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The Imagined City

In his seminal book America, Jean Baudrillard suggested that to understand the American city, “you should begin with the screen and move outwards towards the city.”  Nowhere does this appear truer than in Los Angeles where the hundreds of films set in this city make it meaningful to millions people from around the world. Tourists, one of the city’s principal economic drivers, flock to Los Angeles in part to experience the city they have come to know on the screen. Once they arrive they are often disappointed by what they see as they walk around the unidealized streets of Hollywood. What visitors are looking for when they come to Los Angeles are the various lifestyles characterized on film: private eyes, playboys, cops, gangsters, surfer dudes, valley girls, flunkies, and tramps. The Los Angeles that John Cassavetes, Roman Polanski, James Cameron, Dennis Hopper, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, and many others have captured will never be found in the simulacra proffered up by Hollywood (the neighborhood) or even in Santa Monica, but it just might be found elsewhere in the city.

No one will be surprised to read that Los Angeles is not an urban city in the way that Paris or New York or San Francisco are urban. Critics and boosters alike describe Los Angeles as a city that is decentralized, polynucleated, fragmented, generic, and largely suburban; what the philosopher Marc Augé might describe as a “non-place.” It’s true; the public realm (what construes the term “urban”) in Los Angeles is, for the most part, stunted and highly dispersed. There are a few stretches of urbanity in the city: parts of downtown, the Wilshire corridor, and some beach communities. These urban pockets are popular with tourists and residents alike and they, for the most part, conform to our expectations of what a cosmopolitan city should look like. There are however far richer experiences to be found in Los Angeles. Only, these occur in the most unexpected and difficult to find locations. Throughout the city there are dozens of cultural spaces and happenings, most open to the public. These take place in converted houses, abandoned hotels, quasi-public front yards, or in temporarily occupied empty lots. While these spaces do not represent Los Angeles (a city of this diversity and size is impossible to encapsulate) these incongruous sites do a far better job at conveying the true character of the city. This is the Los Angeles that can more easily be identified with the offbeat and distinctive experiences that have been captured so well in film.

These locations include architecturally significant houses converted into house museums or cultural spaces such as: the Eames House in Pacific Palisades, Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein House in Benedict Canyon, Schindler’s Kings Road House in West Hollywood, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Hollywood, Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills, Richard Neutra’s VDL House in Silver Lake, and Green & Green’s Gamble House in Pasadena. Many of these houses, and similar houses by these same architects, have played starring roles in films about L.A. These houses take on the personalities and lifestyles of many an L.A. Story, the story about the flunky that made good, or the one about the gangster that got his comeuppance, or the one where the playboy met his match. Many also host cultural, social, and artistic events.

To find the city they imagined, visitors to Los Angeles should get off the boulevards, or head home.