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Francis J. MarienMarch 19, 2024

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in America on Nov. 30, 1957, as "Los Angeles and the Idea of a City."

The speaker saved his best joke until the very end. He expected to sit down amid laughter and cheers. “When space travelers reach the far side of the moon,” he said, “they will see the sign: Los Angeles City Limits.” There was very little laughter and only polite clapping. The audience, composed of “Angelenos,” had not responded. The old joke had lost its punch because it had lost its point. The size of Los Angeles, territory and population, is no longer funny. One does not laugh about the size of Tokyo.

Los Angeles is a large city. In some ways it is an important city. But it is not (yet) a great city. Only those who confuse size with greatness think so. Fewer Angelenos think so than might be imagined. Those who do are the very late invaders who come in search of sun and klieg lights. The sun is still here in spite of the smog, and the klieg lights with their actinic rays enable us to take pictures, smog or no smog. But Los Angeles has changed. The trouble is that not enough people here are aware that it has changed. Fewer still are aware of, or concerned about, the direction of the change.

Twenty-five years ago Los Angeles was described as “Des Moines with palms.” Ten years ago it was “Philadelphia with palms.” Today it is said to be like nothing on earth, with or without palms. The truth is that “L. A.” is fast becoming like a composite image of the “American city” inhabited by the “American-type suburbanite.” It has a local habitation and a name. But it has no distinctive personality. It has no poet, but it will not perish. As an Angeleno I am glad it will not perish, but I am troubled that it has no personality and no poet.

Before the City Council or the Chamber of Commerce resolves to hire Carl Sandburg to fly out and write a poem about Los Angeles, let me say that I do not think he would come and I don’t think he would write a good poem if he did. But if he came and managed to compose some verse acceptable to his new patrons, he would speak of mountains and sea, freeways and supermarkets. Bravely he might allude to smog and traffic. But what would he say about the Angelenos, of their soul, their “state of mind”?

People in Search of a City

The typical, or rather, the average Angeleno does not have the soul of Sandburg’s Chicago fishmonger. In fact, he would misunderstand and resent the suggestion that he did. He is totally unaware of his type, unconscious of himself. In plain truth, the Angeleno, as a distinctive type, does not exist. That is why Los Angeles is not yet a great city. The inhabitants of this area are faceless, abstract, national stereotypes; though they are not unfriendly.

The Angeleno, even the very late-comer, is not uncultivated. He does not lack initiative. He is a solid citizen. At least, the solid citizens now far outnumber the barefooted and bearded metaphysicians, the Townsendites, the “Ham-and-Eggers” and the vanishing evangelists who were thought to constitute the bulk of the population a few invasions ago. Today’s Angelenos do not lack maturity. They exercise civic responsibility. But they lack color; they have no distinctive flavor.

That is why no one comes here to stay just because he likes Angelenos. Those who come to stay are legion; in fact, they constitute the largest migration of free peoples in the history of the world. They come because they like sunshine, beaches, green lawns; because they like, or can tolerate, all identifiable Americans everywhere.

This is a city of strangers, for strangers, by strangers. They come and they swell the ranks of the city. But they do not identify themselves with the spirit of the city—it has no distinctive spirit. They have given us no poets. Many internationally known artists and writers now make their homes in this area. But they neither describe the soul of the Angeleno (how could they?) nor do they hasten his distinctive development (why don’t they?). In this respect, they are as faceless as all the rest.

Who Will Show Us Ourselves?

Los Angeles needs a poet who will make its multitudes reflectively aware of themselves. He must sing of an area not ugly in the bright sunlight from the mountains to the sea, but eclipsed slowly by a man-caused darkness that sweeps in a wide circle, outlining a city unconscious of itself. From a poetical and spiritual point of view, the bard for whose advent I ask must make us see that a multitude of strangers agonizing in smog and traffic have at least a common distinctive problem out of which may grow a distinctive local awareness, a distinctive local concern and a distinctive mode and expression of common friendship—a civic spirit born of companionship in a common problem. Will the poet come? I believe he will.

Anyway, the Dodgers are coming, as welcome as the Marines. And I am sanguine enough to hope their coming will help to arouse a distinctive, local spirit. May their coming mean that we will soon speak a common language with something like a Brooklyn accent and be capable of expressing something like a Bronx cheer. Something like it— but distinctively Angeleno.

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