Inspired by Geoff Manaugh’s wonderful post which captures the essence of Los Angeles.
The most quintessentially American cities are Las Vegas, Houston, and Chicago.1
Las Vegas is a caricature of America. But stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. Las Vegas is ridiculous: over-the-top, gaudy, flashy. It represents the chance at getting rich (and the hard truth that you probably won’t). For there are no poor people in America, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
Houston is the best and the worst of American post-World War II dynamism. It’s diverse, with amazing food and ugly urban sprawl. This is the city that put a man on the moon, a city where, due to a lack of zoning laws, roller coasters sit in people’s backyards.
Image via Chron
Chicago is Houston’s big brother; Houston at the turn of the 20th century. It’s understated, with great architecture. It’s clean2, but with a dark underbelly3. Extremely segregated. It’s the true modernist city, a testament to man conquering nature: where we reversed the flow of a river and constructed the tallest building in the world.
Then there’s Los Angeles. I got back from Los Angeles last night and my head is still spinning.
Las Vegas, like it or not, has a soul. Houston and Chicago as well.4 LA is soulless.
And when I say Los Angeles, I mean all of Southern California. The people who live in San Diego or Orange County will tell you that it’s not the same as LA. But it is. All of Southern California — from Oxnard to the Mexican border — has a uniform culture.
In Los Angeles, you find yourself in a perfect city full of beautiful people that exist to be seen. And while everything is very nice, the whole place feels somehow…empty. It’s a metaphorical Potemkin village.
To exist in Los Angeles is to gaze into the abyss. Here in the oppressive sun, surrounded by solipsistic individuals, you contemplate, as Meursault did, the “gentle indifference of the world” to your own mortality.
“Almighty God, I am sorry I am now an atheist, but have You read Nietzsche?”
— John Fante, Ask the Dust
Coming from the Midwest, I’d always been told that Californians lacked substance. Shallow people with botox and fake personalities. People you could go hiking or surfing with, but who wouldn’t have a beer with you afterwards.
And there’s a bit of that. But at the same time, why not just head to the beach and chill? While you’re trying to connect over a beer, the Angelino is out there trying to catch one more wave. In New York, the activity is drinking and storytelling. While this creates great conversationalists, it also encourages a lot of complaining. In LA, the sun is shining, the swell is stoke…why ruin the good vibes?
Los Angeles is absurd. This is exemplified by its economic aspirations and values. In Silicon Valley, people may dream of starting a generational company, in New York, of reaching the top of the food chain in finance or fashion. In Southern California, everyone rich is in the entertainment business (self-explanatory), works in real estate, or owns a home improvement business. They sell nice houses to one another so that they can afford their own nice houses. The economy is turtles all the way down.5
On my first day in Long Beach, I saw a man driving a classic Oldsmobile 442 convertible, top down, belting out Centerfold with his pet boxer in the passenger seat and his trophy wife in the back. I’m not sure exactly what this story means, but it epitomizes LA.
LA is lifted trucks and lowriders. It’s Bukowski drinking, it’s Arturo Bandini yearning for Camilla, it’s everything wrong and everything right about the American Dream. It’s blonde women with fake tits in skintight dresses on dates with men in board shorts with white socks and Vans. It’s the everyman in his $100,000 Ford Raptor hauling a surfboard in the undented truck bed.
Ironically, this shallowness in LA forces you to confront the depths of yourself and your place in the world. In LA you can’t fool yourself; the curtain is drawn back. LA is hell: it leads to a violent, forced confrontation with oblivion.
LA asks you: What’s the point of being in the rat race? Here, she whispers, “You can be free.” Sit in your car for an hour in the In’N’Out drive-thru line. Spend all day inside; fuck the perfect weather. Surf from sunup to sundown, subsisting solely on a diet of sunshine and açaí bowls.
So I can’t decide if I hate Southern California and everything that it ostentatiously does not stand for, or love it because it is the only place I’ve been that has mainlined existentialism into my veins.
I can’t wait to go back.
There’s even an argument to be made for New Orleans, with its Creole culture, the vibrant mix of French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean that manifests in food, music, and religion. This delightful jumble culminates in Mardi Gras, a Hajj that all college spring breakers should take part in. ↩
Everyone who visits from New York says this, to which every Chicagoan replies that it’s due to the city’s alley system. ↩
And surf shops. It’s a real estate- and surf shop-based economy. ↩