Here is a fact about me: I love big cities, they make me feel alive. It may be because I grew up in one. I never feel alone in a big city. The the crowded streets, the buzzing cafés, the big flashing billboards give me the sense of being part of something big. I like women dressed up in trench coats and high heels waiting for the metro and men wearing suits and ties reading the newspaper. There is always the pressure of dressing, of presenting yourself in a big metropolis. Everybody seems to pay utmost attention to aesthetics. Not everybody may be trend driven, but not many New Yorkers will be seen in yoga pants and bulky sweatshirts.
My first encounter with a big metropolis was in 1988 in Rome, perhaps the most beautiful and breathtaking city in Europe. We were on our way to California emigrating from Romania and had to stop in Italy for three weeks. Rome was like Paradise: the vibrancy of the streets, the historical sites, the opulence of the stores, it all seemed like a dream. I could never forget those days in Rome when we seemed to be walking on clouds. No matter how many times we returned to the Eternal City after that, we were never able to re-create the magic.
We all have pre-conceived notions and perceptions about different places. 25 years ago when we moved to L.A. I thought we would be moving to a big metropolis with vibrant, walkable neighborhoods and modern public transportation. But to my surprise we landed in an endless urban sprawl. As far as the eye could see cheap small businesses were lining up the streets of the old suburbs with little or no character. The downtown area seemed ghostly and unfriendly, with no bustle or charm, with no impressive skyline, no stylish shop fronts or cafés, and no urban public transportation. Even the beaches – the essence of California – were just long stretches of sand, plain-looking and abandoned. Coming from Rome, my disappointment was even bigger.
Los Angeles didn’t look anything like a real city, a big metropolis. I was so sad and baffled. Yes, there were some nice areas, but nothing like the big and alluring European cities.
The Absence of Public Transportation
Nobody walks in Los Angeles. There are some areas in downtown where you can walk for a few blocks, but that’s about it. So in the absence of a city center with purpose-built pedestrian streets and interconnected avenues, there is actually no urban public transportation. There is a Metrolink commuter rail train and some bus lines that provide long-distance connections, but nothing in the sense of a metropolitan public transportation. In London, or San Francisco, or New York, or any other city on this planet, going out means either walking/taking public transportation to a concert or a club, then maybe taking a cab back home. But in Los Angeles even cabs are scarce. Everyone here drives their own car, because getting anywhere is practically a commute. You drive to work, you drive to the movies, you drive to the mall, you drive to the restaurant, you drive to your friend’s house. You drive even for a loaf of bread, because there are no bakeries or convenience stores in the residential areas.
The good part of driving is that you don’t have to rub elbows with anybody, you don’t have to wait for the bus, or smell anybody’s sweat. You sit comfortably in your car and listen to the radio, or to your own thoughts. The bad part of driving is that it drives you away from people. You don’t get to meet or to talk to anybody on the way. Occasionally, when you are indoor own neighborhood, you’ll wave at your neighbors as they drive by in their cars too.
Fashion in L.A.
The most disappointing thing for me in L.A. was fashion. People here don’t dress up. They alternate between jeans, sweat shirts and tennis shoes in winter, or shorts, tee shirts and flip flops in summer. Nobody cares about fancy cloths and “elegance” has no room in their wardrobe. They don’t bother to dress up even for church, or parties, or cultural events. It took me a while to understand why, but in the end I had to cut them some slack for it. When a third of your time is spent behind the wheel you lose the incentive of looking attractive. Nobody sees you anyway, why bother? So after a while you stop dressing up, or using make-up and cologne. And in time, no matter how big of a fashionista you used to be, jeans, sweatshirts and comfortable shoes become the norm.
Why Should You Live in L.A.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that although we live in a big city, our life is actually very remote and laid back. As the years passed, I realized that aside from the shortcomings there are some great advantages to living in Los Angeles. Wonderful weather is one of them. There are only a handful of places on this planet where you can count on weather and L.A. is one of them. The second big advantage derives precisely from the city’s big sprawl. Los Angeles is a conglomerate of little towns and suburbs very different from each other. You can change the scenery in a very short time without actually leaving the city. From where we live it takes about an hour to reach the nearest ski resort and about 45 minutes to get to the closest beach.
You can choose to live closer to the mountains, in areas like Glendale or Pasadena, or closer to the Mojave Desert in Santa Clarita or San Gabriel Valley, or you may choose to live next to the ocean, in areas like Santa Monica or Long Beach. These towns are not only self-sufficient, but also outstandingly beautiful and very complex offering everything from good shopping and fancy restaurants, to great entertainment.
One of the biggest advantages of living in L.A. is the city’s artistic and cultural life. But unlike in San Francisco or other big cities where everything is out in the open, Los Angeles is hard to discover. There may be an excellent restaurant tucked in that boring neighborhood you drive by everyday, but unless somebody takes you there you may never find it. There may be a great artistic event coming up in town, but unless you read the right newspapers or listen to the proper radio stations you are not going to hear about it. Two absolutely unique events in this city –the Rose Parade in Pasadena and The Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach– are largely unknown to the vast majority of Angelenos.
Traveling to Los Angeles
Los Angeles is not an easy travel destination either. Unless you know somebody in the area, or educate yourself thoroughly in advance, you will most likely miss a lot. Since public transportation does not exist, you’ll have to come prepared to drive. And driving in Los Angeles is not a piece of cake.
Since 1989 when we moved to California, Los Angeles has changed a lot but not in essence. The small ugly businesses have been replaced by big shopping malls and fancy boutiques. New European style restaurants and cafés appeared in the suburbs. Grandiose structures have been erected in downtown area, and a metro rail system has been built. But Los Angeles is still no London, or Paris, or New York and it will never be. As for me, I still love big metropolitan areas, but in time Los Angeles became my home and as much as I disliked it in the beginning I would have a very hard time leaving it now.