The Frontal Cortex

The Psychology of Los Angeles

Bldg blog writes an ode to LA:

L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.
The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.
It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it.
What matters is what you do there.

And maybe that means renting Hot Fuzz and eating too many pretzels; or maybe that means driving a Prius out to Malibu and surfing with Daryl Hannah as a means of protesting something; or maybe that means buying everything Fredric Jameson has ever written and even underlining significant passages as you visit the Westin Bonaventura. Maybe that just means getting into skateboarding, or into E!, or into Zen, Kabbalah, and Christian mysticism; or maybe you’ll plunge yourself into gin-fueled all night Frank Sinatra marathons – or you’ll lift weights and check email every two minutes on your Blackberry and watch old Bruce Willis films.
Who cares?
Literally no one cares, is the answer. No one cares. You’re alone in the world.
L.A. is explicit about that.
The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s the most ridiculous city in the world – but everyone who lives there knows that. No one thinks that L.A. “works,” or that it’s well-designed, or that it’s perfectly functional, or even that it makes sense to have put it there in the first place; they just think it’s interesting.

I’m a native Los Angeleno, and this love letter to the sprawl of Southern California makes me miss it. Sigmund Freud famously declared that civilization, or kultur, was simply a magnified version of the individual mind. That’s how I always like to think of Los Angeles. For me, LA is simply the brain set in concrete, lots of concrete. Those freeways are big spindle cells, and the numerous downtowns (Century City, Santa Monica, the SF Valley, etc.) represent the many functional modules inside the mind. Everybody complains that LA has no center – there is no there there – but isn’t that the point? The brain doesn’t have a center either, and it works beautifully.

And then there’s the lack of central planning. LA is a confederation of neighborhoods that aspire to the condition of suburbs. This means that the city lacks any sensible grid or unifying structure. Highways cut across streets, hills disrupt the boulevards, and mass transit remains a joke. The upside is that LA defines functionality on a very local level. Venice Beach is so different from Studio City which has nothing in common with Hancock Park. All of these little urban villages are designed to be separate. And yet, something interesting emerges when these seemingly isolated civic fragments are forced to share an area code (or three).

The brain works the same way. Our cortex is an accident, a conglomeration of used biological parts that we’ve borrowed from other creatures. It’s a jerry-rigged concoction of isolated neighborhoods (the amygdala, insula, ACC, etc.), each of which gives off its own special vibe. At first glance, it’s hard to see how something meaningful could emerge from such a mess. But that’s where we come from. Take it away, BLDG:

Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it’s bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don’t matter. You’re free.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul Kerry
    October 18, 2007

    You seem to be mixing man-made and nature Jonah, but thats OK as both make you feel humble.LA is exceptional I agree, but how many cities and places in the world make you feel like nothing..like the smallest irrelevant piece of….life? try living in any cold, concrete sprawl where you begin to imagine every other approaching humanity an uncaring threat…but then again, maybe its just your fellow Los Angelenos` that make you feel that way?

  2. #2 Ktesibios
    October 19, 2007

    The upside is that LA defines functionality on a very local level. Venice Beach is so different from Studio City which has nothing in common with Hancock Park. All of these little urban villages are designed to be separate.

    And yet to this native of Camden County NJ, the southeastern corner of the Valley has an astonishingly familiar feel. Studio City, where I live, is basically Cherry Hill with palm trees and smog. Toluca Lake feels so much like Haddonfield that being there on a December evening gives me flashbacks of going trick-or-treating as a kid. North Hollywood is very reminiscent of Collingswood, fading into Camden as I travel west into Van Nuys.

    Take where I grew up, stretch it so that everything is five times farther apart, sprinkle a dozen different skin tones on the people, add palm trees and smog, and presto! You’ve got where I live now.

  3. #3 Alex
    October 21, 2007

    Take where I grew up, stretch it so that everything is five times farther apart, sprinkle a dozen different skin tones on the people, add palm trees and smog, and presto! You’ve got where I live now.

    Those aren’t the most trivial of modifications.

  4. #4 Nick Herman
    November 25, 2007

    Dear sir,
    Surely you are aware of the high degree of variation in physiology–Los Angeles is the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient constantly on various drugs–disoriented and unaware of itself, only momentarily aware of the outside world.

  5. #5 Josie
    January 8, 2009

    From my blog: on myspace.com

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006

    An Homage to my City.
    Current mood: chipper

    I was kinda upset the other day as I was driving home from school. Why? Because I was sitting in the horrendous void that is the 5 freeway; it was especially BAD this day. Jesus, every time I’m on that freeway, time just lapses and I don’t remember anything from the time I left point A and got to point B! After all, how is it that 14 miles=1.5 hours? Does that mathematically make any sense? After griping to myself for about a half hour I realized that I am in the BEST city in the fucking WORLD!!! After all, isn’t it obvious why were the second largest city in the country (fuck NY). I mean really, Angeleno’s have it all. We have the weather (it was 78 today and its November), food, art, suburbs, urban areas, beaches, forests, good folks, and the snow is an hour away, everything. Come on…everwhere else is a miserable dunghole in comparison.

    I meant that last part to be funny, but I sorta still mean it a little bit.

    With the exception of a few assholes, everyone in LA is generally nicer. Nicer than many other large cities like: NY, San Francisco, Madrid, London, Paris, etc… More so than not, we smile at one another, we look out for one another, we are tolerant. LA is rivetting, evocative, inspiring, charming, beautiful, and absurd. I’ve never been a fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I understand why the talk is so much about LA (they write a lot of songs about LA, in case you hadn’t heard). There is no argument, LA is invariably the best city in the world. Writing from the mouth of a true Angeleno, I have to say…There isn’t enough money in the world that could tear me away from my city.

    Yeah, so we may have pollution, traffic, and the highest gas prices in the country, but you know what?-it’s totally worth it. I’m fortunate enough to have a car (or as I like to call it, my mobile office) and over the years I have found something to love in every bit of LA…I think she loves me too.

    If you live here, you’re very fortunate.

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