At The Edges of the Story: The Nature of Los Angeles

EARLIER THIS week, one of my reporter colleagues was on Facebook grousing, in that way people do on Facebook, about the gray skies over Los Angeles. He took his mini-vent one step further to say that there was something about a cloudy day in Los Angeles that was worse than a cloudy day somewhere else. There were a smattering of comments following up that mildly agreed or disagreed. I thought about adding my two cents, but it seemed beside the point.

I realized that this writer was suggesting something that my students and I have been talking about from different angles in our Los Angeles feature-writing class all semester: The ways in which the ante is upped here in Los Angeles, that even less-than stellar weather (!) can be a grounds for deep disappointment. This seemed unfair, of course, as it was still in the 70s and it was hardly an inconvenience. Simply, if you think about it, a day off for the sun.

Why such the high standard of subjective perfection? He’s a transplant from thousands of miles elsewhere, which got me thinking. I realized again, the perspective difference. For me, as a native, gray skies offer an alternative, a different way to see Los Angeles; it’s a break from being “on,” a different mood from that megawatt smile. I see the city in a different way on days like that. The sky might look like steel-wool, the mountains with the snow on the peaks, jut out against it, the green of the trees look that much more vibrant. It’s still stunning and textured, but you see a different side — something more layered, contemplative.

On the same theme, this week The New Yorker put up an engaging short interview with the photographer Bruce Davidson talking about photographing nature in Los Angeles. In a way, if he were in our class, his final piece would have been Arcadia/Utopia. He literally is looking for the places in L.A. where nature and man-made urban life intersect. “I had a vision of the superhighways intermingling with the trees,” says Davidson early in the interview. “Nature has this way of commingling, of living with the city itself. Nature clings, nature will adapt. Nature will find a way to live even under concrete. Nature is there surrounding the grid of the city itself. I was drawn to this challenge.”

Watching the images and Davidson speaking about his process a second time, I realized that what he’s observing about the Southland’s nature — flora and fauna — is true about us — humans. Angelenos, those who are drawn to Los Angeles, compelled to stay, find themselves figuring out ways to adapt to what it the city is — the broken dream or promise, the “dingbat” apartment instead of the sprawling ranch-style home — in other words, the reality check, or better, the compromise.

Los Angeles, in its postcard moments — the first hours after a storm has scrubbed the basin, or an aggressive but not violent Santa Ana gusts through — flaunts its otherworldly moutains-to-the-sea beauty. But as most of us know, rarely does it look like this everyday. The Los Angeles that we come to love, hate, feel ambivalence about is something that goes deeper than what’s at face.

For me, it’s always been those small stories at the edges of the postcard, the things that get cropped away from the official picture that I “cling” to. The stories that “commingle” as Davidson puts it, with the forward-rush of the city. As a reporter, I’ve always loved to talk to people about their dreams, their plans, their past, their goals, their disappointments, their joy, and how place has tied itself up in those stories. We fall in love with places we say, but really when we say that we mean that we’ve fallen in love with a confluence of things: a quality of a life — some of which is the backdrop and the rhythms of a place, but much of which we’ve constructed through our choices.

The “nature” of Los Angeles that Davidson speaks of and is documenting is a Los Angeles of persistence and resilience and adaptation. But instead of it being read as “survival of the fittest” it could be read as the persistence of the imaginative.

My hope for my students, as the semester closes, is that they stay open and curious and imaginative, that they are tuned into what’s going on at the edges of frame, that they will continue to tell deeper L.A. stories.


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