(1982 journal entry)
I like to stand on a freeway overpass as the sun sets onL.A.The car river at my feet flows to and fro, whirring metal slivery silvery in the escaping light. Behind me, ringing round, the mountains block all retreat between foothills and the fire spreading across the sea. City lights twitter on. Growing and shrinking cars open their eyes yellow and red. I feel the tire-treaded asphalt’s hum. I hear the composite little bangs of cylinders going fast and furious. Smell their farts. Turn round toward the inky profile where mountains had been and let the Santa Anas dryly slap my face: tear ducts rush to compensate and the coming yellow eyed going red eyed river becomes a pinkish smudge cutting though the hills. As watery fires subside to the west, the land here sparkles with signs of life, shining its challenge to the suns above.
“Carpe diem” I say. Seize the day. Seize the fucking day!
(this next one is from Sam Eisenstein’s Creative Writing class at L.A. City College, 1983…interesting piece, but I was way off in that third paragraph, though I was probably reflecting the view of the time, which back then still didn’t know just what to make of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area.)
Los Angeles works when it moves. The common denominator of all those who hope to succeed inL.A.is movement. To move is to make it, to cease moving is to be left out: if not dead, then useless. And if useless, then as good as dead. The whole metropolis surges back and forth with movement. When a part of the city is in the process of change, it lives, and when not it is decaying. There is no such thing as a thriving old neighborhood in this city-when a section gets old and its population grows old-it is doomed. The sons and daughters do not hang around to inherit the old man’s business-they move somewhere else and start their own. The bustling town of twenty, even ten years ago is hardening, growing old, slowing up. What were the outlying “sticks” of a decade before are now building indoor shopping malls, sprouting tracts of homes, and widening the old streets in anticipation of the inexorable reach of urban sprawl.
It is in these places, on the hillsides and within the once secluded valleys even beyond the rim of the Los Angeles Basin, that one can witness the incredible phenomenon of “ghost” streets. Self-contained networks of narrow, apparently residential streets, some ending in cul-de-sacs, others leading into the scrub and the inevitable tangle of Motocross trails. Each one is paved, man-holed, sidewalked and addressed, and marked by numbered street signs, laying in the middle of open fields occupied by no one but ground squirrels. They are named after some kind of thing, by groups: Flowers, for instance, or lakes or states, or Spanish names that begin with “el” or “los”. They give no clue as to whether they were ever inhabited or are waiting for inhabitants. They simply sit there, an empty, windy, and somehow ghostly reminder of a catastrophe that never happened.
We know of course that they are tracts of homes planned but waiting for investors. Yet in walking through the sage and around the tumbleweeds choking the cul-de-sacs, startling the skittish ground squirrels (and probably being watched by the hawks soaring above), one gets an inevitable sense of foreboding: a vaguely chilling feeling that this is the future of Los Angeles. It is hard to think of the reason-a solid physical reason-thatL.A., huge sprawling L.A., exists at all. There is no great harbor (wrong), it is not a large agricultural region (wrong), nor the hub of a large network of trade routes (wrong), or sit atop a commanding site on a river. It is not a capital nor a religious center, nor a center of any ancient traditions. And it is not built up around an industrial core (there are virtually no giant industrial complexes here….but all kinds of light industry, not to mention the movie studios).
Rather it is a collection point for a national whim to move west, away from it all, the magnet for people desperate to make it in the movies. It is an opportunity to make a fast buck, and go home again, richer. It is a collecting point for those who like warmth. Los Angeles is the end result of a national whim: the so-called frontier impulse, but really just the itch to move. It is the end of the road.
Los Angeles’ foundations are shakey: raised on the shifting sands of human migratory tendencies, that is people’s urge to get out and make something of themselves. And when, and if, Southern California can no longer serve that need, it could shrivel up and disappear. It has happened before, for various reasons, to other great cities: Carthage stormed, razed and sown with salt by the conquering Romans.Palmyra, whose fabulous ruins lay awash in the sands, the victim of changing trade routes. Ma’rib, capital of the biblical Sheba, destroyed when a deluge washed away its water supply. Mighty Rome, for a great part of its history, was reduced to a few thousand fever-ridden inhabitants when the surrounding swamps filled once more. And in our country, dozens of towns and cities have faded or disappeared with the end of a boom, change of sovereignty, diversion of a river, or because the residents just got tired of living there. It could happen again, here, to Los Angeles.
But the thought is really of no concern to us. We are an existential populace, making the fast buck in a historical vacuum. Carpe Diem. Our traditions, are folklore are those of change and movement: pre-fabricated housing, the automobile, the freeway, the instant millionaire. But it is worth considering, if only for the sheer hell of it, that those phantom neighborhoods of windblown houseless streets could be a vision of the skeletal remains of Los Angeles in a post-deluvian future. Of Los Angeles, in both idea and reality, if indeed the two can be separated.
For those wonderful freeways that bring people to Los Angeles with such speed and directness; then, once they are here, bind them together into the incongruous mass calledLos Angeles, can, with the same uninterrupted speed and directness lead them away.