NY vs. LA: an essay, apropos of nothing
NEW YORK—In late 2005, having had little or no success in the film industry, I reverted to my prior career, leaving Los Angeles to take a job as a magazine editor in Manhattan. A Chicagoan by birth and San Franciscan by temperament (I went to Berkeley and spent seven years in “the city”), the decision was an easy one. L.A. was politically incorrect: Sitting in traffic on 3rd Street on the way home from my shrink every Wednesday at 4:30, it was easy to imagine how I and all my fellow solo-drivers plodding along at 7mph ought to be in electrified tunnels underground, rather than belching greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. L.A. was grotesque: The height of my social attainment in the city had been attending a party at Val Kilmer’s house, every vertical surface of which is covered with pictures of…Val Kilmer. L.A. was dull: people went to each other’s houses for dinner instead of out, and as my friends and I entered our child-rearing years, these occasions grew fewer and fewer. After half a year in New York, however, it became clear that I—and most people like me, I imagine, which pretty much, if you’re reading this, means you—severely miscalculated the relative merits of the two cities. Herewith, I propose a radical re-jiggering of the elements of this erroneous algorithm, and a puncturing of the myths going into it.
Let’s start with the obvious: the weather in New York fucking sucks. That actually makes a huge difference in one’s mood, outlook, and ability to take advantage of what a city—any city—has to offer. Certainly there are worse places to be, but compared with a climate where it’s sunny and between 65˚-85˚ Fahrenheit 350 days a year…there’s really no comparison. I arrived in October, as the fall colors were reaching their peak (a southerly progression now charted daily throughout autumn on the weather page of the New York Times), so I should have been ecstatic about the change from six straight months of nearly-relentless heat in Los Angeles, the refreshment of chilling breezes, and the symphony of the visual spectrum unfolding daily in Central Park. And I was. I remember sitting on a rock at Hernshead, watching my daughter chase the geese in her new lavender winter coat, and looking across the pond at the last remaining stand of old-growth forest in Manhattan in the Ramble, and reveling in the beauty. But then it started to rain, so we had to go home, back to our 900 square feet of heaven (for which we paid $3800 a month).
Which brings me to the next thing: Housing in this place is ri-donc-ulous. Actually, wait, I’m not finished talking about the weather. It rained for like three weeks straight in October. Which was fine, they needed it. Then came the “historically mild” winter: It was basically between 15˚ and 50˚ for the next five months. Five months is a long-ass time for it to be between 15˚ and 50˚ almost every day (especially if you have a toddler to take care of, but that’s my wife’s essay to write). I can remember when spring would come to Chicago—in, like, June—and it would be 52˚ outside and all us poor bastards would put on shorts and go out and play Frisbee in Lincoln Park, goosebumps be damned. The same thing happened here. The mercury climbed above 60˚ one day in March and the Sheep Meadow looked like Lake Havasu at spring break: “Girls Gone Mild.” I wanted to laugh, but I was afraid I’d start crying. In mid-May, it was still in the 50s.
(Lower temperatures also mean increased susceptibility to the flu: optimal temperature for the multiplication of the flu virus is just below normal human body temperature, which means a person’s bronchial tube when outside in this weather is an incubator of illness. I was sick twice my first year in New York; I had one flu in seven years living in Los Angeles—and a much less healthy lifestyle, to be frank.)
The truth is I should have been happy about this weather, because soon it was so stiflingly hot and putrid in the city I wished it were between 15˚ and 50˚. And that’s outside: ever since the subway cars were air conditioned in the 1980’s, the trains send hot air into the tunnels, which make it hot down there well into October, when the air finally circulates out. It’s hotter on the streets because of the exhaust emanating up through the grates. And you know how this entire city has garbage piled up on the sidewalks because the geniuses who planned it didn’t make any alleys? A lot of that garbage is food, and food rots really quickly when it’s 93˚ out, with 80% humidity. And New York is a walking city. (But at least it drowns out the urine stench.)
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF HOUSING
Alright, 500 words about the weather is plenty. So, yeah, the housing thing. The truth is, when you’re talking about New York, these days you’re really talking about Brooklyn, and if you live in Brooklyn, I’m sorry, but you might as well live in Philadelphia. Unless you moved there ten or more years ago, or right after 9/11, or you make in excess of $250,000 a year (which would put you in the top 1% of earners in the United States), or you’re willing to live in Harlem or Morningside Heights or whatever (which are as far from “Manhattan” Manhattan as Brooklyn is, anyway), you’re doomed to live in the birthplace of Neil Simon, or worse. In 1991 you could find a 3BR w/yd in southern Park Slope—half a block from Olmstead-designed Prospect Park, but 45 minutes from the West 4th St. subway station—for under $650K, but today that house costs over $2 mil. Anything closer to Manhattan—Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, etc.—costs more, except Fort Greene, which isn’t entirely safe. Williamsburg? Please—Williamsburg is a dump. No number of 1930’s steakhouses or bars with reflecting pools at the entrance hosting McSweeney’s readings is going to change that. (And its schools have metal detectors.) New York housing has gotten so bad that college graduates with professional jobs in the culture industries now live in neighborhoods where Notorious B.I.G. used to sling crack in the ’80s. Psychologists and publishing executives are moving to some place called Long Island City. So—New York? New York doesn’t exist. It’s a tourist destination.
THE CULTURE ISSUE: A RED HERRING
Which brings us to the cultural issue. It is a truth universally supposed, including that universe that includes fourth-tier writers sitting on a stoop on Dean Street smoking a cigarette outside a book-release party for Salon.com and dissing L.A., that L.A. has no culture, and that New York is a Bacchanalia of options for musical, visual, and literary arts. But the truth is that whether you’re talking high or low, contemporary or classical, L.A.’s offerings rival New York’s in almost every category. And in the categories that it fails…so what? The cultural issue is a red herring. To wit: The Los Angeles Philharmonic is possibly the most technically accomplished, dynamically led and adventurously programmed institution of its kind on planet Earth. Because its New York counterpart must bow to the tastes of its benefactors—as culturally repressed, dull and conservative a group of people as can be found outside the Paraguayan Ministry of Information during the Stroesser era—the New York Philharmonic is often a bore. MoMA has clearly the finest collection of 20th Century European visual arts in the world, but it’s currently going through such an identity crisis—does “modern” still mean “contemporary”?—that its exhibitions are often a schizophrenic assemblage trying more to assert something (unclear) than display something. The Los Angeles Opera, which I attended regularly over the years, is, to my eye and ear, as interesting and accomplished as the Metropolitan (which I had occasion to attend twice, an admittedly superb Rigoletto and Julie Taymor’s Die Zieber Flaute, though I actually found the latter less interesting than Gerald Scaife’s design in L.A.), and not as expensive. I’m not sure that any difference in the quality of the music, scenery or drama of randomly-chosen performances by the two companies would be intelligible to any but the most seasoned opera buffs, and the opera critic of the New York Times happens to agree with me. “Ravishing” “revelatory” “richly chromatic” “lithe and insightful” and “dramatically effective” are some of the phrases he’s used in reviews of the LA Opera over the last few years.
The Met vs. LACMA—OK, I’ll give you the Met. But LACMA opened in the ’60s. Gary Garrels, who in 2004 left a prestigious curatorial position at MoMA to take a job at LA’s Hammer—a move that would have been unimaginable as recently as 10 years ago— says of the art scene in southern California, “LA is taking on a critical mass. It’s really hard to remind oneself MOCA is just over 20 years old; the new Getty opened in ’97, the Hammer hardly 10 years ago. The institutional base here is very young.” Because of that, and the fact that the major auction houses, which create the market to a large extent, are in Manhattan, New York’s contemporary art scene will likely not be eclipsed by Los Angeles or anywhere else anytime soon, but to most people experiencing it, the difference is really at the margins. Walk through Chelsea and peek in the windows and you’ll see as much crap and decorative stuff as anything that’s at all interesting. Talk to anyone who works in or follows the art world in either place—and I talked to a great many of them last year researching an article on the subject—and they’ll tell you that L.A. is an essential nexus in the contemporary art landscape that can no longer be ignored. It rivals New York more than anyplace rivaled Paris during its century at the helm of avant-garde painting.
Anyway, practically speaking, it doesn’t even matter: In 3.5 years I found occasion to go to the Met exactly once (my daughter had a fit when I wouldn’t let her touch a Fra Angelico and had to be carried, screaming, to the exit). The MoMA? Once, and my office was across the street. And I’m a member. Nobody who actually lives in New York and nurtures the interest has the time to go to these places, is the truth. Either you’re 45 minutes away by subway or you work 60-80 hours a week and only want to lounge around your apartment in your underwear or get the hell out of town when you aren’t sitting at your desk or in a restaurant.
Acknowledgments: L.A. does not have a ballet company. New York has more theatre than L.A. But this just means it has more bad theatre, and there is nothing worse than bad theater. Also, this is why God invented touring companies, and airplanes. Same goes for fall foliage. You like it so much—go there. It’ll cost you $500 but save you a lot of grief.
CELEB CULTURE: A NEW YORK CREATION
The realm in which New Yorkers consider themselves truly unassailable is the intellectual. Everyone looks at you like you’re from outer space at the mere suggestion that Los Angeles is anything other than shallow and superficial. But this analysis, if it can be said to rise to that level, is itself shallow and superficial. Once I was talking to someone who tried to pin celebrity culture on Los Angeles. Celebrity culture is going to be the downfall of American civilization, I happen to believe, and interest in it is largely the cause of the existence of the Bush administration, the Iraq war and all that came with those two things (this is a complicated argument I don’t have room to get into here), so I really, really despise celebrity culture. And since celebrities by and large live in L.A., celebrity culture is believed to be a product of L.A.
But has anyone stopped to realize the simple fact that most of the magazines and TV shows that trumpet which washed-up rock star is boinking which C-list siliconed actress are based in New York and produced by New Yorkers? Somehow not. And the apotheosis of celeb vapidity, Paris Hilton, is from New York and was created by Page Six of the New York Post and the “Intelligencer” department of New York magazine. To the contrary, living in L.A.—where you can actually ride an elevator with Madonna and her husband, or Jennifer Love Hewitt and her German shepherd, as I have, or overhear Sharon Stone talking about her divorce in the courtyard of Pane e Vino, or see Charlize Theron standing awkwardly by herself with no one paying attention to her at a premiere at Paramount, or ask a woman where she bought that magazine and have her turn around to see that it’s Winona Ryder—and as I already pointed out, I was a failure in the film industry and all these things happened quite by coincidence and not as a matter of access—you see how boringly normal most of these people are. So living in L.A. in fact neatly deflates the celebrity culture created by those magazines and TV shows in New York. Is it L.A’s fault that people give a shit what kind of handbag Jennifer Garner is carrying when she shops at The Grove? Of course not. It’s their fault for caring, and readers’ fault for buying the fucking magazine running the picture, or even letting themselves be seen reading it.
New York supposes itself the antithesis of celebrity culture because it is the center of publishing, which is assumed to be a pursuit intellectually superior to film and television. Here’s where I’m really going to get in trouble: this is bullshit. Have you actually been to a bookstore lately? The fact is that most people are basically not that smart, which is demonstrated by the fact that “smart” is a relative term, and that book publishing and bookselling have in the last 20 years become fields in which corporate consolidation has led to a flattening of the available options—just as much as this is true in filmed entertainment. Today a great many of smartest, savviest, most talented, most motivated people in the culture industry are in Los Angeles producing and creating film and TV shows, and a single episode of Lost will reach more people than every article John McPhee has ever written (And if you’re asking, Who’s John McPhee? I say, Exactly). And with apologies to the person feeling the evident pride upon being congratulated for reading at the Greenpoint Barnes & Noble before a couple dozen people from a book that will print 20,000 copies, it’s more valuable to the marketplace of ideas to have a snarky comment about Republican hypocrisy in a single line of dialogue in a broad studio comedy than it is to edit The Observer. Perhaps if the Arabists in the State Department urging for preparation for a drawn-out occupation had been able to produce a movie about an Iraqi private with a pregnant wife who loses his military pay and gets shut out of a job in reconstruction because of corruption at Halliburton and joins a nascent insurgency, somebody in the public arena or government would have actually paid attention to the Arabists in the State Department.
CARS vs. TRAINS
Transpo: another big lie. The subway in New York that’s supposed to be so great? It took me 50 minutes one night to get from Lafayette and Spring to the Upper West Side at 12:45am. This is a distance of five miles. I could have driven as far in L.A. in 15 minutes, and while I’d have to shoulder the expense of a car, gas and insurance, way more money than that is going into my apartment here, which is 40% the size of, yet costs as much as, my place in L.A. L.A. creates smog and greenhouse gases, it’s true. And is its pollution really L.A.’s fault? Actually, it’s Washington and Detroit’s fault. And the multitude of diesel engines whose particulate matter you’re forced to breathe in while walking the streets of New York are probably the equivalent of smoking a pack a day. Indeed, it’s recently been scientifically proven that PM emissions in New York are a major factor in asthma, allergies and brain development, even controlling for factors such as secondhand smoke exposure, socioeconomic status and other things, for poor children in New York. And there’s always offsetting, and electric vehicles.
“If all you care about is weather and real estate, yeah, L.A. is better,” a friend, who writes for magazines and television and spends time in both cities, told me over dinner recently. What my friend failed to acknowledge is that, for most people, ninety percent of life is massively influenced by weather and real estate. Sure, if you’re single &/or childless and can skip town whenever you feel like it, if you can go out till 2 and sleep till 11 and take advantage of all the city has to offer, if you spend every waking hour at gallery openings and luncheon meetings and bars and restaurants and none in your 500 sq. ft. apartment—sure, New York rules. But how many people does this describe, who can afford to live like this? It basically describes my friend, and the characters on Sex and the City. Which was not a documentary. I’m writing this on a train paralleling the Hudson, and I can look across at fog-shrouded hills, verdant hills of maple, oak, elm and pine, and it’s really quite beautiful. Even the brown river, reflecting the grey of the sky and the green palisades above, lends a pleasing, matching contrast to the scenery. Here comes the Tappan Zee Bridge, a husky cantilevered affair squiring commuters across the river. A cormorant is standing on a rock, drying its opened wings. And West Point is really an impressive structure, cut from the granite on which is stands, like Les Baux de Provence is from bauxite, and looking every bit the part of the nation’s first military academy.
Step outside the city and it’s a beautiful part of the world. California, however, reconstituted Americans’ idea of what beauty in the world could mean. There are many great things to do and great people to see here. I don’t deny any of it. But I’ll take L.A.