Searching for Los Angeles by the Gateway Arch - a Reminiscence


The obsession started before the earthquake.

I was driving on Manchester Road, and something about the slant of light off the car dealerships, the particular combination of Mexican-food diner/meat market/bank/shoe store/train-whistle-in-the-distance, and the unending nature of my errand was enough to take me back. I was on San Fernando Road, and for a just a split second, I was happy – happy to be in traffic, happy to have the glare of the sun in my eyes, happy, even, to be hopelessly late -- because I thought that I was back in Los Angeles.

I was obsessed with Los Angeles. I had lived there for three years. I started my first real job there as a history professor at Cal State Northridge. My son was born there, in Hollywood no less, right across the street from the world headquarters of the Church of Scientology. But my husband worked in St. Louis, and after my son was born, I took leave from my job and we started family life in St. Louis together.

I told this story to just about anyone who would listen. Random mothers in the park, random co-workers of my husband, random grocery store clerks, random anyone. I wanted the whole world to know I belonged back in LA. And when there was no one there to listen, I stole moments to look at web sites filled with jacaranda trees and the views from Griffith Park. Motherhood proved readily adaptable to the aesthetic of studied dishevelment followed by the young filmmakers, writers, and web designers of my old neighborhood, and I eagerly embraced it (at least the dishevelment part). When winter came and St. Louis’s farmers’ markets ended, I would grill my husband upon his return from the grocery store. “Are you sure this was the best produce they had? Are you sure you even bought this today?”

I didn’t just miss the sunny days and the fresh vegetables and our hipster neighbors (although I did miss those desperately, even the hipster neighbors). I missed LA’s problems. I’m a historian of the American West; I have a fondness for the twentieth century. And LA just happens to be THE twentieth-century western city. It’s not just the highways or the cars, although I thought about them too, especially when I was on Manchester Road. When I was in LA, I couldn’t drive to work without thinking about managing the water supply or the way Angelenos had covered over the desert in their yards with bougainvilleas. I couldn’t stop by the hardware store or look at a bus stop or pick up some of that fabulous lettuce without thinking about unionization. I would exit the highway early just to drive through a neighborhood and think about immigration. When my cousin asked why I liked Los Angeles so much, I said without even pausing at the irony: “The people there are so real.”

So at first it seemed like more obsession, and no one was having any of it. When I proposed that maybe, just maybe, it would be possible to line St. Louis and Los Angeles up side-by-side and compare them – to look a little harder for that bit of LA that I thought I had seen on Manchester Road, virtually no one heard me out.

My mother: “You must remove LA’s weather from your browser’s start-up page.”

My aunt, distastefully: “That sounds like a blog.”

My husband, who saw just the faintest echo of an earlier obsession with my home state of New Mexico: “Not everyone measures success in terms of proximity to mountains.”

For those who knew me, this was just one more ploy to get back, if only in my imagination, to the city that had, with its smog and its traffic and its astronomical housing prices and its gross inequalities and its devotion to surface appearances and its unrelentingly bright days, won my heart.

For those that didn’t know me, it just sounded weird. “This must feel really different,” said the grocery store clerks and the mothers at the park and my husband’s co-workers and the teachers at my son’s day care. “Oh, no,” I would say. When I first fell in love with LA, I had heard the urban historian Greg Hise lecture on how Los Angeles was not the great urban exception, how it actually had great similarities to Pittsburgh and St. Louis. ST. LOUIS!

“St. Louis,” I would say when anyone gave me the slightest opening, “is a combination of neighborhoods like LA. It has the same public transportation problems, a large Catholic population, a history of racial segregation and a deracinated downtown.” I didn’t actually say deracinated.

When I started looking, I found more parallels, large and small. Prominent Armenian populations in both cities, a history of fraught public education, both were once part of Spanish territory, both had an elite oddly fascinated with itself (“What high school did you go to?” ask St. Louisans. “Are you in the industry?” say Angelenos), and a similar wackiness in small corners of each city – the drag queen in a wheel chair I once saw in Hollywood; the cigar-smoking elderly man who jogs near Forest Park.

But there must have been something about the exercise that seemed kind of pathetic. “What’s wrong with St. Louis?” asked my friends from elsewhere. “Nothing,” I’d rush to tell them. “It’s a great town -- Forest Park is awesome; there are good restaurants; we can walk to the art museum AND the zoo AND to work AND to day care all from our apartment. It’s a great city for kids. It has a world-class symphony.” “So what’s wrong with St. Louis?” they’d say again. “Nothing,” I’d say, “It’s just…this will seem melodramatic, but it’s just that I don’t feel fully awake here.”

It seemed best to let the idea drop. Sure, cities are more than climate and topography, and there might just be a few scraps of St. Louis that shared whatever magic I had found in LA, but it did seem kind of silly. I let it go.

When my husband tried to wake me, I could feel the shaking. “What is it?” I said. “An earthquake,” he said. “hmmm,” I said. “What do we do?” he asked. I wasn’t fully awake, and I didn’t want to be. I thought about getting up. For a St. Louis earthquake? “I don’t know what to do here,” I said and went back to sleep. But the next day, everyone was talking about it -- the grocery store clerks and the teachers at my son’s day care, and my husband’s co-workers. “Did you feel it?” “The epicenter was in Illinois.” “It was a 5.2.” “Is this common?”

It’s not common, but it wasn’t the first time either. There are earthquakes in St. Louis. I had known that already, but this one made me think again. Maybe there are other similarities, things I had come to consider distinctly LA, when really they were things places shared.

I decided I would go looking for Los Angeles right here in St. Louis. I don’t know what I will find. Maybe something about what it means for people to live together in a city. Maybe something about the homogenization of America. Maybe something about why we’re willing to call some places, but not all places, home. I know it makes little sense to go looking for Los Angeles where it is not. I do, after all, know where it is. I’ve been there before. But I’m fully awake now.