In Defense of Los Angeles
“So what’s that like?” he asked me, allowing his forehead to ruffle up onto its lofty perch.”Los Angeles?” I asked. He nodded. “It’s good. Works for me.”
“But, don’t you find the people a bit…”
He had never been to Los Angeles. He was just another New Yorker that despised LA for what he’d heard about it. In his mouth the words “Los Angeles” tasted like the dense smog someone had once told him smothered the city like a duvet. He knew it as a sprawling, summer-soaked, pseudo-cinematic dump that treated its residents, an unruly frigate of conceited fame whores, as a cluster of anonymous figures completely replaceable and interchangeable with one another.
His was hardly a unique opinion of Los Angeles. America’s 2nd largest city is often noted for being one of the most unpopular among Americans. People hate visiting LA. They complain that it’s dirty, dangerous and that there isn’t anything there. But visiting and residing are two entirely different things, and despite its bad reputation Los Angeles is arguably the most nourishing major urban environment in America for an emerging artist.
The last two decades has seen a vast amount of gentrification in New York. While the transformation of the city has meant that it’s significantly safer and cleaner, it’s also considerably more expensive. The emergence of Brooklyn as a cultural mecca came about because the dilapidated borough was the only place young, starving artists could afford to live. And now Brooklyn has become gentrified. So what does New York have left for its creatives? It has its reputation, although today it’s perhaps better known as a wealthy curator than a grassroots creator.
Of course there are other cities. Chicago’s reasonably priced and there are creative industries there, but its crime rate is very high. San Francisco is wonderful, yet almost as expensive as New York. Portland is cheap and thriving creatively but doesn’t have the industry to sustain any more growth. Seattle is somewhat similar to Portland. And while being a wonderfully popular city, Austin is often referred to as a ‘velvet coffin’. So what are we left with? Miami? Boston? Las Vegas?
But as creative young people are migrating helplessly around the country looking for a city that will reward them for their passion and effort, Los Angeles can’t seem to shake its terrible reputation. The assumed vulgarity of Hollywood dominates the public perception of the city, but there is so much more there than the sign on the hill and the stars on the street, and in time Los Angeles could be considered the true ‘cultural capital’ of the United States.
I believe that basic economic sustainability is probably the most important element in cultivating a thriving artistic community. Though it should be stated for the record that Los Angeles is not cheap. It’s one of the most expensive places in the world to live in, and no one has ever said anything to the contrary.
However, it is significantly cheaper than both New York and San Francisco, both of which are the directly competitive markets for the creative industries. Median rent prices for studio apartments in SF and NY are $2295 and $2300 per month respectively. LA’s median price is $1405. But skeptics of using rent as an indicator of cost of living will typically point to the car, the cumbersome commodity that you need to have in Los Angeles.
However, if you live in a part of town (Hollywood, Downtown, or Koreatown) that has adequate public transit access you can live without the car. Sure, the city’s transport system is not as convenient as others, but the number of people choosing to commute to work via public transit is up 5% this year and that’s only going to continue increasing. Newly elected mayor Eric Garcetti recently told Los Angelinos, “We’re investing $36 billion local dollars … to relieve traffic, to build a city that isn’t so dependent on everybody owning a car.”
So there is hope for relieving LA’s archaic reliance on the car over the coming years.
Dense Concentration of Creative People and Industry
One in six people in Los Angeles are employed in the creative industries, which technically makes it the “most creative city in the world”. Every single industry is prevalent in some capacity: film and television, fashion, music industry, entertainment journalism, fine art, publishing, architecture, digital media, design and marketing, giving the city a vast infrastructure of desirable creative careers.
With that being said, if you’re coming to Los Angeles to act (which many, many people do), good luck to you. It’s not easy. According to one source there are about 108,000 actors in the city, and about 21,000 of them are working regularly. But if you’re here to work in something else your chances of being professionally content are significantly higher.
Away from Hollywood, there are lots areas of the city that have vibrant artistic communities that exist independently of the film industry. Silverlake and Echo Park are known for their live music and literature scene. Downtown Los Angeles has a thriving fashion and arts community. NoHo has an extremely supportive alternative arts community. And Venice is home wealth of weird, creative people.
There are deep pockets of creative individuals producing incredible work in LA. It’s just a shame that they are often overshadowed by The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Talking about ‘connections’ and ‘networking’ is the seedy element of creativity because it means conversing with a barely concealed motive. But it is part of the business of art.
While moving to one of the large cities isn’t an inevitable conclusion to pursuing creative employment, it can be extremely beneficial. In this world you can work remotely, connecting with people over the internet, and submitting digital work electronically. But an email is no substitute for a handshake, and there are lots of hands to shake in Los Angeles.
The longer you stay in a place the deeper your roots can embed themselves. Almost every transplant in this city came here to work, and that means that networking becomes a daily part of our existence. The sleaze has been removed somewhat by the fact that everyone is schmoozing in order to further their career, and once you become comfortable with that aspect of the industry you can become grateful for the wealth of opportunity that exists to you.
The fact is that this is a complicated time to make money from art. The landscape has changed significantly since the internet’s conception 25 years ago. People have become detached from the notion that creativity ought to be a commodity that one can sustain oneself on. It’s almost regarded as a luxurious accessory to your ‘real job’. And that is a dangerous mentality for a culture to have. A world without artistic expression lacks wonder and the ability to inspire. Art and culture needs to stop being viewed as an indulgence and start being viewed as a necessity for a thriving, educated society.
Los Angeles has the opportunity to emerge as a safe haven for artists fleeing an economy that views their contribution to the world as surplus to requirements. As rent around the country increases and the number of paying jobs in the creative industries decreases it’s easy for young artists to feel discouraged from pursuing careers in their fields. But if LA can manage to gentrify its central neighborhoods at a fair pace it could certainly become an artistic utopia of sorts.
But from the perspective of living standards it’s far from a perfect city. It’s dirty. It’s too big. It’s rather segregated and has an insurmountable income gap. From certain angles it’s hideous to look at. And it often feels like those prepared to succumb to the trappings of vanity receive an unfairly inflated price for their soul. But it is a relatively affordable, diverse city that is brimming with creative minds, and if approached openly can allow a person to blossom and lay long term professional roots where other places would throttle you to death, or have you planning your exit strategy before you’ve unpacked your boxes.
Ross Gardiner is a Scottish writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Follow him here: @rossgardinerman
Anders Rostad is a LA based photographer and videographer. Check his work here: http://andersrostad.com/