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Further Observations on 'Looking for Los Angeles'

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Carolina Miranda of the Los Angeles Times wanted to talk about Los Angeles. Specifically, she wanted to talk about the ways we talk about this place and the shaping power that kind of talk has had over the kind of city we have.

She wondered how "the constant references to Hollywood, the apocalyptic landscape, the plastic surgery, and, of course, how every occurrence, natural or otherwise, seems to be a referendum on the California Dream," have made -- or unmade -- Los Angeles. To get the conversation going, Miranda asked Lynell George (currently an arts and culture columnist for KCET's Artbound) and Josh Kun (director of The Popular Music Project at USC Annenberg's The Norman Lear Center) to think aloud about the rhetoric of Los Angeles. Miranda invited me to join their conversation.

Our back-and-forth took several days, less spontaneous than a conversation over drinks and probably a bit more polemical. But that's only right. We ought to be angry about the ways in which Los Angeles is conventionally mistaken, even by those who lives are centered here. (See any recent lifestyle piece in the New York Times for hilarious examples.)

We should recognize that the failure to see the city as it is has been the precondition for 40 years of failed public policy in Los Angeles toward immigrants, the incarcerated, the homeless, and the working poor, as well as commuters, homeowners, and powerless voters.

Lynell George sees the connection. "It seems to me," she wrote, "that really seeing Los Angeles -- what it truly is -- is tied inexorably to the future of the city, its possibility. We have to ask ourselves, what makes us feel rooted here and why? What makes for a life here? That would require that we make an effort to consider what we need for a stronger, more cohesive city that has never really quite been able to just 'be.'"

Kun took note of the injustice that comes from misreading L.A.

The choice to not understand L.A. -- and it is a choice -- is part of what allows gentrification to happen, that willful arrogant ignorance that neighborhoods are just there for the taking, that there are no brutal social costs to opening a Whole Foods near Skid Row, to whitewashing (waxed beard and man-bun washing) Highland Park, to instituting what Guillermo Gomez-Peña once described (talking about similar transformations in San Francisco's Mission district nearly 20 years ago) as "multiculturalism without people of color."

And Miranda offered a new orientation in the L.A. story. The demographic bulk of the city's non-Anglo population, she believes, has unmade Los Angeles as the Pacific outpost of the Midwest and remade the city as the northernmost capital of the tropics.

Yet for me, as the child of South American immigrants, California was never the West, it was the North. And it was never the last stop. It was the first. It was the beginning. And, in my mind, it still is -- as it has been for entire generations of Latin American and Asian immigrants for whom Los Angeles has served as entrance, not exit. In my mind, the idea of California as the extreme reaches of the West sometimes feels like charming creation myth, one that doesn't really apply to a room full of Japanese Peruvians eating acevichado rolls in Torrance.

We haven't yet learned to speak the language of the Los Angeles that is coming. It's a post-sprawl city, where "sprawl" had been the clichéd label for the city's multi-centered urban form. It's a post-diversity city, where "diversity" talk is both a sign of Anglo anxiety about the new people living next door and a word of self-congratulation about not being too anxious. Los Angeles is post "middle-class" as well, having been made into a city of struggling working-class aspirants below and a crust of oblivious wealth above.

What better "post" city can we imagine? What will describe a place self-defined as "suburban," "middle-class," and "diverse" now that those categories no longer adequately describe who we are, but no better rhetoric is at hand to take the measure of Los Angeles?

How about "unexceptional" and "ordinary" as substitute language? Perhaps what we are searching for is a rhetoric of greater humility toward the "everyday-ness" of Los Angeles that would contain less lament over the city's inability to meet the extravagant demands of our desires?

If L.A. is imagined as either a disappointing heaven or an unsatisfactory hell, then the city's representation may be seductive and glamorous, but it's just another gaudy entertainment, best witnessed while lightly sedated.

Lynell George offered a striking example of this kind of misreading (one that goes back to 1939).

There is a moment in John O'Hara's novella "Hope of Heaven," when the screenwriter/novelist protagonist, Jim Molloy, suffers through a monologue by a wannabe novelist who is fascinated by L.A. -- or rather this vision of L.A. as a place for the outlandish. "I'm writing a novel about Los Angeles. ... The really fantastic thing is the crystallization of the ordinary, cheap ordinary American. ... Fantastically ordinary, cheap, commonplace."

I like that. Los Angeles is "fantastically commonplace." Los Angeles is not "the great exception" to ordinary American places. Los Angeles is not a place without a history, apart from circumstance and nature. Los Angeles is (and was) a colonial city, a captured city, a city of fragments, a city of edges, a city of amnesiacs, an anxious city, and a city of careless belief and so little faith.

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