City of Dreadful Joy: Random Ponderings on the Paradoxical Mechanics of a City in Search of Self.

Confession: I love Los Angeles. It’s not my favorite city in the world– that crown rests in the heart of my old home across the Pond– but I’ve pretty much reconciled to the fact that I do love Los Angeles.

Problem is, I hate L.A.

Yes. There is a difference.

For me, Los Angeles is the tangible city:  its sun kissed sloping hillsides and stretching curves of blue coast; its whimsical architecture that blends neoclassicism, deco and Moorish sensibilities with carefree abandon; the farm town framework disguised under a bustling metropolis; those knockabout formative years with the industry that would one day come to consume it ….  I love all of it.

Real Los Angeles - Angel's Fligh

However, a key factor in the definition of a city’s character is the people who live in it. They are the ones who choose what to make of the tangible city, and what not to make of it. And modern Los Angeles has amassed a considerable part of its population that does not seem to be remotely interested in that tangible city– but rather, the image it projects.

A problem, because a city cannot be truly great unless its organic self is allowed to become a part of the flesh of the people who live there. Perhaps this great distinction is what leads many a visitor to Los Angeles to label it  ‘fake’ – the absence of the organic city as an inherit part of its people is perhaps both obvious and inexpressible and therefore described as, simply, a “feeling” one gets.

Fake L.A. - Plastic Fame

Perhaps, however, this is something that has more to do with Father Time than anything else. Los Angeles is, after all, just a toddler. (History Alert: restless readers are hereby forewarned and apologies sincerely offered for any gross factual inaccuracies… the title of this post, after all, is random ponderings…) Sure, Los Angeles has Spanish roots that reach as far back as the 16th Century, but it has only been an incorporated city since 1850. At 160 years old, Los Angeles therefore trails her East Coast counterparts in both experience and maturity by some two hundred years—and by her European counterparts, upwards of a millennium. By way of perspective: when her shores were first spied by Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542 (which he rightly dubbed Baya de los Fumos– that smoke-like morning fog still a natural fixture) , his Spanish home had long been a formidable world presence, and was soon to battle her mortal enemy, the powerful, proud England, in the naval battle of the millennium.

The wilds of Baya de los Fumos was not to be officially recognized as a civilized township for some 300 years.

And even then, from the very beginning, Los Angeles was a North American curiosity. It should not have been a metropolis, this arid chaparral. And yet, America had fought for it. The  Mexican American War claimed California as its own, and with it the progressive reality of transcontinental railroads, the unsavory-but-necessary enterprise of irrigation, and the delicious reward of Oil.

Even so, this outpost of American civilization quite literally had to will itself into being– its purpose and place in the American tapestry very carefully curated by its boosters and backers. Well into the early 20th century, this city without a solid identity was being furiously fought for. The Los Angeles Times power players and the wealthy Maritime institutions fancied it a WASP wet-dream  … a delusion not to materialize (at least, not permanently) thanks to a vibrant, unstoppable ethnic population and a sleepy little farm town hamlet to the west called Hollywood. This pepper tree-lined enclave suddenly became the center of Los Angeles’ foremost export:

Motion Pictures.

Hollywood pre-1920 was a small-town USA community steeped in strict Conservative morals. Winding dirt roads and General Stores and church picnics with sweet lemonade and knitting bees. On the other side of the spectrum was the motion picture industry which had been birthed a million miles away, in the bowels of New York City and New Jersey, by immigrants– many of them Jewish. Los Angeles fought its newly forced upon identity as the entertainment center of the world, and even into the Sound-era, only Conservatives such as Cecil B DeMille were admitted into the city’s established circles.

The rest created their own.

It was from these Garden of Allah dens of devilish delight that the incoming thronging masses from the world over– Iowa to Istanbul– fabricated their own realities in a city of conflicted identity. The respectable Theodosia Goodman from Ohio became the vampiric Theda Bara and circus performer Archie Leach from Bristol became the debonair Cary Grant.

The city’s reputation was now beginning to precede it. Los Angeles was not the sleepy Spanish hamlet of Jacaranda and Pepper Trees; the wide-eyed Chicago of the Pacific with its Downtown sky-climbers; not even the Riviera of the West with its dramatic coastline so very similar to Cannes and Monte Carlo. Los Angeles was now synonymous with one word: showbiz. And Hollywood was its fated patron saint.

There is to this day, a very tangible dichotomy.  Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, and those who simply live here

Novelists from Raymond Chandler to F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway belabored their frustrated romanticism of it.  Aldous Huxley’s observations were rather more acidic. He wrote of it in 1926: “Thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy, and conversation is unknown.” And, of course, there’s Woody Allen famous summation of the City: “I cannot live in a city where the only cultural advantage is making a right turn on a red light.”

Funny as hell. And true too– if you’re judging on appearances.

The dichotomy here is tangible and one can find truth absolutely in both sides. Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, conduct a conspicuous manner of ‘living the life plast-astic’ so loud that onlookers can’t help but assume ‘that’s all there is’.

But… it’s not.

You just gotta do a bit of digging.  The real Los Angeles belongs to boarded up crumbling black alleys, old Spanish estates, the foothill wilds and reaching Deco spires. Its a past that time has yet to blacken over completely. It’s still there, living and breathing and waiting to be discovered…

All you gotta do is know where to look.

Through the tireless, passionate efforts of nonprofits like The Los Angeles Conservancy, The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, and their fight to protect and preserve, there is a bright hope that this tangible city will indeed remain just that.

Westwood Village in 1941 (via the Neat Stuff Blog)
The Bendix Sign today, Downtown LA. Copyright James Herman
Pershing Square, Downtown Los Angeles in 1965
The Vine Manor Hotel, at Vine and Yucca St. 1953
Sunbathers at The Hollywood Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)
Downtown's beautiful Eastern Building, today. Copyright A.C. Thamer
La Cienea Blvd at sunset during the 1950s
Towards the Pantages at Hollywood and Vine, 1962
Musso & Frank's Restuarant today, with its legendary bartender, Manny. Copyright Arturo Sotillo.
View of Hollywood Blvd and Hills from the Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)

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Gen Y reject and wage slave extraordinaire.

2 thoughts on “City of Dreadful Joy: Random Ponderings on the Paradoxical Mechanics of a City in Search of Self.

  1. Thanks for recognizing the soul of Los Angeles, even if few others choose to. It indeed exists; you simply have to search for it. Knowing its history also helps, understanding its development via the growth of the Red and Yellow cars (just as the development of the subway enabled New York’s outer boroughs to take shape and Washington’s neighborhoods are evolving through buildings sparked by Metrorail).

    With the growth of the Pacific Rim and Latin America, Los Angeles is poised to become the American city of the 21st century, as New York held that honor for the 20th. And the entertainment industry helped it evolve from an ersatz, insular midwestern town on the Pacific Ocean.

    1. Here here!! “You have to know where to look” is so terribly true– I wish more people out there like you chose to do so! It’s an unorthodox city. A city that, according to the rules, should not have existed in the first place. This living museum has a tangible history that, given the chance, is among the most singular and intriguing in the country…. if not the world!

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