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Get Out Now? Imagining the Dangers of Los Angeles

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Los Angeles lacks the kind of warning label you see on other consumer products that might tip over, gag your baby, or leave you with painful lacerations. Perhaps those illuminated Caltrans signs along the freeway should be reprogrammed to read, "Get out now! While you still can!"

If it's not wildfires, then it's tornadoes, floods, sharks, tsunamis, and earthquakes.

As Mike Davis took pains to point out in "Ecology of Fear," where we live is barely fit for human habitation.

If Davis is right, any reasonable assessment of risk would limit development here to a single story of wood frame construction and only in the limited areas above a 100-year flood and below the quick burning chaparral. None of this development would be safe from earthquakes, but a small house is least likely to kill you as it twists off its foundation.

Then there's earthquake liquefaction, when the ground beneath your feet turns into thin cream of wheat. And drought. And mountain lions. And plague, which terrorized the whiter parts of the city during a warm October in 1924.

If Los Angeles were built to face the facts of all its hazards, the city would be village about the size it was in 1850 when it became the western outpost of Manifest Destiny.

Los Angeles was seen as monstrous even then by anxious Anglos in a sea of brown. Los Angeles was a deadly little town, but not because of the terrain. With a population of less 4,500 in1860, Los Angeles suffered a murder a day. There were lynchings, too.

The lethality of our home has always been presumed to be high. But it's not uniquely so. America is a hard country and it abounds with places in which to be wretchedly dismembered, dispossessed, knocked off, or driven to extremes of violence by solitude, racism, or substance abuse.

For fans of schadenfreude, "Wisconsin Death Trip" was a popular 1973 compilation by Michael Lesy, drawn from a collection of 19th century photographs and newspaper reports that emphasized how lethal small town life in the Midwest could be.

Of all the hazardous places in America, however, Los Angeles is most often singled out. As New Yorker writer Susan Orlean noted in 2009, Los Angeles is regarded elsewhere as "a city of far too many people, perched on wobbly geology, without water, and perfectly flammable."

That "perfectly" is just perfect. It is as if Los Angeles becomes itself through its capacity to be obliterated, as it has been in so many movies, novels, and magazine profiles. This awful perfection is essential to Los Angeles, it seems. It can't be abated by you or me. Yet, here we are.

The city's shortcomings in both of its aspects -- as heaven and as hell -- help explain why some of us imagine Los Angeles coming to an end, over and over. Deadly, destroyed Los Angeles is a potent image of disappointment in a city that never delivers on the extravagance of its dreams or its nightmares.

Living in Los Angeles has its risks, but I think our home is nonetheless perfect in one way. It's perfectly ordinary.

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