Friday, July 6, 2012

The city of angels

It pains me to give you homework, but for the context of this blog post you might want to read this New York Times opinion column.

Earlier today I was sitting around floating through the Times' website, looking for something, anything that might catch my eye. I saw a photo of a bridge and an article titled "The Commuter's City." After nearly three full workweeks of traveling from Orange County into the San Fernando Valley in the morning and back again in the evening, this was a title that intrigued me. It meant something to me because after hours of whining about sitting in traffic, I wanted someone to opine with me on the tortures of living just outside a city.

Well that's not what I got in this article. Instead, I read an homage to small just-outside-a-city towns everywhere. Absent were the long-winded rants about the troubles of traffic, the self-righteous prose about suburban-life versus metropolitan living (notice the differentiated connotations of "life" versus "living"). What was present in high quantities was a loving retelling of a life with a view of New York, but just outside its confines.

I didn't grow up just outside New York. I have, however, lived my whole life just outside a city. From infancy until young adulthood, I have always been an hour's drive outside a big city, but never anywhere closer unless I was in a car.

This is LA. I hope you already knew that.
My mom worked in Los Angeles for years and years, so every few weeks I'd make my way into the city to experience life "on the other side." But the other side was still something nebulous, devoid of meaning save for the pleasure of driving past the Pantages Theatre or Walt Disney Animation Studios.

We'd drive into downtown, park in a parking structure and go upstairs to what I believe was the 14th floor. I'd stand on her vent and look out the window at the freeway overpasses below. Cars would zoom into and out of the city, but I would just them from above - a nonparticipant.

Most of my time in my mom's office was spent playing with a receipt printing machine, punching numbers in and telling my mom she owed whatever quantity of money. If I wasn't typing out numbers, I was using the rubber stamp collection she stashed away to destroy perfectly clean pieces of printer paper.

If we did venture out of the building she worked on, my mom and I would go to the Bonaventure Hotel across the street. I'd have a strawberry-banana smoothie at one of the little shops in the building, she'd grab a cup of coffee or a quick bite and we'd head back.

I knew little else of Los Angeles other than those two high-rise buildings. But in some way I appreciated being a spectator.

Being a commuter myself, though, has changed how I see Los Angeles and its surrounding counties. No longer is it this place of mystery and intrigue, where there are smoothies aplenty and stationery tools I can fiddle about with.

The city that resides just beyond my Orange County-ite reach is a regular, old, lackluster place.

When I read this article, though, I was reminded that perhaps complaining was not all I should do for this or any city I live near. Sometimes, it's better to revert back to that childlike perception which allowed the belief to persist that skyscrapers were beautiful and sidewalks could be places of exploration rather than the favorite haunts of homeless people.

As I was growing up, all I dreamed of was a life in a big city. The first time I visited New York, I promised myself I'd move there. When I went to London, I made the same decision. But over time those hopes changed and took on different characteristics. I decided if I were to live in a city, I wanted to live in a more rural part of that city, or at least near a park. The wonders of a life surrounded by concrete and steel were no longer of interest.

But when you step back and look at a place like New York, London, even Los Angeles, you can't help but notice that there's something beautiful about them. They're these giant communities that are populated by millions of people, yet they feel so singular and personal. When you see a city or travel through it, you develop your own traditions, memories, internal images. The city becomes your own, even if you don't necessarily live in it.

I've spent too long thinking of myself as an outsider of Los Angeles. Looking at the city from a distance makes me judgmental and harsh. But looking at every city in the world, I still embrace the fact that I have had the chance to grow up near on at all. I may be conflicted about the beauty of these places, but that in no way reduces their value, as a stepping stone into a diverse and thriving world just outside my passenger seat window.

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