Tag Archives: L.A.

I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 


I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.


I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 


I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 


I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

Click on any image to enlarge

LA freeways

An awful lot of bull hockey has been written about Los Angeles: It has been called the ”City of Dreams” and ”the world’s storyteller.”

But I am not interested in that part of the city. You can keep all the actors (save those still waiting tables) and keep all the studios. Underneath and beyond is a Los Angeles that I love. It is the city of smog, freeways, barrios and signs written in Korean and Armenian. It is a city so alive that it actually buzzes.

When I tell my friends that I love LA, they look at me funny. But it is true. I love the traffic. I love the commercial clutter. I love the bad air.

The traffic gives me time to listen to music on the radio. The commercial clutter turns into poetry if read in the right mood, and the bad air diffuses the naked sunlight to bathe the city in a brilliant glow that makes house paint seem incandescent.

I’m not sure I would want to live in the city, but once or twice a year, it is good to visit the City of Angels just to have the voltage increased in my neurological wiring.

Just what is LA?

According to one writer, it is ”mudslides, fires, earthquakes, Santa Ana winds.” And to another, it is ”falafel joints, collapsible apartments, visible air.”

And for performance artist Ann Magnuson, it is ”cheap pedicures, perpetual sun, guilt-free careerism, seeing Vincent Price at the 7-Eleven, having a back yard, no cockroaches, true love and Disneyland. Every day is like Saturday.”

It is a city that looks like a living hand-tinted postcard. LA panorama with snowcaps

Of course, Los Angeles is more than Los Angeles. It is in Dorothy Parker’s words or H.L. Mencken’s — the saying is so apt, any wit might well have said it — ”27 suburbs in search of a city.”

From San Bernardino to Calabasas, from Costa Mesa to the Santa Clarita Valley, it is a sprawling, throbbing, thriving endless urban glory.

It is strip malls with Korean groceries and underground parking, and it is great Indian restaurants.

Or as demographer Kevin McCarthy puts it: ”Los Angeles is the new Ellis Island.”

And that means that you can find things in Los Angeles. Ethnic food isn’t confined to Chinese and Thai. You can find Armenian food, Sri Lankan food, Honduran food, and I have no doubt if I looked hard enough, I could find a place to eat the cuisine of the Fiji Islanders.

I can find books in any language, recordings of any music, clothing of any national origin.

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

As George Will put it, ”Some Americans despise Los Angeles, just as some Europeans despise America, and for the same reason. Los Angeles, like America, like freedom applied, is strong medicine — an untidy jumble of human diversity and perversity.”

It is also hazy sunlight and palm trees.

”The light in Southern California demands strong colors,” wrote Postmodernist architect Michael Graves. ”Here the sun plays a major role in modeling the texture and surface of buildings, making them sparkle and dance.”

Los Angeles is the most verbal city I know. Signs are everywhere and prodigiously redundant.

For Los Angeles, more than any city I’ve ever seen, is a city of small business. Sure there are chains and franchises, but butted up against one another like soup cans on a grocery-store shelf along any major street are small shops selling everything imaginable: shalom hunan

Teriyaki burritos — Shalom Hunan, Kosher Chinese Restaurant — Modern Prosthetics.

The smallest corner minimall has a rack of signs along the street with something like 25 small logos plastered on it. Then the stores themselves have signs over their doors and windows, and finally there are broadsheets taped up against the glass. It is an alphabetical bombardment:

Any plain garment cleaned and pressed $1.25 — 100 percent human hair and wig sale — Two-Star Bakery — A-1 Smog, pass or don’t pay — Tabu Tattoos.

What do you make of “Donuts and Chinese Food”?

They all add up to a kind of commercial poetry.

When I’m in LA, I cruise up and down Wilshire Boulevard, enjoying the Deco Moderne architecture; up and down the Sunset Strip, looking at the storefront restaurants; and up and down La Brea Avenue, looking at the art galleries and antiques shops.

I take La Cienega Boulevard over the Baldwin Hills, Mulholland Drive past the homes of Madonna and Jack Nicholson.

But most of all, I take the small streets with unremembered names past the one-floor houses with their front lawns and front porches, the tiny, unglamorized neighborhoods of the city — California bungalows and stucco homes on hillsides. calif bungalow

Children play in the streets, cars sit in driveways outside garages too stuffed with dunnage to be driven into, and on the corner a Burger King with exactly six (already full) parking spots.

It is the city’s great cosmic joke that everything depends on having a car but nowhere in LA is there available parking. It is like musical chairs. You can circle a block 10 times waiting to pull up to the curb to get your morning bagel.

Of course, there is that other LA, the one we know from television and the movies. That is the city where all the starlets have day jobs and the men all wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles.

You find this LA, too, in the trendier restaurants, where you can overhear people say things like: ”I’ve done a lot of second A.D. work” and ”My boyfriend keeps buying properties and he wants me to produce them.”

But that’s not the LA I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the Los Angeles River: All the city’s riverbeds are concrete troughs. You drive over them on bridges from the 1930s and see under you broad, dry expanses of concrete, with narrow sluices in the middle filled with flowing water — or is it sewage? The riverbeds are so evocative they’ve shown up in films ranging from Terminator 2 to Them!, in which giant ants live in the city’s underworld.

I’m talking about the cemeteries: Los Angeles graveyards are filled with stars. And Forest Lawn, the most famous, is filled with music. Smarmy string orchestras play Danny Boy over loudspeakers so that you feel like you are stuck in an eternal Lawrence Welk show. At the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, you can find the mausoleum with Rudolph Valentino’s ashes. At the L.A. Pet Cemetery, you can find the plot of his dog.

Oh, and then, there are the freeway flyovers: Traffic whirls around like a video game, up and over. Driving under the overpasses, you have a great sculptural, architectural sense of the space dissected by concrete. Driving over them, you have views of the city and its mountain borders. You are flying.nat hist museum

And there are institutions, like the Museum of Natural History. At Exhibition Park, it seems the badly-cared-for 80-year-old Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History is always under restoration. Whole wings are closed off for repair. But every time I visit the city, I have to go to see the great taxidermy and diorama halls of North American mammals. You stand in the darkened hall and imagine yourself at Yellowstone looking at moose or in Virginia looking at the possum.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And don’t forget the La Brea Tar Pits. There is a very good museum at the tar pits, which will explain all about the saber-toothed tiger and the dire wolf. There are mastodon skeletons and a working lab you can watch. But I just like to walk around the surrounding fields and watch the bubbles blurt up through the goo and smell the petro-stink. Once in a while you find a bird caught dead in the tar at the bottom of a small steaming pit. It tells you at least as much about the power of the tar as the museum exhibits.

Most tourists visit Hollywood Boulevard, and the walk of stars. But I like the Baldwin Hills. In the 1940s, a low-cost housing development modeled on a New Jersey project was built on the hills south of Venice Boulevard. It is 80 acres of one- and two-story homes with gardens and sycamore trees. It is one of the most pleasant neighborhoods to drive through when you feel the need to get off the screaming meemies of La Cienega Boulevard on your way south to the airport. It is bordered by fields of petroleum pumps, dipping their beaks up and down.

Tourists like the Santa Monica Pier, and so do I. The arch over the pier says ”yacht harbor, sport fishing, boating, cafes,” but this pier is better visited for skeet ball and cotton candy. There is a carousel and always dozens of people hanging over the edge with fishing lines. Underneath, the surf washes up on the sand and sunbathers stretch out on terry cloth. There is a seedy quality to it, which brings it to life, where many more modern and clean amusement parks feel synthetic.watts tower

There is great art at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA), but there is also the Watts Tower. In 1921, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia began building a monument to trash. Using any scraps of pottery, glass, steel and concrete he could find, he put together LA’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. He worked on the tower for 33 years, and it rises nearly 100 feet over the neighborhood. Of his life’s work, he said, ”I had in mind to do something big, and I did it.” It is one of the world’s greatest pieces of folk art.

That’s Los Angeles. It is sui generis, and, if not always a delight for the senses, it is always a ripe and luscious source of sense data.

As Raymond Chandler said, ”Anyone who doesn’t like it is either crazy or sober.”

No, what I love is to walk along the grass on the beach side of Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica and smell the heady combination of salt spray and bus fumes, watching the sun expire into the hazy horizon, knowing I’m on my way to a great souvlakia. Skateboarders squirt past and retirees sit on the benches and read newspapers. The hotel signs begin to light up and you know that the city doesn’t close down, it just puts on its night face. LA griffith observatory