The City of Los Angeles is one of the oddest in the United States. A conglomeration of many cities, some of them equally famous as the extended area, some of them less famous and many unknown, spread out over a huge area and linked by giant freeways, LA is synonymous with the best and worst aspects of America.
The badge of the LAPD proclaims that the City was founded in 1781 and the oldest house in Los Angeles, now a museum, dates back to 1818. Situated in Olvera Street, a pretty walk of low-rising buildings with Mexican restaurants on either side and stalls selling Nacho Libre masks and ponchos, it belonged to a cattle farmer at a time when Los Angeles was a mere outpost; an isolated community of farms handed out at the behest of the Spanish Emperor.
Its Hispanic origins have had some influence on the City’s growth – nearby Union Station was built in the style of a Spanish Villa – but the overwhelming impression is of a very American city grafted onto a small town.
At the top of Downtown, just a few hundred metres from the modernist Cathedral of Our Lady of Los Angeles, is a monument to the Mormon Brigade, whose trek and fortification built in 1846 was the foundation for the building of a City after the annexation of California two years later. A mixed population poured into the City in search of agricultural work, accelerated by the advent of the railways as Los Angeles was linked to both the East and other cities on the Californian coast. Until then, it was a fifteen mile journey in a horse-drawn cart to the nearest port.
It is almost impossible to imagine what California would have looked like had the entertainment industry not moved from New York to a small town just outside LA in the early 1920s. It would probably have remained a largely agricultural place, cyclically poor and comfortable with a few resorts up and down the coast. Hollywood changed all that, and continues to dominate Los Angeles to this day.
Though Hollywood Boulevard must have been quite something when Sid Grauman was building theatres here, there and everywhere, today it is tired and tacky. It’s difficult enough to play it like Bogart when you have to pull off phrases like ‘may you live forever till I kill you’ (close friends only), but there’s only so much wit you can summon up in response to the pressures of being offered tours of the homes of the stars. On each street corner newspaper dispensers offer not only the Los Angeles Times (one of the more nationally-available papers) but maps showing where these celebrities live. Add to this the people, who make Charlie Sheen look relatively normal (some look like Charlie Sheen too) and you feel like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not has spilled its contents onto the pavement. Waking up and finding Mary Poppins in the hostel computer room asking for the strength to continue fighting her copyright lawsuit against Stephen Spielberg is a surreal experience at the best of times, but I kid you not, she claimed it was her idea to have a cute British guy in the remake of Arthur.
Legend has it that at the premiere of both Cecil B de Mille’s latest film and the opening of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped in wet cement, inaugurating the tradition of the Hollywood hands. A little further down the street, the Egyptian recaptures a little bit of glamour showing classic movies and has a smell like eighty years of popcorn (not altogether unpleasant), but the interior has been partly covered in order to improve the acoustics.
Los Angeles has never stopped producing and inspiring art, but at a certain point, the majority became derisory about the City itself. The Eagles had Hotel California, while Neil Young’s On The Beach, the first part of his doom-trilogy, shocked his bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash with its songs about Charles Manson and living in isolation in what was effectively a musicians commune just over the hills from Hollywood. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was where Jack Nicholson got his nose slit, and the area today is bordered by shops offering loans for bail.
Perhaps the purest ‘LA band’ of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies was born when Jim Morrison met Ray Manzarek at UCLA. The Doors were one of the wildest bands, musically and socially, and were generally regarded as the best rock band in the world when Morrison wasn’t intoxicated or being maced for insulting a police officer while ‘making out’ with fans before a show. The house band of the Whisky-a-Go-Go (from whence came Go-Go Dancers and in operation to this day – their latest tweet read something like ‘our thoughts go out to those injured in yesterday’s fight outside the club. Contrary to rumours, there was not a shooting’), The Doors made the most of their break on the Ed Sullivan Show by singing the uncensored lyrics to Light My Fire and telling the furious host who promised never to book them again, ‘we just did the Ed Sullivan Show!’
Morrison initially inhabited the Venice Beach area; the product of a man called Abbot Kinney’s imagination, Venice was an area of canals modelled on the European city. Most have been filled in now, and the area is famous for being a hippie playground and the site of Muscle Beach. The original Muscle Beach, where Arnold Schwarzenegger plied his first trade what seems like more than an acting career and two terms as Governor of California ago, was further up the coast in Santa Monica, also the setting for Baywatch, apparently. Like most LA neighbourhoods, these incongruous borders can overlap.
It is said that LA is undergoing a slow renaissance. The City is pleased with its newest architectural addition, Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (as well as being spectactular, it has a peaceful little park two floors above street level), a couple of blocks up from the Egyptian-style public library. New appartment conversions are advertised everywhere, and I suppose there is some new life being breathed into Hollywood by reality television, though none seem to quite answer the question, why would anyone famous want to live in such a horrible zoo?
Much of LA is poor, polluted and smelly. In the 1990s it was as famous for Compton as for Bel-Air, despite Will Smith’s best efforts. The traffic makes getting across town horrendous, even as the size of the roads makes everything feel like a planning disaster (a bit like Manchester’s big-nothing spaces). The subway is limited in its reach. You have to sympathise with other Leytonstone lads like Alfred Hitchcock and David Beckham who have had to make the transition.
Yet one of the surprises about America is that even in rough neighbourhoods, when you are trying to keep yourself to yourself, you can quite easily come across friendly souls. Some folks will stop for a chat, some maybe for a laugh partly at your expense and others will walk you all the way to the subway or offer directions (in the hope of a tip, it must be said). These people may not sell a place on their own, but they restore a lot of faith in a country that shows an affluent face but is just as often picking itself up.
To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, or rather from San Francisco to Las Vegas would have involved a twelve hour coach trip. That made it seem reasonable to stop at the Bizarre for a couple of days. It was worthwhile, after a fashion. Consumption of all kinds is one of the distinguishing features of America, and it is rare to find a place so devoted to it as LA, especially when it is so largely built on farming territory. Hollywood was once the undisputed world leader in entertainment. Now Cannes is more seriously considered for artistry and film acting and production are one of the things Britain still does well at. None of these knock Hollywood off its perch, and LA is a cultural, sporting and commercial capital of the biggest producer of entertainment in the world. How it succeeds or fails in translating that into making an attractive place to live is a lesson for all cities.
We are now off to a place that has little concern for the impact it leaves. Las Vegas was described to us as ‘a place where people do bad things, then leave.’ It is the circus to LA’s zoo. More on that in a few days.