There's More Than Just 'Inner' in the City

Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

I've lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade, and there are some things I would change about it if I could. I would love it, for instance, if we had a "real" winter, even a short one, with truly frosty mornings and (so sue me) a picturesque dusting of snow. And I'd certainly love it if we had a metro system that actually went someplace useful instead of the expensive Universal Citywalk version we have. But in general, this is a pretty OK metropolis, and sometimes we take the parts that work for granted.

I realized this when I drove down to San Diego last weekend to attend Left Coast Crime, a gathering of mystery writers and readers from west of the Mississippi. Most of the participants came from the left-est part of the Left Coast--California and Washington--but others came from Nevada, Arizona, even Colorado. They were a pleasant bunch of people, but there were not a lot of L.A. fans among them.

After the "So, where-are-you-from?" icebreaker, I was most interested in the responses to my answer. "Yes, but where in L.A.? Pasadena or Torrance or someplace like that?"

I politely refrained from pointing out that Pasadena and Torrance weren't exactly L.A. (which their city fathers are probably thanking God for every night). "No," I'd explain; "I'm from L.A. proper. Right in the middle of the city."

"The city, really?" This was often accompanied by a surreptitious check to see whether the metal buckles to my straitjacket were jingling behind me. "Never go there," some folks cheerfully admitted. Others conceded they used to visit, "but not recently." Which of course means post-Rodney King, post-O.J., post When-It-Looked-So-Different.

A few waxed nostalgic about Venice Beach several decades ago and the Santa Monica Pier and fondly remembered outings to downtown hotels. But nobody seemed to be in a hurry to go back. "Well," one conference-goer said elliptically, "you have to realize, it's changed a lot."

Ask Joe Wambaugh how much. A former L.A. resident and member of the LAPD in the Parker era, Wambaugh has become one of the nation's foremost crime writers, both fiction ("The New Centurions," "The Choirboys") and nonfiction ("The Onion Field"). Lots of his books show the gritty, noir side of Los Angeles; his are not particularly flattering portraits of the city and its denizens.

But Wambaugh, whose books have done so much to describe contemporary Los Angeles to the outside world, sets foot in the place as rarely as possible.

"When I go up there, there are neighborhoods that used to be silk-stocking beats that are now ghetto beats, high-crime beats," Wambaugh, tanned and silver-haired, shudders. "There's graffiti everywhere, little children begging in the streets." He's getting a bit carried away, I think. L.A. is not Calcutta--yet. But it probably looks that way to people living in prosperous, largely monoethnic communities like Wambaugh's corner of San Diego.

It's the great metropolis conundrum: Along with the things that make life stimulating (museums, music, libraries, universities, restaurants) there are things that need to be corrected or improved on. We have legions of homeless people and apparently little idea how to better their situation. The freeways are clogged like old arteries after a baked-Brie orgy. And the public schools need all the help they can get. (Money. Volunteers. Teachers. You name it.)

On the other hand, the Central Library is one of the most beautiful buildings ever erected in this city, fit for the rich and used daily by thousands of people who are anything but. The newly opened California Science Center is attracting both residents and visitors from great distances to a neighborhood that has long been underserved and overlooked. Members of the entertainment industry are starting to realize that they have a stake in the city and have begun to become involved financially and personally in ensuring that its future is one that they can live with. (Not everyone can--or wants to--commute from Montecito by helicopter.) Real-estate prices are inching up. Crime is inching down.

Maybe Wambaugh should grab a bodyguard or two, hop in his (armored?) car and come up for a visit. It might not be as bad as he thinks.

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