So Why Do We Live in L.A.?

Yes, there’s crime. And the traffic sucks. And the housing crisis is completely out of control. But for 60 years, Angelenos have battled even tougher problems (remember smog?) and always come out on top

60 years ago, when this magazine published its first issue, the tallest building in Los Angeles was our 28-story City Hall. There was no Beverly Center, no Grove, no Dolby Theatre, no L.A. Convention Center, no Disney Concert Hall, no Arena, and no office towers in Century City. The first office building on the former 20th Century Fox back lot wouldn’t open for another year—and that 13-story building would be torn down in 2015 as part of the area’s redevelopment of the Century City mall. Even the iconic Capitol Records Building in Hollywood—the reverentially nicknamed “House That Nat Built”—was only six years old.

In 1962, the Santa Monica Freeway barely extended west of Hoover Street in downtown L.A.; it would not reach La Cienega Boulevard until 1964 and Santa Monica itself until 1966. At Los Angeles International Airport, the infamous U-shaped roadway outside the terminals was only one level, serving both departures and arrivals, and the space-age Theme Building, which still serves as the visual shorthand for LAX, had been built just a year before. 

(Photo by Jon Woods/Valley Times Collection/Los Angeles Public Library)

At the time, the aerospace industry was still one of the biggest employers in Los Angeles. Flying high on the space program, the Cold War, Caltech, the Rand Corporation, and the full complement of airplane manufacturers who helped America win World War II, the city was alternately boosted as the Detroit of the jet age, and/or the West Coast epicenter of the military-industrial complex.

On April 10th, 1962, the Dodgers played their first game in the newly built Dodger Stadium, whose construction erased three (then so-called) “Mexican” neighborhoods from Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers lost the opening game to the Cincinnati Reds by a score of six to three. In November of that year, the governor, Edmund G. Brown, announced that California had passed New York to become America’s most populous state. It was estimated that domestic migration alone was adding close to 1,000 new California residents every day.

(Photo by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004. R. 10))

And, finally, it’s worth noting that, in the 1960 census breakdown of L.A.’s population by race and ethnicity, there were separate categories for white and Black residents, but no category at all for Hispanic or Spanish speakers. And our Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Vietnamese residents were all lumped together as “Asian or Pacific Islander.”

Clearly, we are not the same city we were 60 years ago. Still, I can’t help but point out some ironic similarities: In both 1962 and 2022, West Side Story was nominated for multiple Oscars at the Academy Awards. While we’re still grappling with COVID-19 vaccinations for schoolchildren in 2022, back then, there were citywide “Sabin Sundays” for students to receive Dr. Albert Sabin’s newly approved sugar-cube vaccines for the polio epidemic. And where the world held its breath in October 1962 in fear of Nikita Khrushchev starting a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, well, now we’ve got Putin and Ukraine. 

Mark Twain was right: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

(Photo courtesy of Caruso)

ALL TOO OFTEN these days, when the national media—or the broadcast punditocracy—talk about L.A., they tend to portray the city as a lawless, red-carpeted dystopia, headed down a 12-lane highway to hell. On the one hand, that’s a different approach from the usual “Let’s see what vapid trends the lunatics in L.A. are up to,” which typically involves a high-speed car chase or someone who’s established a cult worshipping rocks in a hot tub in Topanga Canyon. But on the other hand, let’s just cop to it and get this over with quickly: Yes, the traffic is miserable, crime is up, the homeless situation is an indictment of our culture, the school system has been accused of failing our children, and that’s before you get to the fires, the drought, and the lack of affordable housing.

I’m not dismissing or downplaying any of this—it’s all urgent. But you know what? Every major American city is beset by one or more of these problems today, and, in that regard, we’re not that special.

And yet with each passing day, there’s progress on the four major rail projects in Los Angeles—like the Compton to LAX line or the subway tunneling under Wilshire—that will one day change the nature of transportation in L.A.

With each passing day, there’s progress on the new LAX itself, which will finally drag our namesake airport into the twenty-first century in time for the 2028 Olympics.

With each passing day, the streaming revolution continues to remake Hollywood and Culver City with new office buildings, new soundstages, new hotels, restaurants, and housing. In Inglewood, the SoFi Stadium and Super Bowl–winning Rams have introduced a new playbook to the neighborhood. 

In Venice and Playa del Rey, the military-industrial complex has been supplanted by the social media–industrial complex, with the influencers and podcasters of YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is set to open next door to the L.A. Coliseum in 2023, not all that far from our new, burgeoning Arts District. And at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue—atop the purple D Line subway station scheduled to open in 2024 and just down the block from the new LACMA galleries that will soon be bridging their way across Wilshire—it’s possible to envision what may one day be L.A.’s next big tourist attraction, where you’ll be able to experience all the facets of our city’s culture in a few short blocks: Hollywood at the Academy Museum,  car culture at the Petersen Automotive Museum, the L.A. art world at LACMA, and, finally, at the reimagined La Brea Tar Pits, the woolly mammoths who got here before the rest of us.

Many years ago, in his famous essay “Here is New York,” E. B. White wrote, “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” If there’s a Southern California corollary, I would proffer this: No one should live in Los Angeles unless he or she  is willing to be optimistic.

All of which is why, with each and every passing day, in neighborhood community meetings and Zoom conference calls, L.A. residents are gearing up for the next election, where the imperative is to vote in a new mayor who’ll find a humane way to deal with crime, who has the skill set to house the unhoused for less than $850,000 per unit, and who can provide leadership that won’t confuse empty platitudes with real progress and achievement. 

The road to progress is long. It twists and turns and dives and doubles back on itself like Mulholland Drive. It’s also slow. Too slow. But you can’t thrive here without having the faith that, sooner or later, we’ll make the imaginary Los Angeles—where justice and progress prevail—the real one. 

MANY YEARS AGO, when I first moved here, I thought the entertainment business was the center of the Los Angeles universe. I had no sense of the fashion, jewelry, or manufacturing industries; I had no idea of the number of people employed in academia, medicine, law, construction, engineering, or just building cars. (Your locally grown Tesla is assembled in a factory that once turned out cars for GM and Toyota.) 

It took time, marriage, children, and home ownership to change the way I thought about the city—along with, perhaps, spending too much time during the pandemic at the Home Depot near MacArthur Park and at the Los Feliz Costco. But there is one night, early on in my years here, that still stays with me. I was having dinner with a group of friends—and a famous-for-that-moment writer-director—at a long-since-closed nightclub called Helena’s near downtown. Hearing that I drove a Jeep Wrangler, the writer-director decided to make me the evening’s object of ridicule. 

“A Jeep?” he demanded. “What kind of jackass needs a Jeep in L.A.? What are you planning to do? Go big-game hunting on the savannah in Bel-Air?”

Hearing this, I was flummoxed. I admired the man. The best half-hearted retort I could muster was something to the effect of, “Have you driven on the roads in the Hollywood Hills lately? You need an off-road vehicle.” 

Pathetic? Yes. But when I got home later that night, in a moment of clarity that the French call l’esprit de l’escalier—“the wit of the staircase”—I realized exactly what I should have replied: “Why do I drive a Jeep? Because I like it.” For me, that simple four-word sentiment has been the key to life in L.A. ever since. 

Los Angeles is a city where you are free to pursue your career, your quirks, your hobbies, and your pastimes without snark or judgment or ridicule. Why do you surf? Because I like it. Why do you hike in the mountains or run through the hills or do tae kwon do, Pilates, or yoga, or play mah-jongg or go ballroom dancing? Because I like it. Why are you obsessed with the Lakers, the Clippers, swap meets, food trucks, the L.A. Philharmonic, and turning wrenches on lowriders? Because I like it. Why do you paint? Why do you garden? Why do you play in a rock band? Why do you join a book club, why do you study cooking, why do you dress as if you’re in the Tour de France and ride in bicycle packs through Santa Monica on Sunday mornings? Why do you pump iron on Venice Beach? Because I like it. Why do you DJ? Why do you write screenplays? Why do you write songs and poetry? Why do you buy vinyl records at a small record shop in Manchester? Why do hundreds of men play in amateur soccer leagues every night across the city? Why do amateur astronomers lug their precious telescopes up to the lawn at Griffith Park once a month and encourage young kids to look at the stars? Why do you go to church? Why do you donate to charities? Why do you volunteer your time? Because I like it.

As you look across America these days, it’s impossible to miss the darkness descending on states like Florida, with its  “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and Texas, with restrictive women’s reproductive rights legislation. When Disney planned to relocate a creative unit to Orlando, the Wall Street Journal quoted a senior Disney executive arguing against it, saying, “The company can’t ‘create terrific content’ without staffers ‘feeling supported and safe when you come to work.’ ” To which we say, Come home. At our very best, twenty-first-century Los Angeles will always strive to be a citadel of tolerance, a shining beacon of hope and optimism. 

After 60 years of chronicling the ups and downs of life in Los Angeles, this magazine remains as positive about the future as it was on day one. Why? Picture, if you will, the perfect summer sunset in the City of Angels—that breathtaking, almost spiritual moment when the sunlight bathes you in gold and the scattering of thin clouds so high in the sky turn pink and orange against the deep blue heavens. And now ask yourself, Why are you here? Why do you care so much and remain so invested and hopeful about the future of our city?

Why? Because we like it.

Read more coverage from Los Angeles magazine’s special 60th Anniversary Issue:

60 Ways That L.A. Changed the World

The Players: An Exclusive 60th Anniversary Photo Portfolio of the City’s Brightest Stars

Editor’s Note: Maer Roshan’s Special Tribute to LA Mag’s Legacy

(Illustrated by Justin Metz)

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