75. Perfectly ordinary

Los Angeles lacks the kind of official warning we'd see on any other consumer product. Perhaps those illuminated Caltrans signs along the freeway can be reprogrammed to read "Get out now! While you still can!"

Today's news is wildfires. Tornadoes, flood, and earthquake can't be far behind.

Los Angeles is a dangerous city. As Mike Davis took pains to point out in Ecology of Fear, where we live is hardly fit for habitation. Any reasonable assessment of risk would limit development here to a single story of wood frame construction "? and only in the few areas above a 100-year flood and below the quick burning chaparral. None of it would be safe from earthquakes, but a small house is least likely to kill you when it twists off its foundation. Then there's earthquake liquefaction, when the ground beneath your feet turns into cream of wheat. And drought. And mountain lions. And plague, which swept in during a warm October in 1924.

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If Los Angeles were built to fit its hazards, the city would be village about the size it was in 1850 when it became an outpost on the margin of Manifest Destiny (and seen as monstrous, even then). It was a lethal little town. With a population of less 4,500 by 1860, Los Angeles suffered a murder a day.

The lethality of our home has always been high. But not uniquely so. America is a hard country and abounds with places to be wretchedly dismembered, dispossessed, knocked off, or driven to extremes by solitude.

Of all of hazardous America, Los Angeles is singled out. As Susan Orlean notes in her New Yorker blog entry on the August burning, "It underscored the essential absurdity of Los Angeles "? a city of far too many people, perched on wobbly geology, without water, and perfectly flammable."

That "perfectly" is perfect. As if Los Angeles only becomes itself in its capacity to be obliterated. And this awful perfection is "essential." It cannot be abated. Those scary movies about relentless monsters and ever returning terminators are really about Los Angeles.

The city's shortcomings in both of its aspects "? as heaven and as hell "? explain why we imagine it coming to an end, over and over. It's the story of our disappointment in a city that never delivers ultimately on the extravagance of its dreams or its nightmares.

I think our home is perfect. Perfectly ordinary in its mix of joy and tragedy.

The image of the Station Fire on this page was made by Flickr user Kansas Sebastian. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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