Why would a burglar choose them over the identical house next door?) would need such quantities of defense. But Redondo is closing in on L.A., and L.A. (to these families) is a scary place.
Commuting and shopping in Redondo (Figure 3) were virtually identical to Valencia. Shopping is done in a two or three mile radius around the well-maintained homes of Redondo Beach. There is no need to go into the city when theres a mall, dozens of chain stores. We shopped at a plaza that had a Barnes & Noble, Trader Joes, and Old Navy. Commuting was a matter of taking the freeways, or using the Metrorail. Most people drove to work, as evidenced by the half-empty metro lot, which offered free parking about three miles from the Redondo house. The commute involved a stop in the middle of the freeway, climbing stairs to the Vermont Avenue bus stop. From there to the USC campus, I got a taste of South L.A., but the bus remained a safe haven from the street. A drive to campus would again bring a touch of reality, with street parking available in the neighborhood adjacent to the campus, where houses tend to be heavily fenced, and it is suggested we dont walk at night.
In my experience, however, living in Redondo offers little contact with the city of L.A. Most of the drive, or commute, is along the freeway. Each non-freeway drive at each end of the commute is severely different from the other. In Redondo, youre surrounded by housing developments and shopping malls. As you come off the freeway at the other end, the Los Angeles end, homes are single-story, closer together, and stores are closed in by burglar bars and local, with unfamiliar names. Getting off the freeway, Banham (1971) writes, is coming in from the outdoors (213). Commuting, there is a moment when you enter the city, and a moment when you leave it and the drive in between.
Harvard Boulevard feels much further from the worlds of Redondo and Valencia than its geographical distance. The street where Ive lived for the last month is east of Hollywood and west of Los Feliz, in between Thai Town and Little Armenia. Its a working class neighborhood where individual houses are well-maintained, with rose gardens and avocado trees, but businesses remain covered with bars and spray paint. There is a Thai grocery store down the street where I buy herbs and vegetables. Thai restaurants, laundry stores, and liquor stores abound.
I take the bus to USC, but drive everywhere else. While in Redondo and Valencia, recreation was limited to a tight suburban ring around my home, here my mental map (Figure 4) consists of multiple nodes of neighborhoods and neighboring cities, each with its own attractions. I drive to Hollywood to buy groceries and shop in thrift stores. I go to Santa Monica when I want to walk along the beach and remind myself of how close my new home is to the coast. I have a mechanic in West Hollywood, and my post office is in Los Feliz. The thrift stores in Pasadena are packed full of furniture discarded by the wealthy, to my benefit.
I first went to Los Feliz, about two miles northeast of my house, to shop, finding a small-town feel in the middle of the city, with a three-screen movie theater, a bakery with outdoor seating, and an independent book store. I shop for groceries one day in the Los Feliz Albertsons, in line behind an elderly white man paying the Latina clerk. He tries out a Spanish phrase on her, in some stage of learning the language. She laughs. Parlez-vous Francais? she asks. No, he responds, Ich spreche Deutsches, and begins to have a one-sided conversation with her in German. Its poetry to me. Im increasingly enamored with a city where I can overhear such interactions on a daily basis.
My bus ride, about five miles down Vermont Avenue, is a mix of people from all walks of life, with students and families and commuters packed in. The 754 Rapid runs from Hollywood to South L.A., where I used to arrive on the freeway from Redondo Beach. I walk to Melrose Avenue, about a mile from my house, and head south on the 754. A group of people get on in Hollywood or Koreatown, and most get off at Wilshire Boulevard, commuting to downtown. Then there are those who get on at Wilshire, getting off in fits and starts along Vermont headed through Little Guatemala, as the signs change from Korean to Spanish.
I find myself collecting stories about my Los Angeles experience; day-in-the-life stories that are uniquely urban, and, perhaps, uniquely L.A. I savor the mood of something so different from everything and everywhere else that Ive been. There is one night when its almost midnight. Im kept awake by the dense smoke that has infiltrated our house, blowing south from the fires in Topanga Canyon. Im sneezing, wheezing and cant breathe, so when my roommate suggests we do laundry, I agree. Our upstairs neighbor overhears our plans, as its hard to avoid overhearing conversations in a neighborhood as transparent as ours. She asks my roommate if we can wash her clown costume. Our neighbor, whose real name is Rhoda, calls herself Skye and gives us business cards that read, Delusional Diva. My roommate bargains with Skye and ultimately agrees.
We drive off, our headlights illuminating ash falling from the sky, past the park at the end of our block. Skyes walking her dog in the park, we see, and not far from her is a makeshift memorial for someone was shot there the other night. Earlier that day, the park had been roped off, not by the police, but by a movie studio that was shooting there. My roommate and I drive north a few blocks to Sunset Boulevard, turning carefully to avoid the prostitutes that take a diagonal route racing from sidewalk to sidewalk, one laughing because her wig is falling off. There is a 24-hour Laundromat across the street from the grocery store and Home Depot. It is clean, nearly empty, and has a 24-hour Subway to feed late-night washers. Patrons range from working-class Hispanic men, to an Asian woman with an iBook and a boyfriend, to a pale white man with thick black glasses, black hair and a bushy mustache. I feel unobtrusive enough to be safe here.
This is part of my day-to-day experience of living on Harvard Boulevard. I find often that my definition of the urban is a perceptual difference of freedom versus restraint: I recognize that in the city, I have a curfew. I am constrained both by safety and accessibility. Here, like elsewhere, we are warned not to walk outdoors alone after dark. But in Los Angeles, I take this warning seriously. In Durban, students are given a form with two dozen blank spaces to record future incidents as victims of crime. In L.A., we are sent emails detailing crimes around campus. I am also constrained by traffic, as reports and experiences with the Los Angeles rush hours convince me to take public transportation. For true Angelenos, there are common laws of traffic and methods of speeding commutes, but not for newcomers. I shape my day around my perception of the environment outside my home. The city has once again gone soft.
After Los Angeles
For this essay I wove together mental maps and stories of Los Angeles, moving from the imagination-image I had of L.A. to my accumulating memory-image. I do not offer my own experiences as a complete description of the entire city and its other residents. I have spent a very limited amount of time here, and my vision will likely change and expand as my experiences grow. I recognize that my life in Valencia and Redondo was influenced by my relative inexperience with the area and lack of social connections, resulting a dual existence of work/home. My experiences of Los Angeles are influenced by race, class, gender, and myriad other factors that make my view of Los Angeles unique. But in part because of these influences, I am able to offer distinctive representations from both inside and outside of the city.
A month before I moved to Los Angeles, I watched the movie Crash in a small town in Pennsylvania, about five of us in the audience. I was taken with the films view of L.A. It embraced the city as a place that is flawed, yet desperately seeking human connections. One character narrates its premise in the films trailer (2005):
Its the sense of touch. Any real city, you walk you know, you brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. Were always behind this metal and glass I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
Hearing this description provided me with enough sympathy to Los Angeles that I withheld judgment of the city when I moved here. I had heard about its toughness, its plasticity, its infrastructural dominance over the human landscape. But in this cinematic description, I saw the softer side of L.A. I saw the people that I have now lived next door to: those who are afraid, those who want to move beyond the superficiality and disconnectedness of the city but cant. As I write this, the neighbor is laughing, youre having problems with your personal space that is so L.A.! Thats L.A., man. I smile at the irony of this comment being overheard through the transparent walls of my house. I believe I can learn something from Los Angeles, which constantly moves between growing apart and being woven together. I believe I have learned already that in the safety of the suburbs, much is lost and little is gained. It is denser here, closer to the city, and perhaps here, the sense of touch is realized again.
Like Raban, I have my own stories of the city, and Ive only been here two months. And although I began this essay acknowledging that the general and specific patterns of urbanity get confused, in my stories and images there is little confusion. Like my neighbor, I often end my story whether its in my head or as told to friends with, That is so L.A. Perhaps coming from afar, I have a better view of the clichés of the city. Because one goal of moving here is to experience Los Angeles, I seek to imprint these images on my brain: the smoke rising from the Hollywood Hills, the five-foot long gecko attached to my neighbors door, the white-haired woman clad in neon pink walking down the street in West Hollywood, the park that moves swiftly from crime scene to movie-shooting location. These images are the Los Angeles of my imagination, but they are also the Los Angeles of reality.
Banham, R. 1971. Los Angeles: The architecture of four ecologies. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc.
Crash (trailer). 2004. Lions Gate Entertainment. Available in Quicktime at: http://www.apple.com/trailers/ lions_gate/crash/ Last accessed: 5 October 2005.
Dear, M. 2000. The post-modern urban condition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Raban, J. 1974. Soft City. London: Harper Collins.
Worden, L. 1997. Post-war growth of the Santa Clarita Valley. The (Santa Clarita Valley) Signal. 19 February. Available at: http://www.scvhistory.com/scvhistory/ signal/worden/lw021997.htm. Last accessed 5 October 2005.