Imagine you live outside California and most of your knowledge about Los Angeles comes from reading tourist guidebooks. Sure, you'd find passing references to smog, traffic, earthquake danger, social tensions and crime. But the luring listings of wonders probably would tempt you to at least consider a visit here.
The climate, the beaches, the mountains, the palm trees. The glitzy shopping district of Beverly Hills, the shaded stalls of Olvera Street, the funky streetscape of Venice, the new Chinatown in Monterey Park. Dodger Stadium, the Music Center, the Getty Museum, the Watts Towers. Manhattan Beach, Universal Studios, Sunset Strip, El Mercado. And on. And on.
Veteran Angelenos, once banner-waving boosters, might snicker at that list now. That's for tourists, they'd explain. That's the false facade of a town that perfected illusion and made public relations into a major industry. Put down the guidebook, they'd say, and listen to us for a while. Or worse yet, try living here.
OK, you listen to their contrary lists, their tour of an L.A. where palm tree trunks are scarred with graffiti and every supermarket seems staked out by panhandlers. OK, amazing commuting distances may be a dubious trade-off for ice-free driveways and, yes, the bay is polluted. But for the most part, those complaints seem to you to echo problems of all Big American Cities, just collected late and fast in a place that had considered itself exempt. The place still seems quite livable to someone not yet ready for Ojai or Idaho.
So you take the next step. You actually land a job and live here for a while. You make those tourist spots your own mental landmarks; you choose your favorite beach, your local team, your best taco stand, your independent bookstore. Years pass. You're one of those veterans now. You grumble about traffic and smog but hope things will improve. You stay.
As work, you get to ask strangers for ideas to make L.A. life more enjoyable. How can we improve the quality of existence away from job, freeway and police station? This time, many answers repeat a theme that may have taken a newcomer a decade to understand.
It's this: Living among an amazing array of attractions, Angelenos are too isolated from their city and from each other. Life can be pleasant, but life is too fractured, too segregated, too lonely. The greatly mocked "C" word of psycho-babble and urban planning pops up a lot, unprompted; you now know the lack of that "community" is no joke, not just a complaint of greenhorns.
The successes of Pasadena's Old Town, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, Universal City's CityWalk prove we are hungry to get out of our cars and see each other. As CityWalk's principal architect, Jon Jerde, explains: "An event happens when other humans get together. A reaffirmation of human-ness you miss when you are alone in your hot tub or watching your TV."
However, sweeping gestures are not the answer. The incomplete subway system can't be expanded 100 times over. Zoning that encouraged endless sprawl won't be overthrown next week. Office towers built over possible parkland won't be torn down. The ethos of private spaces won't end. Poverty, crime and drugs won't quickly disappear. Nor will the Sun Belt transiency that makes people reluctant to get involved, to put down roots, to explore. The ugliness of commercial streets is hard to thoroughly erase. L.A. won't be, and shouldn't be, made into Paris.
But smaller things can be done. Downtown's ethnic neighborhoods can be linked to each other and spruced up for pedestrians. Teen-agers can run athletic programs for younger kids. Pan-ethnic street festivals can be held. Empty lots can be turned into parks. Vacant storefronts can become clubhouses. Communal exercise equipment can be put in supermarkets and churches. Filmmakers could make mini-documentaries about life here and show them on television and in movie theaters. A fleet of buses could move young people to many cultural and recreation opportunities. Alienating streets can be made friendlier.
Adolfo Nodal, general manager of Los Angeles city's Cultural Affairs Department, argues for projects that enhance neighborhood identities, like relighting neon signs on the Wilshire Corridor, building a formal gateway into Koreatown, sprucing up mariachi plazas in East L.A.
"There's a lot going on in L.A.," he says. "The biggest thing that's missing here is a thread to hold it all together.... We need to start celebrating this city instead of just leaving it or driving through it as fast as we can."
That all is true. But sometimes I wish for pocket-sized guidebooks to civic pride, a Michelin star system for neighborhood interaction. I see "Comedy Clubs" and "Concerts" listed in Fodor's, but not the other big "C" word.