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The West Coast City-State

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The West Coast City-State

City Talk January 31, 2022
California
Cities

Rosecrans Baldwin, a novelist and writer living in Los Angeles, is author of Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the book.

Everything Now talks about the idea of a city-state as a metaphor for Los Angeles. What do you mean by that?

As soon as my wife and I got here, I got the sense that Los Angeles was much more than just the city of Los Angeles. First, lots of places here seem like neighborhoods but are cities of their own—Beverly Hills, Compton, Lakewood. Los Angeles County itself, which is often what people mean when they say “L.A.,” is 88 cities spread over 4,000 square miles. It’s the largest government entity in the United States that’s not a state. Then there’s Greater Los Angeles, almost 20 million people in the five counties, and that’s also “L.A.,” and when you’re driving it, all of it seems to unroll without end, like social media’s infinite scroll, unless you crash into the ocean or the desert or the mountains.

Los Angeles is a city in California—yes, of course. But calling L.A. a city still felt somewhat inaccurate to me. The term doesn’t account for what it’s like to live here. It doesn’t account for the ways that county supervisors, city council members, and billionaires all vie for power. We have vast countryside, we have the largest urban national park in the world, we have a national forest—only 40 minutes from Downtown—with backcountry skiing. L.A. County is bigger than 40 U.S. states in population. It’s bigger economically than almost all of them. But we’re also dense with city centers; we’re not just sprawl. And add to all of that our incredible diversity, the gaps in income and wealth, the natural disasters.

Basically, I went looking for an idea that could help me understand L.A.’s identity, and the city-state—this model humans have had since antiquity, of an independent place with its own culture and economic and political life—started to ring true.

You’re a relative newcomer to the city, having moved there in 2014. Do you think that gave you any advantages over a native in writing a book like this?

I don’t think so. Many books have been written about Los Angeles by relative newcomers that are awful. And there are tons by local authors—Octavia E. Butler, Lynell George, Myriam Gurba—that nail it in all kinds of interesting ways. Maybe being a newcomer gave me a sort of useful naïveté at times, or fewer assumptions I needed to examine, but I wouldn’t take it much further than that.

The pandemic has made it hard for cities like New York to draw people and businesses back to their downtown areas. How has Covid affected L.A.?

In a million ways. I’m not sure about the numbers, but I don’t think we saw the exodus that Manhattan and San Francisco experienced. And the city was innovative in some respects in controlling the spread. Covid definitely exposed our inequalities, but L.A.’s inequalities were already on full display. But there were positives, too: I never expected to spend my Saturdays at Dodger Stadium testing and vaccinating people (I volunteered there for about a year), but it became one of my most meaningful experiences of this period.

What are some of your favorite movies or novels about L.A., or in which the city plays an important role?

An easy answer for film is Thom Andersen’s wonderful documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the many ways L.A. has been represented in the movies and TV. For novels, I loved Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries. There’s The Other Americans by Laila Lalami that’s set in the desert about 90 minutes north of Dodger Stadium, but I’d still count it as an L.A. book in some ways. And I recently reread N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and really holds up.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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