So, what’s Los Angeles really like? Ever since the Netflix show You and the movie Marriage Story (written by New Yorkers, just saying) have made it a point to highlight the lowlights of the City of Angels, it’s a question I get a lot. But it’s not a new question. Los Angeles is a strange place to have chosen as a person from the Netherlands. Don’t get me wrong: moving abroad as a Dutchie is perfectly normal. To London. Or Paris. Or Madrid. Even New York or Boston. But choosing LA is a little out there. Choosing LA says something about your personality. Because LA is Hollywood. LA is plastic surgery. LA is everything Amsterdam is not. It’s big, perpetually sunny, spacious, mountainous, has no real city centre, a grid-like layout, sparse public transportation, mostly post-19th Century architecture, and the car as the main form of transportation. It’s where people dream big and loud. Amsterdam is rainy, small, flat, has one city center, a circular maze-like layout, the world’s best public transportation, mostly pre-17th Century architecture, and the bicycle as the main form of transportation. Oh, and the motto is “just be normal, then you’re crazy enough.”
I’m sure the fascination behind the question “what’s LA like” therefore is part sincere. But the other part, perhaps, is the expectation of the answer that You and Marriage Story have provided. That LA is fake and shallow. A cultural wasteland. A tacky summer postcard inhabited by botoxed Barbies and imported palm trees. A smoggy suburb of full freeways and empty souls.
And relax, I’m not here to climb into the role of Defender of Los Angeles. As many LA transplants do, I both hate and love LaLaLand. Sometimes simultaneously. Honestly, I could write a book about LA and it inhabitants. But alas, I will not, since I am busy being an Angeleno cliché: working on a screenplay. I will attempt to condense my thoughts to a Millennial cliché though: a blog post. Here it goes, assumption by assumption…
So what is LA really, like, really, like?
People in Los Angeles Are Shallow
LA has a budding tech industry, the academically excellent USC and UCLA and a film industry that attracts many Ivy Leaguers (partially because they’re the only ones that can afford to pursue careers in the film industry, which often means years of barely paid assistant jobs). Still, I dare say that LA is not a city of intellectuals. In LA 76% has a high school education or higher, compared to a national average of 87%. And judging from my own biased experience there are a lot of models, singers and actors who move to LA straight from high school. Possibly consequently LA can have a bit of a high-school culture where people quickly adopt the latest fad (going gluten-free, doing juice cleanses), without a filter of critical thought.
Before you accuse me of being classist, I’m not saying education necessarily corresponds to intelligence or depth. It doesn’t. One of the greatest disillusions of my life was finding out even well-educated people can be shallow or even plain dumb. Education is just one way to try and specify depth. But depth can also be interpreted as the capacity for empathy, self-reflection or, say, spirituality. LA is home to many artists, and artists often look for the deeper meaning behind things. Therefore, in my opinion, a lot of people in LA are actually not shallow at all.
Sometimes however, the search for meaning translates to a fascination for things like crystals, chakras and other what some may call Kumbaya-esque subject matter. Especially in LA. I like to have a giggle about crystal crazies as much as the next person, but in my better moments I try to just view it as an open mindedness. Many things that were once deemed esoteric have gone on to become part of science, after all. As long as it’s paired with a dose of healthy skepticism, which – well – see before.
“Shallow” can of course also be simply interpreted as a preoccupation with shallow subject matter. Looks. Cars. Abs. Los Angeles’ biggest industry is one that rewards beauty and youth, so yeah, Angelenos do tend have an obsession with the exterior. LA is the capital of ex-prom kings and prom queens, actors, models, cosmetic surgery, fancy gyms, dieting, expensive beauty salons, and perpetually perfectly groomed humans. This level of investment in beauty is something that I haven’t really experienced in any other city I’ve visited, but then I haven’t been to every city on Earth. And though caring about ones looks doesn’t really – or actually really doesn’t – say anything about anyone’s inner life, it does come across as certain way.
So, is LA shallow? Depends on your definition. People seem to put more time and effort in their looks, and it may not be the most academic town in the US, but there are plenty of highly educated people, artists and other smart, deep or interesting people. They may just enjoy talking about pop culture a little more than, say, particle physics.
People in Los Angeles Are Fake
Ohhh, don’t get me started on this one. This is an assumption that lives inside pretty much every European’s head. It truly is all largely based on the fact that Americans say “how are you?” when they say hello. Europeans – Dutchies in particular – like to be honest and straightforward, some may call it blunt or rude. When you say “how are you?” in the Netherlands you literally mean “how are you?” and expect an answer. But in America it means “hi.” And so no, the Gap employee is indeed not expecting to hear about your recent break-up, the same way Arabic-speaking people don’t mean “peace be with you” all too literally when they say “salam aleikum“. They may have just met you, and you may just have killed a bunch of kittens. It’s just how they say hello.
Another thing that adds to the fakeness fable is that people in the United States service industry are criminally underpaid and therefore reliant on tips. Which is why the American waiter or waitress is often much friendlier and – let’s be honest – why service in America is so much better than in Europe (although it’s been changing with the dawn of online reviews). Because of this pleasantness-for-pennies Angelenos are sometimes considered fake. Bullshit, I say, because supermarket employees are friendly as well. And mechanics. And strangers on the street. And they don’t expect tips. Americans have just been culturally conditioned to put on a friendly face regardless of what they’re feeling inside. Europeans in contrast have been conditioned to project their mood, however shitty it is. You can prefer one or the other, but it is simply a difference in culture, not a difference in sincerity.
Now, there is one consequence of the openness and friendliness of Americans that could be interpreted as insincerity. Especially when it comes to Angelenos, because they tend to add a level of impulsiveness and emotionality on top of everything. That consequence is that it can be harder to form deeper friendships. When you move to LA people you’ve just met will provide you with many lovely chats, fun nights and invitations to events. But that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily looking for friendship. They’re just being open and hospitable. LA is also a very transient town. People come and go a lot and tend to put their career at number one. On top of that – due to its sheer size and terrible traffic – LA is a hard place for meeting up with friends. Most people live far away from each other and don’t want to be stuck in traffic over an hour. All these things together can make forming a long-term friendship in LA a little more challenging.
Finally, if you just take “fake” literally then yes: certain types of Angelenos do have some non-naturally occurring components in their bodies. Silicon boobs, nose jobs, fillers, face lifts and other cosmetic procedures are popular in Tinseltown. And it’s not just the known examples, the glaringly obvious. The Jocelyn Wildensteins and Pixee Foxes of this world. The actors and the reality stars. Cosmetic surgery is actually way more normalized than that, and not at all limited to the famous. From PR people to laywers, many Angelenos get a little embellishment here and there. Botox especially. But you often can’t tell, because they’ve done it right. We are talking about people of a certain income level here of course. LA is also home to many working class families and struggling artists, and they’re not necessarily regulars at a Beverly Hills clinic.
So is LA fake? Cosmetic surgery is perhaps more normalized than in other big cities, and forming real friendships is more challenging, but the kindness is all natural. Or cultural. But either way, to me, preferable.
LA Is Nothing But Smog & Freeways
Yes, cars and freeways are ubiquitous in LaLaLand and it can get smoggy. While smog levels have improved by around 70% since the 70s – what did you expect now that Teslas are the latest status symbol – LA is still at numero uno in ozone pollution. LA also has subpar public transportion. I actually love the metro in LA and encourage everyone to check out the Hollywood & Highland station, but it doesn’t get you to too many places. This is partially because of General Motors’ shady conspiracy to block public transportation back in the day. Another part is LA’s unique origin story.
Whereas most cities emerge around a place of trade (often water) and grow from that central hub, Los Angeles received a sudden influx of inhabitants when film studios decided to move there from New York in the 1910s. They came to Los Angeles because it had a bigger variety of scenery (desert, mountains etc.), it was cheaper and because it had better weather – which they technically needed for the cameras of the early days. This obviously attracted many film folk, but also led to surge in industry that brought other workers. These people settled all over the place though, instead of around one central hub. And consequently today LA feels more like a collection of smaller towns (Santa Monica, Los Feliz etc.) than one big city.
A side effect of this is that LA is spacious. Streets are wide and pedestrians few in number. In the city centre of Amsterdam I often get annoyed by how busy and tourist-clogged streets are. You literally have to push your way through. This does not happen in LA. While Downtown LA and the touristy part of Hollywood may have some more busy areas, most of the city is kind of chill. Once you get out of the car, that is.
Despite all the above though, LA isn’t just one big concrete desert with freeways. A fact that’s often overlooked by outsiders is that LA has an abundance of nature to escape to. There are awesome mountain ranges, beaches, canyons, the desert, forests and in winter you even snowboard within an hour drive. I myself was lucky to live right by Griffith Park and went hiking two to three times a week. Camping and going on longer day hikes are also a favorite weekend activity for many Angelenos. The ability to easily get lost in the mountains may be my favorite thing about LA, and I miss it a lot.
LA also has a cyclist community, and when I lived there (I like to think because I lived there) dedicated cycling paths were popping up everywhere. The ads on buses even said “Every lane is a bike lane!” Cycling in West LA and along the coast is a treat, and Silverlake (LA’s hipster neighbourhood) even has bars especially for cyclists. So there’s that.
So is LA all smog and freeways? Well, yes, LA is a car city and does get smoggy, although it’s improved a lot since the 70s. The lack of good public transportation is my least favorite thing about the city, but the easy escapes to LA’s omnipresent mountains is my favorite.
LA Is a Cultural Wasteland
Come on. I mean, it had the Ice Cream Museum… I kid. But seriously, nobody still thinks this, right? Los Angeles is populated by artists. There’s little galleries and boutiques and hand crafting workshops everywhere. LA also has cool museums – especially for modern art – like The Broad, LACMA and both Getty museums. Do they rival the Louvre? No. But few museums do!
Not to mention, LA has an uh-mazing restaurant scene. Michelin may have stopped giving stars in LaLaLand for a while (they’re back now) but I hypothesize that’s only because A. The French and B. Michelin doesn’t understand the dining scene in LA. They’re too focussed on European/Japanese cuisine and white tablecloth establishments while LaLaLand is just not about that. LA is hole-in-the-wall places, Mexican, innovative vegan/vegetarian cuisine, exceptional food trucks, fusion cooking, and just generally more casual places. The dining scene is the number two thing I miss the most about LA.
Last but not least, are movies not culture? Is TV not culture? It may be pop culture, but culture nonetheless. And one of the most fun things about LA is that you can go to free movie screenings. Often with the directors and cast. These screenings happen weekly – especially before award season – and they are the number three thing I miss most about LA.
So is LA a cultural wasteland? NO.
In LA People Only Care About What You Do
It is true that many people that move to LA move there to pursue a career goal. I doubt that this is an LA thing though. In my experience it’s more of an American thing. Or an American city thing. The obsession with career and status is just as prevalent in other American cities, it’s just the industry that’s different. In San Francisco it’s tech or start-ups, in New York it’s finance or Broadway, in LA it’s the film industry.
The thing is, the American dream is still alive. At least in people’s minds. And consequently American cities like New York and LA still attract a lot of hopeful young people to industries that are highly competitive and rarely merit-based. In these cities there’s a big gap between the rich and the poor, but they all live together in close proximity, creating a daily window to that “better” life people aspire to have. A daily confrontation with other’s people’s success. This fuels ambition but, as the years go by, also desperation, giving rise to social system where people are always wondering if someone they meet can maybe help their career.
It’s a logical consequence, and not necessarily an insidious one. Curiosity about those who are successful, or a desire to get closer to people who inspire you is only natural. When I lived in LA I definitely noticed this, and though I’m not proud to say it, I eventually also internalized it. I was just so fascinated by the kind of wealth that I never knew existed and the inner workings of the industry I yearned to work in. I was never able to feign a friendship with someone I felt no connection with, but the successful-in-the-film-biz factor could definitely be an added pull – keep me in friendships or relationships just a little longer than I normally would have. This is also exactly how the “status obsession” manifested itself in most people I knew. Not something to be proud of, but never insidious.
However, there are people for who status comes to define their social interactions. For who it is a constant voice in the back of their mind. And that’s a shame. Because love, support and happiness do not come from transactional relationships, they comes from real friendships. Perhaps that’s why Los Angeles can be a lonely city sometimes. That and the fact that most people have moved far away from their family and childhood friends. And that most LA friends live far away. The irony of it all is that true help with your career will ultimately only come from people who you have a real connection with anyway. Unless there’s a #metoo type of situation, but I’m not getting into that.
So is LA a place where people only care about what you do? Many people do move to LA for career reasons and are very focused on getting ahead but in my experience not more so than in any other big American cities. I’m looking at you, New York and San Francisco. The film industry is just more visible on the world stage.
LA is Glamorous & Has Great Weather
If sunny is your definition of great weather, then yes: LA has fantastic weather 98 percent of the year. I myself, after years of damning it, discovered I actually like rain. I just don’t like cycling in it. Rain makes it easier for me to focus on writing and provides a great excuse to stay home and Netflix (the verb). Rain is cosy. Rain makes me calm. But I know I’m a minority.
A side effect of ever-present good weather that people used to more variable climates often aren’t aware of is that you don’t get the feeling of seasons. Christmas is in the sun, autumn is in the sun and spring and summer are in the blazing sun. Because the weather in LA is so homogenous, time passes in a very different flow. There’s no looking back on “that one summer” because every day is like summer. A dream for most. Not me.
The sun also makes everything look more glamorous, which people of course also associate with LA. And LA certainly has glamorous premieres, award shows, luxury stores, fancy parties, mansion-lined streets and establishments frequented by famous people. But that’s not all there’s to the SoCal city. For every Beverly Hills there is a Compton. And sometimes they’re right next to each other. LA has notorious gangs, a lot of substance abuse and a big homeless problem. Aside from those extremes LA is also home to a lot of normal families. You know, people that are actually from LA (those unicorns). These families tend to live in the valley (the area North of the Hollywood Hills) where large parts look like copy-paste Suburbia.
So does LA have great weather and a lot of glamour? Yes, the sun pretty much always shines and there are many mansions, film premieres, and extravagant events like The Oscars. But outside of that bubble there are also gangs, homeless people and just -you know- normal life.
So What’s LA really like?
It’s a hard question to answer, because I don’t have very consistent feelings about it. I hate when people hate on LA but do it myself frequently. I have moments where I miss it terribly, but others where I’m relieved to not live there anymore. I met some of the most kind, generous people in LA yet also some of the most embittered.
I think LA is a great place to be if you’re rich. A loving place to be if you’re LGBTQ+. An inspiring (though increasingly expensive) place to be as an artist. A good place to be if you hate crowded streets but still want to live in a city. A bad place to be if you hate pop-culture, or sunny weather, or driving.
LA, honestly, is not my favorite city. It is all the best and all the worst. Passionate artists and vacant fame-chasers. Smoggy freeways and sandy beaches. Generous do-goods and predatory producers. Rodeo Drive and Skid Row.
No matter what though, LA, at the very least, is goddamn fascinating.