The larger than life past and exciting future of the City of Angels

Some places are beacons for the human race. They have a reputation for greater possibilities. They attract ambition and make talent, from pure potential to fully formed. They also attract their fair share of misfits, savants, poseurs and false prophets (all are necessary). The where and the why of a city is geographical; the who and the how of a city is sociological; the when and the what of a city is political, if political is to be understood as the art of the humanly possible. So where is the epicenter of the humanly possible? Easy. It’s Los Angeles.

The city that grew up on dreams. Without dream factories, you do not stretch possibilities. It’s a city as old as film, the world’s favorite new art form and means of communication. The greatest communicator of the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin, was made possible by leaving London and living in Los Angeles. It’s a city young enough to not be saddled with old world entrapments. It’s a city by the ocean, by the mountains, by the desert – because a great city also has great escapes. It’s a city built of new spatial forms from new and renewed materials – pushing the global discussion of how we should live and how we could live even when we are living off the grid or off the planet. And yet it is a city founded along a fault line – a crack in the earth that teases total destruction. This tease, paradoxically, reinforces the batty optimism of Los Angeles residents and their coda of physical, personal and spiritual regeneration: Nothing lasts, so nothing gets old. Nothing old in a city named not for a god but to glorify those who do the will of god, for those who are seen to be the best versions of humanity: The city of the angels.

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Why Los Angeles? Well, beyond the pure joy of being able to surf and ski on the same day, beyond being the headquarters of a USD504 billion strong arts and culture industry (Hollywood’s top five film companies comprise 80 percent of the international box office), beyond the universities, the biotech and aerospace sectors (GPS, the Space Shuttle and the Mars Rover all were invented in LA), beyond Google, beyond Tesla, beyond the international cuisine that results from a population whose children spoke 85 different languages in primary school, beyond the 284 sunny days a year and weather that stays between 13 and 22 degrees Celsius, beyond the regular onshore breezes, beyond the 120 acre botanical gardens, beyond a music capital that boasts everything from Frank Sinatra to Joni Mitchell to Los Lobos to NWA to the world class symphony and a symphony hall made possible by an animated mouse, beyond the art scene (Andy Warhol had his first show in LA), beyond the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Frank Gehry, beyond Beverly Hills, beyond Compton, beyond the waterways of Venice… there’s always the fact that in Los Angeles, despite it being the third largest metropolitan economy in the world with a population of 13 million, you still might wake up on the dusty edge of this metropolis and find a coyote or a mountain lion in your back yard, with your chihuahua in its mouth. Or on the salty marina side with a sea lion barking at your sliding glass door. Because no matter how civilized this city seems, there’s always the hint of the wild out there. Which is to say, no matter how well protected and behaved we get, we should never forget the wild that exists inside and alongside us all.

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Paris and London are marvelous depositories of glorious eras and cultures looted and colonized. Moscow can’t hold a candle to St. Petersburg, which has a grandeur like Rome, but what has either produced recently? Same question for Barcelona (tourism and football are not enough). Athens is broke. Bangkok is broken. Vienna is a balancing act between worshiping its famous dead and admitting it never liked them while they were alive. Ask Kafka about Prague and the other charming Central European relics. Tokyo is the greatest blend of old and new, and like LA, a leader in entertainment and earthquake resistant structures, but can you ever sit in a café and watch all the people walk by and think: “I could be anywhere, because everyone from everywhere is here and owning it?” You can in New York, the home of billionaire global economy destroyers. Beijing, like Moscow, is all about the strength of ancient conquerors, but it’s also about buying international starchitects to build statement buildings that you can’t see for all the air pollution. Same goes for Shanghai and Hong Kong: can you breathe freely when you’re there? DC was built on a swamp, produces lobbyists, and shuts down when there is more than an inch of snow. Mexico City is just too large; Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen just too small. Rio might crumble from self-inflicting the World Cup and the Olympics. San Francisco has a superiority complex bigger than its beauty – which is immense. Berlin?

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Other great cities have immediately identifiable profiles, monuments, towers, statues. LA’s only truly iconic landmark, the Hollywood sign, was first just a real estate advertisement that overstayed its purpose. It became so neglected, so pathetic, that it began to symbolize the cruel side of stardom: this is what happens when you outlast your fame. Garbo, Dietrich, Heddy Lamarr – they all hid when they could no longer look like themselves. Marilyn committed suicide. So enter Hugh Hefner, creator of Playboy, the magazine launched by Marilyn Monroe’s nude centerfold. Who else but the man who brought celebrity skin to middle America should come out of his LA mansion to be the savior of the symbol of celluloid by funding its facelift?

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LA panders to our great common weaknesses of vanity and self-absorption. The city is where every selfie should go to be validated. But in a way, there is no more honest city than LA, in that whatever was beautiful, or popular, or promising will be exposed as nothing but a facade. It all peels faster than a sunburn. It fades faster than you can say: Your new face looks great! This false front isn’t just for film sets and plastic surgeons. It’s in the highest pantheons of culture. If you step inside Frank Gehry’s signature Walt Disney Concert Hall (designed before his Bilbao museum), you will see woods and concretes arranged in such a way to look something between the luxurious order of an ocean liner and the chaos of anti-gravity. The Douglas fir wood paneling that frames the halls was intentionally selected to match the warm color tones of the musician’s instruments. According to Gehry, ”Douglas fir and a cello look like brothers.” And for the audience, the color has a psycho-acoustic sensory experience, in that they are both comforted by the color tones and believe that the warm wood is part of the outstanding acoustic experience. Together, this psychologically elevates their concert experience. But in truth, the outstanding acoustics are due to the 20.3 centimeter-thick concrete walls. The wood is largely decoration – a special effect in the city of special effects.

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Gehry, an Angeleno since 1947, is perhaps the brightest star of starchitects. He revived Bilbao and is now making waves with his Foundation Louis Vuitton outside Paris. More interesting, and more American, are his earlier projects around LA. Gehry’s use of unpretentious materials like chain link fence, concrete, pressboard (condensed wood/paper scrap), and corrugated metal was an exercise in democratic living. He mixed low and high, ghetto with privilege. In much the same way LA’s privileged classes dress up to the nines or down to resemble those who’ve had to make their living on the street.

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Other great cities are centered – historically, financially, there is a dot on the map proclaiming “from here, you can gather your bearings.” Los Angeles evolved differently: it sprawled because it could. Because cars were new and affordable and land was cheap. This evolved into a city that today is not immediately accessible to the tourist. It takes time and Google maps to begin to understand, and once you figure out that everything is so spread out, well…why bother when San Diego and San Francisco are so close? This relentless expansion strained resources and divided sections based on ethnicity. The most famous of these is East LA, which became a hotbed for gang- and drug-related violence and a rap style that laid it all out for listeners to get their kicks from the gunshots and sirens at a safe distance. Those who made it big, like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, are now seen in movies playing themselves or (wink) tough cops. Catch Straight Outta Compton now in theaters if you’re curious. It makes Entourage, that other LA success from the wrong side of the tracks thing, look ridiculous. Or better yet, catch Dope, a film that shows the duplicity in our own rushes to judgment.

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When you look closer at this sprawl, you see patterns and opportunities not available in more traditionally laid out metropolitan centers. You see space for satellites and disbursement of industries, cultures, micro-cultures and wealth. There are spaces enough for young talent to practice their trades on the small stage before hitting it big. Saigon appears to be evolving in a similar way, both out and up, with opportunities in outer districts that may catalyze old neighborhoods into new hot spots. Los Angeles’ progress and influence is tangible in other realms, other cities. Hollywood money helped elect the first black man to the White House. Not that Hollywood hadn’t been there before: Ronald Reagan served two terms sticking largely to an image and a script of how to look presidential. If that means nothing to you, then maybe this will: Hollywood made Reagan plausible and then made Obama possible. Obama looks to his influential friends in LA when he needs to bolster party platforms and support. New York made Trump, and the global financial Armageddon Obama was forced to face at the start of his presidency.

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Here’s the thing about LA: it has all the great faults of all the other great cities: traffic, pollution, dead zones, organized crime, gang warfare, police brutality, a fractured school system. It has twice been the setting of race riots after civil rights acts had been championed by presidents and pundits. But there is progress on a scale that can help other major metropolitan centers. Emissions standards, local regulations, improved public transport and share bike programs have brought smog levels down dramatically, to the point where studies can now measure the cause and effect of improvements in air quality to better public health (Beijing, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Saigon, etc. take note). Revitalization efforts to historical downtown have resulted in an influx of startups, conversion of derelict buildings to galleries, restaurants, and civic buildings, and the influx of 60,000 more residents. And the program to ethnically diversify LA’s police has transformed the identity and perceptions force (now 55 percent non-white, 20 percent female) and improved credibility among citizens, and reduced both excessive force and false arrest cases.

In 1982, Sir Ridley Scott, an English director, made Blade Runner, a movie about a not-too-distant future Los Angeles (November 2019) filled with eclectic architecture, robots that are almost but not quite human and ethnic neighborhoods that do not interact beyond their racial boundaries. Blade Runner also makes a strong statement about the impact of technology on society and the environment. It’s anything but cozy and green. In fact, it’s tragic dystopia. Interestingly, already in the late 1980s, not long after LA had hosted the US-dominated, Soviet-boycotted summer Olympics, the Mayor of Los Angeles commissioned a plan for LA: 2000 – the city of the future. The report warned of creating a Blade Runner scenario where great ethnic and cultural diversity will be the weakness, not the strength.

Well, it’s 2016 and we’re not far off from Ridley’s imagination. We’ve got the architecture, the AI is just over the horizon, and our neighborhoods teeter when racist flames are fanned. So should we believe Ridley or not? Will the most human of cities lose its humanity, design its own demise? What do we see when we look at all those millions of Angelenos? Do we see a great weakness or a great strength? Do we see a collective personality, or 72 fractured, independent identities? Step outside.

Look around. You tell me.

IMAGES BY PATRICK CARPENTER