Last weekend I visited the East End of Long Island for the first time. I knew only the most conventional things about the Hamptons before I left and did not really want to find out more. It just sounded too stressful for me, fighting traffic on a Friday night to be holed up all weekend in a small town with all the same people you spend the week with in the city.
So I was surprised. The small, old towns (East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Southhampton) are quite lovely, although not quite as lovely, I think, as the small, old towns I know in Connecticut. But the drive was a short and easy one on the jitney early Sunday morning, about two and a half hours.
And the landscape is stunning, like nothing I’ve seen before. The land is low and flat, so flat, with town centers and secondary roads interrupted by farmland, open fields, and, in all directions, when you don’t expect to see it, water. It’s not the ocean that’s so dramatic, although it is, but the smaller coves, inlets, streams, ponds, creeks and marshes. The East End doesn’t feel like a solid land mass and doesn’t feel like a beach either, but some kind of dreamy, porous in-between kind of ground.
In the 1960’s American artists, particularly sculptors, were creating art that had a dingy, mangy patina, that looked as if it were in ruins. This art was shown in galleries and sanctified by critics and sold to collectors. Today artists are building art onto ruins and simply leaving it there. This new art is bright, whimsical, counter-cultural and media savvy. And because it remains outside of the gallery system it is truly subversive, eluding the demands of the market.
This weekend my friends E and G, both avid street art followers, took us to some well-known sites in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We saw graffiti, posters, stickers, stencils, paintings and sculptures, all created by artists and left out in the open. No site is too humble for a street artist. There was art on sidewalks, traffic signals, the backs of street signs, and the sides of abandoned buidings.
In the 1970’s graffiti was a sign of urban malaise, of crime and poverty. Now street art is ennobling and energizing. It can bring a remote street corner or blank facade to life. The works are suprising, funny, and sometimes straight-out beautiful. This art is poignant because none of it lasts. Graffiti gets covered with posters and stickers and new markings and then, inevitably, eroded by the elements. It’s also poignant because it seems to speak a quiet, private language. Although it’s out in the public it’s not for everyone. Some of the stickers and sculptures are so small and eccentrically located that you need a special sensitivity to find them. We photographed the works we found as if they were the traces of an ancient civilization.
We ended our day-long tour with a stop at 5Pointz, a graffiti park in Long Island City, Queens. The facade of this enormous factory building is divided into smaller panels that are assigned to individual artists on a rotating basis. At dusk there were painters all along the east sidewalk, plugged into iPods, pacing back and forth and muttering to themselves as they worked out their compositions. They were oblivious to onlookers, entirely transported by their work.
When anyone asks me what my time in Los Angeles was like I respond enthusiastically with the “L” word. I simply loved it.
I’ve been back in New York just over a week and have already lost my golden west coast glow. I run to catch the bus. I avoid eye contact with people in front of me at the grocery store. I don’t put money in the tip jar.
I miss the sunshine. I miss the quietness. And I miss the hills. As I walk around New York I feel that some essential element of the landscape is missing, that despite its indelible character there is a curious placelessness about this place.
When telling friends in New York that I would be spending the month of August in Los Angeles I was careful to use the work “sabbatical.” This is because I intended to shift all aspects of my life to Los Angeles for that period of time, because I did not intend to take a break from anything.
While I’ve done just that I’ve probably had too much fun to call this a “sabbatical.” There have been trips to the beach, sightseeing excursions, happy hours, meals with friends, window shopping, long coffee breaks, aimless wanderings through the city, and needless but comforting trips to Target.
Maybe the greatest blessing of all was the chance to slip out of my New York City life. I do things here that I would never do there: I wear flip-flops, I talk to strangers, I don’t check my email. What a freedom to wake up each morning and know that it will be sunny and clear, and to worry, firstly and only, about feeding the cats. Although there were moments when I missed my family and friends (and my doormen) acutely it was never troubling; I knew that I would return to them soon enough.
All this California living has given me a tremendous amount of energy and optimism. I’m sorry to leave so soon but I feel entirely recharged, ready to jump back into my “real” life and wrestle with all its uncertainties. I head back to New York with a sigh and a smile.
It would be remiss to leave without trying to understand what Los Angeles architecture is. It’s easy to say that it’s an architecture of the car, of billboards and neon signs, of drive-throughs, freeways and parking lots. But the most striking qualities of the city, for me, are the moderate climate, the high hills, and the bright white light. What follows?
This is an inside-outside architecture, a porous architecture, an architecture that is not so concerned with enclosure. Houses are loaded with porches, patios, louvers, screens and windows. This is a garden architecture, where plantings are not an afterthought but integral to the character of a building. Even the most anonymous office apartment blocks have lovely trees, gardens, and creeping vines.
This is also, essentially, a private architecture, one that doesn’t reveal itself all at once. Houses on the hills in Silverlake and the Hollywood Hills face the valleys and offer blank facades to the street. In low-lying neighborhoods like West Hollywood, front yards, no matter how small, are often enclosed with opaque hedges and fences. Angelenos go to great lengths to claim some quiet space for themselves away from the street.
Two specific buildings spring to mind. My friend A has introduced me to the beautiful courtyard apartments in the city, which he is developing a project about. Built in the 1920’s and 1930’s, often in a Spanish style, these complexes set richly detailed units around one or more private courtyards. Yesterday we visited The Krotona, the former campus of the Theosophical Society, where student rooms have been converted to apartments. The courtyard there is sedate and stunning, it’s own little dream world. Why would one ever leave?
A contemporary Los Angeles architect, Lorcan O’Herlihy, has built several mid-sized apartment complexes here. Most are simple volumes whose facades are composed of systematically layered panels. In an apartment in West Hollywood flat metal panels are raised away from the structure of the building, creating a porous, occupiable middle layer of stairs, balconies, and overhangs. There is a private world just beneath the outer skin of the buiding. In one sense, it’s just the inverse of the courtyard buildings.
My mother once said, “In Montreal there is a church on every street corner.” In Los Angeles there is not a church on every street corner. In fact there don’t seem to be many churches, of any denomination, at all. I passed a synagagoue behind Sunset Avenue, found a gurdwara (a Sikh temple) in Los Feliz, and visited the Cathedral downtown. But in general, even more so than in other American cities, Los Angeles seems rather godless.
The dearth of religious buildings is in sharp contrast to the powerful presence of the Church of Scientology. The church owns various properties, commercial and residential, throughout the city. There is Church of Scientology building on Sunset Boulevard and the L. Ron Hubbard Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard. And there is a street off Hollywood Boulevard called “L. Ron Hubbard Way.” (As my friend A noted, with some satisfaction, it’s the smallest street in the city.)
The jewel in the crown is the Scientology Celebrity Centre International, an immense Norman-style structure on a tranquil block of Franklin Avenue. There are eight-foot high hedges along all sides and a brass plaque at the exit that reads, confusingly, “The Manor Hotel.” As I walked by with my camera a security guard on a bicycle rode up and asked, cheerfully and robotically, if he could help me find the HOLLYWOOD sign. This church wants to remain in plain sight but doesn’t want anyone looking too closely.
One pretty ploy Los Angeles architects use is to cover their facades with climbing ivy and shrubs. Typically architects don’t get mixed up with plants; they fall outside their domain. But LA architects are happy to let greenery run its course and, both literally and metaphorically, obscure their own work. Along Melrose Place, where some of the city’s chicest clothing and decorating shops are, this treatment is employed without reserve. Ivy-covered shopfronts and immense, leafy trees give the street a distinctly botanical flair.
At Opening Ceremony, an ecclectic boutique further south on La Cienega, the greenery promises to trump the facade. In lieu of conventional signage the architects installed gigantic wire letters, frames for topiary, spelling out the shop’s (long) name along the sidewalk. This “sign”, much wider than the store itself, spans most of the block. There are stems of ivy beneath each letter that will grow to cover the forms. But right now the letters are ghostly outlines, a fine tangle of lines barely legible from a passing car.
What neighborhood in Los Angeles best captures the essence of southern California? My vote goes to Venice, a mish-mash of hippy and high bourgeois sensibilities where anything goes.
On Monday I strolled Abbott Kinney Boulevard with friends. It was past noon and the place was just coming to life. There were New-Age-type bookstores, dingy coffee shops, and yoga and cycling salons. There were tiny, impeccably curated boutiques selling gifts and clothing that felt both home-spun and precious. Most of the businesses were fitted inside ramshackle wood houses. Mixed in among them were glassy new houses and condominiums. Although contemporary in design these buildings were reserved in scale and deportment; somehow they fit right in.
Along the boardwalk at Venice Beach artists sold feather earrings, river rock sculptures, and toys made of Coke cans. Stores sold gold bikinis and medicinal marijuana. Teenage hipsters and well-heeled grown-ups sat at the cafes. Homeless people and tourists rested side by side on the grassy embankment that separates the boardwalk from the sand. It was more than peaceful coexistence, it was a kind of bliss-out.
I’ve been around the world, or some parts of of it at least. Each new city I discover reminds me of some other city I already know. And so it is with Los Angeles. Hollwood Boulevard,with its tawdry storefronts and neon lights, evokes Times Square. The core of historic office towers downtown reminds me of Providence. Driving through Brentwood one night I remember Marine Drive in Mumbai. At other times during my stay here I think of Berlin, Northhampton (Massachusetts), and Buenos Aires, a city I have never even been to.
Other associations are more personal than physical. A curving beachfront road in Carpinteria, lined with scrappy bungalows, reminds me of childhood summers in suburban Connecticut, of charcoal briquettes and swimming lessons. A winding, interior road near Santa Barbara, lined with with high fences and lavish gardens, reminds me of a family holiday I dodged (as an adult) in the Bahamas.
At times the city mirrors New York. Los Feliz and Silverlake might stand in for the West Village and Williamsburg. Sunset Boulevard brings to mind the Lower East Side. But there are certain things about LA that are sui generis. The bright white light, the endless streams of traffic, the gentle silhouette of the Hollywood Hills, these all pull me right back to where I am.
When I first told people that I was spending a month in Los Angeles just about everyone said, “You’ll need a car, won’t you?” Like a true New Yorker I explained that I would be living in a walkable neighborhood (West Hollywood) and using the buses and trains. The typical response was stunned silence.
So far I’ve managed admirably. In ten minutes or less I can walk to grocery stores, parks, cafes, restaurants, a post office, a copy store, and Target. My friend A has been incredibly generous, planning group outings and allowing me to tag along as he runs personal and work-related errands. In this way I’ve covered a lot of ground, visited many different neighborhoods. And I’m using the MetroRail and MetroBus system to explore downtown and the eastern and southern parts of the city.
But something inside has given way and I am now ready to accept the wisdom that LA is a car city. Waiting for the Sunset Boulevard bus on Sunday afternoon, I stood for nearly half an hour in a dusty, lonely shelter at the edge of the sidewalk, dripping with sweat, as hundreds of cars hurtled past. A man in the passenger seat of a passing white sedan looked over at me and shook his head in disbelief.
Walking through the city has been a bit easier but brings its own indignities. Moving down Santa Monica Boulevard last week, sporting a huge floppy hat to keep out the sun, and pulling a wire cart full of dirty laundry, I felt like a city eccentric, contrary and conspicuous. For the first time I allowed myself to think: “I wish I had a car.”