Los Angeles — Los Angeles is now the Olympic city. Somewhere each day now the games are under way. Somewhere. Cynics have looked forward only to a thickening of traffic on the freeways. Still, life goes on in this vast scattered city of solitary drivers of long freeway distances.
Can the Olympics bring a public spirit, a sense of festival and common enterprise to a place so loosely strung together, to people so mobile and independent, as in southern California?
Signs are that they can. And that the games here are in the mold of an especially southern Californian kind of cultural ritual.
In mainstream Los Angeles - if mainstream can still be used for the Los Angeles of white Midwesterners who migrated here in the first half of the century - the ties that bind people together are relatively weak.
''Los Angeles,'' says University of Southern California historian Steven Ross , ''is probably the most privatized city in the country.'' Daily life offers little by way of public gathering places or strong neighborhoods to weave community fabric. Lives follow separate orbits. Next-door neighbors can work more than 100 miles apart.
People are not part of a social fabric here, but part of a sea, says sociologist William Roy of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Last time the Olympics were here, in 1932, Los Angeles was an unusually white , middle-class city, says UCLA urban planning Prof. Ed Soja. Great migrations from the Pacific and Latin America have changed that, and many of the new Angelenos have established ethnic neighborhoods with a strong community life.
''Little pearls on a string,'' Dr. Soja calls them; culturally isolated communities from Koreatown to white, wealthy Pacific Palisades.
The Olympics can help tie these pearls together. ''It's a universal,'' says Dr. Roy, who has volunteered as an usher for the weight-lifting competition. ''And around here there aren't many universals.''
The Olympics have managed to be visible here. Probably the most unmistakable sign most Angelenos see are the pink-and-aqua overhead freeway signs pointing out off-ramps for events. Events are so far-flung that drivers can encounter these signs anywhere from San Diego, a 21/2-hours' drive to the south, to Santa Barbara, 90 minutes to the north.
Almost as hard to miss are the 40,000 3-by-9-foot banners lining the streets around town.
The feel of these games is strong at their busiest center around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Not an Olympiad of impressive landmarks, the coliseum itself is left over from the 1932 games. But thousands of banners and flags in magenta, aqua, and chrome-yellow waft in the sunny sea breeze. Tents and sail canvas are everywhere like a sophisticated circus, or rather the United Nations as a catered picnic. It's difficult to walk around this Olympic venue without recalling that Los Angeles is the unrivaled entertainment capital of the world. There are people here who are not amateurs when it comes to spectacle.
This is the Los Angeles way. Public life here favors massive and dazzling spectacle. The Rose Parade, the Hollywood Bowl, Dodger games, even Disneyland, are local rituals, says Roy. Still, some were surprised at how many people gathered along their streets to see the Olympic torch. ''That reflects a kind of hunger for public life, for common bonds,'' says historian Ross.
As the buzz of excitement went through a crowd gathered on La Brea Avenue Saturday to see the approaching torch, a small, diffident man who had come alone from a mile away held his flag aloft and explained his feeling: ''I think the people are united.''
A younger man nearby also tried to explain the feeling of history passing through the neighborhood. ''It's symbolic of tying the whole nation together ... for the moment anyway.''
''Nationalism in this country is really a matter of small-town civic pride,'' says Roy. ''The torch is part of that complex set of symbols'' - like Little League baseball, church, and apple pie.