Livin' It Up in La La Land: The City Behind the Myth

I’ve thought for a long time about exactly what I want to say about Los Angeles. Well … realistically it’s been about a week but considering I usually don’t overthink my writing until it is already on the page, the last week might as well have been a lifetime. And I’m still at a loss at where to begin.

Los Angeles. The name of the city itself is so loaded with preconceptions that it could practically be used as an adjective. When I first decided to go to Los Angeles almost two years ago, I had a million expectations and absolutely no idea what awaited me. If I had tried to paint a picture of what my experience would be, it would have ended up a confused, abstract, multi-coloured mess. The kind of piece that can be interpreted in so many different ways that it ends up having no distinct meaning at all.

What I did know, or at least thought I knew, was that I wanted to live there. This I more or less achieved, but my experience of the city managed to fulfil all of my expectations and none of them at the same time. How is that possible? That’s LA for you.

The Energy

New York is driven to breakneck speed by its high-powered financial and business sectors. Washington DC seems to move rapidly round the clock without getting anything substantial done. But Los Angeles moves at a speed of its own. Or rather, at whatever speed it wants to at any given moment. It’s the rebellious teenager of the US.

Downtown Los Angeles is a world of its own – an island floating in a sea of eclectic satellite cities. Once LA’s seedy centre, downtown is gradually pulling itself out of the gutter. It’s the kind of place where you’ll now discover a Whole Foods. A surer sign of gentrification you won’t find. Nonetheless, you’ll find used needle bins in the Whole Foods’ bathroom. Hotspots like the Grand Central Market and Instagram favourites like The Last Bookstore draw flocks of tourists from all over. But walk a few blocks over towards the infamous Skid Row and you’ll still find a city of faded tents.

Los Angeles’ famous beach cities blend together into a sleepy mass. For the most part, they are havens for surfers, hipsters, and retirees. Wander the Redondo Pier in the mornings and all you’ll see are a handful of weathered men enjoying a pint just like they’ve done for decades. Venice, on the other hand, is your typical bohemian enclave. Think skateboarders, graffiti art, and the distinct smell of marijuana hanging in the air. Santa Monica breaks the mould. With its vibrant restaurants and bars, Santa Monica has become a lively destination for tourists and LA locals alike. The famous pier even boasts a noisy, overpriced amusement park.

East Los Angeles is the current trendsetter. It’s pricy but unpolished – the perfect spot for your standard millennial hipster. It’s the kind of place where you’ll pay top dollar for the perfectly worn pair of vintage Levi’s. And I absolutely love it. Los Feliz and increasingly Silver Lake are gold mines for unique vintage shops and boutiques with quaint, eclectic restaurants. On the other side of Griffith Park, Highland Park is peaceful and has some of my favourite coffee shops in the US.

To cap it all off, one of the crown jewels of LA County is Pasadena. The city’s ultimate goal? Perfection. And it seems close to achieving it. Pasadena is centred on Colorado Boulevard; a busy street lined with flawlessly curated stores, pricy coffee shops and artsy restaurants. The Rose Bowl draws people from all over Los Angeles while the Norton Simon and the Huntington Library are some of the best museums in the county. Surrounding these are large, immaculate houses and high priced apartments. Everything in Pasadena screams understated luxury. It isn’t Beverly Hills, but it’s easy to understand why so many celebrities have to live there.

The Glitz and the Glam?

Now for what you’re really curious about. Hollywood. To any outsider, Los Angeles isHollywood. Some might think it’s a pit of debauchery, others believe the streets are paved with gold. But one thing is certain; the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age has passed. Or maybe it never really existed in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong; there are still plenty of actors hanging around. I doubt you’ll find a higher concentration of acting schools anywhere else in the world. A notorious drama queen myself, I sat in on a class at one renowned acting school which I won’t name. The class, in which I was one of many onlookers, consisted of some actors performing a few scenes and receiving feedback from the instructor, who was also the founder of the school. Simple. In fact, it was so simple I mistakenly assumed it was a beginners’ class. But no, it was the Master class. Some of the members had been attending for years. They were talented. But stardom isn’t born overnight. And some of them would be in that class for years to come before they saw even a glimmer of success.

Outside the walls of the acting schools, Sunset Boulevard is full of notoriously seedy motels which double as drug dens, and dilapidated houses. Meanwhile, Hollywood Boulevard is a shadow of its former glory. Pickpockets, unsuspecting tourists and street pedlars surround the Chinese Theatre during the day. At night, streetwalkers and drug dealers patrol the Boulevard. Think Pretty Woman – without the fairy tale ending.

Contrastingly, Beverly Hills is a glamorous ghost town. It is a community of luxurious fortresses. Walled up behind high walls and iron gates, the wealthy and famous lead tucked away lives. Lives that commoners like myself can only speculate at. Especially since no one seems to leave their house except behind the protection of tinted windows. I saw a grand total of one person during my drive in the hills. If aliens invaded Beverly Hills, they’d think every human being was a recluse.

The Life

Life is what you make of it. Nowhere is this truer than in Los Angeles. It’s a city of dreamers of every shape and colour. And dreamers don’t build their lives based on a preconceived mould. LA embraces the unconventional with open arms.

It’s a city where anything is possible, but it’s also a city that reeks of failure. I don’t think there is another city in the US which harbours so many ruined dreams. An artist might be showered with all of the successes Hollywood can offer, while her partner still has to rise at the crack of dawn to commute across the city for a shot at a TV commercial.

Out of curiosity, I woke up before 6am one morning to drive to Studio City for an extras open audition. After all, I wanted the full Los Angeles experience. When I arrived, the line of hopefuls stretched down the block. I couldn’t even see the entrance to the agency. I met a lot of interesting people during my three hours in line. Some were movie lovers who just wanted to make it onto a set, some were artists who needed easy money, and some were hoping for that magical moment where they would be singled out for stardom. Anyone who has worked as an extra knows that this last hope is nothing more than a pipe dream, but nevertheless, there they were. In the end, I didn’t even get into the audition. When the doors opened at 9:30, they took the first hundred people and turned everyone else away. It sums up life in LA perfectly. Waiting in an endless line hopelessly hoping for the chance to be part of something magical.

Photography by Savannah Hayes

Top: Redondo Beach

Middle: 'Urban Light' installation at the LACMA; Hollywood Boulevard

Bottom: Santa Monica Beach

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