Looking north from Sycamore Cove (2006)
On hot days in New York—and after eight months here, I’ve had a few—I remember California and its beach-salt smell mixing with pollution blowing over from Los Angeles. On the hottest day in my memory—during Labor Day weekend, 2007, a dry blast of heat that for sheer Fahrenheit beat out any Philippine swelter—I hopped into my little red Civic and drove up to Sycamore Cove, a dimple in the coastline past interminable Zuma but well south of Oxnard.
The cove is a vegetated place, with bushy-topped trunks popping out of the sand like truffula trees—very different from the denuded sands to the south, the nearly unbroken golden crescent stretching from Santa Monica through Venice Beach and beyond. On a normal day, there was space in the cove to stake out a shady spot and lay a beach towel. Labor Day wasn’t a normal day.
The beach had become essentially a fleshy carpet, swarming with bodies like a stomped anthill. The mingled breaths of a thousand tanners formed a mushy, CO2-heavy layer that muffled the lower atmosphere like a descending smog. Under this extra weight, the dimple collapsed into a cavity, a sinkhole, a pitfall. This was not an attractive—or hygienic—place to be. The state’s beaches are most appealing at their emptiest.
California’s cities are the opposite: they’re best when packed and busy. Without people—downtown on a weekend, Western or Wilshire at three in the morning—Los Angeles is a shell, like a plastic holiday egg cracked open and plundered. It’s flat and repetitive, a big sky country without nature. Its arteries run dry and hot as the concrete conduit of the LA River.
When I lived in California, the city limit sign for Los Angeles claimed three and a half million people. The rest of the county contributed over six million more—but unlike in New York, the population has an entire valley, and beyond, through which to distribute itself. The place sometimes felt like a tent city—a temporary dwelling for pop-up events, for shopping afternoons on Rodeo Drive and Hollywood weekends.
The periodic emptiness best suited the highways, which rise and swoop and curve through the city, a testament to the car culture on which Los Angeles is built. But you’d never recognize it during rush hour, when a mile of interstate lasts an hour.
Late at night, LA could still feel like a city of the future—lights shining up on the Getty’s hill, a haze (the neon kind unrelated to airborne particulate matter) settling over Hollywood, and wide, desolate streets. Speeding through the metropolis on a cool night is almost as good as cruising along the beach.
The daylight dispels the illusion and reveals Los Angeles for what it really is: a city rooted in the past, sepia filter fixed firmly in place. A billboard city, built against nature, fed by waters siphoned off to make green things grow in a desert. Designer sunglasses and imported palm trees.
But it has everything if you’re willing to look. In the middle of an otherwise dead downtown, I listened to a man play a harmonica secured around his neck, tambourine strung and ready, MUSIC IS LOVE printed in neat black capitals on his mic stand. It was a cherry blossom festival—hanami—but in LA’s Little Tokyo, the blossoms were rarer than hula dancers and martial artists. It was a cultural collaboration, which pretty well describes the entire city. It’s mostly incoherent and makes perfect sense.
It’s a cohesive place with a sensible grid, public facilities that mostly work, and constant construction and renovation to keep it from falling apart. From the harbor, Lower Manhattan looks like it’s already sinking under the water, but with LA ready to fall off into the sea with the next trembler, New York seems like a downright cautious city in comparison.
Lower Manhattan (2008)—it looks very different now with One World Trade Center loomingTwo ends of the country, two very different cities, mentalities, self-perceptions. And both of them stunningly diverse—the highest compliment a town can have.