Saturday, 18 September 2010
#35 Nothing comes close to the Golden Coast.
Los Angeles is the most divisive of tourist destinations. It's attractions are as big as they come: Hollywood, Malibu Beach, Venice Beach, the Sierra Nevada, and a clutch of unique wild places: Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, the Mojave desert, and (casting slightly further afield) the Grand Canyon. Yet most people I have ever talked to loathe it. Why?
It is often criticised for being a cultural wasteland. On the one hand this seems absurd - Hollywood movies aren't always (or even often) stellar, but Hollywood has still given us hundreds of spectacular films. Name another city with as rich a cultural output during the latter part of the 20th century.
On the other hand, I know what people mean. Film studios do not a cultural landmark make, however culturally significant their output may be. Artists' studios and writers' desks are seldom particularly interesting. It is best to worship Hollywood from afar, curled up with a bucket of overpriced candy and a frisky *CENSORED FOR A BETTER AMERICA*.
And culture in a city is about way more than the arts. It's the jostle and the street fairs and the ethnicaly-mixed neighbourhoods, the farmers' markets and the lines outside clubs. It is the very density of cities that give them their vivacity. LA misses that, totally.
It feels like a wasteland as you fly in from New York. It is a flat, drab gray that stretches to the horizon, an overwhelming expanse of gray, unbroken by the striking relief that makes Manhattan so thrilling. There is no heart, there aren't even any organs - just an homogenous mass of gray tissue, deeply veined with eight-lane highways. These veins are hopelessly clogged: millions of blood cells (by which I mean cars: still with me?) crawl along them.
There are stories about the influence of the big American car manufacturers in the urban planning of LA County, and I can believe them. In a city with no reference points, no centre, and a woefully inadequate public transportation system, everyone is forced to drive everywhere. There is no 'let's walk around and see what we see' - attractions are miles apart. You drive to a destination - a theatre, a restaurant, a shop - then you drive away. The only way you can string together entertainments is by going to a mall (which you drive to, of course).
As a city with any identity, it's a non-starter. But as a tourist attraction? I thought it was great.
A couple of disclaimers: I was there very, very briefly (essentially for two days), and I worked for most of that time. A good-sized closet could have kept me busy for the amount of free time I had. I was on expenses, so the considerable cost of everything didn't bother me as much as it otherwise would have. We got taxis everywhere, and I'm good at sleeping in cars, so the urban sprawl didn't bother me. The weather was perfect (though that's part of the attraction of Southern California - the weather is mostly perfect). Finally, I was staying at a nice-ish hotel - I had little chance to experience the shocking wealth disparity LA is known for.
I went for a cycle around Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Everyone was friendly and unpretentious. There was a nice amount of quirky. The Pacific, of course, lies to the west, and the sunset was as sublime as it was visible. Though I would guess sunrise is equally visible, since the tallest thing in LA county is Jane Lynch.
I had a walk around downtown - the pitiful little collection of hotels and municipal buildings that vaguely approximates a normal city centre. It's quiet. Bizarrely quiet. To begin with, it felt unpleasantly quiet, having come from New York. On reflection, the space was refreshing. No one jostled you. You could have driven over to Vegas, stolen a tiger from Caesar's Palace, brought it back with you and swung it around liberally without hitting a soul. Maybe I will next time.
The restaurants were really very good (maybe people expect more, when they're driven for an hour to get there). Again, everyone was notably friendly. The tap water tastes absolutely amazing - once more, in stark contrast to New York. Seriously, they should bottle this stuff and sell it in New York. Models would snap it up.
Beverly Hills is good for a laugh. Never before has a place so exactly matched up my expectations. Drive along any of the major boulevards, and you will see, in order: a palm tree, a luxury condo block, a restaurant, a palm tree, a bar, a palm tree, a plastic surgery clinic, a luxury condo block, a palm tree, and another palm tree, in a repeating pattern for the next eight thousand miles.
I get the wasteland thing now. If you are remotely interested in anything other than comfortable, modest pleasure stretching until you are 100 (and look only 90!), you shouldn't stay. It must be so boring to be there for an extended period. But I'm definitely going to go back. After all, I didn't meet Taylor Townsend from the OC, which was the primary objective.