We’ve been in the western USA for the past month or so, and aside from amazing places like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, we have ended up, without actually planning to, spending a couple of weeks in LA.
Sometimes you find yourself in places that you didn’t really have any intention of going and it turns out that you love them, sometimes you don’t, and so it is with the ‘City of Angels’. Maybe she loves Anthony Kiedis but this seems to be a city that pisses on a lot of her inhabitants, maybe that is ok though because the feeling seems to be pretty mutual.
Here are the simple things that you need to remember, Los Angeles is not Hollywood, Los Angeles is not Baywatch, Los Angeles is a lot bigger than downtown, and Los Angeles is not like any other major western city.
The bad and the ugly (we’ll come back to the good)…
I’d like to find a way to put this as nicely as I can, I don’t want to come across as if I hate the place (I don’t) or as if I think that LA is just made up problems heaped on problems, but I also don’t want to lie, this is a city with big issues. While this may at first read seem like I am shitting on the city from a great height, I’m not, stay tuned because the good stuff is coming later.
Speaking of big, Los Angeles is huge, and it isn’t because of a huge population, it’s just urban sprawl. This is possibly the least walkable city that I have ever been to. Between any two points is a massive distance, due to huge low buildings that are mostly far larger than they need to be, massive parking areas next to each one, and every road being at least three lanes in each direction, with crossing lights that you need to wait literally minutes for. It’s a ridiculous vicious circle, you need to drive because everything is so far, but everything is so far because of all of the space taken up by roads and parking areas.
There is public transport but it’s not the greatest in the world, there aren’t many metro lines and most places are served by bus routes, these inevitably end up stuck in traffic, stop really frequently and take an inordinate amount of time to actually get anywhere. Pretty much everyone who can afford to drives absolutely everywhere instead of walking or taking public transport, which just makes the problem bigger and presumably leaves the public transport system hugely underfunded.
The fact that people use public transport if they need to rather than because they choose to, means there is a strikingly visible income gap between the people in the cars and those taking buses. The poverty divide here might not be the widest in the world but it is huge and just so clear and easy to see. There is a huge level of homelessness and the population sleeping on the streets seems to be made up of a lot of people who have quite serious mental health issues, vulnerable people who genuinely need help. Every major city has homeless people but none I have been to in the ‘first world’ feel quite as tragic as this.
The poverty gap is not the only big divide between people in Los Angeles. I have never noticed such racial division and tension, and I have never felt as aware of my own skin tone as I do in LA, not in Europe, Africa or India and not in the other parts of North America that I have been to. Like with anything else there are exceptions to this, two of my favourite people in the whole of LA are a mixed married couple and I’m sitting in their kitchen now editing this article and just feeling comfortable and at home.
The thing is that global cities are normally places where people come together and ignore or embrace their differences, and Los Angeles should be a cultural melting pot. All of the ingredients are right but somehow it just doesn’t seem like there is all that much blending together going on at all. Instead it feels like everyone has huge levels of resentment towards someone else for something, either recent or generations ago, and hardly anyone seems prepared to let it go.
Oh and the city is dirty, not in a charming full of character way but just in a ‘shit, someone should clean up some of this filth’ kind of way. If the question is why is it dirty, then the answer simply is that a lot of the people who live here really just do not give a shit. The only other time I remember seeing people just standing in the street and openly throwing their trash onto the floor or into some bushes was in Nairobi, which is hardly a standard of cleanliness that anywhere should aspire to, and I have seen it more here than I ever did there.
What makes this even more crazy is that at the same time a lot of people seem to have an obsession for everything to be sterile and clean beyond normality. We live in a world populated by bacteria, and some might want to kill us, but not all of them. We absolutely do not need to whip out sanitising gel and use it to clean a seat at the airport before we sit down on it. We also do not need our unused disposable cups in hotel room to be wrapped in individual plastic, we do not need to be so protected. We are doing two things here, reducing our own immunity to everything and breeding new generations of super resistant bacteria and also dumping a shitload of chemicals that we really don’t need to into the environment.
Which leads nicely to the fact that the amount of plastic packaging and disposable crap is just nuts, including what feels like a massive amount of polystyrene foam (Styrofoam). I’m not going to go into all of the things that are wrong with using polystyrene foam as food packaging or as disposable cups and plates, that is a whole other article which maybe we will cover soon, but it’s bad, really quite bad indeed.
So, I hate LA, right? (finally the good)
No, I really truly don’t hate LA, far from it. It’s a place unlike any other and it has it’s charms.
Maybe the problem is me, maybe I’m just too, I don’t know, European?
There isn’t a country or city in Europe that doesn’t have it’s fair share of flaws but they are ones that I am used to. I have come to expect cities to be walkable, to have free wi-fi all over the place, for chip and pin to work everywhere, and to see prices that are actually the price, not the price before tax and the expectation of tipping everyone.
Manhattan beach is really lovely, the little aquarium at the end of the pier can’t help but make you smile and the place we ate Mexican food was great. If you don’t like Manhattan beach in particular then just head in either direction and find another one, there is sand and ocean and sunshine and some great waves.
Downtown also has some nice places to be, small parks, bookshops, galleries, coffee places. If you happen to be in town on the second Thursday of the month the the Downtown art walk is pretty cool, but most of it street art and galleries that are open the rest of the time anyway, maybe just not so late in the evening.
Despite all of the big divides, there are really lovely people, bus drivers, hotel staff and random strangers in the street.
Then there is the amazing weather, which should be pretty hard to complain about. I’m determined to find a way though, so I will moan about the sun, before we ended up in LA we had spent some time in Nevada, Arizona and Death Valley and it had been hot, crazy hot at times, but somehow the sun was kind to me. A few hours in LA and the vicious heat demon in the sky had caused me to burn like I haven’t for about twenty years.
I was going to try and depict and describe LA merely in song lyrics, a bit of Hole, a smattering of N.W,A. but this article is already becoming far longer than I ever intended it to be, so I will save all of that for an LA mixtape. If you want the place served up in one wonderful song sized bite, you could do a lot worse than wrapping your ears around Los Angeles, I’m Your’s by The Decemberists.
It’s a place with a character, a unique one. Could I imagine living here? No. Would I visit again? Not on purpose but if I was passing nearby I might drop in, but despite those answers and all of my moaning and criticism above, when I get on a plane and fly away from Los Angeles, take a look down at the massive sprawl of it all, I will probably smile and not just because I am happy to get away.