I have a map of the United States that refers to every river, every city, every state, by what it means when translated from its original language into English. So, for instance, South Dakota becomes Southern Land of Friends, Wisconsin becomes Red River Land, and California becomes Land of the Successor (ominous!), to pick the three states I've lived in.
Most Americans have enough Spanish -- or know enough history -- to roughly translate "Los Angeles" as "The Angels." And that would more or less be accurate. But this map provides an alternate translation for my beloved, much maligned city that I have always found far more evocative: "The Messengers." I'm always put in mind of this when returning to the city from the north, along I-5, descending out of the mountains. The city sprawls out in front of you like a demented Lite Brite, and it feels like an impressive patchwork of signals. As you look down on it, you feel, for a moment, like you might be able to understand the pattern amid the noise.
Most people who live in Los Angeles, myself included, feel rather grudging about it much of the time. Yes, there are times when you're reminded of its bounty and its beauty. (For me, it's after a rain and in the handful of months around Christmastime, when the city becomes cool and livable, and the lights multiply.) But much of the rest of the time, you're worn down by the pleasant sameness of the weather, or the oppressive heat, or the traffic, or the superficiality of too many of the people, or take your pick. The city is too big. It sprawls in every direction. It uses too much water. For as much as it has tried to improve its environmental footprint, it still feels like the "Man's Hubris" portion of a triptych depicting the inevitable collapse of all things.
But I have lived in the Los Angeles area for over a decade, in Los Angeles County for almost as long, and in Downtown Los Angeles, in the heart of the beast, for just over a year, and I find it an easier place to love with every passing year. It is a city that sneaks up on you, that welcomes immense numbers of immigrant communities into its heart, makes them rub shoulders, then comes up with the weirdest fusion cuisines out of the whole experience.
There was a map going around in the wake of the election that said something to the effect of, "If you want to visit a foreign country, go to California, where over a quarter of the population was born somewhere else." To look at a map of Los Angeles is to see this plainly -- Koreatown and Little Tokyo and Thai Town and the remnants of older European immigrant neighborhoods. But just to walk down the street, past all manner of shops and all manner of people is to see it as well. For me, Los Angeles is a constant reminder that nothing is fixed, that all is capable of reinvention, that there's no food you can't make a taco out of.
I have been thinking a lot about the kind of world I want to live in and the kind of world I want to raise children in, should I someday be blessed with them. And for all its faults -- and there are many -- Los Angeles seems like a good starting point. The most popular stereotype of the city is that it uses people up. It draws them from all over the country with promises of fame and fortune, and after they've spent all of their money on drugs and realized they don't have the talent to [insert entertainment career here], they return, tail between their legs, to their little hometowns, a little more bitter and also a little wiser.
But the longer I'm here, the more I realize that that stereotype is wrong. Not everyone who comes to Los Angeles succeeds, but everyone who comes here will realize, if they stay for long enough, that the city doesn't use up. It forgives. It promises you an endless bounty, and, yes, you might waste yourself and your life trying to plumb that bounty's depths. But when you are finished, when you feel like you can dig no longer, the city -- and especially its people -- will surprise you, whether that's by offering you a hand when you need it most or just helping you discover the wonders of bacon wrapped hot dogs when you're down to your last couple of bucks and need a cheap meal.
I know Los Angeles has a bad rap. And it has a bad rap from basically everybody else I know, whether they live way out in the middle of the country or in the heart of Manhattan. "Gross," they say, or "Wow," or "Yikes," and then, always, "How could you live there?" They have different concerns. The country folks often want to know if I worry about crime a lot, and the New Yorkers can never entertain, for a second, the doubt that there might be a better city out there. (As a would-be New Yorker, I get it. I do.)
But I think, now, of Los Angeles, and California more generally, as a kind of prophecy. This is the place where the land stops, where the weather is nice, where you can sit down on the beach with a beer and a sandwich and some friends. This is a place that drew poor farmers with promises of jobs, and luckless kids with promises of stardom, and would-be celebrities with promises of parties unending. This is, God knows, not a perfect city, and sometimes a monster city, and sometimes a place that will hollow you out. But it's also a message to the world, a beacon into the sky, saying there's still room. Come and see.
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