Among the things I enjoy most about blogging is sharing vignettes of real American life and my vast, wildly diverse, beautiful, inventive, enterprising, big-hearted, complex, consequential, unruly homeland. An inherently pluralistic work-in-progress, it can’t be summarized or stereotyped, mightily as some folks try. So, I’ve written about genuine American topics as diverse as Iowa, Manhattan, Pago Pago, epic trails, muscle cars, jazz, hula, Eleanor Roosevelt, hip hop, Neil Armstrong, Native American dance, road trips, drug diversion courts, rodeos …
… religious freedom, the Peace Corps, Special Olympics, multilateralism, civil society, Declaration of Independence, Presidential elections, internet, baseball, football, NASA, national parks, Pearl Harbor, defense of the Pacific, Stonewall, Marine Corps history, Mars exploration, Olympic rugby, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvard, dozens of other great American universities and travel destinations, and much more. Amidst that blizzard of authenticity, one of the most fun pieces to write was the two-parter about my hometown of Los Angeles.
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For more than a decade my work has involved frequent travel, and I have periodically lived overseas for extended periods of time. However long or short my absence or exciting my trip, I am always thrilled to arrive back home in Los Angeles.
My current visit has been no exception. Despite the lengthy series of flights and the usual indignities and inconveniences of air travel, I stepped off my flight at 6:35 a.m. with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I breathed in and exhaled deeply, and slipped easily back into L.A. life … morning rush hour … several meetings in different parts of the city … a Baja burrito for lunch … a movie on Hollywood Boulevard …
… fussing over our olive and lemon trees … scanning the unfenced wild back slope of our property for signs of our resident family of deer … dinner at Fabiolus, our friend Fabio’s Italian bistro on Sunset Boulevard … a foray to stock up on supplies from one of the four large 24-hour supermarkets within walking distance of our house … treating myself to frozen yogurt with lots of blueberries at Pinkberry … unpacking.
The next day I visited the U.S. Commercial Service’s West Los Angeles Export Center and held discussions with the fine folks who work there. I had a vegan lunch in West Hollywood with an elder of the Samoan community. A couple more appointments followed, and I ended the workday meeting with a young Angeleno artist, Nathan Huff, whom we will be bringing to New Zealand shortly for a curation exchange project that I’m working on.
Then Dr McWaine and I drove the 90 minutes up to Ventura to see our great friends Vana and Kevin and their canine companions Sebastian and Wilson. We all ended up at Joe, Mary, Amanda, and Gianna’s house in Camarillo for a fine dinner of homemade pizza from Joe’s outdoor brick pizza oven.
I spent the next day with the Samoan diaspora in Southern California. I drove the hour down to California State University, Long Beach for a 2-hour roundtable discussion with a dozen dynamic Samoan students representing various local groups, including the University’s Pacific Islanders Association.
We had a lively conversation about civic engagement, volunteerism, exchange programs, and multiculturalism. We brainstormed about how the students could develop projects that would increase educational opportunities and enhance quality of life back in Samoa. We also talked at length about how the students could become community ambassadors and plug into the work that our Embassy in Apia is doing.
The student discussion spilled into lunch. After lunch I met with several members of the Samoan business community to discuss trade opportunities, small business development issues, and related topics. After that I drove from Long Beach to Wilmington for a discussion with Samoan ministers and other elders, and then a larger community town hall meeting.
The instructive and productive (for me) day ended wonderfully with a traditional sua and feast at the First Christian Church of Wilmington. I am very grateful to Val LiHang-Jacobo, Pastor Earle Anesi, and Papali’i David Cohen for all their work in putting together such a broad and dynamic schedule for me.
The next couple of days were filled with meetings largely focused on educational institutions in the L.A. area. For example, I spent a productive afternoon at the University of Southern California where I met with various professors, the Dean of the Law School, and the Director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School. I came away from the meetings with a barge-load of interesting ideas and new contacts that should enhance our work at the Embassy. Plus, the bouncing around the metro area reminded me of the many reasons I love living in Los Angeles.
I first set eyes on Los Angeles in 1984 when I spent one of my law school summers as an intern at a law firm there. Frankly, I had no intention of moving to Los Angeles after graduation, and I just thought it would be fun to visit the city during the Olympic Games. To my surprise, I fell in love at first exposure to L.A. … an immense, dynamic, willful, wildly diverse, explosively creative, improbably beautiful, protean polyglot reveling unselfconsciously in its own natural eccentricity and instinctive iconoclasm. A perfect fit.
The City of Los Angeles – with the full birthname El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (The Village of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the River of Porziuncola) – is 498 square miles (1,291 square kilometers) in size and contains approximately 4.2 million people. For those interested in economics, it’s a dynamo. In 2008 Forbes named L.A. the world’s 8th most economically powerful city.
The Greater Los Angeles metro area covers five counties – Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernardino – and contains more than 23 million people. With an annual economy of about $850 billion, this megacity is an economic powerhouse that ranks as the third largest metropolitan economy in the world, behind the Greater Tokyo and New York metro areas. If it were to secede from the United States, the L.A. metro area would be the 12th largest national economy on Earth, ahead of countries such as the Netherlands and Indonesia.
From afar the most visible component of the economy is Hollywood … widely loved, widely loathed, universally coveted, obsessively followed Hollywood … the epicenter of Earth’s motion picture industry.
Creativity and innovation in L.A., however, have not been limited to the entertainment sectors.
L.A. has historically been a center of aerospace research and development, and it has vibrant biotech, pharma, renewable energy, hardware, software, CGI, and other technology-based industries. Techie friends of mine tell me that L.A. has a claim to being the birthplace of the internet because the first Arpanet transmission was sent from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1969.
Driving innovation are numerous corporate R&D centers and an extensive higher education network. There are more than 4 dozen universities and colleges in the metro area, including the world-class behemoths University of Southern California (where I taught law school and where Dr McWaine went to medical school), UCLA (where Dr McWaine taught clinical psychiatry), Cal Tech, and University of California, Irvine.
What most attracted me to L.A., though, was not its economic engine but its natural beauty. The city runs from the wide sandy beaches of the Pacific to snow-capped mountains just east of the downtown business core to the edge of the glorious Mohave Desert … from 9 feet (3 meters) below sea level in Wilmington to 11,500 feet (3,505 meters) at the top of Mount San Gorgonio.
We in L.A. are blessed with a Mediterranean climate … annual average daytime temperatures of just above 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius), more than 3,300 hours of sunshine per year, and only between 7 and 15 inches (180 – 384 mm) of rain per year. The mountains within the city limits receive snowfall every winter.
So … what do Angelenos do besides stoke their economy and enjoy the sunshine?
I’ll let you know in my next post. I have to sign off now and get dressed for New Year’s Eve dinner. I don’t want to end 2010 on the wrong foot.
Again, Dr McWaine and I wish you and yours the very Happiest of New Years.
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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.