Which of the abundant and baseless stereotypes about Los Angeles gets under your skin the most?
Is it the assertion that L.A. is a concrete wasteland, when in fact the city is a certified biodiversity hotspot teeming with wildlife and bordered by mountains and the sea?
How about the myth that we have no seasons, despite the cool weather and overcast skies that arrive like clockwork each June, the dry, crippling heat that plagues us dependably each fall and the jacaranda explosion that happens each spring?
Perhaps your defenses go up when friends from elsewhere ask, “But how do you deal with the traffic?” when their own commutes in New York, DC, or the Bay Area consume several hours each week.
My biggest pet peeve is the cliché, still occasionally espoused by my East Coast family, that the city is “fake” or “plastic.”
These myths and more are highlighted — and debunked — in the new book “This is (Not) L.A.: An Insider’s Take on Los Angeles.”
The book, which came out in the beginning of September, was conceived by longtime Angeleno Jen Bilik, the founder of Knock Knock, an independent publisher of amusing books and maker of clever gifts.
She’s also a reformed L.A.-stereotyper.
“Being from the Bay Area and then living in New York, I absorbed a double dose of the idea that L.A. sucks,” she said.
Her tune changed in the late 90s when she collaborated on a book about Hollywood history with the Chateau Marmont — “a SoCal gateway drug if ever there was one,” she writes in the epilogue of “This is (Not) L.A.”
She made the move to Los Angeles in 1998, landing in a sprawling 1950s apartment complex just under the Hollywood sign. She has been championing the city ever since.
Bilik and her co-author, former LA Weekly music editor Kate Sullivan, structured “This is (Not) L.A.” around 18 often repeated myths about Los Angeles, including “Everyone works in the biz” and “L.A. has no history.”
Admittedly, some of the stereotypes feel dated. For example, “L.A. has crappy food.” That may have been a common misconception decades ago, but has anyone, even a condescending New Yorker or defensive San Franciscan, actually thought that way recently in this era of Sqirl and Chengdu Taste?
And yet other stereotypes mentioned in the book are frequently repeated, even by long-time residents. For instance: “L.A. is a desert.” Not true! The proper term for our temperate climate is “Mediterranean,” the authors write.
I was surprised to see “L.A. traffic is horrible” included as one of the cliches about the city. As someone who now makes the psychologically harrowing commute between Mount Washington and El Segundo several times a week, I can say with authority that for some of us, L.A.’s traffic is indeed truly horrible — especially going east at rush hour.
However, Bilik and Sullivan cite studies that claim the average length of an L.A. commute is just 32.2 minutes. That’s shorter than the average commute of people living in Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York. In addition, they claim that the percentage of Angelenos with mega-commutes of 90 minutes or more each way is lower than in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
“What we were trying to get at is the question, ‘Is it just us or is it everywhere?’ And if it’s everywhere, why do we get such a bad rap for it?” Bilik said.
Media savvy readers will appreciate the two page spread dedicated to the New York Times’ consistently clichéd coverage of the city which inevitably includes references to yoga pants, urban sprawl, celebrities and juice.
“It’s so infuriating because we have no shortage of people who know L.A., but instead they send in these seagulls who squawk, [poop] and go,” Bilik said.
To celebrate the launch of the book, Bilik recently gathered four LA writers for a public discussion at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The subject was L.A. — the good, the bad and the unexpected.
The evening began with Good Food host Evan Kleiman reading from an introduction to the book by the city’s greatest interpreter and advocate, the late Jonathan Gold.
“San Francisco likes to think of Los Angeles as the place where civilization went to die,” Kleiman read. “We think of San Francisco as a pleasant place to spend a weekend.”
The audience of roughly 200 people laughed loudly.
Next, Bilik lobbed questions at the panelists like “In the last month what most surprised you about Los Angeles?” and “What are the most misunderstood things about LA?”
Magazine writer Ed Leibowitz said the thing that surprised him most was when he discovered the place where he used to get a $25 pizza pie is now charging $10 a slice.
“I do think LA is just one big earthquake from being affordable again,” he said.
Panelist Patty Rodriguez, who is a senior producer at On Air With Ryan Seacrest and co-founder of the Lil’ Libros bilingual children’s book publishing company said one of the greatest misconceptions she hears is that all Latinos in the city are Mexicans. “We’re not,” she said.
But the best question came toward the end of the event, when an audience member asked the five L.A. aficionados on stage — Bilik included — to share their favorite L.A. secret, or hack.
Essayist Lynell George’s response was the most universal. Her tip is that if you want to explore the city, try getting up early Sunday morning when the streets and freeways are empty and you can glide through neighborhoods unimpeded by traffic.
“It has to be before 12,” she said. “But if you do that, you will be amazed by what you can see.”
Bilik’s new book busted some of LA’s most entrenched and annoying stereotypes; maybe her next one will reveal more of our enigmatic city’s hidden secrets.