What is familiar is not understood precisely because it is familiar.
About 10 months ago I was walking home after work. I’d been spending a lot of time thinking about cities, mainly Los Angeles. I had been discontent with life in LA. Discontent because as a city LA wasn’t meeting my expectations. I felt disconnected, frenetic; trying to be part of something that seemed to stretch further into the horizon the more I moved forward. I couldn’t find my feet. I couldn’t find my feet because I didn’t understand what connected the city beyond my commute and Netflix.
I was in a rut and in that rut I imagined the accessibility of a city like London or Paris. I imagined hoping onto a subway (underground/metro, take your pick) and walking out into swathes of people, dressed, living, inspiring in their own pursuit of metropolitan life. All I saw in LA was traffic, shopping malls and not much more. Several years in LA and I hadn’t discovered myself in it. All I knew was the facade of cars, streets of limited height and the few destinations that I’d managed to discover, all of which had become routine.
We expect more from our cities. Us urbanites expect to self actualize in these environments. To some extent we expect the cities to do the work for us. Many cities do; in London there are many centers, all in a small space. You can easily walk from the Southbank; home of The British Film Institute, Tate Modern, National Theatre and Southbank Center to Trafalgar Square. Paris also is eminently walk-able.
Pop-Up shops, festivals and outdoor eating are fashionable and fun. Locally produced and homemade food draws crowds. People watching is rife; couples sit on stairs and fake lawns outside concert halls on Sunday afternoons in the summer. Areas like Kings Cross, previously one of the worst parts of London, now is being developed into one of the most fashionable areas to work and play; with these developments come crowds of people socializing in open spaces that come with the development.
In Paris’s summer the banks of the Seine crowds can be seen milling, drinking and walking. The social and creative lives of cities; the spaces that cities create for people to experience novelty, ideas or just watch breaks down an inward facing attitude. I wanted LA to do that for me.
It was dark and eerie quiet walking home on La Cienega, busy with cars at rush hour there was no distinction to the sound of cars. They may have sped in dozens, light streaking past in a kinetic frenzy. But at night, with no where to go but home they all look the same. With nothing to look at I was drawn inwards.
LA is a strange sort of city. If it wasn’t for the volume of people I wan’t sure it would qualify as one. Not in the metropolitan sense. Cities have an identity; there is a meaning to them that extends beyond the brick and mortar. Cities are a pursuit for a higher form of life. As pretentious as that may sound cities have drawn, for a long time, art, fashion, innovation and all in the pursuit of two things; money and culture.
Of course there is a dark side to these pursuits. Someone somewhere must work at the expense of the high-life. Historically cities have been hot-beds for poor planning, slums, factories that pollute the lungs of their workers and the inhabitants of those cities and the money that draws people in can spit them out.
But, there is another side to cities. What draws people together creates cross fertilization, both of ideas and expertise. With that comes innovation, new ideas, new cultures and an expansion in our lives. These aren’t just high-ideas. They have a direct impact on the ground, in the way we see and experience the world. People get together and when they do their lives improve. It might take time but, the general standard of living today is higher than it was before running water and a bathroom was a basic requirement.
Why do we care so much about cities? What’s the romance? I am excited about cities because they are a destination, they are a place where we can experience life, we can find life with other people. In one moment you can sit and listen to Bach by candlelight and in another watch people watching others in a park with a friend or loved one. You can feel a part of something bigger. I have lived in the countryside and it has magic. But, there is not the potential for dynamism that exists in the ideal city.
Cities are more than containers. They’re more than boxes and lines in between the boxes. They are the potential for action they contain. It’s that potential, realized that makes a city what it is. It is that everyday that determines who a city is.
Unlike London LA is a city of destinations. You can be a fantasy? Los Angeles is Hollywood, red carpet and light. It’s a destination for dreams, vague, uncertain dreams many of which get lost but, dreams all the same. It’s those dreams that can make Los Angeles such a sad city. Maybe it was the dark, maybe the end of a week. Either way the city seemed to reveal itself not as a hopeful location but, one that isolates. It’s dreams are left to destinations that are possible and those are destinations in physical space limited to what is known by those that know them. It is that aspect of Los Angeles that can make it feel closed.
The more inward-facing we become the more our experiences becomes a vacuum of past experiences. Novelty evaporates. That world becomes a magnification of the microscopic, the granular becomes a whole. In the sprawl of the everyday we lose sight of what dreams we had with the distance we knew when dreaming began.
There is paradox. In many cities, London or New York for example, much can feel closed. Getting ‘in’ is a challenge. But, those cities are open in another way. The freedom to move in the city is their freedom. But being closed off in those cities is social in as much as they have more of a rigid class structure. Ironically in a city like LA class is less the issue as is access.In Los Angeles movement is kept within strict boundaries by the roads that weave the city together. So walking about the city is what closes you off.
Distance is brought to light little movement, little play. Shadows brought no comfort to the neon which did less to sharpen the light. The city felt known, familiar, details I hadn’t noticed were seen and details I had become un-aquatinted with were novel again. But, at the same time the world felt closed in.
But, the city we live in is to large extent the city we make. Personal limitations aside there every city has its creative element, its culture, its values, practices and places to experience life. Cities to some extent are like old waterways peppered with villages; each village a haven for its own crowd, its own sense and its own culture and activities. It is our job within our cities to find or to make our villages along the meandering canals that cities have laid for us. But, it is the role of the city to provide the water through which we can travel and from which we can live. Cities that ignore their responsibility to make a place for living above and beyond a walk home from work are not cities; they are slums of many classes.
One way or another it was dark that night. The heatwave that had been the summer was ending. Drivers were driving somewhere, I don’t know where. Now, months later and after stint in London I look back and the contrast is clear. It is hard to apologize for LA. There is a lot to offer but, what it has is not obvious. As cities go LA is provincial; it’s not an urbanite city. It is villages strewn across highways. But, within those villages there is life and there are people brimming with ideas. The villages are also very close together. It is between those villages and their cultures that LA’s identity exists. It’s an easy place to dislike, but its also a somewhere where it is possible to find life.