In the movie All About Eve, the cynical New York theater reviewer Addison DeWitt (played by George Sanders) waxes on about San Francisco and implicitly dumps on Los Angeles. "Ah, San Francisco," exclaims DeWitt. "An oasis of civilization in the California desert."
Los Angeles is an improbable concept. Built in a desert, it exists on water imported from far away. It lies in a basin that traps air. Despite significant gains in air emission controls and a weather fluke that has brought the best air quality in 25 years, the air quality trend in L.A. is downward. But like America's most air-conditioned city, Houston, air quality doesn't stem the tide of newcomers.
Like so much of the West, L.A. once beckoned people who were stuck in desperate circumstances in the heartland. No culture survives within discrete, bounded borders.Midwesterners were its first emigres. Today the megalopolis beckons new residents from around the world.
L.A. is an immigrant city. Some 70 percent of the children in the public schools are Hispanic. After the fall of the Shah of Iran, a flood of wealthy Iranian emigres moved into Beverly Hills. In Hollywood there is a large Armenian quarter. Koreatown runs for some two miles of Olympic Boulevard. It contains a shopping center in which Korean is the first language and very few non-Koreans are in evidence.
The city of the angels has always been an agglomeration of cities. Now there is an extra dimension. L.A. has become an assortment of immigrant cultures that exist side-by-side.
The conference that brought me to L.A. last week was titled "Cultural Identity in the West." The keynote speaker was James Early, director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian Institution. The gist of Early's message was that, "We must reach out and engage other (cultures) or we will be isolated and (live) in a tighter and tighter group."
His point was echoed by Pravinia Gondalia, a Wyoming artist who grew up in India. In a paper prepared for the conference, Gondalia writes, "Throughout history, no culture has ever survived within its discrete bounded borders. A culture that is not maintained with time becomes obsolete and eventually will die."
That is why Los Angeles beckons our attention. It is home to a broad array of nationalities, whose numbers represent much more than token population. It is a rich culture medium, a capital for what Richard Florida calls The Rise of the Creative Class.
My high school chum Phil Nichols puts it this way. "Part of the fun of L.A. is how these (disparate cultures) are physically integrated into the fabric of the of the city."
The entire West Coast is more culturally diverse than it was just 10 years ago, but none of our cities rivals the diversity of L.A. The Hispanic population of Clatsop County and Astoria grew markedly between 1990 and 2000. Some long-time residents might resent or begrudge that infusion, but Gondalia, who is a Hindu living in Wyoming, offers useful advice on this matter. "Creation takes place not within discrete bounded cultures, but rather between permeable changing communities."
Following publication of my Wednesday column, a California reader, Elleda Wilson, wrote to disabuse me of the notion that things had improved in L.A. Citing filth and garbage, homeless people, unchecked gang activity and illegal immigrants, she said: "The city sure has changed in the last 35 years, I'll agree, but NOT for the better."
We have just gone through an election in which voting majorities in California, Los Angeles and the other West Coast states feel as though history is going in the wrong direction. Setting aside a costly war in Iraq and the economic cost of a record federal deficit, there are reasons to be buoyant about what's going on in the coastal West.
A good measure of President Bush's victory was based on fear, and fear is always a good card to play with the voters. But with or without Bush and his regressive and retrograde environmental, fiscal and international policies, certain cultural forces are at work in America, and they won't abate because of the man in the White House.
The creative class won't quit creating, and that is driving change in Astoria as much as in L.A. As James Early told the conference, "The arts are on the front line of change in a way that politics isn't."