How to Love Los Angeles
by Diana Ruzova
I’ve lived in Los Angeles almost all my life. Aside from the two years I spent as a bundled baby in Soviet Belarus and the two months I spent falling into the River Cam while studying abroad at Cambridge University, Los Angeles has been my home. My relationship with L.A. is complicated. I love her and I pity her. So misunderstood. A victim of endless stereotypes — some painfully true, some entirely false. Yes, hot people move to L.A. from their small towns to become waiters or baristas in order to book that commercial or indie, or get their dreams stomped on like wilting jacarandas on the sidewalk, but L.A. is not a shallow, hopeless, tepid dystopia. L.A. is rich with culture and real people trying to get by. I would like to debunk some common myths and end this madness! I mean, is there any other city people ‘love to hate’ more than L.A.?
Myth One – No one is actually from Los Angeles.
Is anyone from anywhere? Aren’t we all from a bundle of cells that attached itself to a meteor and crashed into this planet creating life itself? Aren’t we all descendants of a small amoeba floating in the ocean? Aren’t we all from outer space? The murky depths of the Pacific? Ethiopia? The womb? Los Angeles?
People are actually from Los Angeles. Let’s drop the myth that L.A. is only for beautiful people obsessed with being famous, and transients seeking the edge of the world.
There are the original indigenous people, Gabrieliño-Tongva, who called L.A. home way before the arrival of Spanish settlers. There are people who were born here. There are people who were brought here as toddlers from foreign lands, like me. There are people who grew up here. There are people who move here at all stages of their lives and settle down and choose to stay. I think all these people are “from L.A.”.
There are 3.8 million people who live in Los Angeles as of the 2020 Census. Among those millions of people, at least 185 different languages are spoken. Although Spanish-speakers are the majority, Los Angeles has the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran and Armenians outside of Armenia. L.A. also has a Chinatown and a Koreatown and a Thai Town and a Little Filipino Town and a Little Ethiopia and a Little Tokyo and more. The immigrants that settle down in Los Angeles are from Los Angeles because they are precisely what makes this city a deeply unique place to live.
Assignment One, Part 1: Find a body of water: an ocean, lake, river, pool, bathtub. Close your eyes. Submerge yourself. Remember where you came from.
Assignment One, Part 2: Take a walk around Los Angeles or any major city and try spotting the tourists. Aside from the extremely obvious — lost, clad in khaki cargo shorts and a “Roll Tide” t-shirt — you may find they’re harder to pinpoint than you thought.
Myth Two – Los Angeles isn’t really a city.
Well, Los Angeles County isn’t a city, it’s a county made up of 88 cities and municipalities, but Los Angeles is its own city within L.A. County, with its own mayor. Los Angeles is often referred to as ‘not a city’ because 1. It is being confused with the county, which is massive 2. Even in the City of Los Angeles, the suburban sprawl is astounding.
I think it’s a metropolis. A city wide and dense and heavy with industry and an often-forgotten-but-hard-to-miss divide between the extremely affluent and everyone else.
Assignment Two: Brush up on your urban planning and read a classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities By Jane Jacobs. Also, consider picking up a copy of Rosecrans Baldwin’s new book, Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles.
Myth Three – Everyone is fake nice.
I read somewhere that everyone in L.A. is nice to your face but flakey when it comes to actually helping you. For instance, L.A. is full of people that would congratulate you on your new apartment but not offer to help you move. The opposite is assumed for New York City, where people are mean to your face, but would drop everything they’re carrying in a snowstorm to help you dig your car out of the snow. These are, of course, gross exaggerations. It’s true that because of cars and geographic distance and sunny skies, Los Angeles does not demand the same neighborly comradery as other major cities, but I believe people do come through when it counts. Not everyone is vapid and selfish. The other day, I was walking home, dazed and worn out from too many hours staring at screens. The man standing next to me at the light appeared to be incoherent, yelling at the pavement. The arrow turned green and instead of letting the cars turn I mistook it for a walk sign and started heading straight into the busy intersection. “Hey lady, stop!” yelled the seemingly incoherent stanger saving my life.
Assignment Three: Do something nice for a stranger, just because. Be creative. Maybe pay for the people in the car behind you at the drive-thru, or maybe help that one girl with her groceries who had to park several blocks away because of street cleaning.
Myth Four – Everyone is healthy.
It’s true that Los Angeles is the land of hot yoga and diets and $18 green juices, but a “healthy” lifestyle often comes with privilege. Los Angeles, particularly low-income South L.A., is known for its food deserts. Farmer’s markets and community driven organizations like suprmarkt are game changers for these communities, but they just scratch the surface of a long-standing systemic problem.
This myth is a downer, but it’s important! If you were looking for a greasy spoon spot recommendation to counter the “everyone is healthy” myth, I recommend Marty’s Hamburger Stand.
Assignment Four: Volunteer at your local food bank that provides fresh food to people in need. The L.A. Regional Food Bank is always looking for volunteers or if you’re not in the area you can donate to feedingamerica.org.
Myth Five – The transit sucks.
Okay, I’m biased here. I work for the Los Angeles Metro, so naturally I’m a big transit nerd. But I also know it can suck. The bus can take forever and if you don’t live near a train station, it can hardly be worth your time. Compared to NYC, L.A.’s transit system is infantile, but it’s growing, I promise. To some, L.A. will always be a car town, won over by automobile lobbyists years ago. But trust me, you can cry on the bus or the train just like you do in your dark grey Prius filled with a year’s worth of empty water bottles. All jokes aside, L.A. has a robust transit system that’s waiting for you to try it. Oh, and transit is more sustainable than driving around alone in your pollution machine. Don’t shake your head at me, just read the latest United Nations Climate Report.
Myth Six – Everyone works in Hollywood.
Alright, it does seem like everyone in my 1940’s Los Feliz apartment building is a grip with a carabiner thick with keys or a cinematographer carrying one of those really expensive motion cameras that swivels when you walk by it, but not everyone in L.A. works in Hollywood. I know teachers and UPS drivers and fashion designers and veterinarians and speech therapists. Let’s drop the idea that L.A. is only for beautiful people who escaped their shitty hometowns to become famous. This is only a fraction of the population. In fact, the fastest growing occupation in Los Angeles are Home Health Aides, many of whom care for aging Boomers. Plus, now you can “be famous” or an “influencer” or a “creator” from anywhere if you have a social media account.
Assignment Six: Google “dentists in Los Angeles.” You’ll be surprised how many of them don’t work in Hollywood.
Myth Seven – It’s an ugly dirty soulless place.
I hate the new developments as much as the next girl…why so many orange-painted accent walls? Why?! But I don’t think L.A. is ugly. You can find beauty in anything if it tells a story. The gum spotted sidewalk is beautiful. The pile of chewed up chicken wings on the lawn are beautiful. The man walking his pet goat on Hollywood Blvd is beautiful. Griffith Park and the San Gabriel mountains and purple jacarandas in the summer are indisputably beautiful.
Assignment Seven: Pay attention to the beautiful things all around you, telling you stories. Also, nourish your soul and read L.A. writers like Amanda Gorman, Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler, T.C. Boyle, Eve Babitz, Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Wanda Coleman, Viet Than Nguyen, Francesca Lia Block, Salvador Plascencia, and Aimee Bender. Also, watch Los Angeles Plays Itself on Kanopy and learn more about Los Angeles as a soulful charming shapeshifter. (Warning: it’s a long one!)
Myth Eight – The weather is too perfect, it’s apocalyptic.
The sun in Los Angeles is aggressive and constant and forced upon you like an unsolicited smile — a sign of insanity in Belarus and Russia and maybe elsewhere — but you get used to it. There are seasons: the hot hot summer, the few winter months it’s kind of cold and rainy, and El Niño. The endless sun and warm desert winds can feel apocalyptic. Wildfires can rage relentlessly, turning the sky yellow and covering windshields with ash. But what better place to ride out the apocalypse than Los Angeles?
Assignment Eight: Watch this ‘90s Smokey Bear PSA and help prevent forest fires.
Photos by Diana Ruzova.