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Debate: Is Los Angeles Shallow or Smart?

Maybe you already have firm opinions about the Southern California megalopolis. Or maybe one of these expert arguments will sway you.

Royce Hall on UCLA campus, image
Photo caption
UCLA campus has classy architecture, such as Royce Hall, and has been the source of scientific breakthroughs.

When the Beverly Hillbillies of television fame drove into L.A. in their rusty jalopy, their story was common to many Angelenos: They were trying to be something they weren’t. Today the Hillbillies’ junker would be traded up for a luxury vehicle, but the pretense persists, and cars are but one example: Nearly a third of L.A.’s autos are leased rather than owned, and that statistic almost doubles for the region’s popular BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.

As one Southern California luxury car-leasing company put it: “Image counts, and in L.A. it pays to be pretty on the outside.”

Like the country-born Clampetts who made their fortune accidentally, popularity and fame in L.A. need not be earned. A single example in a sea of them: One of the town’s more popular natives, celebutante Kim Kardashian, has become outrageously famous for . . . what was it exactly?

The illusions date back a long way. The original name of what is now called Los Angeles described a village along a river: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula, or The Town of Our Lady, Queen of Angels, on the Porciúncula River. Sounds nice, but now that angelic river is a concrete trough caged in chain-link fencing.

Hardly anything Los Angelan is what it seems. For example, a place with 325 days of at least partial sun and 75 miles of beachfront supports more than 250 tanning salons. Similarly, despite the constant influx of beauties hoping to break into show business, Beverly Hills is home to the nation’s highest per capita percentage of cosmetic surgeons.

The region’s curious lingo also reveals artifice. Having “work done” means getting plastic surgery, not remodeling the house. Driving as a “carpool” usually requires only two people—but c’mon, one passenger isn’t a carpool; it’s a friend. Being in the “industry” refers to the business of television, rather than the manufacture of anything durable.

TV brought us the Clampetts—bumpkins who were rich but looked poor. That’s what made them funny, but it’s also what made them true Angelenos. They, too, were not what they appeared to be.
Louise Rafkin

I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago from New England. Every time I return to Massachusetts, someone asks: “So is everyone really shallow and dim out there?”

It’s not just New Englanders who think of L.A. as a vacuous wasteland, notable only for Baywatch and Botox. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen didn’t want to live “in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.”

Even our Northern California brethren dismiss us as innovative lightweights. They seem to think that just because they have an (admittedly impressive) constellation of high-tech companies around San Francisco, we’re technological toddlers down here. Well, here’s something most people don’t know: The first nonmilitary use of the system originally known as ARPANET (now this thing called the Internet) was communication between Stanford and . . . UC–Berkeley? Harvard? Nope! It was UCLA.

In fact, the school has been a source of numerous scientific breakthroughs. For example, Dr. Marco Iacoboni, at the school’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, located the neurons in the brain that respond to human interaction—a system of brain areas he says are important for empathy. Many neuroscientists and psychologists agree that Iacoboni’s discovery proves that humans come wired not just for competition but also for cooperation.

At Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech and NASA wizards operate NASA’s Deep Space Network, an international system of communications facilities that support interplanetary spacecraft missions and exploration of the universe. Trump that, Google.

You want culture? Los Angeles has “an unparalleled collection of residential modernism,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which helps preserve historic buildings. “This is where master architects of the 20th century—Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, and their successors—developed the ideal of Southern California living. There’s a spirit of freedom and innovation here that makes it unlike any other place.”

As for music, those who think all we do down here is produce pop records are just plain wrong, says Jim Svejda, host of renowned L.A. radio station KUSC’s classical evening program. “The Hollywood studio musicians—who must sight-read everything put in front of them perfectly the first time—are the world’s greatest musicians,” Svejda insists. “They have no other choice.”

But just because we’re laid-back (all that sun) and fit (perhaps from playing beach volleyball—invented in Santa Monica) doesn’t mean we’re not as cultured, pioneering, and dynamic as the rest of you.

We just have better tans.
Jamie Stringfellow

Photography by Alton/Shutterstock

This article was first published in March 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.