No More La-La Land, Part I: Changing References to Los Angeles in the New York Times

February 15, 2012 § 1 Comment


When I moved to California from Boston 30 years ago, I felt I had immigrated to another country. It wasn’t just a matter of climate: people dressed differently, listened to different music, ate different foods–in essence, they were culturally distinct. The experience was both disorienting and exhilarating, and so compelling that although I stayed in-state for the next two years, I felt I had traveled widely.

At the same time, I remember vividly the anti-California sentiment of East Coast newspapers and magazines. In the days before the New York Times regarded itself as the nation’s newspaper, mocking references appeared constantly in its pages, as well as those of the Wall Street Journal. I lived eight years in Berkeley, a lovely university town portrayed by the East Coast press as an absurd hotbed of indolence, radical politics and gourmet food. A particular low point was a Wall Street Journal article whose author claimed to have seen a cake inscribed “Victory to the Sandanistas.” Although no one from Berkeley ever saw this cake, the article was widely reprinted. The derision was universal and lasted about two years.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, I hoped my new home would garner more respect–after all, wasn’t it the capital of popular culture? But it didn’t, unless you consider a shift from “Bizerkeley” to “La-La Land” an improvement. The New York Times routinely referred to Los Angeles as “Tinsel Town,” and employed “laid-back” to describe what undeniably is one of the least relaxed cities on the planet. While there were occasional bright spots, notably Herbert Muschamp’s architectecture reviews, the tone of the Times’ reporting was generally dismissive, casting Los Angeles in the role of an adolescent city whose art, however ambitious, was irrelevant simply because it came from here. Clearly, the sentiment of this harrumphing 1978 movie review by Vincent Canby hadn’t faded from the editorial purview:

“Moment By Moment” is this year’s California “problem” picture, that is, a movie in which people suffer for reasons that never seem very urgent in settings that, though not particular to California, are emblematic of what we think of as the California culture–elaborate beach houses, imported automobiles (public transportation is nowhere in sight), on throughways that are the main arteries of late 20th-century rootlessness.

True, it’s an old review. For a more recent example of cultural condescension, here’s a 2005 Style piece by Monica Corcoran:

GRANTED, the Los Angeles tourism board will never lure visitors with ”Got culture?” After all, even a local hero, the writer Raymond Chandler, once called this place ”a hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.” But on a recent Friday night at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, even the most disdainful of Los Angeles critics would have eaten his hat.

Nevertheless, the past few years have brought improvements in the New York Times’ attitude. Not only does it take Los Angeles far more seriously, with an excellent bureau and in-depth reporting, but it covers stories that formerly would have been of no interest to New Yorkers, such as Hollywoodland’s problems with tourist traffic. Though I used to find it weird, I’ve grown accustomed to reading minutiae about Los Angeles in the Times. At this point, it seems no Los Angeles story is too local, including one about a dispute among members of the Woman’s (sic) Club of Hollywood. Nevertheless, when I found myself reading about a labor action at my neighborhood car wash a couple of years ago, I wondered whether things hadn’t gone too far.

Next: Two cities and their artists.

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