As I was about to say in my last post – before New Year’s Eve intervened – Dr McWaine and I live in the Hollywood district, which is near the geographic center of Los Angeles. We are just up one of the hills behind the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I love the neighborhood because it’s a microcosm of the diversity of L.A. and a wonderful mix of urban and wild environments.
The Hollywood Hills are part of a mountain range that bisects the city. Among the unexpected joys of L.A. are the number of animal species that live within or commute to the city along wildlife corridors formed by the hills in which we live, parks such as Runyon Canyon (just across from our house), and greenbelts along the river and freeways.
Dr McWaine and I literally have deer, coyotes, owls, hawks, possums, and raccoons in our backyard. Mountain lions are occasionally sighted in other parts of our canyon. When we’re in the mood for some local exercise, we can hike up to the top of the hills for glorious views of the Hollywood sign, snow capped mountains, the Pacific, and the broad expanse of the city.
When the urban urge strikes, it’s a 15-minute walk down the hill into central Hollywood to see a movie, get some food, do some shopping, or go to the gym. It’s also about a 15-minute walk over the hill to the Hollywood Bowl and only about a five-minute drive to Universal Studios, the Universal CityWalk entertainment district, and the Universal Amphitheater. If you catch the subway under the Kodak Theater or at Universal Studios, you can get to many other places in the metro area quickly and easily. (I regularly used the subway, for example, to commute to my office downtown.)
I am a particular partisan of the Hollywood Bowl, our 17,500-seat outdoor amphitheater. Over the years I’ve spent a good bit of time at the Bowl … dining with friends in the boxes, at the Playboy Jazz Festival … at the Easter sunrise service … for Fourth of July fireworks … and to enjoy acts from around the world (my favorite thus far being Portuguese fado star Mariza). In operation since about 1920, the Bowl has presented a who’s who of artists including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, The Beatles, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Horowitz, and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
There is always a lot to do in L.A. One has to work hard to be bored. Los Angeles is an entertainment dream, which one would expect of a city where one in every six residents works in a creative industry. To gild the lily a bit, the University of Southern California’s Stevens Institute for Innovation asserts, “There are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers, and musicians living and working in L.A. than any other city at any time in the history of civilization.”
I believe it. There are more than 1,000 musical, theater, dance, and other performance troupes in town, as well as 54 annual film festivals. My own particular cultural passion is cinema, and I can easily reach just over 200 movie screens on foot from our house, including the posh ArcLight and the historic Grauman’s, El Capitain, Egyptian, and Cinerama Dome.
I haven’t counted them myself, but my sources tell me that we are blessed with more than 840 museums and art galleries … more museums per capita than any other city in the world. The cultural anchors are behemoths such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (just down the hill from our house), the Norton Simon Museum, the Huntington Library, and the Getty Trust‘s museums.
With an endowment of approximately US$ 5 billion, the Getty is the wealthiest art institution on Earth. When I moved to L.A., the Getty collection was housed in a Roman-style villa on 64 acres on a cliff above Malibu. The Getty Villa continues to house Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. In 1997, the rest of the extensive collections, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty’s extensive educational programs relocated to the new Getty Center on 110 acres atop a mountain in the Brentwood district of L.A., across from Bel Air.
I know from personal experience that there is a museum to suit every interest. In our immediate neighborhood, for example, there is the huge Petersen Automotive Museum, for which Dr McWaine has a special passion. I am particularly drawn to the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits because it is a “working” museum with active digs in the surrounding pits.
Among the other specialty museums that I like are the Travel Town train museum in Griffith Park (with dozens of actual engines and carriages) and the California Science Center. There are also Hollywood Boulevard treasures within walking distance of our house such as two wax museums, Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not museum, Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie museum, and the Max Factor make-up and costume museum.
L.A.’s outdoor entertainment offerings are equally extensive and diverse. There’s Disneyland … Universal Studios … Magic Mountain … Knotts Berry Farm … Hollywood Bowl … Queen Mary … Watts Towers … Santa Monica Pier amusement park … shopping along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills … the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica … the Venice oceanfront promenade, including the famous Muscle Beach outdoor gym … excursions to Catalina Island … and many dozens of miles of beaches.
One can also enjoy the outdoors by picking up one of the ubiquitous star maps and heading off on a celebrity safari. A less intrusive diversion is simply cruising the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Malibu, and other neighborhoods looking at the houses, which are a wonderful mix of architectural styles … of good taste and bad … of things glorious and horrifying, cozy and palatial.
Greater L.A. also has several zoos, aquariums, and arboretums. One of my favorite pastimes when home is tramping through the large Los Angeles Zoo in the hills of Griffith Park just past Universal Studios. I have visited the Zoo on average once a month since moving permanently to L.A. in 1986, and I first saw many of the animals when they were newborns. I am particularly fond of the snow leopards and the tigers, which I have watched grow through several generations. I am grateful to the L.A. Zoo and the San Diego Zoological Society to our south for the important work they do through their endangered species preservation programs.
Dr McWaine likes the Zoo but prefers to hike in the steep hills of Runyon Canyon, which is a large wild park full of native flora and fauna (including coyotes, deer, and the occasional mountain lion) just across from our house.
I sometimes go with him, and I very much enjoy the panoramic views of the city and coast from the top of the main trail.
This trip, though, I opted just to sit lazily on our back deck, watch the hikers on Runyon’s crest, and enjoy the red-tail hawks soaring above the canyon.
In addition to hiking, outdoor enthusiasts can readily indulge in the usual surfing, sailing, kayaking, rafting, skiing, snowboarding, dune riding, camping, flying, and other outdoor options, all of which are close at hand.
Personally, I am particularly fond of beach volleyball and of rollerblading the extensive bike paths that run along the oceanfront and the Los Angeles River. When I lived in Venice I rollerbladed all the time. (The beach lifestyle was so seductive that my motivation to go to work plummeted, which is why I moved to Hollywood after about 6 months.) I missed the opportunity this trip because I left my blades back in Wellington.
For those who prefer watching others sweat, there are by my count more than a dozen professional sports teams in L.A., including the glitzy Los Angeles Lakers, whose jerseys I see frequently in New Zealand as well as in Southern California. There are hundreds of collegiate teams including the gridiron powerhouse USC Trojans. Our most notable sports venues include the Rose Bowl, L.A. Memorial Coliseum, Staples Center, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita Race Track.
The Coliseum is particularly venerable, having twice hosted the Summer Olympic Games, in 1932 and 1984. In addition to being what first attracted me to Los Angeles, the 1984 Games are notable for turning a large profit and being the most financially successful in history. According to Wikipedia, the only other Olympic Games to turn a profit were … L.A. in 1932.
I am also very drawn to L.A.’s human diversity. The city is home to people from more than 150 countries speaking 226 different languages. Census statistics indicate that only about 42% of the population speaks English as a first language. A comparable number of residents speak Spanish as their first language, and there are large numbers of native Korean, Tagalog, Armenian, Chinese, and Persian speakers.
Ethnically, the metro area is about 40% Hispanic, 39% non-Hispanic Caucasian, 11% Asian, 8% African American, and 2% Pacific Islander and Native American. (Such statistics are sometimes difficult to parse because of definitional challenges when people are asked to self-identify, and because of the high incidence of what is still sometimes quaintly referred to as “inter-marriage.”)
My favorite statistic is that 31% of the current population of Los Angeles was born outside the United States. Another 21% of the current population – including me – was born in a State other than California. Dr McWaine likes to remind me that he is a native Californian. I’m an immigrant. And proud of it.
All religions known to modern humans are practiced in L.A. We are the largest Roman Catholic Archdiocese in the United States. Among us one can find critical masses of all denominations of Christianity and of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, Sufism, Shintoism, and many other faiths. Wikipedia reports that the city of Los Angeles is “home to the greatest variety of Buddhists in the world.”
On a brief historical note, the coastal areas of Los Angeles were first settled thousands of years ago by the Tongva and Chumash Native American tribes. The first Europeans arrived in 1542 when an expedition led by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed the area for the Spanish Empire but did not stay.
The revered Father Junipero Serra subsequently established several Christian missions in the area, and the town was officially founded in 1781 by a group of 44 settlers. Los Angeles’ culture of diversity was seeded at its founding – most of the original settlers were mestizo, of mixed European, Amerindian, and African ancestry.
Los Angeles became a part of Mexico in 1821 when the colonies of New Spain won independence from the Spanish Empire. Los Angeles and the rest of California became part of the United States in 1848 at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.
Los Angeles formally incorporated in April 1850, and California was elected to statehood just a few months later. Gold was discovered. Then oil. By 1923 Los Angeles was producing more than 25% of the world’s petroleum. One can still see oil wells in various parts of the city, including on the sidelines of Beverly Hills High School’s football field.
OK, lest you think I’m romanticizing, I’ll mention earthquakes, smog, wildfires, and mudslides … nature’s little reminders to Angelenos that nothing’s 100% pure or perfect.
Earthquakes are just part of the deal, as they are in my new home in New Zealand. Los Angeles sits on the other end of the Pacific ring of fire, above the leading edge where the Pacific and North American Plates move past each other. My friends at Cal Tech tell me that we have approximately 10,000 earthquakes each year. Some of those are big.
I was thrown from bed by the Whittier Narrows quake, my first big one, in 1987. Dr McWaine and I helped friends remove personal belongings from their collapsed home after the 1994 Northridge quake. The 800-pound gorilla remains the San Andreas Fault which runs through the desert just east of the city and is capable of producing the real “Big One” fictionalized in numerous disaster films. Fortunately, Southern California has the most sophisticated and strictly enforced seismic codes on the planet.
Given its topography and geography, Los Angeles is susceptible to a phenomenon known as atmospheric inversion which holds smoke and exhaust above the city. In addition, because there is so little rain, the air is not frequently cleaned by precipitation as it is in many other large cities.
The problem is not exclusively a modern one. Thousands of years ago the Chumash named the area the “valley of smoke” because the smoke from their campfires accumulated and lingered so long in the air. Fortunately, the State of California has been a trailblazer in limiting emissions, managing particulates, and establishing and preserving green belts. The result is clear blue skies much of the year.
Wildfires and mudslides are natural consequences of a dry climate and urban expansion into the foothills of mountain, forest, and wilderness areas. When a spark from lightning, a cigarette, a campfire, a fool, or an arsonist ignites dry brush, fire spreads quickly if not immediately extinguished.
In years when our rain comes all at once, burned or simply dry hillsides can become super-saturated, destabilize, and slide. We regularly have small slides in our neighborhood when rain is heavy. Fortunately, Southern California has strict fire and building codes, well-seasoned fire fighters, well-informed homeowners, and two centuries of practical experience swinging at Mother Nature’s seasonal curve balls.
As I said, all that is just part of the deal. And the deal’s a good one.
I guess what resonates most deeply with me is the sense of freedom and opportunity that Southern California exudes. No matter who you are or where you come from, you can do well here. You can fit in. Or not. You can be noticed. Or not. Your choice. The place is too large, diverse, dynamic, and, yes, chaotic to have a single hierarchy or orthodoxy. There is no “Los Angeles Inc.” suggesting what to think, what to say, or what to do. There is no script.
That dynamic is reflected in our politics. Greater L.A. contains some of the most conservative and some of the most progressive voters in the United States. We are a bit of a political idea-lab … whether it’s environmental activism, civil rights, tax revolts, libertarian initiatives of various sorts, or religious engagement in politics. California has a referendum and initiative system that makes it very – some say catastrophically – easy to put issues, budget items, potential laws, and even Constitutional amendments to a popular vote.
We Angelenos are always looking for ways to pull power and decision-making down to the grassroots level, where most of us believe it belongs. In 1999, for example, we voted to create Neighborhood Councils. My friend Joel Wachs first proposed the concept several years earlier as a way to increase public participation, better respond to neighborhood needs, and create a vibrant civic laboratory for new ideas.
The neighborhood councils are run by governing boards elected by folks who live, work, or own property in the particular community, and not just by full-time residents. From what I hear, there are now more than 90 neighborhood councils within the city. Each is allocated approximately $50,000 each year for local projects … a modest but powerful investment in empowering our communities.
Well, again, this post has gotten much longer than I intended. Sorry about that.
In closing, I will just say that I still remember my first day in Los Angeles. I rented a convertible and spent several hours very late that night cruising the city’s web of freeways at an elevated speed with the top down, the radio cranked up, and no idea where I was going. Feeling unleashed. Feeling alive.
More than 26 years later, I still get that same rush whenever I step onto terra angeleno. It must be love. I always breathe most deeply when I am home in Los Angeles … even when the wildfires are burning, the air is smoggy, or we happen to be getting all 10 or so inches of annual rainfall at one time.
Come visit. Feel the rush.