Apples and Oranges: The Pointlessness of Comparing Los Angeles to New York, and the Comparison That Fits
March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
Once again I was forced to wonder why so many New Yorkers equate driving with suburban living. After all, cities everywhere, New York included, are full of cars driven by their residents. In fact, I know some New Yorkers–Manhattanites, no less–who not only have cars but drive them daily, which they don’t find suburban in the least. Perhaps because the woman from New York was a walking, talking cliché, dressed in the kind of outfit–shorts, sandals and tank top–no Angeleno her age would wear off the beach, let alone in February, she made me wonder isn’t it about time these comparisons stopped?
It doesn’t take more than a glance to see that New York is an older, vertical, European-style city, sited on a navigable river and a deep water harbor, and that Los Angeles is a younger*, horizontal, sprawling metropolis that–alone among the world’s great cities–lacks a navigable river. It does have a harbor, albeit one that was created less than a century ago and located some thirty miles south of downtown, in another city. But the most important difference between the two cities is that Los Angeles isn’t European at all, despite once having been the westernmost outpost of the Spanish Empire. In the modern era, its appearance has been influenced more by the American Midwest and Asia than by Europe, and in all aspects of its culture, Los Angeles has looked away from Europe. In short, there are so many more differences than similarities between New York and Los Angeles that to compare them at all seems an exercise in futility.
But there is a city that shares many of Los Angeles’s characteristics–Tokyo. Both cities sprawl across vast plains, incorporating not only former farmland but substantial former towns. Both have historic centers but also multiple newer downtowns–urban hubs that could serve as the centers for sizable cities. Just as greater Los Angeles boasts commercial districts in Pasadena, Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire, Westwood, Long Beach and Santa Monica, Tokyo has such hubs as Shinjuku, Ueno, Shibuya, Roppongi and Shinagawa.
Another similarity is their relative inaccessibility to visitors. Tourists can visit such well-trod attractions as Omotesando and Rodeo Drive, but the best of Tokyo and Los Angeles remains tucked away from major thoroughfares, out of visitors’ sight. Both cities save their charm for natives, revealing their secrets so gradually that even longtime residents are forever discovering something new. Just as I found the route to Lake Hollywood only after a decade of living in Hancock Park, each visit to Tokyo–where I lived from one to thirteen–brings a new revelation. Once I toured a walled garden in a monks’ residence near Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple (est. 645). Though thousands of Tokyoites and tourists visit the temple and surrounding neighborhood daily, the garden was unmarked and hidden from view; if not for a Japanese friend, I never would have known it was there.
As many features as Los Angeles and Tokyo share, however, there is one aspect in which they differ hugely. For the past four hundred years, no one in Japan has thought Tokyo wasn’t the most important place in Japan and the capital of everything; whereas Los Angeles so often has been the Rodney Dangerfield of major cities, disparaged by residents and non-residents alike. But that attitude is changing, and it’s about time.
*Nevertheless, it isn’t quite the young city portrayed by Anglo-centrics who conveniently ignore both its millennia of Native American settlement and its decades (1781-1848) under Spanish Colonial and Mexican rule.
Next time: how the events of the past two decades have transformed the civic mood.