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A Los Angeles Primer: An Introduction

Los Angeles does not get the attention it deserves -- it gets attention, but it's the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people's bad consciences.

-- Reyner Banham, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies"

There has never been another town, and now there never will be, quite like El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula, Southern California, where the lost American faith in machines and materialism built its own astonishing monument.

-- Jan Morris, "The Know-How City"

Prejudices are useless. Call Los Angeles any dirty name you like -- Six Suburbs in Search of a City, Paradise with a Lobotomy, anything -- but the fact remains that you are already living in it before you get there.

-- Clive James, "Postcard from Los Angeles"

In 1967, Dennis Hopper and David Hemmings (whom you'll remember as the troubled young photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up") made a plan to reveal Los Angeles. "London is supposed to be the swinging city," the 25-year-old Hemmings told Roger Ebert, "but Los Angeles has the opportunity to become the next great city of the world. What Dennis Hopper and I are going to show in our Los Angeles Primer is, we hope, an exhibition of what is happening in Los Angeles. Some of the artifacts that make the city a work of art. Cheap restaurant glasses that, in a century, will be collector's items. Street signs. Buildings. And the people."

"Will he and Hopper use photographs?" Ebert wrote.

"Yes, where they are appropriate."

"And the actual objects?"

"Yes, the actual objects in some cases. And the people, too, who are the real artwork of this city."

"But surely you aren't going to put people in an art gallery?

"Just you wait and see."

Thirty-five years later, Hemmings reminisced to Stuart Jeffries of The Age:

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Once, Dennis Hopper and I proposed this wonderful exhibition called A Los Angeles Primer. We took two coaches of dignitaries from the Ferris-Pace gallery in La Cienega to Malibu and back. On the way, Dennis got out of the front coach and signed the Beverly Hilton and the Beverly Hills Hotel. At Malibu, he went into the water and signed a wave. And then the coaches were driven back to the gallery where, behind a huge screen, the Mamas and Papas played 'California Dreamin'' constantly. Cards were given to the dignitaries saying, 'You are the art of Los Angeles. Look at each other carefully.' Blank walls all around the gallery, of course, just music playing. That was the exhibition. And that was the swinging '60s.

"Did that really happen?" asked Jeffries, understandably.

"If you wanted to report that we did, Dennis would back me up."

Hemmings and Hopper have gone, as has the Los Angeles on which they meant to prime us. Yet some Angelenos saw the city as having already turned sour even then. Others now look back to a colorful variety of last great Los Angeleses: sun-bleached twenty-minute beachward drives; paradisical quasi-suburban childhoods; punk rock and junk food. These remembered cities, like Hemmings' and Hopper's, don't look much like the one I live in. None align perfectly with the place Clive James alternately marveled at and ridiculed in his postcards for the Observer, nor the one whose built environment Reyner Banham celebrated in "The Architecture of Four Ecologies." And how much do any of them have in common with the setting of novels like John Fante's "Ask the Dust," Christopher Isherwood's "A Single Man," and Richard Rayner's "Los Angeles Without a Map," or the empty settings painted by David Hockney and Ed Ruscha?

No two people have ever lived in exactly the same Los Angeles. Sheer size has something to do with that, not to mention practical boundaries. With four million inhabitants and 500 square miles in within its bizarre-looking official border alone, the city takes on barely thinkable proportions when you include everywhere someone might live and still call "Los Angeles." This dilution of effective residency does strange things to the city's psychology; ask someone who claims to hate living in Los Angeles where exactly they call home, and half the time it lays as far from downtown as Parsippany, New Jersey does from Manhattan. Parsippanites, like everyone else, blame their frustrations on many things, but not, surely, that they live in New York.

You could argue, as cinephiles do about Hemmings himself, over whether Los Angeles delivered on its youthful promise. A decade before "The Simpsons," Matt Groening self-published a comic book, later to become a Los Angeles Reader strip, called "Life in Hell." He meant to provide an introduction to Los Angeles, a project like Hemmings and Hopper's optimistic one of the 1960s, but reflecting the notably less exuberant mood of the late 1970s. Growing up, I pored over all the "Life in Hell" comics I could get in the Seattle of the nineties, a city dosing the national zeitgeist with equal parts Nirvana, Microsoft, and Starbucks. Seattle was "young," "high-tech," "edgy," "hip," and "livable." Los Angeles was, well, hell. Yet the waves of emigration to Los Angeles from every other city in America, Seattle included -- from nearly every city in the world -- never stopped. Openly loathed yet so obviously attractive; that town had to have something going for it, and something unusual indeed.

New Yorkers' famous complaints about their town express the resilient pride of the masochist. Complaining Angelenos always sounded different to me, deeply resigned but promisingly so. Infuriating traffic, semi-breathable air, and a mindlessly grasping population, no matter how despairingly evoked, prompted no actual desire to leave. One can indeed craft one's own private hell here, especially in the Sisyphean lower tiers of the entertainment industry. But for every Angeleno doing so, many more appear to live in, if not heaven, then at least somewhere with considerably better food than the underworld. Even that sub-Hollywood gofer has his pleasures, exist though he may in a socially, industrially, stylistically, psychologically, linguistically, and geographically different Los Angeles than I do. My immediate neighbors, for the most part permanent, temporary, or officially nonexistent immigrants from Korea, Mexico, and Central America, experience a different city altogether. If we feel unwilling or unable to visit each other's Los Angeles, so much the worse for everyone involved.

The always multiplying, subdividing, subjective experiences and perceptions of Los Angeles make for an infinitely more interesting city to write about than any single, objective place. Hence my own project, a book which takes the name of "A Los Angeles Primer" and extends its spirit to the many Los Angeleses of the 21st century. Each week, this column will adapt an essay on one aspect of the city from the book-in-progress.

A San Franciscan friend told me that, if I tried to write about San Francisco after only a few years there, a tide of locals of thirty, forty, fifty years' standing would soon rise, demanding to know where a Johnny-come-lately gets off observing their hometown. Los Angeles, by surprising contrast, gives equal weight to the perceptions of a disoriented arriviste and a native hardened by decades of sun and thousands of freeway miles. They each have their own Los Angeles, as I have mine, as you have yours, and as every famous observer has had theirs. If any piece of understanding can lay the foundation of a useful Los Angeles primer, there it is.


Portions of this essay originally appeared on colinmarshall.org.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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