My Kind of Town: it’s been exhaustively described and documented, but LA’s still hard to pin down
I never thought Los Angeles would be my kind of town. I knew it long before I got there, since childhood, through the dismembered montage of images and narratives from TV and movie screens. It’s the most photographed city in the world, and yet still quite incomprehensible to me – a place “where the relation between realism and representation gets muddied”, as Thom Andersen says in his brilliant documentary ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’.
I’ve now visited every couple of years for a decade and I love it, though I still can’t put my finger on it. European responses are often either a fetishisation of its otherness, or a head-scratching “huh?”. When I find something confusing I just try to take it as it comes.
Embodied in some of those fragments are the best ways that cities connect to climate and topography: exquisite private houses that embrace the landscape, the nuclear light of the skies where a continent meets the ocean”
My first trips coincided with some drawings I was doing about London’s high streets, including one of a 51 kilometre stretch across London from Romford to Uxbridge. I thought about Ed Ruscha’s photographic books of Los Angeles. In 1965, he shot the entire 22 miles of Sunset Boulevard, from downtown to the ocean. I was interested in how we document places that are very ordinary, not to elevate them, but so that we might value them for what they are. Most of Los Angeles has a scruffy, unplanned anonymity comparable to London’s arterial high road.
I don’t think you can really know a place in its wholeness until you live there: to me, Los Angeles still exists in fragments. Embodied in some of those fragments are the best ways that cities connect to climate and topography: exquisite private houses that embrace the landscape, the nuclear light of the skies where a continent meets the ocean, fog that rolls off the sea, trails in the mountains. In other fragments, its opposite: detachment. The disconnection between unassuming, anonymous exteriors and surprise interiors brings creative freedom and possibility: to me LA is a perfect place to experience contemporary art (and, I’d imagine, to make it).
Alongside enjoyment is something more unsettling – a tension caused by soaring inequality. Extremely wealthy, self-parodying New York incomers gaze at an artwork of real chickens living in the yard of the beautifully reclaimed Hauser & Wirth gallery downtown, while poor and undocumented people live in tents on freeway verges, in underpasses and other messy fringes. The mobility promised by LA’s lush carscape of undulating freeways should not be mistaken for social mobility.
The mobility promised by LA’s lush carscape of undulating freeways should not be mistaken for social mobility”
I don’t drive, so on solo visits I’ve ridden the metro and the bus, and walked the uneven and often disappearing sidewalks. Not driving is still unusual, but less so. Reyner Banham noted, presciently, in his film about LA that, “the private car and the detached house will no longer be there… their day will come to an end”. Surprisingly to some, LA has urban areas like West Hollywood that are among the densest in the US. Like all great cities, it is evolving. There is more app-driven taxi-riding, cycling and metro-taking by the wealthy and socially mobile. This month the city’s metro bikes are free all month. Soon the metro will connect Santa Monica and downtown.
Describing a film by a black director in ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’, Thom Andersen says “Who knows the city? Only those who walk, only those who ride the bus. Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways. They say, ‘Nobody walks’; they mean no rich white people like us walk.”
In the wide roadways, beautiful climate and comfortable terrain of Los Angeles I see the possibility for other modes of movement. I’m excited to see how that change might impact the urban fabric and the public realm, because that is where a city becomes more human and equitable. The increasingly liberal, civic-minded Los Angeles barely even knows its own potential yet.