The Eternally Changing Faces of Los Angeles

Ajay Sahgal is author of the novel "Pool" (Grove/Atlantic Press)

Though I am 32, I’ve been feeling like an old man--the sort who gripes about the world as unrecognizable, different from the place he grew up in. Things are indeed changing. So here’s a little advice: Get out your cameras, your video recorders, your pad and pencil, and capture for future reference anything in the landscape that you find interesting or sentimentally satisfying, a place where something memorable occurred or a building of particular aesthetic significance. Because this is Los Angeles, not New York or Paris or Istanbul, and things disappear. They vanish: One minute you think you know the place, and the next you find you don’t know it at all.

The Los Angeles I knew had a distinct but subtle character, often lost on out-of-towners. It was a city of villages, each with it’s own identity. Encino was a suburb full of ranch-style houses with swimming pools and old oaks and a few stores on the boulevard. Venice was a seedy site full of older apartment buildings and the people looked leftover from a more dangerous era. Beverly Hills was a sleepier, less gaudy place.

But, like some kind of wind that blew through town, one more ominous than the Santa Anas, homogenization has taken place. Brand-name stores replaced the ones special to the city. At some point, a street, by virtue of the signs of its establishments, became like a street in any other American city. The chain restaurants and stores moved in. What were once distinct neighborhoods now all have their Johnny Rockets and Koo Koo Roo chicken and Starbucks, Noah’s Bagels, Border’s and BookStar, Costco and Home Depot. The corporate invasion wasn’t unique to Los Angeles, but it had found a place that was easier to mold--because the roots hadn’t had a chance to run deep.


Examples? My nursery school is now a mini-mall, with 16 stores and underground parking. The pony rides I went to at Kiddieland are gone--the Beverly Center has taken its place. The La Reina Theater in Sherman Oaks is a Gap, while the Sherman theater has been replaced by a Sizzler and its parking lot. The drive-in at the corner of Olympic and Bundy has, for some time now, been a Cadillac dealership. Westwood Village is a collection of empty storefronts--no Hunter’s Books, no Good Earth or Alice’s or Old World restaurants. The fashionable tourist area of Melrose didn’t exist when I was in high school, and the bowling alley I went to on Pico Boulevard has been replaced by the Westside Pavilion Annex.

In many cases, the buildings themselves are gone. Driving along Ventura Boulevard recently, I was struck by the newness of it all, whole blocks changed, developed over places that were as familiar to me as my own home. Actually, I don’t know why I’m surprised. Radical change is a fact of life here. A given.

I understand my attitudes are shaped by my environment. And, for me, that environment, by choice or fate, has been and probably always will be Los Angeles. I consider myself a native--my family moved here before I was 2--and I have known no other city as home. I have lived in Hollywood, Burbank and Brentwood. I attended schools in Westwood, Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks. I stayed here for college and graduate school. I have opened businesses in the Fairfax district and Santa Monica and Studio City. In short, I am native enough to feel a certain uneasiness when New Year’s Day images are broadcast worldwide of a beautiful Rose Parade set against soaring mountains and clear, sunny skies. I know tens of millions are watching and I know what they’re thinking: If we could only figure out a way to move to Los Angeles, things would work out fine. It’s so sunny there, they think, so nice. They look out their windows and see freezing rain flying horizontally and think: Let’s go.

I take no issue with their desires. I don’t want to live in Lincoln, Neb., or Bismarck, N.D., or Macon, Ga., either.

This city has always been a place to start over, to reinvent one’s life. Los Angeles, whether it knows it or not, is an objective correlative of sorts, the last stop on the continent, the place where the westward movement of Western civilization comes to a halt. Those who arrive here bring all the baggage of all the generations of people who thought life began just west of wherever they were.

And those who come have to be accommodated.

Yet, if you live here long enough, dealing with change becomes part of your system. Kiddieland may be a mall, and the site of the pool where you learned to swim may now be an office complex, and buildings you danced in may have disappeared. But there’s something in the air--and not just the weather--that endures. It is a sense of limitless personal possibilities. As you become attuned to the city’s rhythms, this constant state of flux and the knowledge that what replaces the old might well be a thing of your own making, becomes something that cements your attachment to this place as strongly as the warm winds, the eucalyptus wetness in the air on autumn nights and the impossibly blue sky.