August 19, 2004
Image and Reality in L.A.
Critics say Los Angeles is all image. The city, they claim, presents an illusion to the world much like the movies Hollywood projects on its big screens. The myth goes that it's a city of facades, with the favored tools are the editor's airbrush or the plastic surgeon's scalpel. There are no friendships here, only contacts and connections, they say.
After five years on "extended vacation" in Southern California, I have found these statements far more superficial than the city they decry. As a permanent resident of the tormented Middle East, my time here has left me in awe of the wide variety of religions, colors, languages and life philosophies that intermingle in Los Angeles. To be a minority is to be in the majority in Los Angeles, and despite its fragmented sprawl, coexistence is real, with each community adding to the flavor of the city.
That is not to say, however, there aren't absurd aspects about life in Los Angeles. There is, for example, the infatuation with cars and the impossibly tangled web of freeways. When we bump into people, it is likely in the most literal sense -- a fender bender on the 405.
It is little wonder that I learned one of Los Angeles' more important lessons with the help of my car. Traveling alone on the 10 Freeway opened my eyes to the multitude of faces, languages, cuisines and cultures that run into each other here. Starting in Venice, stereotypical images of Los Angeles abound -- from beach bums soaking in the sun to fitness fanatics pumping iron at Muscle Beach. Moving east, the Jewish neighborhood of the Pico corridor became a second home for me. On my way downtown, I stopped in Koreatown, historic Adams and eventually East Los Angeles, making friends in each community: each group diverse, each group proud, each group American.
I traveled this freeway and others often during my tenure here, visiting a variety of communities along the way. What I have learned here has given me a "Thomas Guide" of sorts to maneuver and navigate through our differences to arrive ultimately at our similarities.
Dorothy Parker once described Los Angeles as "72 suburbs in search of a city," but I sometimes wonder how badly they really want to find it. The communities I passed on my drive down the 10 didn't seem to be looking for it; they already appeared to be perfectly at home and at peace as Angelenos. On July 4, for instance, people from all over this city simply don't appear interested to gather en masse at some civic center, but prefer neighborhood parades, local fireworks displays and backyard barbeques.
Despite this geographic disconnection, the people of Los Angeles are nonetheless remarkably united. They share the same debates about Kobe vs. Shaq, the same frustrations with the traffic, the same concerns about schools and public safety, the same appreciation for the amazing beauty and vibrant cultural life that Los Angeles has to offer. Most importantly, the diverse population of this city shares a truly laudable spirit of respect and tolerance for "the other." There have been, of course, many tough times. However, friendships and relationships that transcend ethnicity and religion are the norm here. By and large, people relate to each other as individuals -- not as groups, not as categories, not as stereotypes. As coming from the Middle East, where ethnic divisions have paralyzed us, I am in awe of the positive cross-cultural interaction between the people of Los Angeles.
It is easy to see the problems from the inside -- social and economic inequality, tensions that sometimes bubble to the surface, the challenge of educating 750,000 children who collectively speak more than 80 languages. It would be easy to focus on the chaotic events that have marked my time here: the energy crisis, wildfires, earthquakes and the recall election.
Yet, for an outsider, Los Angeles is something of a miracle. At the end of the day, you see millions of people from every background imaginable living side by side, working together and forging a future under the bright California sun. In today's world, where terrorism, prejudice and hatred widen the already existing gaps between peoples, this is an inspiration. As I return to my own homeland, I carry with me the hope and promise that Los Angeles offers to the future -- a fitting going-away present from the city of dreams.
Ambassador Yuval Rotem served as consul general of Israel in Los Angeles from September 1999 to August 2004.