One thing is clear: Los Angeles is much more interesting than New York, visually. This is because it conceals more. In New York the streets are the city, each facade only hiding an array of more-or-less identical, apartmental shoeboxes of space; the triangular Flatiron building on Twenty-Third Street counts as a major departure from the typical. In L.A., there is a much greater variety of places: not only rectangular blocks, but plazas, gardens, diagonal intersections, parking lots, beachfront estates, strip malls, green lawns, absurdist signage, hills, winding drives, and houses of every conceivable style and shape. As well, so many private domains can only be glimpsed from the street: not only the movie studios, with their shopping-mall opulence behind abode walls, but even the average U-shaped apartment complexes, which always include an interior, vine-shaded courtyard only accessible to residents.
Isn’t it fatuous, you’re asking, to compare the two cities as though generalizations about each can be made from a few limited observations? Of course. Let’s get started. In Los Angeles, the infinity of kinds of spaces constantly makes for sudden, unexpected vistas. David Lynch has expressed this aspect of the city much more eloquently than I can, with the dark, enigmatic corner in Bill Pullman’s house in Lost Highway that seems to open into a void, or the frightening space around the back of the diner in Mulholland Drive. The irregularity of L.A. causes this exhilarating anxiety: you literally don’t know what’s around the corner, or what’s inside that gate. In New York, there’s no imaginative mystery at all to the physical world: everyone lives in an apartment, only cohabiting couples have a spare room, and ten million guidebooks chronicle every square mile of ground-level space. Hence, in New York, “secret” bars and restaurants (from Lansky Lounge to Milk and Honey to Freeman’s) proliferate, while in L.A. figuring out what is where is difficult enough without intentional concealment.
Much of the unknowability of Los Angeles starts with its being so spread out. As a friend philosophically observed, the entire difference between the two cities stems from one being horizontal and the other vertical. This kind of irrefutable contrast is what makes comparing the U.S.’s two largest cities irresistible. Horizontal and vertical, slow and fast, early and late, wide and deep–we might as well go whole hog and make a structuralist comparison a la Saussure and Jakobson: Los Angeles is a metonym, where meanings are arranged next to each other, New York is a metaphor, where meanings are stacked and substituted for each other. Los Angeles is synchronic, about the arrangement of objects in space in the present, New York is diachronic, about the way the same small space changes over time. Etc.
Maybe a simpler (and simple is better, and very L.A.) way to express this is to compare the cities’ typography. In L.A., uninhibited by the past, the vogue is for a bold, beautiful, sans serif typeface. Check out this restaurant‘s menus (which is excellent, by the way) or the aforementioned director’s coffee-selling website for examples. These typefaces bespeak a commitment to modernism, a desire to invent anew, a lack of anxiety about leaving behind what’s outmoded and traditional. What could be more opposite than the Jurassic, faux-medieval typeface of the New York Times? New York scenesters often cultivate an anachronistic aesthetic, compleat (sic) with beard and suspenders – their blogs always use serif fonts. In L.A., with its lack of comparable history, new vocabularies displace the old, new forms of yoga and therapy console its citizens, new big-box retailers brashly replace yesterday’s disposable strip malls, the casual is preferred to the formal. New is good, new works.
In keeping with this attitude, a widespread addiction to youth seems is evident everywhere in the culture. Living with your parents is no mark of shame; it’s a sensible, workable arrangement until you hit it big. (Can you imagine telling someone you lived with your parents in New York?) Adulthood is to be resisted, the self-absorbed dream of youth (or at least its cosmetic facsimile) pursued. When you’re there, it’s somehow hard to remember that there are other people, even other social classes. As my sister puts it, you’re stoned by the weather. And yet, at the same time, there is a much greater diversity of people to be seen on the streets of Los Angeles. Perhaps because the necessities of life (housing, food) are more cheaply obtained, the range of wealth and ethnicity and age of people you see in L.A. puts New York to shame. Its visual economy may value the cultivation of the body over that of the mind, but in its way it is a much less pretentious, more frank, and yes, more gritty city than the fauxhemian paradise that modern New York has become. It’s not that it disavows its traditional culture, however; it’s that it has no settled culture, at least of any longevity.
Beautiful, casual, young, stoned by the sun: am I just reciting a litany of cliches about Los Angeles? What next, an assertion of how bad the traffic is? Well, sometimes a city performs as advertised. The impossibly tall, slender palm trees of Santa Monica; the bookstores devoted to auras and chakras; the tennis-playing lotharios drinking mineral water at bars with skateboarders and stylists; bronzed limbs and smoggy sunsets; maitre’d’s who greet you with “What’s up?”; the presence of Richard Gere; and, yup, infuriating traffic jams that break out at random; these all really exist, to the wonder of a New York-based correspondent. At the Getty Center, above their surreal and gorgeous landscape garden, there is a certain outdoor walkway overlooking the city. As you approach its end, there is a low stone wall beyond which you can see nothing but a nebulous, blue haze. It goes on forever, it’s impossibly beautiful, and it gives you vertigo.