Los Angeles: Introduction

  • © SaschaH, marcopolo.de

    © SaschaH, marcopolo.de


Los Angeles is one of the most mysterious and fascinating places on Earth. It’s possible to run into actual film stars on the street here. The waiters in the restaurants are often actors, the shoe sellers in the mall spend their spare time writing sceenplays. Walking through this city, with the sun on your face and past boulevards lined by palm trees, you will often feel like you are in a movie yourself.

The most exciting thing about the second-largest city in the United States is its diversity. At first glance, LA presents itself as the superficial glamour paradise the rest of the world often sniffs at. The women look like Barbie dolls. The men seem to spend more time in the gym than at work. And everywhere people seem to be schmoozing. At second glance, however, there is so much more to discover: the city has had 22 Nobel laureates and is a significant research and development location.

In addition to its film palaces, LA has outstanding museums, top-class art and a lively theatre scene. Los Angeles is a city of contrasts: Hollywood glamour and earthquakes; New Age stronghold and gang wars; an eternally blue sky and mudslides; fun at the beach and bush fires. This vast city is an experiment that redefines itself every day. Around ten million people live in its catchment area and that figure is rising. They come from 140 countries and speak 96 languages, which is why this city has the reputation of being a model for the future.

Dream or trauma: the city of longings

‘People cut themselves off from their ties of the old life when they come to Los Angeles. They are looking for a place where they can be free, where they can do things they couldn’t do anywhere else,’ commented Tom Bradley, one of the city’s former mayors. They are looking for opportunities to make money or for a place of refuge from political persecution. This great freedom produces the most absurd contrasts, dream and trauma side-by-side. Just the landing approach to Los Angeles is an event. This great sprawl of a city is flat and wide. The coastline measures 72 miles (115km), and inland there are avenues and boulevards on a grid-pattern that cover some 4,000 sq miles (10,000 sq km). A patchwork of faded asphalt and green, dotted with spots of bright turquoise, the pools. LA is a conurbation of 88 integrated towns, interrupted by two mountain ranges and held together by a network of freeways.

Magical moments between the mountains and the sea

There’s no moment more perfect than cruising the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu in a convertible. The blue Pacific meets the even bluer sky at the horizon. Spread out a blanket on the beach and watch the fit surfers and jolly dolphins playing in the waves. Those going through LA with open eyes will experience many magical moments. Why not swim in the ocean in the morning, go skiing in the mountains for lunch and when darkness falls get lost in the night sky out in the desert? As long as you don’t get stuck in traffic on the way! Traffic jams are a daily occurrence because of the long distances and the under-developed public transport network. The bus network can be confusing for newcomers, and the subway only services a small part of the city. A further extension is problematic because of notorious budget problems and the high construction costs for earthquake-proof shafts. Most tramlines were asphalted over in the early 20th century by the automobile and oil industries.

LA started small: with 44 settlers, Native Americans, Mestizos, Africans and two Spaniards. On 4 September 1781, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina des Los Angeles del Río de Porciuncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels by the Porciuncula River) was proclaimed in the Bay of Smoke, as the first white man called the valley. The smoke came from the fires of the Chumash tribe, who had lived here for centuries. The first marketplace was Mexican. To this day, mariachi bands can be found in the restaurants where fresh tortillas are baked in coal ovens on Olvera Street in Downtown.

Dominated by skyscrapers of steel and glass, Downtown is the only district with true city flair. During the day, office workers and shoppers jostle through the streets at the base of the high-rise buildings. The places to go in the evenings, having attended the Opera or the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or a rock concert in the new concert hall LA Live, are the bars and restaurants of the Loft District, to which many artists and galleries have moved in recent years as Downtown LA has been revitalised. The heart of the city’s nightlife is Hollywood, however, and on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.

In the elegant Beverly Hills, the incredible wealth seems unachievable, yet somehow more tangible than anywhere else in the world. In 2008, there were 261,081 millionaires living in Los Angeles County. That means Greater LA has the largest number of super-rich individuals in the whole of America, and they have no problem showing off their wealth. They live in palatial forts and have people to carry their shopping bags on Rodeo Drive while dining in fancy restaurants, consuming in just one evening the equivalent of an average monthly wage. They will also tell anyone who will listen about it.

What may appear to be boasting to Europeans is perceived as inspiration by Californians. There is no social envy here. Those who’ve made it are admired. After all, anyone here could be the next millionaire. This is often the way of thinking in the poorest parts of town, even though around 20 percent of the people here have to cope with living below the poverty line every day. They rummage through the rubbish bins of the higher earners and share tiny apartments with other families and cockroaches.

Where the rich and famous are at home

You can’t get any further away from this poverty than in the hills above Sunset Boulevard: a drive through the Canyons will take you past some impressive real estate. The office buildings on Wilshire Boulevard are full of agents making million-dollar deals for Brad Pitt and the rest. Paparazzi play cat and mouse with Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and others on trendy Robertson Boulevard. Everything is better, more creative and bigger in the City of Angels. The Angelenos have created their own planet with its own dimensions. Several famous architects participated in this. Of particular note are the Getty Center by Richard Meier and the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank O. Gehry, the Hollyhock House by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Gamble House by the Greene brothers. Medical miracles are performed in the famous hospitals, such as Cedars-Sinai Center and the UCLA Medical Center, and this does not just apply to facelifts.

Los Angeles: no place for boredom

All the major boulevards lead to the sea: Mulholland, Sunset, Wilshire, Santa Monica and Venice Boulevard. On the Boardwalk in Venice Beach, there are street artists and fortune-tellers promising rosy futures. Santa Monica’s pier reaches far into the ocean. From the ferris wheel you have a panoramic view of the Pacific, the sea of houses and the mountains. Below it is a long trail through the sand for rollerbladers and cyclists. In Malibu, the mansions of the rich and beautiful are squeezed between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. A drive through Topanga Canyon will take you to the former hippie enclave in the mountains, where time has idyllically stood still. Pick-ups park in front of the general store and the Inn of The Seventh Ray serves macrobiotic cuisine.

Visions of the apocalypse are as much part of LA as the eternally blue sky. Intellectuals have regularly predicted the end for this place of vanity and greed. And indeed, this young city of superlatives is constantly plagued by growing pains. But every bust has been followed by a boom. After the Gold Rush came the railway, tourism and citrus plantations, and then oil. When World War I was just around the corner in Europe, Carl Laemmle from Swabia in Germany founded Universal Studios. The legendary southern Californian light that gives things particularly sharp contours attracted further film studios. The arms industry boomed here during World War II.

In the 1990s, the city was plunged into recession as a result of riots between rival ethnic groups, earthquakes and the closure of military bases. The real-estate boom at the turn of the millennium made Los Angeles one of the most expensive places in the country. Once again the city is under pressure: encouraged by the overvaluation of their properties, many Angelenos lived beyond their means. Suddenly, runaway productions are threatening the film industry. Because of financial pressure and union battles, filming is increasingly being done in cheaper locations such as Canada, or tax havens such as New Mexico. But you won’t see much of this as a visitor to the city. Enjoy what the casual, cosmopolitan city on the Pacific has to offer, which is quite a lot after all!

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