Our hardboiled hack hunts the L.A. story

The last time Democrats convened in L.A., in 1960, Raymond Chandler, the king of noir, reigned over the city of sunshine. His world-weary detective, Philip Marlowe, immortalized the clipped quip. With the Democrats' return, the Monitor's weary Los Angeles bureau chief resurrects the spirit of Marlowe, with apologies to Chandler.

I needed a vacation. I needed a raise. I needed a higher-speed modem, and a drink of water. Imported spring water. What I had was a pen, a tape recorder, and an e-mail from headquarters:

"Thousands descending on Los Angeles for Democratic National Convention. Tell the world what makes the city tick. File overnight."

Outside, it was a crisp morning, just smog-free enough to make this town's multicultural lab experiment seem simple and sweet, if you didn't have too much on your mind. I had.

The sharpies on the East Coast always wanted to know what made L.A. tick. Some thought it was devolving into a third-world city, a “Blade Runner” dystopia. Others said it was becoming a Pacific Rim prototype of the 21st- century metropolis. Which was it?

We’d been through it all together, the city and me. There were the fires, mudslides, and earthquakes of the 1990s. There was police scandal with the serial regularity of “NYPD Blue.” There was the worst recession this century and a riot or two, give or take.

The city got a nickname from these events that stuck like an epoxy-tinged suction dart in the forehead: the apocalypse theme park. But now, despite another cop scandal, the town was negotiating a “U” turn for the better. Crime was down, the economy was up, and the stuffed shirts at city hall were singing syrupy refrains from “Oklahoma.”

To find out where things stood, I did what I always do. I took a drive.

I lurched down the city's storied, wide boulevards framed by feather-duster palm trees and redolent with the tang of eucalyptus. I circled the downtown high rises, with mirror-skin windows being polished to a gloss by men with furniture-mover muscles and sweaty undershirts.

The newly buffed glass reflected newly paved streets that seemed to shout, "We're ready for CNN!" They also reflected long sidewalks of drab, shanty encampments. Swarms of homeless, poking their heads out of furniture boxes, wore vacant expressions that seemed to say: "No, we're not ready."

I hurried past open-air markets selling hog maws and garment-row storefronts pushing cheap silk suits. They felt like leftovers of the Old Los Angeles, the provincial city of immigration, Prohibition, racketeering, and 50-cent movies. Now they clashed with cyberheads, platinum condos, juice bars that sold shots of wheatgrass, and sidewalks full of Sassoon haircuts on Adam Sandler heads.

I needed a better view. I ducked into 615 South Fifth - the city's highest high-rise - and took two elevators to the 60th floor. Sure, southern California has the cleanest air in 50 years. But I still had to squint through a ruddy haze that hung over the city like a pot lid. I stared at the 88 communities that cohabit the desert valleys with the polite detachment of estranged bedfellows: Hollywood, Koreatown, Little Toyko, Watts, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills.

To the north and west, I could see the most disgruntled domain of all. The sprawling, mostly-white San Fernando Valley, with its Hispanic fringe. Valley bigwigs want an amicable divorce that would split the city in two like a starlet's broken heart.

From the same height where traffic copters buzz over crowded cloverleafs, it's easy to understand why the East Coast sharpies didn't get it. They don't know what a city is. They think it's buses and brownstones and big downtowns. It isn't. It's freeways and minimalls and stucco. Cities - real cities - don't grow up. They grow out.

The words of Mike Davis, a local doomsayer, buzzed in my ears. "A city without boundaries, which ate the desert, cut down the Joshua tree, and the May poles and dreamt of becoming infinite."

A lean-faced woman with lemur eyes startled my reverie. She sat behind a mahogany desk in a black dress, a necklace of white pearls, and a value-added expression.

"Don't trash talk this town," she said, as if divining the scribbles on my pad. She wore the expression of a frightened chinchilla. It was clear to her the place had long gotten a bum rap in the national media.

Maybe, I thought. Through the window behind her, I saw several skyscrapers that had just said goodbye to their Fortune 500 clients. No big corporations hang their fedoras here anymore. A newspaper headline on her desk blared another problem: "Downtown crime fears keep office vacancies high."

Something didn't feel right, though. I needed another clue. I needed some "Oklahoma."

It was almost noon when I rendezvoused with the mayor at the corner of First and Hope. He was talking to a knot of local kids in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where they beam the Oscars and other hokum around the planet. Across the street, the whirr of drills on the fast-rising Disney Concert Hall is giving a Sydney Opera House signature to a bland downtown.

Hatless and pale, the mayor was as conspicuous as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket as he surrounded himself with faces of all races for a multicultural "photo op." "The people's confidence is back," he said.

He sounded like a carnival barker who bawled his spiel so many times he believed it himself. The rest of the pitch came fast and loose. A red hot movie industry. New biotech firms. New multimedia firms. A whole new economy. Eleventh biggest economy in the world. He couldn't stop.

Under development: a giant cathedral, six downtown sound stages, a new home for the Oscars big enough that stars won't trip on one another's Armani trains.

I needed some wheatgrass. Somehow, I didn't feel I was getting the full file.

I drove six blocks for the non-ivory-tower view from L.A.'s underbelly. I needed a fresh hit of Ted Hayes, the biggest mouth in town for underdog causes, and king of a homeless encampment in the shadow of downtown named "Dome Village."

A man wearing dreadlocks, tank top, safari pants, and old running shoes ducked through the doorway of a fiberglass igloo. Inside, computers purred and fans flapped papers on desks.

"Times have changed dramatically for the better in this town," said Hayes, a one-time mayoral candidate himself. He got comfortable in a vinyl deck chair beneath shady ficus trees.

"Racial division is not a serious topic of concern on the streets anymore. We have the economy to thank," he said, using double-arm gestures as if wrestling the air. His words came in defiant counterpoint to several black leaders in town who still see racial problems.

Sun setting, I still needed an answer. The L.A. question buzzed in my mind like a gnat at a picnic.

I called on two more of Los Angeles's broadest thinkers. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a man as smart and pithy as Alan Keyes, and sometimes just as steamed. He told me part of the city's dysfunctional image - and part of what the mayor hasn't been able to fix - "is built into the way the city conceived itself."

L.A.'s founding fathers tried to deep-six the political-boss machines of Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. That meant putting the mayor in a straitjacket, creating nine city council fiefdoms, and adding turf wars from a strong county board.

The result has been a witches brew of woes: failed schools, corrupt cops, buses too full, subways too empty.

Next stop: California historian Kevin Starr, who confirmed what I had found on the streets. "Los Angeles today is in search of a common narrative," he said, a little too literary for me. In the 1980s, when the city hosted the Olympics, it declared itself ready to be a world-class metropolis. In the 1990s, with riots, police scandals, and general mayhem, the city lost its way.

"Now Mayor Riordan has partly turned things around, but the rumblings of discontent still ferment." A half-dozen new mayoral hopefuls are trying to create the new narrative. Two are hawking Hispanic models that mimic Mexico City, two espouse business-recovery models, one includes severing the San Fernando Valley into its own city.

"There is as yet no clear-cut narrative of this city such as other big cities have," Starr said. "Time will tell."

I didn't have any more time. I made my way back down commuter-clogged boulevards to the familiarity of my purring laptop. It was the kind of sultry August night, so hot that even the crickets didn't sing.

"This city, and this reporter, are in search of a narrative," I wrote. I paused, then reached for a bottle of spring water.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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