Victoria Jelinek


Homage to Los Angeles

Los Angeles Reconsidered

When I moved to Los Angeles for professional reasons, I was prepared to dislike it intensely.  I brought with me from my native New York many unfavorable assumptions and negative stereotypes about California and Californians.  I believed that LA was full of self-absorbed, superficial people; a cultural wasteland that existed as a city but was really a sprawling suburb; a horizontal city rather than a vertical one.

Initially, LA met my low expectations: it is a sprawling wasteland with Wal-Marts and K-Marts next to small streets of cafes, shops, residences and strip malls; and there are so many Mercedes, Ranger Rovers, and Hummers that I thought that people were automatically given them once they attained a certain income.  I’d go to barbeques and have six-minute conversations with people I’d meet about what we each did for work and who would then offer to show me their headshots or resumes and get vacant-eyed when I changed the subject.  Working in the film industry, I discovered that it could be, as I had thought, self-absorbed, unjust, and harsh.

Then about a year into living there, I began to see LA differently: I started noticing that the desert life is beautiful and courageous; the succulents, such as the Joshua trees and cacti, are resourceful, keeping water in their hard, leaves and stems; the Oleanders grow beside the dirty highways without any encouragement; the vines of pink, red and purple flowers are everywhere; there are birds singing in every neighborhood, in palm, lemon and lime trees.  I started turning towards the dark, dusty hills that surround the city and took walks and horseback rides through them, seeing coyotes, skunks, and bobcats; and every time I’d come over a westward crest near the ocean, I’d find myself catching my breath with the first glimpse of the breaking waves.

CINEMA DISCOVERED

Buoyed by the city’s natural beauty, I started exploring further.

Cinema venues, of course, abound: there are the American Cinematheque and the NuArt, that run festivals from various countries and themed screenings in various genres; there is the El Capitan, where an organ player rises from the floor and plays while you’re being seated; there’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with its grand architecture and the footprints from the silver-screen actors of Hollywood to today’s superstars out front, combined with its supersonic sound and fine picture quality inside, is a movie cathedral.  There’s the Arclight, where ushers wear nametags with their favorite movie characters and introduce the films. There’s the Kodak Theater special screenings of classic movies and where the Oscar ceremony is held.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

There are free tennis courts everywhere, public pools for a dollar, and skating, bike-riding, and skateboarding activities along the long coastline from Malibu to Hermosa Beach.  Tolerable skiing is only an hour away, and good skiing is a five-hour drive through the desert. The desert is also great for camping and visiting motels and hotels hidden away in the Joshua tree forest, or near Barstow or Palm Springs, where there are natural aquifers allowing ranches and settlements to seem like oasis’.

EMIGRES AND EXILES

I saw anew the colorful contributions of immigrant Mexicans: murals everywhere, little stucco churches with tall, simple steeples, colorfully painted houses terraced into the hills of Silverlake and Echo Park, and I was fascinated by the fact that Mexican families use the parks on the weekends en masse, having picnics and playing games with their extended families.  I found a Korean town, a Japanese town, a China town, a Thai town, and an Armenian town, in each of which the people have retained their own culture’s foods, clothing, shops, and lifestyles, despite the inevitable move toward assimilation into the general culture, which is enhanced by this diversity.

Writers, directors, actors, migrated en masse to LA at the turn of the 20th century for a variety of reasons, and stayed. They still do. The long list is, in itself, a testimonial to the appeal, financially, symbolically, and topographically of Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Most people focus on the exploitive business practices of the many unprincipled executives in the film industry, which creates the negative stereotypes of LA, but there’s a well-developed infrastructure in the city, its highways, its airports, its businesses, its cultural scene, as well as the tropical climate.

THE PROMISED LAND

In time, I learned the subtle fact that Californians know and outsiders don’t: Hollywood and Los Angeles should be evaluated as two cities, which are separate but symbiotic.  I then learned the history of the region that put the present day city in context—a place of easy money and easy ways, a place that cashed in on gambler’s luck, first with the Franciscan padres finding artesian wells in the late 19th century that made the region a veritable Garden of Eden, then the Gold Rush to Northern California, the influx of oil Sheiks of the 1920’s in Southern California, and finally the boom of the film industry. All of these events carried out the theme of California as a place that promised the American ideal of riches. I considered the harsh reality of those working in film, and the “truth” of these stereotypes – it’s a difficult city to penetrate, because it seems to exist on the surface, but it does deserve to be considered more fully.

IN CONCLUSION

I was, and am, still aware that there’s a sharp contrast between the haves and have-nots in Los Angeles. And the sentiments I held when I first moved to Los Angeles – basically that it’s a cultural wasteland that exists as a city but is really a sprawling suburb – still holds truth. But it’s not the whole truth.

I’ve since moved to Europe, and I often think of California. It’s to its credit that it convinced this skeptic of its charms. So much so, that I become defensive when listening to many stereotypes about Hollywood-Los Angeles uttered by people in my adopted country (and despite having held them myself at one point!), especially statements about the negative television and film images exported to the rest of the world (but eagerly seized upon, I may add) as the sole purpose of the city and examples of its offerings.

It’s unfair to LA to cling only to the negative, to the stereotypes – LA has various storylines – urban and suburban sprawl, ‘high’ and popular culture, sun and sand, mountains and trees, diverse languages and people. It’s all of these wonderful and unexpected elements of the city, in contrast to the pretentious and often tawdry goings on, that function as a chorus, and sometimes principal character, in the story of LA.

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