"Just one giant, rolling backstage": Los Angeles, the city that lies for a living

Another beautiful vista of Downtown Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

Los Angeles is a strange place I’ve been trying to understand for ten years now.

Across that decade I’ve been to the city – I’ve just checked in the two passports I still have handy from my last visit – nine times. Each time, something happens to my understanding of how Los Angeles works – who lives there, how the different concentrations of people coalesce, how the city functions.

My first ride from LAX into the city, all I can remember is driving over a storm drain on the freeway and thinking about Terminator 2. This is in February 2005, on a trip that also took in New York, a city I understand much better, and primarily through these cinema screen references.

New York is a condensed grid of angles and architecture that, when you are inside it, looks like it does in the movies. It’s compact enough, within the rigid borders of Manhattan island, to feel recognisably like what I feel a city should be: a layered, designed burst of too-much-humanity.

Los Angeles isn’t like this. That snapshot feeling (I actually got my camera out, if I remember rightly) happens once every few miles, not every few blocks. Most of Los Angeles is made up of a material and a living experience I can’t comprehend. What are these boulevards that stretch for miles with plant shops and tyre workshops and taco stands? And what pattern of life would bring anyone to them, in this unwalkable cross-section of endless sprawl, to buy anything in particular?

Over the years I’ve gotten to know small areas of the city. I started with Santa Monica which, despite being surrounded on all sides by either more of the city or the ocean isn’t really part of the city at all, only the county of Los Angeles. Santa Monica has landmarks – primarily the pier, which was in a film with Judge Reinhold – and shops that are arranged all together on both sides of the road in a way Santa Monica itself calls a Promenade but I would describe as a High Street.

I’ve stayed up on Sunset Boulevard, which is a mile or so of things that look like they were put together on purpose. I’ve enjoyed the faded art deco grandeur of Hollywood and the old theatres downtown, a style that always strikes me as the native architecture of the city – a city built upon an industry of illusion – and which always restores me after miles of gaudy haphazardry.

Recently, after years of crawling along at ground level and peering out of cab windows, I’ve had added new perspectives on the city. I’ve cycled from Santa Monica up to Mulholland Drive – a Lynchian pilgrimage, and the more I ponder the city, the more appropriate I think it is that it ended at a road rather than a place, and so didn’t really end at all. I’ve continued up to the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills, from which on one side I saw the Hollywood sign, as close as I ever will, and the other an aerial view of downtown Los Angeles, a ripple of rise at the end of a flat, wide expanse.

Finally, on my last trip, I ventured up one of those high rises, the US Bank Tower – three elevators to the 72st floor, like a vertical tube journey – and saw everything at once, from the mountain to the oceans, miles of stretching nothing and whatever stretching up to grey smogged borders that made it feel as though we were trapped in a huge baking snowdome, the edge of our universe clear and manifest.

All of this means that Los Angeles is at once a bitter disappointment and an object of endless, perfect fascination. Two years ago I visited the Walk Of Fame for the first time, moving past the costumed street performers and tracing the stars for names I knew for two blocks, three.

Then, suddenly, the glamour was gone and the streets, still studded with stars and undimmed memories of the screen, were dirty and bare, the tourist nexus dissipating into endless sub-suburbia. That this can happen within sight of the city’s bustling glow seems totally apt, somehow: the immaculately dressed set just a stride or a shift of perspective away from image-shattering reality.


I guess what I’m saying is that I have tried – am trying – to understand Los Angeles as a place that lies for a living and lies to itself. Its natural resource is light, and you can read for years about Hollywood being an industry of light, of images and ideas, without ever taking in what it means to be stood on a street corner in cloudless, unflickering day in the middle of what should be a desert, and to be struck by the somehow solid near-tactile ubiquity of this resource.

Los Angeles is luminous in a profane way, that makes it necessary to wear sunglasses if you want to see, and that makes the air smell of burning on your hotel roof at midday. It’s a place made possible by stolen water and diverted rivers that specialises in a culture of self-deluded surface. Nothing there looks like the movies, really. The city is one giant, rolling backstage.

The thing that makes me think I’m wrong about Los Angeles – that there must be something here other than a trail of empty promises – are the people. The work that brings me to the city means the people I meet there fall into two main camps: unnervingly clean and symmetrical would-be actors working in hotels and restaurants, and cab drivers with humbling life stories and more perspective than can be snatched in a decade of detached bemusement.

This year the cabs I travelled in were driven by a man from Ethiopia who was thrilled when he realised he’d visited London before I was born (“1976!”) and sad when I said I didn’t believe in God (“You lose nothing”). A Korean guy in his 60s drove us from downtown to Sunset, and was delighted that we were British because the woman who taught him English – very well, it seems, in Canada in the 1970s – was also British.

And, in a discombobulating twist as I was preparing myself for the foreignness of the city, the very first cab we got into at the airport was driven by a terrifically English man from Basingstoke. He told us about a youth spent riding his motorcycle knee-to-knee around the ring road roundabouts, so that when he got to Los Angeles and up into the mountains, “Nobody could touch me.”

These cab drivers, and all the cab drivers who drive me on these hour-long jaunts through a city I can’t understand, have a few things in common. They’re always men, they’re always in their 50s or older. They’re never from the States, not originally, and they unfailingly remember the year they arrived. Most confoundingly they’re always happy – about the weather I can’t live with, about the years they’ve spent driving cars in a city throttled by traffic, about whatever promise Los Angeles delivered to them that I can’t perceive.

And though I like to think about this as a city of untruth, the centre of an industry of make-believe manufactured using illusory raw material, I’m willing to concede that Los Angeles might not lie to everybody.

Nathan Ditum writes about films and games. This post originally appeared on his blog, Film Forum.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.