Beat L.A., If You Can: San Francisco’s Emerging Cultural Rival
San Francisco is my hometown. I love the Giants, the 49ers, and foggy summer evenings. But can it still compete with Los Angeles?
The fact is, most Northern Californians have a sense of rivalry with Southern California, for whatever reason. “L.A. is fake,” is something you hear all the time, along with complaints about traffic, urban sprawl, and commercialism (criticisms that William Faulkner summed up rather succinctly). Admittedly, there is some truth to all that. It’s not exactly a picture of ideal, modern urban planning, and the solution to commuter issues seems to be to continually add lanes to already enormous freeways.
But because of all that—because of the sprawl, the seemingly unlimited space, the warm weather, and (perhaps most importantly) the still relatively affordable housing (at least, when compared to San Francisco)—Los Angeles is arguably the largest and most diverse cultural destination in the United States, and one that won’t cost you a fortune to experience. You just have to know where to look—and, once you do, you’ll find it’s everywhere.
A Culinary Mosaic
This phenomenon is perhaps nowhere more visible than in the contemporary food scene in L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. Hidden among nondescript strip malls and under the glow of graphic-designer’s-nightmare plastic signs are restaurants like Rocio’s Mole de los Dioses in Tarzana, where you’ll find true to form, delicious Oaxacan food. Hide Sushi on Sawtelle offers generous cuts of fish in the midst of a great little post-World War Two Japanese neighborhood that has unpretentious, old school charm. At both places, $75 is more than enough for a nice evening for two. Looking for Thai? Chinese? Italian? French? Indian? Armenian? Israeli? Moroccan? Don’t even get me started on Korean. Mexican? You really have to ask? L.A. has cultural gems throughout if you’re willing to take the time. (Even if you’re feeling lazy, you can always reference Jonathan Gold.)
While New York may always be the top destination in the U.S. for highest-of-the-high-end fine dining, and San Francisco is a fantastic place for mid-level to elegant cuisine, L.A. is quite possibly the best place in the country for affordable, great food of almost every variety.
In part because of L.A.’s enduring attraction as a place where stars are born, the creative community is ever active. While the vast majority of those hoping to become the next Matt Damon spend more time waiting tables than gracing the silver screen, there is creative energy everywhere you go, and you can discover art in the unlikeliest of places—take the L.A. Metro, for instance.
I bet you didn’t even know that L.A. had a metro. Well, it does. And it’s full of cool, public art. This is clearly in part because the city has an interest in getting people to make use of public transportation, but it’s also a brilliant dovetail with the idea of the W.P.A. In a place with an abundance of artists, it’s a way to at once employ and celebrate them. While ‘the industry’ is still, for the most part, a ruthless exploiter of failed dreams, it also helps to keep L.A. an affordable place for lower income families and individuals—in order for the industry to be able to chew them up and spit them out, the city needs to remain a place where you can rent a room without being a Hollywood starlet.
It doesn’t take an economist or sociologist (of which I am neither) to see that S.F. is becoming prohibitively expensive. As a child, I remember much more the sense of cultural diversity that I now get from L.A. as a vital component of San Francisco—not to date myself too much, but that wasn’t long after the NASDAQ (founded by none other than Bernie Madoff) first appeared, and before the city’s prices were driven through the roof by the success of the tech sector. San Francisco, in many cases, is simply too costly a place to live for many first-generation Americans, and the result is that L.A. is enjoying the benefits that come from ethnic and cultural diversity to a greater extent than its northern neighbor.
At least, that’s my opinion—and I was born and raised within the ‘windy confines’ of Fog City. Look—it has always been an expensive place to live. By way of example, a slice of apple pie cost as much as 75¢ in San Francisco in 1849. And, admittedly, it’s not all to do with economy—the geography is greatly limited in our 7x7 city.
So, maybe it’s premature. Maybe I’m overreacting. After all, San Francisco’s very history is based on a complex, crowded patchwork of distinct cultures and ethnicities coming together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.
Still, I begin worry about the standing of San Francisco as a cultural destination when newly-constructed, 250-square foot condos are selling for $279,000. At that price, the market is beyond what even most second (or third, or fourth) generation San Franciscans can afford. The idea of having a family—or even of having a ‘nontraditional’ job—pushes you to talk about options in the North, South, or East Bay, for citizens and supervisors alike (remember Chris Daly?).
The Bottom Line
You want a beach? Go to Santa Monica, or Venice, or Huntington, or Malibu, or Newport (the list goes on). You want throwback culture? Go to Griffith observatory. You want current culture? Go to the Hollywood Bowl, LACMA, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Getty Museum (or the Getty Villa), the Museum of Tolerance, the Museum of Jurassic Technology (the list goes on). Fancy coffee? Go to Silver Lake. You want live theater? L.A. has a tremendous number of “little” theaters (a quick Yelp! search turns up 84 results) with “big” talent. You want higher learning? The L.A.Basin alone has four major universities, one of which, USC, supplies the only classical music radio station to be heard in San Francisco. You want tar? Well, L.A. has that, too—along with a tremendous fossil record—at the La Brea Tar Pits.
San Francisco is at risk of becoming a beautiful set piece, like Paris, where a wealthy elite (and tourists) now inhabit once affordable neighborhoods — home to a destitute Henry Miller as he wrote Tropic of Cancer — forcing the next Ford Madox Ford, or James Joyce, or James Baldwin, or Henri Matisse, or Mary Cassatt, to seek other accommodations.
Like, you know, L.A.