What We Talk About When We Talk About Los Angeles

The City We Wanted
The City We Wanted | Photo courtesy of the USC Digital Library Historical Postcard Collection

Jeff Turrentine, writing recently at One Earth, summed up his impressions of Los Angeles. Turrentine is a former Brooklyn transplant who has lived here since 1998. He often writes about urban sustainability and what makes a livable city.

His thoughtful essay focused on the city's evolving urbanism with considerable optimism for what Los Angeles might become. His optimism cheers me, but what interested me was Turrentine's choice of what to talk about when he talked about Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles is a true Eden. The yard of the house Turrentine rented is a "bounteous garden" that's almost too generous. "I happily made my way from the brilliant birds of paradise to the pink-petaled bougainvillea to the explosive blue hydrangeas to the dripping honeysuckle vines, giving all a proper soaking before completing the circuit at the base of the lemon tree -- our own lemon tree! -- right outside our door."

Getting Midwesterners and East Coasters to swoon over Los Angeles was cultivated by the spinners of the city's sales pitch more than a hundred years ago. As William A. McClung notes in "Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles," Turrentine's lone lemon tree was meant to evoke the ordered world of a citrus orchard. And Turrentine's lush yard was intended to substitute for all of Nature.

But with "all of Nature" in the back yard, Angeleños often have had little imaginative space left for the nature outside their fence.

Los Angeles is a ruined paradise. After watering his private Eden, Turrentine considered where it's located. "I looked out the window: there was my green grass, my well-watered garden, my lemon tree. I looked at the television: there was a never-ending freeway jammed with cars, lined with nondescript strip malls, marked by menace."

That anxiety is built into our dissonant image of Los Angeles. As McClung also points out, immigrants and real estate developers since the end of the 19th century have tried to make sense of Los Angeles through a pair of contradictory frameworks -- that the city is primarily exploitable space only needing our improvements to be perfected and that Los Angeles is a true paradise needing nothing more because it's already perfect. An unfulfilled desire to "dwell in the common Arcadia and to build private Utopias" is the way McClung frames our persistent unease about Los Angeles, a condition Angeleños have yet to reconcile.

Some, in the manner of Joan Didion, see menace all around in the city's everyday and commonplace.

Los Angeles is perverse. Its failure to reconcile these contradictions leaves Los Angeles stuck, like the fiberglass replicas of mammoths in the La Brea tar pits. "We had been lured to Los Angeles," Turrentine ruefully admits, "by a mythic sales pitch depicting sunny skies, palm trees, ocean breezes, new creative opportunities, and the freedom to stretch one's legs and move about. But quickly we would come to appreciate an inescapable irony: the pitch had proved too effective. So many had heard it and heeded it over the years that Los Angeles had become a standing-room-only Shangri-la."

The story of Los Angeles, it seems, is best understood as a fable of irony: Los Angeles was a perfect place ... perfect once upon a time ... and that time was just before an even newer wave of transplants followed you here. Turrentine looks over the fence of his backyard Eden and hears "the staccato song of L.A.'s official bird, as a pair of choppers hovered overhead," and finds that his "fantastical garden oasis was surrounded on all sides by drab, squat, utilitarian apartment complexes."

The form of the city and its supporting infrastructure, which made Turrentine's stucco bungalow possible are, he says, part of a "Faustian bargain." For many Angeleños, everything that made the city livable -- Owens Valley water, tract house suburbs, auto-centered transit -- is perversely what makes the city unlivable.

Los Angeles is (insert cliché here). Turrentine sketches a history of Los Angeles in which Edenic wholeness has declined into suburban sprawl. It's a familiar narrative and as thinly imagined as the plot of the movie Chinatown. When we talk about Los Angeles, many of us begin with a history of regrets. "Because it is frequently moving, entertaining, and stylish," McClung argues, "that story -- of high ideals, disappointed expectations, cruel awakenings, and an absurd civilization -- has shaped the ... image of Los Angeles as a strange place, reached by a journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected."

Turrentine plans to stay. But in evoking the power of Hollywood's confection of imaginary places, he also buys into the city's core myth: boundless re-invention. "(B)old plans for decreasing L.A.'s need for distantly sourced water, reducing its reliance on the single-passenger automobile, and reshaping its communities to mitigate the ill effects of sprawl represent not only a change in the way the region will look and function over the century to come, but an equally dramatic shift in how its millions of residents are coming to perceive themselves."

The brave hope in that claim lifts my spirits, but my faith is harder to kindle. The futurity of Los Angeles is one of our weaknesses. Los Angeles is always one more big improvement away from someone's idea of perfection. If only "bold plans" would unmake Los Angeles and remake us.

"The capital of starting over is starting over," Turrentine believes. "If Los Angeles follows through on its promise to change the way it consumes resources such as water and gasoline, if its citizens are in fact serious about nurturing their urban landscape with as much care as they've historically put into their front-yard landscaping, then this place famous for the way it has always welcomed dreamers of all kinds will be, indisputably, far more welcoming. And among the dreams it yields will be the dream -- eminently realizable -- of even better things to come."

We talk about dreams a lot in Los Angeles ... hopeful dreams and blighted ones and modest dreams not accounted for in some of the bold plans. Perhaps it would be better if we talked about something else, something other than Manhattan and Chicago and airliner views, and a "Prius-driving, yoga-practicing, organic-kale-munching town" that's a "gaudy mirage" and "uniquely cursed."

We do talk that way when we talk about Los Angeles, dreaming of another city more adequate to our desires, and Turrentine has much more perceptive things to say about transit, water conservation and reuse, and the momentum for change in Los Angeles and in Angeleños.

About these, I know Turrentine is right, even though this is not enough to resolve the contradictions in what we talk about when we talk about Los Angeles.

The City I Have
The City I Have | Photo courtesy of Mary Alice McLoughlin

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