Hawking the Charms of Los Angeles
Nothing but nothing feels quite so satisfying as having your irrational prejudices borne out by hard fact.
I returned from a journey to the Mysterious East with my biases about New York City not only intact but shored up with rebar.
Among them is my conviction that NYC’s vaunted street life is not some sociable act of creative vitality, but simply the pathological outgrowth of urban claustrophobia, cabin-in-the-sky fever that forces the inhabitants out of those $2,000-a-month Manhattan pieds-a-terre we would call “closets” and into the clamorous public arena.
And, too, I was secretly delighted when my friend Barbara told me--I think we were eating dinner in her Manhattan apartment at the time--that in New York, you’re never more than 6 feet away from a rat. The mayor himself watched a foot-long rattus rattus scamper boldly across the porch of Gracie Mansion not two weeks earlier, and, sez Hizzoner, it wasn’t the first time.
(In L.A., of course, we’re never more than 6 feet away from a producer, but that’s another species, and a different problem altogether.)
All this is by way of saying that I would not be a good candidate for Susan Sweeney’s job.
She is L.A.'s chief cheerleader and saleslady in the Tough Nut of the Big Apple, which is our true urban competition now that San Francisco is content to be an adorable boutique city with a wayward climate.
As the vice president of eastern regional sales for L.A.'s Convention & Visitors Bureau, Sweeney spends her New York minutes talking up what a swell place L.A. is, to trade groups, conventions and the like. She plumps this World Class City not just to New Yorkers, but up and down the Eastern Seaboard--maybe even to the sons and daughters of men who, just 40 years ago, seriously inquired of a friend, a California native enrolling at an Ivy League college, whether his train had been attacked by Indians.
(I would have said, “Yes, but they all had blue eyes and SAG cards.”) Sweeney is the model of restraint I could never be, a woman of admirable bicoastal balance: born in New York City but with the vision to leave it for L.A. (OK, she was a 8 1/2 months old at the time), she opened this office 3 1/2 years ago. When the moving van arrived at her Los Angeles house in early February 1994, she had the devil’s own time making the moving men believe that, really, she wasn’t fleeing because of the earthquake--honest.
Because I was early for our appointment, I enjoyed a $5 cappuccino across the street. I was early because I had allowed an hour for the cab ride from Park Avenue South and 22nd to Park Avenue and 50th; pleasantly, it only took 50 minutes.
New Yorkers lie that everything is a 10-minute walk away, but then Angelenos lie that everything is only a 20-minute drive away. It is other lies and myths about L.A. that Sweeney has found herself combating by the numbers: quake and crime and riot myths.
And while the handsome literature of promotion includes “Cultural Kaleidoscope” ethnic guides, there are minority groups that flat-out won’t do business here because of Propositions 187 and 209, the way women’s groups of the 1970s boycotted states that voted no on the ERA.
The toughest sell west of the Hudson may be just east of the Pacific. Sweeney boosterizesthe five regions of L.A.--the valleys, Hollywood, the coast, the Westside, and downtown--but sometimes, after she’s persuaded a national group of downtown LA’s virtues, some guy from Malibu -- often the local head the national outfit -- objects. “Downtown? I haven’t been downtown in 30 years!”
And there’s the durable myth that everyone here is crazy. Sweeney finds it can be a plus--"we promote the fact we have crazy people in L.A. It’s kind of a selling point” -- although the absolute proof to the contrary is right there every January, in cold-weather-blue ink on the weather page of USA Today.
Sweeney and her staff of four are moving any day now, to hawk L.A.'s allure from the 18th floor of the same Fifth Avenue building in which Harry Winston sees fit to vend his crystalline carbon trinkets.
The really nice L.A. posters will go up then, and maybe Sweeney will get something flashier over her desk than the drab, must-be-lifesized photo of the L.A. Convention Center. Perhaps a reverse-Steinberg poster, facing east, showing Los Angeles, huge and glittering and dominant, and waaay off in the distance--no bigger than Santa Cruz Island but with lots of money and almost no goats -- is Manhattan. This business is a bit like that, like the terra incognita below the LAX-JFK-LAX nonstops she takes every few weeks: “There’s L.A., there’s New York, and nothing in between.”
A couple of quibbles about this operation: an E-mail address that has “ny!ny!” in it, like we’re excited about the place . . . and her businesswoman’s reference to “the product,” as in, “I spent all my life in L.A., so I have a great deal of loyalty to the product.”
Product -- sounds like we’re all kin to Malibu Barbie. Oh, la!la!