It used to be that Los Angelenos were much too cool to express outright pride in their city, feeling that boosterism is for yahoos from the Midwest, but when I was there last week I got an earful about what a good place it is from friends who never said anything like that to me before. They always talked about choking traffic, the unreality of real estate prices, the sprawl, smog, blah blah blah, and now they were saying, "I couldn't live anyplace else."
The bright burst of civic feeling might have been due to the bad brush fires - it had been a very dry winter and spring - with a major blaze a month ago right in Griffith Park in the heart of the city. Eight hundred firefighters put that fire down and immediately became heroes to everybody, and it showed people how much they loved L.A., just like your mother's colon operation jolts you into reality.
Everybody knows the comedy version of L.A. - the celebrity-crazed city of skinny tanned women, cell phones in hand, driving Suburbans the size of personnel carriers at 80 mph taking a tiny child to the therapist to address self-esteem issues. Those jokes play well out in the flat parts of the country. A Midwesterner goes to L.A. and feels a certain sense of moral disapproval. The squalor, the opulence, the expense of natural resources to support middle-class life in an arid place, the fascination with the misshapen lives of young celebs. It isn't the Canaan it was for our grandparents. We look at it and see a run-down bungalow selling for a half-million and cars inching along the 405 and say, "No thanks."
But it's good to know there's another point of view. The sun does shine there, and people enjoy their lives - the spirit of "la pura vida," or the love of life for its own sake, the opposite of Calvinist America, as Randy Newman sings:
From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody's very happy
'Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day
I love L.A.
And then you run into extraordinary young people there who typify California, bright, motivated, disciplined, idealistic women and men who climb the slopes of academe and also surf and swim and play beach volleyball and who love the climate and nature and culture. It is more than ever a city of immigrants, the Europeans diminishing, the Rodriguezes and Jimenezes and Marquezes burgeoning. (Check out the phone book.) Immigrant culture isn't so pretty - you rent a cheap storefront, work 16-hour days, scrimp on landscaping, make your kids toe the mark - but there is dignity to it.
Unrestricted immigration is a dangerous thing - look at what happened to the Iroquois. They failed to impose border controls and before they knew it, they were dying of infectious diseases they had no names for. In the case of California, however, it was Spanish before it was English and now it's simply tending back that way.
I met up with a niece from Boston for dinner in L.A. who told me she was there for the first time in her life, so I did my uncle duty, got a car and took her for a spin as the sun was setting. We headed out on the Santa Monica Freeway toward the ocean and some faintly disparaging remark she made ("it goes on forever") inspired me to wind up and give her a pitch for Los Angeles, its gentle winters, its writers and musicians, its cosmopolitanism, its easygoing energies.
We walked along the beach in the dark, the Santa Monica pier glittering in the distance, and then we cruised some lush streets around UCLA, and headed east on Sunset Boulevard, the sunroof open, traffic juking and bopping around us, through a long canyon of bright lights, and then, looking for Melrose Avenue and the Paramount Studios with the classic front gate from "Sunset Boulevard," I lost my bearings and circled for a while in the dark, but it felt good to promote L.A. to an Easterner.
We live in a growly snarky time, heavy irony clacking everywhere like people walking around in tap shoes, and it's a privilege to speak up for a despised city. Seattle, sit down. New York, shut up. Vermont, this is not about you. You want to hear about New Jersey or North Dakota or Nebraska, just ask.