ONE morning not long after I came to Los Angeles, I was sitting in rush-hour traffic having just carpooled six children to school, talking on the cellphone to New York. My friend on the other end of the line was in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side. I told her that I was trying desperately to get to a yoga class.
"It's happening to you too," she said, after a dark, fraught silence. "I knew it would."
"What's happening to me?" I asked.
"You're becoming an empty-headed Californian," she said. "Soon," she predicted direly, "you'll be happy."
I often wonder how a place where Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston flourished, where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote and Raymond Chandler found his great material has managed to maintain its status as cultural whipping boy to the world. How come everywhere, everyone is so glad to accept the idea of Los Angeles as a bland place full of stupid people with no cultural interests? Can it be that they are jealous of the weather? They think it never rains here.
L.A. has been hated and disrespected for a long time, publicly and privately, by people who live here, by people who visit, by newcomers and old-timers, by writers and commentators and immigrants and transients. For a city that has produced so much art — in film, painting and literature — it remains the place, as Woody Allen famously noted, whose "only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light."
This is our gift to the world: Everyone needs someone to despise, and as a city we are always available. After all, Los Angeles — though self-conscious — is not shy. Over the years, it has offered itself up almost shamelessly to be examined, and then rejected. Nathanael West was perhaps the greatest of the Los Angeles haters, and his vituperative "The Day of the Locust" is still the classic apocalyptic indictment of the city. (Los Angeles hated him back and meted out his fate in classic fashion: He died in a car crash with his wife after running a stop sign in El Centro.)
Even Carey McWilliams, the great chronicler of Southern California who eventually came to love the region, admits to having undergone a long bout with the illness I call anti-Angelenism before his attitude about the place turned around. "When I first arrived in Los Angeles," he wrote in 1946, "I hated, as so many other people have hated, the big, sprawling, deformed character of the place. I loathed the crowds of dull and stupid people that milled around downtown sections dawdling and staring, poking and pointing, like villagers visiting a city for the first time. I found nothing about Los Angeles to like and a great many things to detest."
L.A. has long been viewed as an embarrassment by America. Because it is the city at the end of the continent, it is commonly regarded as the newest, freshest, best thing the country has to offer, so its every flaw is interpreted as a sign of our collective national failure. As McWilliams writes, "What America is, California is, with accents, in italics." Europeans — among them De Tocqueville, Trollope and, more recently, Bernard Henri-Levi — look to the West and see Americans as uncultured, loutish, self-indulgent materialists. And Americans do the same: In Los Angeles, they see what they take to be a more babyish, dumber version of themselves and they shudder.
Because of its early history, L.A. has had to live up to some very high expectations. From the start, the town was touted as a paradise, and people came in droves. Much of the boosterism was true, or based on truth. Los Angeles was set in an exquisite landscape — warm, breezy, tucked between an ocean and purple mountains. (Even now, having lived here for four years, I can't believe it when I look up from traffic on a clear day and see not just the lovely Hollywood Hills but the San Gabriel range in the distance, behind the shopping malls and billboards.) The climate was healthful, dry and pleasant. Fruits and vegetables, although not of the Brobdingnagian size advertised by pamphlets and brochures, did have a longer growing season.
Still, once the crowds settled in, they noticed that Los Angeles was not paradise. Hardly anyone was a native, and hardly anyone who came here had time, before the next wave of humans landed, to establish a mark that could endure. There were too many people, and the new arrivals were always searching for Los Angeles, for some kind of meaning or significance or heart, and not finding it. They wanted to know where they had washed up, but in truth, there was no there where they were.
In a very real sense, Los Angeles has always been occupied territory. It was occupied by the Americans while it was still part of Mexico. Today, many occupiers come from the East Coast (though in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the deluge was from Iowa). Often, they are Hollywood people.
Hollywood people are always coming from somewhere else: The actors, of course, who arrive from that special nation called the Land of the Good Looking, but also the producers and directors and writers. They have their own peculiar state within a state here, although at the same time, they are visible nationally and internationally. I hold them accountable for a lot of L.A.'s bad press, both as local setters of ridiculous trends — dogs in bags, knitting as a lifestyle, the 2-inch jean zipper, Restylane — that are mocked but followed by the rest of the world, and as the biggest of the L.A. denigrators. They always like to tell you that they get only the New York Times. They're always raising money for candidates who are running for governor of New York.
L.A.'s bad reputation has been oddly long-lived, but then, what would the world do without a place it could despise? In every century and culture, I would argue, there has been a place upon which opprobrium could be heaped, usually for cultural reasons, or out of jealousy and fear. This locus of loathing, I would argue further, will always be a place where the dominant culture has established its final triumphant outpost. (In the 1700s and 1800s, New York and Boston served this function for England and Europe; since the turn of the last century, Los Angeles has provided it for America, as well as the rest of the Western, and possibly Eastern, world.) It's necessary to have a yardstick against which one can measure one's own standing, and the culture of the last outpost will always challenge the received wisdom, much as a child challenges his or her parents. The older culture will seek to suppress the younger, but the younger will inevitably survive, to vanquish what came before.
So will there ever be a culture Los Angeles can look down on?
Well, I wonder, what would happen if there were one day a settlement on the moon.
"Ah," Angelenos might crow. "She's from the moon. I mean, come on. You can't expect her to be normal. Everything's so easy there, in the bubble. I mean, you're weightless, for heaven's sake. You don't ever have to lose a pound . And it never rains."
Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger."
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