A Los Angeles Primer: L.A. Live

"Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, provided it's seen at night and from a distance." You usually hear that line credited to the filmmaker Roman Polanski, but the observation at its core has proven so resonant for so long that the variations and attributions have multiplied. Often it comes delivered by a longtime or even native Angeleno, proactively expressing their distinctive combination of shame and pride. I tend to think some of this attitude comes from living in a city universally known by name but difficult to recognize by skyline, and even that depends on which sets of distant buildings you consider part of it. In search of a logo, the popular Los Angeles news site LAist simply accomplished by graphic design what many of us, especially the tourists, wish we could accomplish in the built environment: placing City Hall, the Capitol Records Building, the Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood all together, right next to a palm tree. Part of me wishes that, given this suspension of geography, they'd gone ahead thrown in the Century Plaza Towers too.

But unless the much-discussed Big One strikes, necessitating a complete reconstruction of the city, Los Angeles will never put all its icons in one place. Hence the emphasis instead on the whole strikingly vast basin-draping blanket of lights against the darkness you see flying into LAX, or from high ground at the Getty Center or Griffith Observatory. Even if the remarkable development of recent decades hasn't yet made downtown into a symbol of all Los Angeles, its glittering towers certainly give it the look of a jewel in the crown. A good deal of this post-sunset slickness now emanates from L.A. Live, an "entertainment complex" opened in 2007 at downtown's southwestern corner. Comprising restaurants, bars, a couple of music venues, a hotel, condos, offices, broadcasting studios, an enormous movie theater, and the Grammy Museum — not to mention copious amounts of parking, with even more copious amounts promised to come — it also enjoys something of a symbiosis with the adjacent Staples Center. NBA enthusiasts thus count themselves as among the part of the population with reasons to pass many of their nights at L.A. Live. Others still know it only as a point of light, albeit a 2.5-billion dollar one.

This makes it all the more interesting to visit the place by day, a time its designers clearly didn't intend you to see it. Its multi-multi-multiscreen cinema offers an incentive to do so in the form of cheap tickets on the first Tuesday of every month, but none of the high-profile live events the rest of the complex showcases play well in the middle of a weekday. The sun renders advertising on all the wide, high-mounted digital screens of central Nokia Plaza difficult to make out, which you may find just as well. Despite the fact that we almost live in the time "Blade Runner" envisioned, our advertising industry hasn't yet come up anything quite as striking as the multistory electronic geisha with which that film drew us into the Los Angeles of 2019. I could imagine her, though, on the side of L.A. Live's 54-story skyscraper, containing not one but two separate hotels, which would make the view of it more attractive than the view from it. Out of its north side, you look down on a section of the central city that, run through by freeways, appears dishearteningly underdeveloped. Back on the ground, you find bustling patches here and there — conventioneers getting coffee, various manifestations of the lunch rush, herds of thirtyish fellows in ties without jackets, heading out from or back to the office — but they exist amid a greater sense of desolation, usually punctuated only by a security guard zipping past on his tri-wheeled scooter.

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Things feel markedly different, if less intriguingly uneasily, in the L.A. Live of the evening. Only then do you enjoy the experience the brand intends: not the experience of Los Angeles, per se, but the experience of "L.A." The place has taken as its identity not the name of the city in which it exists, but the curious diminutive that has reached such prevalence over the past century. I have yet to get comfortable enough with the term — and, thinking honestly about it, likely never will — to use it in regard to the city itself, though it has proven useful as a reference to a certain conception of the city. "Los Angeles" identifies a location, however disputed its effective boundaries; "L.A." identifies a lifestyle, a set of assumptions, a set of stereotypes, a state of mind. You can get around Los Angeles any which way you like, but to properly navigate L.A. requires an automobile, piloted for the most part on the freeway, and then often valet parked. The entertainment industry has nothing to do with most of Los Angeles, but it dominates L.A. Los Angeles happens to have an ocean, though for the most part an invisible one, at its western edge; in L.A., you never get far, psychologically if not geographically, from the coast.

The film "L.A. Story" has, of course, the status of a canonical L.A. text; that Steve Martin-starring romantic comedy must have initially struck who lived a bit too long in L.A., as opposed to Los Angeles, as a piece of stark neorealism. Yet even then, in 1991, its particular notion of L.A. must have felt specifically of the moment, if not already receding into the past. When I think of that pair of initials now, I always imagine them set against a background filled with the neon colors and sharp geometry of thirty years ago — or maybe I've just subconsciously absorbed the design of the bottles of L.A. Looks hair gel I still see at the drug store. Either way, to have it in mind while strolling through such a forcefully new place as L.A. Live creates a rich incongruity of past and present. This naturally also involves the future, a central element in the thinking about Los Angeles since well before anyone ever called it "L.A." One often hears of plans to dramatically expand on the already 5.6 million square feet of space within L.A. Live, even beyond additional places to stash a car. This aligns with a suggestion long heard around here: if you don't like what the city has to offer right now, just you wait and see what it'll have in a decade or two. Such conversations have increasingly come to revolve around the revival of downtown and the renewed, center-possessing city to come. Nobody can ignore the importance of the ever-growing L.A. Live to that process, but I do wonder: do we call that process the building of a new Los Angeles, or of a new L.A.?


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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