on falling in love with a city & choosing it above all else
My dream of moving to Los Angeles began when I was in my early 20’s living in Colorado, where I was born and raised. Back in 2009, I was dating someone from my hometown who had just moved to LA, and while I was partially motivated to be close to him, I also fell in love with the city on my many visits out here. On any given day, he and I would hop on Highway 90 near his apartment and plant ourselves at the beach in Marina del Rey. The air was always warm but not hot on that side of town, and when the sun would catch the marine layer at sunrise or sunset, it felt like we were swimming in the pink-purple air that blanketed everything, casting buildings, trees, and sidewalks in a soft, colorful glow. Driving up and down the 405, palm trees reaching their skinny little bodies up into the sky, the night glittering around them, was all I needed to ignite my crush on this place those many years ago.
I applied desperately to whatever PhD programs I could find in and near LA, and due to what, even now, feels like the most glorious stroke of good luck, I was waitlisted and then admitted to USC in 2012. By the time I moved to LA on August 16th of that year, the relationship I’d had with the man I used to visit was coming to an end, but my love for this city was brand new and shiny and I hit the ground running. My theme song for my arrival was Starfucker’s “Holly,” blasted through my car stereo on repeat, while I screamed along with the lyrics, LA, LA hasn’t killed me yet. I was newly 24 and ready to finally live more than eight hours away from my hometown. As much as I have always loved Colorado, and even though my obsession with and love of place began there (that’s a different essay for a different day), I was ready for the next stage of my life in this strange and sprawling city by the sea.
Ten years later, on a quiet little patio in the neighborhood I now call home, I expressed to my collaborator Samanta Helou Hernandez, for the millionth time, my undying love for LA. “This is my place,” I said between mouthfuls of syrupy french toast, “my best place, my favorite place.” “I will die here,” I said, also not for the first time. One of the only ways I know how to convey the intensity of a feeling in my heart is to express it in the most exaggerated way possible and just hope it lands in someone else the way it feels inside of me.
“What is it that you love about LA so much?” Sami asked. This is a reasonable question, especially given that Sami, J.T., and I have committed to articulating week after week in this newsletter the small details of our home that make it what it is. It is also a question I should have been equipped to answer immediately, especially since I was the one who started the conversation. But as always when I am asked a big question that I should have an answer to, I was stunned into momentary silence.
“Look around us!” I said, after a minute or so of trying to come up with some smart and poetic response. All I could do was gesture wildly at the lush plants nearby, at the palm trees in the distance, at the weather and the delicious food, hoping the environment would speak for me, would fill in those blanks I somehow couldn’t seem to fill, because how does one put into words a feeling that is so deep and multitudinous and ever-growing?
Los Angeles is full of specificity, so nailing down one or even a few reasons I love it feels impossible. LA is currently facing an invasion of homogenous gray and white boxy commercial and residential buildings—much like many other major American cities that are becoming replicas of each other—but Los Angeles remains distinctive down to every last mural of a Virgen de Guadalupe, every last crumbling craftsman, bungalow court, three-story brick walk up with fire escapes, dingbat apartment architectural weirdness, hand-painted community fridge, and fruit tree brought by an immigrant from another part of the world. To walk or skate or bike or bus or drive through Los Angeles is to turn a corner and witness a different ecosystem of neighborly relations, aesthetics, food culture, or plant life.
I started thinking about all my favorite beaches, restaurants, secret hideaways, and neighborhoods, but that didn’t seem like the right approach to Sami’s question either. Instead, I reminded her of an Instagram video she recently shared with me featuring a barber giving another man a haircut in broad daylight in the middle of the newly-constructed, highly contested 6th Street bridge. A bridge that was built to film car commercials. A bridge that was never intended for the very public it in fact serves. In this Instagram video, these two men perform the intimate ritual of a haircut while cars race by and young kids on bikes pop their front wheels into the air.
The feeling I felt watching that video, watching LA’s youth take over this space that wasn’t built for them but that belongs to them more than anyone, that feeling encompasses so much of what LA is to me. The subversion of public space, the convergence of so many cultures, the unabashed joy of spectacle—in a town built on spectacle—that you make only for yourself and your people.
LA is meeting up with a new friend who walks you down the street to a poorly lit sidewalk outside of a grocery store in Koreatown to buy carne asada tacos that have been cooked by two abuelas on a grill they balanced inside a shopping cart, then wandering over to whatever boba shop is still open and ordering something bright and sweet at 11PM.
LA is going to the State Park next to Chinatown to watch the original Jurassic Park movie on a giant blow up display with the downtown skyline in the background, and bursting into a smile when the audience erupts in cheers every time a new character arrives on screen. Because in Los Angeles people make and love movies, so there is no more special movie-going experience than watching new or classic films in community with people who make movies for a living, who love movies above all else.
LA is calling up your collaborators and whining about how much you want a Cuban sandwich from El Cochinito on Sunset, then driving them to El Cochinito to buy a small feast that you eat together in Vista Hermosa Park until the sun goes down as you collectively devise a plan for a little newsletter about your neighborhood.
LA is trying to make your way to Echo Park Lake to see some of the kids you used to teach, getting caught in low-rider traffic, and not even being mad about it because your eyes are too busy taking in all the colors and brilliant, unique modifications of every vehicle alongside the beautiful, joyful faces of every driver and passenger and onlooker.
LA is eating the city’s best hot wings at a dive bar up the street from your apartment on a hot summer evening, then running into your friends unexpectedly, because even though this city is extraordinarily large, these kinds of run-ins are fairly common.
LA is people coming together in coalition to demand better from the city, to demand protection from landlords, from police, from developers. People showing up at City Hall to say: you will stop legalizing policies that kill us, our neighbors, our people.
LA is heaping piles of local produce at every market, farm stand, and grocery store in town all year round.
LA is making plans to spend a day at someone’s cousin’s apartment complex pool where you will stuff your face with tres leches cake while listening to everyone’s own personal take on whether or not tres leches is too soggy to constitute good cake.
LA is hearing that your neighbors are being harassed by their landlord and stepping into community with them so that you can all fight this battle together with your collective resources and skill sets.
LA is coming outside and finding your old, shitty beat up 2004 Honda covered in purple Jacaranda flowers looking car-commercial ready despite its age and many dings and scratches from being parked out on the chaotic streets of this city.
LA is a last-minute DIY punk show at some tiny venue in a strip mall in a neighborhood you’ve never been to before.
LA is street corners filled with colorful displays of flowers and balloons and stuffed animals every Valentine’s Day where vendors provide you with all those last-minute gifts you might want to bring to your parents, your children, your friends, your beloved.
LA is coyotes running through neighborhood streets while you walk your dog at 7AM, everyone quiet and slow in their apartments as they begin the day.
LA is palm trees and cypress, salty air and oceanside sunsets, eating the meat your neighbor grilled in a spur of the moment cookout that becomes an hours-long kickback until it’s 2am and everything is quiet, even the helicopters.
People without a relationship to this place think that LA is all traffic and movie starts and vapid, self-obsessed vanity, and yeah it can be those things sometimes if you mostly inhabit those spaces, but that is maybe 3% of this place where a million different immigrant histories collide, where you can eat food from any country or region or culture in the world just by driving down Pico Blvd or hauling out to the San Gabriel Valley.
Part of why I love Los Angeles is because I became an adult here. I was formed by the many places that shaped me, and those places will live in me forever, but Los Angeles is the only place I’ve ever chosen, again and again, despite the challenges—horrible politicians, exorbitant rent, unchecked development, traffic, I know, you hate the traffic, I get it, we need good public transit, but until then, have you tried putting on your favorite album and just succumbing to this liminal moment where you get to watch the palm fronds peak their heads up over the highways while you decompress on your way to or from wherever it is you need to be?
Los Angeles is the only place where I feel like I can hold all of myself, all of my histories and quirks, all my pain and pleasure at once, because Los Angeles holds all those things in itself too.
Los Angeles, my final destination, my last love, the place from which I can easily reach so many other places I care about—the Mojave desert, the bluffs of the central coast, the base of the Sierras. I love this city so much I started a newsletter about it. I love this city so much I have stayed in the same apartment for 10 years just so that I can become intimately familiar with every inch of a 12-block radius around me before I eventually move on to another part of the city where I will, I’m sure, fall in love all over again with the defunct pay phones, the graffiti artists, the bus stops, the neighbors, all of which remain deeply entrenched in this city of my dreams.
Los Angeles is the city that taught me what it means to love a place, to choose it, and to build a relationship with it. Los Angeles taught me that every place has a history if you care to acknowledge it. Los Angeles taught me that you can prioritize where you live and the communities you live in as much as you prioritize anything else in your life. We are taught from a young age to value our families, our jobs, and our romantic relationships. To make life decisions based on these things. But I recently gave up pursuing the career path I went to school for 13 years to pursue because doing so would have almost certainly required me to leave Los Angeles, and as the pandemic unfolded and my home became more important to me than ever, I realized I would never leave this place for a job, a partner, or anything else I had been told to build my life around.
And let’s be honest, I think the truth is I could fall in love with any place I lived if I tried hard enough, and in that way loving a place, building a relationship with a place, is a lot like building a romantic relationship with another person. It’s partially about the way it makes you feel, but sustaining that love, growing that love, is a choice that you make every day. To go all in, to face the hard stuff head on, to accept the good with the bad, to celebrate what’s beautiful, to try and linger in that beauty as long as you can, to not let go.