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The Real Los Angeles

Lisa Eisner

Photo: Lisa Eisner

Playing Alvy Singer in 1977’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen famously described Los Angeles as a place whose only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on red. Thirty-one years later, the old chestnut lives on, but the notorious Manhattan propagandist has crossed over. For the opening of the Los Angeles Opera’s 2008–2009 season, general director Plácido Domingo invited Allen to direct Gianni Schicchi, the third, comic opera in Puccini’s triple-bill Il Trittico. This happens to say much more about Los Angeles than it does about Woody Allen.

For as long as outsiders have jeered at L.A.—“shallow!” “phony!” “pathologically car-dependent!”—L.A. has fought back, if not always from a position of confidence. There was a there there even before I moved from New York eight years ago, but that didn’t stop my East Coast friends from teasing me mercilessly. These days, I rarely hear the cultural wasteland slur, or any other slur, for that matter. One friend who used to sneer spent last February flaunting her invitation to the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—not just a fun bash for an important Renzo Piano building but also, amazingly, a nonindustry hot ticket during Academy Awards week. Another friend just asked me to get her tickets to the L.A. Opera’s production of, you guessed it, Il Trittico.

In the land of quakes, one hesitates to call anything earthshaking, but L.A.’s transformation from a patchwork of born-yesterday suburbs (where I grew up) to a real, unified city registers high on the cultural Richter scale. L.A. hasn’t lost its great historical markers—a beach, a sign, those movie studios. It still has strip malls and housing tracts, but it also has a booming downtown for the first time since the 1950’s—whose population has doubled (from 18,000 to 36,000) since 1999. The construction of new buildings there and elsewhere in the city has made Angelenos notice venerable, neglected ones—and, astonishingly, help stave off their decline. Quite simply, L.A. has awakened to its past—its stories, its people, its places.

Downtown, where I live, I like the way the flashy curves of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall underscore the elegant functionality of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion across the street. Long home to the Oscars, and now to the L.A. Opera, the Midcentury treasure was designed by iconic L.A. architect Welton Becket, who created both Hollywood’s cylindrical Capitol Records building and its geodesic Cinerama Dome. Although the dome was never threatened with destruction, it was very nearly obscured—by ArcLight, the state-of-the-art movie complex of which it is now a part. At the urging of the Los Angeles Conservancy, however, developers changed plans and kept its golf-ball dimples in view. Likewise, in 2006, the Griffith Observatory, a beacon on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood, added more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition space by burrowing into the hill beneath it—leaving its famous shell, site of the climax in Rebel Without a Cause, unscathed.

In L.A., which has long clung to the notion of unending youth, a quiet, organic movement has emerged from finding value in the old. The mantra is “adaptive reuse.” Its bugbears are disposability, fast food, and big carbon footprints. Its mascots are both a Prius (fueled at the all-green-but-the-gas Helios House BP station) and an ancient diesel Mercedes—modified at Lovecraft Bio-Fuels (a company in Silver Lake) to run on doughnut grease.

This movement is not about preservation or conservation per se. It’s about stewardship—of buildings and neighborhoods that carry history, and of passed-down skills. You could call it the new authenticity, though some trend-watcher may coin a catchier phrase. Lisa Eisner, who photographed this story, is a Geiger counter for detecting it, and she led me to many exemplars. “I like things that avoid the ‘Hollywood’ cliché,” she explained, “things that you can’t find in other cities.” The fashion world provides the first stop on what I’ll call the New Authenticity tour.

Designer Christina Kim’s company, Dosa, is synonymous with unbleached organic cotton, environmentally friendly dyes, and recycled materials. In her L.A. factory in Downtown’s Fashion District, Kim collects fabric scraps that would ordinarily be discarded. “I remember being amazed and fascinated at my grandmother’s traditional Korean socks,” she told me, describing soles patched with cotton cloth clipped from bedding, each piece a different shade of white. Mending, Kim realized, could “increase an object’s value, especially when done by hand and with care.” She went on to build a worldwide business by transforming fashion-industry detritus into luscious, labor-intensive clothes.

You can see Kim’s designs on fans like Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston and buy them at the L.A. Barneys. But to get a sense of her relationship to Los Angeles, you must see dosa818, her retail space on the 12th floor of the Wurlitzer Building, a terra-cotta–tiled gem on Downtown’s Broadway. The 7,000-square-foot loft could easily be mistaken for a Zendo, were it not for the art installations and racks of gossamer clothes.

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