I’m not sure when I first fell for Los Angeles. Was it when I watched LA Confidential? Or read Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man? Or started following lifeserial (back when I was still on Instagram)? Regardless, when I finally met the city in person — back in 2015 — my infatuation only intensified. I was staying in Santa Monica. I jogged on the beach, took cheap, slow buses to other parts of the city (Echo Park, Silver Lake), browsed bookstores, brunched at Gjelina, lolled by The Standard DTLA’s rooftop pool, and climbed up to the Griffith Observatory. I departed lovestruck, feverishly hoping I’d return.
Four years later, I’m back, and this time it’s different. Very different. After months of road tripping through rural America, LA’s size and sprawl has come as a shock. Its lustre quickly faded — I’ve felt increasingly disillusioned by the city’s enormity; its intimidating, impersonal endlessness.
My biggest gripe is how the automobile reigns supreme: I hate having to be so dependent on a car. The Metro trains are cool, but the network is still meagre and spindly — it’s telling that I had to take a Lyft to get to my nearest station. I hate the hum and roar of unceasing traffic and the tangle of highways which connect the city like concrete arteries but also divide it like walls. I hate the fuckwit drivers who refuse to signal they’re turning left or right or who cut in front of me at the last minute. I hate how expensive the city is, especially if you’re a tourist using a third world currency about as hard as brie cheese left in the sun. Speaking of sun, in late summer it’s been searingly relentless, especially in the blinding-white of midday, especially in neighbourhoods which are thin on trees (I’m looking at you, Culver City). I love LA’s dry heat, but wouldn’t mind some respite — a day or two of soft, whispering rain.
The first few days I stayed in West Hollywood, which I liked far more than I was expecting to. For starters: it’s people watching heaven… muscled gays, desiccated former starlets, botoxed B-listers. We were staying at a friend’s serene apartment in a shady, quiet street that offered some respite from the sunbaked bustle of the boulevards. Twice I staggered up Runyon Canyon, and this, too, was restorative. On dusty paths, surrounded by bushes shedding their subtle morning scents, I had — literally — transcended the city.
Later, we moved over to an Airbnb in Montecito Heights. The house (like much of LA, I guess) was more appealing in photographs than in reality. What the cute pics didn’t warn us of was the soggy mattress, the shower that had to be held by hand, or that we would see and hear the cars on the Highway 110 below us day and night.
As dusk blushed the sky, we strolled around our hilltop neighborhood, mostly populated with bungalows on postage stamp-sized lots; a mixture of families who’ve lived here for decades as well as newer, bougier transplants. We looked up the price of a new-build for sale that we walked past (which had all the style and charm of a still-to-be-converted shipping container). It was on the market for a million bucks. Our hearts sank. Clearly LA — long cheaper than NYC and the Bay Area — is making great strides in catching up.
And yet, my infatuation hasn’t totally melted away. Sometimes I feel a jolt, like electricity, and the city dazzles me once more. I love the smoky golden light flaring into amber sunsets which die a glorious indigo death. I love the ripple of distant mountains the colour of stonewashed jeans melting into hot sky. I love seeing plants native to my home country (South Africa): aloes, spekboom, tree euphorbias, plumbago, birds of paradise. And foreign ones that are as familiar to me as old friends — bougainvillea, jacarandas, eucalyptus, agave.
I love the jangled symphony of streets like Highland Park’s York and Figueroa — little hipstery boutiques and coffee roasters sandwiched between auto-repair shops, tanning salons and bakeries. Quintessentially LA — and perhaps a thread that unifies so many of its disparate neighbourhoods — is the contrast of chic and crass, vintage and modern, modish and timeless, East and West. I love the cornucopia of architecture — from sleek modern to Mayan revival, Disney French to mock-Tudor. I love the food (tacos!), the art (the Broad!) and the Westside’s ocean breezes. I love the hills rising like scrubby commas in the concrete sentences of the city, their morning shadows and khaki flanks, the honey-flicker of a coyote, his nighttime yaps. I love the way the promise of the Mid-Century still permeates the city — both as an aesthetic and as a form of optimism, unshakeable and defiant. This city was built — and continues to be built — on dreams (however illusory!), and I love that too.
On our last full day in the city, we got up early and drove 40 minutes. After tree-lined Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge, we left the urban patchwork behind, climbing up dizzying switchbacks into the San Gabriel mountains to the Switzer picnic site. Here we set off on foot, meandering along a tree-covered creek and then up along the stony sides of a valley. Aside from the occasional hiker (and, in typical LA-style, a photo shoot set up near the parking lot) we had the trail to ourselves. We were surrounded by mountains. Only a plane contrail above, slashing the deep blue sky like a line of chalk, gave any hint we were close to a buzzing metropolis. Down in the forest again, we rejoined the creek, reaching Switzer Falls. We stayed for about 20 minutes — joyously wallowing in the cool, clear water collecting below the waterfall. Paradise.
Back in Montecito Heights, I felt different. The traffic below us on the 101 was still there. It was still sweltering, the fans fighting a losing battle against the merciless sun. But I didn’t mind anymore. The walk to the Falls had made it all okay.
Yes, LA — maybe you’re okay.
A note on the title:
HOLLYWOOD IS A VERB is an artwork by Edward Ruscha currently on show at the Broad Museum in Downtown LA. The piece succinctly and eloquently comments on the ambitious dreamers who are lured here by the city’s promises (even if those promises are sometimes only the stuff of fantasy and illusion).