Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The state of California -- I

I won't try your patience by putting it all in one posting. Here, I'll talk about the general environment and a few experiences in the areas my wife and I visited or passed through, Los Angeles to San Francisco and back again. (The trip has a day and a half to go yet as I begin this entry, in the lobby of the Ambrose Hotel in Santa Monica.)

Break, break. Yes, I know California is much more than the southern and central coast. Other areas are different and also California. Still, let's not be pedantic. When people talk about California, the epicenter of everything that's new and cool, a state of mind, this is what they mean.

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Nature continues to play a starring role (show biz metaphors are unavoidable here) in the California experience. Even the big cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are near or on large bodies of water; mountains define the other horizons. The country -- and there is still plenty of it left, even though sprawl has sent raiding parties far from every town -- claims your mind.

One reason that the state hasn't yet been paved over is wine. I was amazed to see how much of the area between LA and SF is now devoted to the vine. Fields that used to grow artichokes or went uncultivated are now hustling to produce the grape. I read that California wineries numbered a thousand in 1990, now four thousand. Boutique vineyards abound, and you can taste your way to oenophile heaven if you so desire. California even has, like France, its own "appellations" such as Monterey and Arroyo Seco. For many people the enjoyment seems to be in the talking as much as the drinking, and they'll bang on about "artisan wines," "dry-farmed organic grapes," "controlled tonnage and canopy management," soil rich in "crushed fossilized sea shells." Whatever. Seems to me it's gilding the lily and making a Heidelberg philosophy discipline out of one of life's simple pleasures.

Along the central coast, wave-branched California Live Oaks dot the hills. Here in the south, the landscaping does a good imitation of the tropics, even though most of the exotic flora have been transplanted. Red-purple sparks of bougainvillea blossoms leap from walls, feathery fronds of royal palms catch the breeze. Grandes allées of stately eucalyptus wait patiently for koala bears from their Australian ancestral home to sup on their silvery leaves. The sun falls on the just and the unjust alike, butters the stucco walls, puts a fairy tale sheen on even the big glass high-rises.

Of course, although it goes against the "green" ideology so prevalent here, nature is not necessarily a friend to man. It is morally neutral, the Hindu trinity in one: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva the Destroyer.

Shiva was having a field day. Quite a bit of Southern California was being eaten by fire while I was there. I didn't see the fires themselves, but an ominous blanket of smoke hung in the sky. If a big earthquake had happened to show up at the same time as the fires, the consequences would have been unthinkable. I've also been in Los Angeles when it was raining like stair rods for days on end, the kind of rain that sends five-million dollar houses sliding down hillsides to deconstruct one-million dollar houses below, where the peasants live.

Californians will continue to build where expertise and common sense insist they shouldn't. It is foolish. But also a sign of an unquenchable optimism and faith that the western edge of North America nurtures.

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A tale of two cities.

I ought to detest Los Angeles. There are more things wrong with it than I have time to write or you to read. Traffic -- farewell the tranquil mind. Worship of over-amped celebrities. Obsession with fashion. Media hype.

All of that is there, but it's by no means the whole story. There are still plenty of Angelinos who have both feet on the ground. And there's more artistic talent and creativity per capita than anywhere else in the country, or probably the world. It certainly isn't always used to good ends, but there is an undeniable buzz to the place that can open your senses wide. There's even -- so help me -- creative retailing. About five blocks of Melrose Avenue are lined with wacky, one-of-a-kind independent shops, thumbing their noses at the malls and chain stores.

Even the fashion consciousness has its upside. There is no place I know of better for people watching. Contrary to the stereotype, it isn't about big sunglasses and tons of jewelry -- that's for Las Vegas and New York's Upper East Side. LA women tend to be almost Parisian in their abundance of chic -- that sense of style that enables them to make the most of their assets through the personal, even slightly eccentric, touch.

For an enormous city, its citizens are surprisingly pleasant in day-to-day interactions. I don't think all of it is acting for commercial purposes. In Santa Monica, a municipal grounds keeper astonished me by saying "Excuse me" as I passed while he swept the pavement.

To be sure, I am talking here mainly about the tony West Side, from West Hollywood to the ocean. There are parts of the city to be avoided, where the welcome is unlikely to be warm. Still, it seemed to me that many Angelinos were taking enough pleasure in life to have a little to spare for others. They are by nature positive and optimistic ... a good thing, because with all the stress in their environment, they need to be.

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San Francisco is everybody's favorite city. Except mine. I think it's a cold (in more senses than one), second-rate tourist catchment area.

True, the natural setting is extraordinary, bounded by the ocean, the bay, the mountains. Looking down the roller-coaster streets from Pacific Heights can be breathtaking. And ... and ... well, that about sums up San Francisco's virtues.

Once it was exotic and bohemian. In the '60s and '70s it sold out to corporations and tourism, and -- I was about to write, "never looked back," but looking back is mainly what it does, selling nostalgia for something that is gone. North Beach? Give me a break. Sure, there are still Italian restaurants, real authentic, like, with like cute names and laminated menus, where you can sink $80 on a bottle of wine and feel yourself, like, a connoisseur. Some have pitchmen out in front to lure the tourists, which even in the '60s would have been considered brazenly offensive. The three or four remaining beat hangouts have a few old timers playing at being "characters" and sharing the space with tourists and kids from the suburbs sniffing the air for "atmosphere." There's also a Beat Museum -- that'll be ten dollars, please, don't miss the jar top Jack Kerouac used as an ashtray on May 17, 1955.

Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where I put in time during my mis-spent youth, is now downright seedy. There's nothing indigenous about it, like there was in my time. Just the trappings of commercialized rebellion -- stores selling T-shirts printed with rock album covers and naughty messages, tattooing (although tattooing is so last year: the cool thing now is getting designs hennaed on your skin), punk jewelry and costumes, tacos and other foodstuffs from the world's authentic people. Everybody drives cars, including fancy new models, but they've put concrete barriers on residential streets to make you detour -- it symbolizes Berkeleyans' disdain for the automobile and Big Oil, while doing nothing whatever to reduce traffic, since it just means the cars in the blockaded streets must be force fed into others. The barriers themselves are concrete bollards, made even more ugly by the inevitable spray painting.

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I do not find San Franciscans, as a rule, friendly. They are all in a hurry. They are squeezed together in some of the densest real estate this side of Hong Kong, and you are just another person in the queue, another one in the way. Like New Yorkers, they talk too loudly in restaurants.

San Franciscans imagine that they stand for culture, as opposed to those vulgarians down in -- gah -- LA. They are wrong. My wife and I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, an art museum ("world class" according to the publicity) in a justifiably renowned setting in a park near the bay. It has been completely renovated since I was there last, but it still has the same third-rate collection, almost its only standouts a couple of Watteaus, three typically exquisite Fantin-Latours, and a splendid Courbet. Lots of Rodin sculptures if that turns you on; it doesn't me. Otherwise, miles of Baroque hackwork.

There wasn't time to see the rebuilt De Young, but I would bet its collection too is as mediocre as it used to be. (Greater Los Angeles has five art museums that beat San Francisco's all hollow: LACMA, the two Gettys, the Huntington, and the Norton Simon in Pasadena.)

What was I doing in San Francisco in the first place, since I had lived there and already knew what to expect? My wife had never been and wanted to see it. She did. By the end of the second day she had caught on and was ready to split. We left a day earlier than planned, to my relief.

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A tale of two museums.

The aquarium at Monterey is probably the biggest tourist draw anywhere between LA and SF, understandably. It has two huge tanks, one for shore marine life, another for ocean life. Very impressive.

I guess I'm a born sourpuss, though, because I get sick of having everything explained over and over, in signs (English/Spanish, natch), videos, lectures. When did museums become classrooms? Maybe when classrooms became political indoctrination centers and stopped teaching. The true purpose of a museum should be to engage the viewer's interest. Places like the Monterey aquarium leave nothing to the imagination. They tell you more than you can possibly absorb and keep diverting you from the wonder of the life forms on display.

Of course the aquarium is also an indoctrination center. You are warned over and over about the potential loss of species, global warming drying up shore habitats, etc. There is even a life-size reproduction of a restaurant where filmed characters enact customers and waiters, and you learn what seafood to order and what not to order because it's supposedly endangered. I can accept that a little bit of environmental education is a legitimate function of an aquarium, but all this goes way over the top. Incidentally, the towel dispensers in the rest room have signs that read: TOWEL = TREE. Hey, did you know that? The Dictatorship of Virtue. Pu-lease!

Let me end on an up note. The Getty Malibu, a spectacular and occasionally scandal-ridden museum of antiquity, reopened last year after a five-year rebuilding and redesign. I'm happy to say the museum got it right. The exhibits are beautifully displayed and lit, with just the right amount of information about each (i.e., presumed date, subject, and occasionally a little about the use to which it was probably put). No video whoop-de-doo. No touchy-feely exhibits. Two marvelously painted and landscaped peristyles, or open spaces surrounded by colonnades like in an ancient Italian domus.

Plus a reasonably priced cafe with some of the best food we had on the trip.

California at its best.

In the next (probably) posting, I'll have more to say about the politics and sociology of the state.

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Pastorius said...

I live in the Los Angeles area. I love it here. I spend a lot of time in the areas that you partook of. I believe you described it very well.

It makes me happy to see that you like LA as much as many of us do who live here.

Thing is, many who come to LA want to dislike it, and as you note, there is much to dislike. But, man, the stuff there is to like is to love.

And, you're right about the women. They are Parisian in the simplicity of their fashion, and the almost inerring perfection of their bodies. Especially down there in the Santa Monica area.

I believe San Francisco has some very fine dining experiences to offer. I think you gotta get into some of the other neighborhoods. North Beach and the Union Square area aren't enough.

Honestly, I don't know the names of the areas, so I don't know what to recommend.

Anyway, have a great vacation.

Rick Darby said...

Thank you, Pastorius. I didn't know you lived in LA.

Yes, LA gets a bum rap. It's a place many love to hate. East Coast people in particular have an idea of what a city should be: all the important stuff downtown, suburbs as nothing but bedroom communities. A European flavor to provide respectability. Commuting on public transportation.

LA doesn't follow this model; ergo, in their view, it's uncivilized.

And I'll admit it took me a few visits to warm to it, but when I allowed myself to understand the different pattern of life in LA, I realized that a decentralized city has just as much legitimacy as one where everything "happening" is packed into an urban core.

Now I continue to be amazed at the creativity whose evidence I see in everything from LA's architecture to its music and arts to individual style. Some of it is raw, offensive even, some not to my taste, but man, this is one alive city that offers beauty and stimulation in abundance if one opens to it.

David said...

"Heidelberg philosophy discipline"...but wouldn't this be more appropriate for *beer* snobs, rather than wine snobs?

Pastorius said...

Well, Rick, I'm glad you enjoyed Santa Monica, and West LA.

You are correct about the gang culture (which you wrote about in the post above this one). There is this huge area (about a fifteen to twenty mile stretch) between Orange County and downtown LA which is just filled with lower-middle class neighborhoods, recent immigrants, and gangs. It is certainly a no-man's land. I never get off the freeway in those areas. I have, but I don't enjoy it. There is little beauty, little subtelty, and lots of cramped sadness.

Those areas are filled with all the various Colonia Chiques. Yes, there are a lot of them. However, if you drive through California, as you did, you see that most of the state is more like the better parts of any suburb you might have seen in northern LA County.

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green mamba said...

I'm glad to discover that someelse feels the way I do about the L.A./San Francisco divide. I've visited L.A. several times in the last few years and had a great time each time. Sun, beaches, friendly, eccentric people, the buzz of creativity and activity. I've also visited San Fran, and felt dragged down by the combination of crowded poverty and self-satisfied bohemianism.