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.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

#34 Pop art.

To anyone who says America is a culinarily unsophisticated nation, I put it to you: there are 27 flavours (flavors) of Pop Tarts.

(The image is from Rejected Pop Tart Flavors.)

#33 Brace yourselves.

The myth (in my case, read 'myth' as 'gospel truth') that British people have bad teeth arises from the fact that Americans are obsessed with braces. Literally obsessed. For a nation with no particular penchant for public transport, their appetite for slapping train tracks into the mouths of any unsuspecting, otherwise-attractive children is rapacious.

The world's nations spend their wealth on different things. Some, like Israel, develop state-of-the-art militaries; Ireland went for stout beer. Britain chose to have MPs, and America plumbed for dental care.

America has a mainly brace-based economy. Taken alone, America's annual expenditure on dental care exceeds the GDP of Slovenia. Not really. I just made that up. I couldn't find a number and I'm pitching to become a Fox News reporter. But it's probably in the ballpark. After all, this is a country which spends 16% of its GDP on healthcare, nearly four times the already-unimaginable amount they spend on guns.

Why? It seems incongruous. Braces, in most instances (or at least, mot of the extra instances in which Americans use them, and Brits don't), are a basically cosmetic consideration. That seems to fit, you might think - America is so shallow. You clearly haven't been listening to my stream of consciousness over the past six months. Two words: 'obesity' and 'fashion'. When you are so spectacularly bad at being attractive in so many fixable ways, why spend tens of thousands of dollars making yourself look like a bunny rabbit?

Saturday, 11 September 2010

#32 The Bloods and the Crips and the KKK.

Lil Wayne, sporting typical gang tats

I've tried playing Dizzee Rascal to several Americans. They just break down laughing. "Do people actually listen to this?" "Yes," I patiently explain. "Rap doesn't have to be about booty and firearms." "Is that really how he talks?" And so on ad infinitum.

The truth is, America just does cool a lot better than we do. To name a genuinely cool British recording artist, I think we have to go back to the Stones.

They do gangsters better, too. Sometimes I think we can't do anything right. Dizzee Rascal doesn't drink, for God's sake. Our toughest gangs - Nottingham and London's yardies - just aren't a patch on the Latino and black gangs over America's great cities. Ours shoot hoops; theirs shoot hos. I am officially declaring my authorship of the phrase 'SHOOT HOOPS NOT HOS' - coming to a Camden t-shirt stall near you very soon.

Well, a few weeks ago I had the fascinating experience of meeting some of America's toughest gangsters, when I visited a county holding facility on Long Island.

Now, most of the inmates we're two-bit crims. America has a system known as 'three strikes and your out', which on the surface looks like a sensible way of dealing with low-level antisocial behaviour, but in reality leads to jails being filled to bursting with men on five-year stretches for stealing a candy bar. It's nuts. America locks up about 0.75% of its population, or nearly five times the number we do. To give you a whirlwind of comparisons: that's 50% more than Cuba, 200% more than South Africa, and 300% more than Iran.

Is it working? Who knows. America has three times Britain's murder rate, but then it has many more densely-populated cities, more unemployment, more racial diversity, and (I'm just putting it out there) a lot more guns.

Anyway, without wishing to make any political points, incarceration is as American as apple pie. A young black man is more likely to go to prison than college.

Backdrop painted, what the hell was I doing there? Howard (my boss) is doing a pro bono project with the Council for Unity, a sort of 'Cons Anonymous' self-help group that ambitiously aims to paper over some of the gaps left by America's skeletal social welfare system. They provide educational opportunities within prison, and a support network on both sides of the bars - which aims to tackle the chronic problem of reoffending. Unsurprisingly, cons who leave prison with records, no skills and no family or friends tend to return to prison fairly quickly. There's a bit too much God bothering but it's a great scheme that I was happy to help with.

And while we were there, we also got to photograph some of the 'harder' inmates - mostly not part of the Council for Unity, since (I hypothesise) that would break with gang etiquette (and since they are mostly in for life). America's toughest gangsters sport tear drop tattoos which indicate various things depending on their exact form: usually either murders committed, family or friends lost to murders, or years behind bars. Well, the guys I met had dozens - I counted six on one guy alone - sitting under dull, thousand-yard stares. One of them, I was told afterwards afterwards, was the New York head of the Latin Kings, the most notorious of America's Hispanic gangs. (The Kings, incidentally, tell a story of the genesis of gang culture: they started as a legitimate civil rights organisation, then drifted.)

Meeting murderers and rapists is a bizarre exercise in normalisation. They are normal guys. They make jokes and say hello to you and eat fried chicken (I tried their food, by the way, and it was grim). There was something intangibly dark about the long-term inmates, but then there's little surprising about that. The guards communicated how difficult it was to me. "I get along with them, but I have to remind myself...they've done horrible things." There is a very real need to compartmentalise - otherwise you would be frantic - but a danger of going too far.