Straight Outta Compton

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.

Downtown Layers Hydrant Sunlight Lambo

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.

Compton Boulevard Sneakers Mattress Sofas This made me sad Orange Bang! Compton

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.

15 Comments

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  1. Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy LA. I’m quite surprised, I loved it there, it’s one place I’m definitely going to go back to again and again.

    If you ever return, I’d recommend spending time in Santa Monica. It’s perfect, the centre is pedestrianised and its much smaller and more homely than Venice, Long or any of the other beaches. It has quite an English feel to it, only with palm trees and sunshine. It also seems to be where a lot of the college students go and there’s often street performers and singers by dusk. The palm trees all have fairly lights on once the sun goes down. It’s like Covent Garden only with a beach.

    While you’re in Santa Monica, you really can’t miss the Getty Center. It’s just a stunning building in a stunning location. About as close to Tracey Island as you’re ever going to get. It even has a monorail from the underground car park to the summit!

    Also, if you had a bit more time, heading South through Newport Beach and Laguna Beach is worth the hour drive. You’re out of LA and into Orange County then, but it’s all twisty coast roads, stunning views, expensive cars and everyone is beautiful. The people there seem a little more friendly than in the big cities. If you sit down by the beach, it’ll only be a matter of minutes before someone sits down to talk fashion advice or stock tips. People get dressed up to go jogging here.

    Comment by Darren — September 18, 2008 #

  2. Shoes on wires: it does happen in the UK; I’ve seen it myself a little in East London (and there are photos from Shoreditch on Flickr as well).

    LA: never been myself, but my wife was there for a couple of days and visited the Griffiths Observatory, which is apparently pretty good. I think it counts as about the only thing there I’d like to see.

    Comment by Paul Mison — September 18, 2008 #

  3. My wife and I hated LA when we were there, but after we got home the memory really grew on us. Dossing around down Melrose, driving through Laurel Canyon, visiting Venice – we had a fine old time when we thought about it. We got to the Getty Center car park, only to find that the clothes we’d left in the boot of the car in a previous car park in Beverly Hills had been nicked, so we had to forego the Getty Center experience and head back to Beverly Hills to report the crime, (or rather to buy the clothes again!) We liked the ‘that building was in that movie’ game that can be played throughout LA: we went up in the lifts that Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich rode up in at the end of In The Line of Fire. In fact we went up twice!
    I’m not in any great rush to go back to LA, but if ever I have reason to return, I’ll certainly look forward to it.

    Comment by smithylad — September 18, 2008 #

  4. My favourite comment about LA is Andrew Mueller‘s (paraphrased): “Los Angeles is like Tehran with movie studios. When the Big One finally hits, it will cause billions of dollars’ worth of improvements.”

    To me, it’s like your first ever game of SimCity: You end up with this insane sprawling pollution-ridden mess, where you’re having to bulldoze loads of houses and create eight-lane freeways all over to ease your traffic problems, and it’s only after you’ve filled most of the map that you discover the “Rail” button.

    Comment by Yoz — September 18, 2008 #

  5. Spend a day in the Silverlake area, you’ll learn to love LA– ask Alice and Cory! Like San Francisco’s Mission District, but without the gratuitous human poo.

    Comment by Hamlet Au — September 19, 2008 #

  6. My gripe about LA has more to do with the people than the city :-)

    But I’d second Darren’s suggestion to try a couple different areas. Santa Monica and Venice are nice. Marina del Rey is pretty pleasant too. If you’re going to LA, you’ve got to hit the beach SOME time.

    Also, having a walk through West Hollywood during the evening or weekend would probably be a hoot too.

    Comment by Frank Jania — September 19, 2008 #

  7. Thanks everyone. You’ve confirmed my (previously unspoken) suspicion that there must be more to LA than I saw, and that I’d missed most of the good bits. Thank you. I now have some cool places to see when I do inevitably go back one day.

    Santa Monica (+ Getty Center)
    Griffiths Observatory
    Silverlake
    Venice beach
    Orange County (Newport Beach and Laguna Beach)

    You know, I should have asked this before I went.

    Comment by Roo — September 19, 2008 #

  8. Culver City!
    West Hollywood!
    Mid Wiltshire!
    Koreatown!

    There’s lots to love in LA. I spent 10 days there, going around by bus and metro. Had an awesome time (the Getty Center, notably, was one place I couldn’t work out how to get to by public transport).

    Museum of Jurassic Technology, Center of Land Use Interpretation, and In n Out Burger remains my favourite block in America.

    Comment by Chris — September 19, 2008 #

  9. I love the pictures you took! They all turned out very well. I am jealous you got to go to Long Beach, though. That is such a beautiful place. It really is my favorite place in the world.

    Comment by Realtor — September 19, 2008 #

  10. Sneakers/Trainers on wires – does happen in the UK. You just haven’t been to right places in Hampshire! (which I think is local to you)

    Comment by Kitty — October 3, 2008 #

  11. I do live in Hampshire. Where should I be looking?

    Comment by Roo — October 3, 2008 #

  12. Grantham Road, Eastleigh

    Comment by Kitty — October 3, 2008 #

  13. Well, that’s something for the todo list then. Any theories as to what the trainers mean?

    Comment by Roo — October 3, 2008 #

  14. Trainers are a sign of a fatality, usually to a gang member :(
    I liked LA though :-) Not all the bits, but being that close to a theme park may have swung it for me :)

    Comment by epredator — October 5, 2008 #

  15. Exactly right. If you’re in a gang with a dangerous occupation, then Compton can be a scary place. But if you’re passing through on a sunny afternoon, like Michael Moore did in his documentary, then there’s really nothing to be scared of.

    Comment by Mobile — March 8, 2009 #

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