Thoughts on Los Angeles, a City of Paradoxes

As I’ve walked and bussed my way through Los Angeles each day during my one month stay here, I have tried to piece together a narrative in my head on my feelings and observations about this city, never quite getting a grasp on my understanding of it. Tonight, on one of my last nights living here, this mental puzzle comes together a little more, and I write this post in an attempt to express my thoughts on Los Angeles and my experiences here.

Going by foot and transit in L.A. has given me the opportunity to interact with people and see the neighborhoods far better than if I had been driving a car. Exploring urban gardens and food initiatives as part of a personal project has given me an excuse to explore the city and witness amazing instances of people working together to fundamentally transform a place and its food system. And working from home and out of coffee shops on my website, Apple iPhone Review (my business and primary “job”), has made me feel embedded in an entrepreneurial and creative culture that thrives here in Los Angeles.

The Bus

After meeting up tonight on Melrose Ave for dinner with my aunt (who visited from Orange County), I later took the bus home from my sister and her boyfriend’s West Hollywood apartment to my temporary Hollywood studio.

While waiting at the bus stop on Fairfax Avenue around midnight, I stood by the street curb and looked off into the distance, watching the still-steady stream of cars make their way through the streets, like blood ceaselessly pulsing through the city veins.

I reflected on my time here and on my plans for when I get back home to Gainesville.

Finally, my bus arrives. Fifteen minutes late.

I board the bus and sit in an empty seat toward the front. I slide down one seat, away from the aisle, so that another passenger can use the outside seat if desired.

One stop later, a man boards the bus and chooses the seat beside me. I cross my arms and move my left leg inward a bit, so that it is not touching his. He crosses his arms, too.

I look out the window and think about how strange it is to sit two inches away from a fellow human being and never acknowledge each other at all. This has been my experience in L.A. People rarely interact in public here unless they know each other or are doing business.

For the most part it seems Los Angelenos don’t speak on the bus, and they don’t make eye contact when they pass each other on the sidewalks.

I can understand how someone new to the city might feel alone, when people here are mostly focused inward, on their own lives and careers, and do not often interact with strangers. But I found that in the general absence of public interaction, offering someone a smile, a “Hi!” or a “Thank you!” goes a long way to building a connection. Despite the isolationist public attitude in Los Angeles, people generally do treat you kindly if you engage them.

Disinterest in strangers aside, Los Angelenos are highly networked in their personal lives and careers.

Unquestionably, much of L.A. culture is about meeting people and working creatively together. I met more people than I can count who are involved in theatre, acting, or some kind of creative production. Many people endure low pay, odd hours and an extremely competitive job market only to do what they love. Before he left town for the month, the guy who sublet me his Hollywood studio, Vinny, invited me to a showing of Much Ado About Nothing, which he directed for the eighth annual Shakespeare in Santa Monica. Vinny is a 27-year old from northern California who has until this year survived on only a thespian’s income all his adult life. He is currently in New York City auditioning for a Broadway play.

The energy surrounding “The Industry,” as they call it here, is transferred to other pockets of Los Angeles, and the result is a large community of passionate people working to better the city and its neighborhoods.

One of the things I spent some time doing here is meeting people who are working on innovative food initiatives, some of which I’ve documented on Urban Food America. As it turns out, there are a lot of people in L.A. working on the types of “inspiring community food initiatives” that I wished to document on the blog.

As I sit on the bus tonight, I think about how even though I was put off by it at first, I appreciate the space that people generally give each other in public. When you are always surrounded by people, it is nice to have your thoughts to yourself.

Nevertheless, I had some interesting conversations with people on public transit, including most recently on the subway with a man apparently in his 50’s who had moved from Spokane, Washington to pursue an acting career. When I spoke with him, he was coming back from playing a part as an extra in a new Seth Rogen movie.

Comfort of Community vs. Anonymity of the City

One thing I struggle with in Gainesville sometimes is the smallness of the place. While I cherish Gainesville for its tight-knit, progressive community, it can feel suffocating at times. Don’t get me wrong, I love how after living there for five years, I can go anywhere and there is a likelihood that I’ll stumble upon someone I know and maybe say hi and talk, the type of encounter that rarely happened in Miami where I grew up. But I have to admit that sometimes the Miami kid in me wants to walk around and not be recognized by anyone. The opportunity to reinvent yourself each time you go out is alluring, but absent in small towns.

What is better, the comfort of community, or the anonymity of the city? Before coming to L.A. this month, I was craving the latter.

It turns out that L.A. offers a sense of comfort, too, with its many different niches and community initiatives.

As I approach my bus stop on Hollywood Blvd and Highland, I reach to pull the yellow cable, which not only signals the bus driver to stop, but tells the passenger sitting between you and the aisle that you are about to get up. Pulling the yellow bus cable would be the only sign of communication exchanged between me and the man next to me, except that he cheerfully says “You’re welcome,” when I thank him for getting up.

L.A. Paradox

In an email exchange I had with one Jason, a native Alabaman who now lives in L.A. and whom I met at the Micheltorena Elementary School community garden the first weekend I arrived, he told me: “L.A. is a funny paradox: angelinos love organic food but are in conflict with earthiness!”

This remark stuck with me throughout my stay because it rang true to me and aligned with a lot of my observations of the city.

The paradox that Jason mentioned has unfolded before me this month: While Los Angelenos ignore each other in public, they are usually friendly and enthusiastic in personal interactions. While L.A. can seem massive and impersonal, it is home to a diversity of small neighborhoods, many with active markets and communities. And while the city revolves around an industry that is admittedly vain and obsessed with celebrity, there is nevertheless a remarkable sense of altruism and desire to do things for the public good.

There is a Death Cab for Cutie song in Photo Album, one of my favorite music albums in high school, that paints a poetic, albeit pessimistic, portrayal of Los Angeles. Originally, the song gave me a negative impression of the city, especially because it reminded me somewhat of Miami.

It’s a lovely summer’s day
And I can almost see a skyline through a thickening shroud of egos.
(Is this the city of angels or demons?)
Here the names are what remain…
Stars encapsulate the gold lame
And they need constant cleaning for when the tourists begin salivating.

You can’t swim in a town this shallow – you will most assuredly drown tomorrow.

— “Why You’d Want to Live Here” by Death Cab for Cutie

Chasing Dreams

In the late 1800s, pioneers pushed westward to arrive at California, where the promise of not only gold, but fertile farmland, lay before them.

Without overlooking the current culture of vanity and waste in L.A., my own trip to the west coast revealed a place with an enduring pioneering spirit, a diversity of people, and an urban agricultural movement that promises to inform the future of food in this country.

While the Death Cab song “Why You’d Want to Live Here” (cited above) had previously guided my perception of L.A., now that I’ve lived here and seen another side, I have developed a fondness for this city that is hard to describe. The perceived vanity in this city is also a self-reflection and a desire to be and do better.

I will soon be California Dreaming.

Update: The next day, I saw a shooting star in the middle of Hollywood as I was walking home at the end of the night. It was another strange L.A. paradox, given the light pollution; yet fitting given the symbolic setting. I will never forget it.