People sometimes ask me what it is that I like about living in L.A. (usually in conversation where I have just admitted that I thought I’d hate it here when I moved but quickly came to love it). Of course there is one obvious answer. It’s about 68 degrees today and while it is hotter in the summertime than some other places in the country it’s also less humid. So when you sweat it actually evaporates and cools your body off the way it’s supposed to.
There’s more to love about LA than just weather but it’s sometimes hard to convey. I have long likened feelings for cities to romantic relationships. Along those lines one might describe LA as the brilliant, interesting, and kind boyfriend who somehow can never hold down a job and is always leaving his underwear on your floor and his dishes in your sink. Your friends can’t understand why you don’t kick him to the curb but you can’t imagine how you’d live without him. Sure things would be cleaner and you’d have more money if he were gone, but life would be less interesting and exciting.
This analogy came to me a week or so ago as I was coming home from work, sitting in stop and go traffic on the 405 coming out of Westwood into the valley. The 405 is one of those freeways that you can pretty much guarantee will throw a monkey wrench into your commute. It’s the metaphoric equivalent of a moldy bowl that probably once contained cereal festering in your sink. Usually I forego the freeway in favor of the slightly less direct–but often faster–Sepulveda Boulevard. Sepulveda is a lovely drive in its own right, meandering slightly with hills rising off to one side. The 405, though, is a beautiful sight, if you can just let go of your frustrations with traffic long enough to appreciate it. One of the reasons this particular stretch of freeway is so crowded is that it’s one of the few routes through the Santa Monica Mountains. At 4:30 in the afternoon in January that means golden light of a sun about to set lighting up the hills rising on either side of you as you creep toward the top. And when you finally crest the hill you are greeted by the spreading vista of the San Fernando Valley.
I have heard people complain that Los Angeles isn’t green. I will acknowledge that this is probably somewhat true of the less prosperous neighborhoods but in general I find that my complaints tend to run the other way (too much of the city is falsely green due to heroic efforts to keep turf-grass healthy in an environment not suited to lawns in the least). Aside from my ire about the constant use of sprinklers, though, I have to say there is something magical to me about the view from freeways (or the view from a landing plane) of city stretching out in all directions until it is checked by the hills. The city is nestled within the confines of the geography, having started as a small pueblo along the LA river (which I am lead to believe once actually contained water before it was lined with concrete and fell victim to the water needs of the city). No one in their right mind would have planned such a large city on such unfriendly terrain. But yet here we are.
And I think sometimes what I love most about LA is the improbability of the whole thing. It is a city built on shifting ground, punctuated by two mountain ranges (and plenty of other hills), with very little fresh water and almost zero precipitation for seven months of the year. At the same time it is a city where you can hear three languages while waiting for a bus or standing in line at the grocery store, a city where you can find food from almost anywhere in the world (though I’m still on the hunt for authentic Puerto Rican, having gotten a taste of what I’m missing on the east coast a few years back).
I think it is fair to say that Los Angeles embodies everything that is wrong with our society: the lack of foresight; the careless assumptions of human superiority and invincibility; the divisions among the haves, the have-less, and the have-nots; the tendency toward selfish individualism. But at the same time the city is a monument to the hope, ingenuity, and folly that characterizes our species. I think what I love most about LA is the way that it constantly reminds me how small we are, and how big we are, all at once.