LA is mostly horrible. Don’t go. I spent a week there for a conference recently, and while the conference was great the city is not somewhere I’ll be rushing back to see again any time soon.
For most of the week, it seemed to be that LA’s only redeeming feature (aside from being in California, but let’s discount that since it’s probably the least pleasant city in that very pleasant state) was the weather.
San Francisco (6-7 hours drive north) has that strange, damp, microclimate which is caused by the wet air coming in off the Pacific being pulled in by the hot dry dusty expanses to its East and usually turning to somewhere between drizzle and fog. This gives the city character. It’s like London-on-the-Pacific, with better Mexican food. LA’s arid microclimate, on the other hand, is presumably caused by all of the moisture being driven away at light-speed by frantic heat of a gazillion people all frantically alternating between the parasitic exploitation of celebrity worship and feeding liquidised poor people to their pet Chihuahuas.
But yes, the weather in LA is nice. It’s drier and sunnier than San Francisco, and less humid than almost anywhere I’ve been. Remove the fine layer of smog that covers the city and it would almost be a nice place to live. As long as you remembered to remove the city first.
In fact, LA is not one city at all. It’s a super-city; a cluster of 8 or 9 cities joined together by freeways, storm drains and malls.
A few days of seeing the same collection of banks, department stores and Starbucks on every downtown street was enough to convince me to explore further afield. My first trip, proving me to be every bit the tourist that I am, was to visit Universal Studios. This was great, but frankly could have been anywhere. I understand the one in Florida is not dissimilar. Great fun, but not exactly a lasting memory of LA culture.
Compton was not high on my list of things to see when I arrived in LA, but after another day of pootling around Downtown and being driven almost physically sick by Hollywood, I felt like getting away from it all.
Compton stood out on the Metro map. Here’s somewhere I’ve heard of. That’s got to be a good place to visit, right? It’s been featured in many of the fine songs by Dr Dre and his hip hop friends. Admittedly, not all of those songs are the most welcoming of ditties (“Compton / Is the city I’m from / Cain’t never leave the crib / Without a murder weap-on”), but it had a reassuring ring of familiarity. In a similar way, Americans and other foreigners coming to London might demand to see London Bridge because they’ve heard the nursery rhyme.
Compton Airfield. Compton. Long Beach. Inglewood. These are places I wanted to see for myself.
So I went to Long Beach (took photos of the seabirds and the Queen Mary, ate a hot dog, watched a film) and on the way back to stopped off at Compton. It turns out that Compton is pretty much the same as the rest of LA. Dirtier, grottier, poorer, perhaps. The malls contain a different (but overlapping) assortment of shops, and the Compton burger guy is probably a different colour to the Downtown burger guy, but it’s essentially (and disappointingly) the same place. Only a couple of things made my excitement levels rise.
I saw a few pairs of trainers (though I thought of them as sneakers) hanging over telegraph wires. Even the great arbiter of folklore, Snopes, doesn’t know exactly what it means, but it excited me. You don’t see it in the south of England (that I’ve noticed, anyway) and it contained a frisson of gang culture. Perhaps some corners boys work this patch. Keep walking.
The other experience was a little more intimidating. Walking down a side street, about to take a photo of a derelict shop front, a man in a truck (I think it was red) slowed down, and shouted at me out of his rolled down window. “What you doin’ here, boy?”
Good question. What was I doing with a camera, taking photos of an empty (?) shop (?) somewhere in Compton? Fortunately, he’d driven slowly on, looking back and scowling at me, before I got anywhere close to having to think of an answer. What could I have told him? Hello. I think I’m trying to get a sense of adventure in the most dull and monotonous city I’d ever visited. (And bear in mind that I’ve visited both Swansea and Coventry. Ever heard of them?). But in doing so, sir, would you say I’m putting myself unduly at risk?
I’d actually felt pretty safe up until then. Sure, there was that one side street I’d been going to walk down but thought better of it when I saw a police car pull over a big black truck and lots of the neighbouring residents take an interest and walk towards it. I decided to leave that street alone. Apart from that I’d felt pretty comfortable right up to the photographing/truck/’boy’ moment. Sure, I was the single solitary white person I’d seen for the past 2 hours. In fact, even before that, since getting on the Metro at Long Beach I’d seen exactly one white person, and he was homeless in a noisy mad and chaotic way that you sometimes see on subway trains, but never seem to see on the London underground. Does London’s more restrictive ticketing system create a higher barrier to entry for the noisy, mad and drunk?
In any case, this sense of being the odd one out for a change may have been culturally unusual for me, but was nothing scary. If anything, I’d been feeling a little bit invisible because of my being so clearly from out of town. Compton might be a little bit dangerous if you’re in a gang, but surely not for me. Neither black nor Hispanic, I was an obvious civilian in the most obvious way. Right?
Feeling wary, and more awake than I’d felt all day, I walked back onto the strange cross between semi derelict main road and impoverished strip-mall that is Compton Boulevard, and headed back towards the Metro. No more hurriedly than I’d been exploring earlier, but I decided against venturing any further into the side streets.
Later that day, David suggested I meet him and his friend Linda in Chinatown. There were gallery openings, hipsters, people drinking in the (pedestrianised) streets… it was lovely. Cultured, refreshing and fun, in a way that Europeans will often condescendingly describe as ‘European’, but I really mean it felt comfortable. Later that night, Little Tokyo was pleasingly similar. Another different culture, but again that sense of being at home in a strange land. We went to a karaoke bar, in which California’s anti-smoking laws were being exuberantly flaunted.
If I do ever go back to LA, it will be Chinatown and Little Tokyo – rather than Hollywood, Beverly Hllls or South Central – that I explore more fully.