Like a shiny star from afar, Los Angeles glitters and beckons, promising adventure, enticing sunshine, and the potential that anything can happen if you can just get close enough to the heat. That heat – sometimes blessing, sometimes burning – blazes across the entire metropolis (the second largest in the country), from sizzling Hollywood and the red-hot energy of the Strip to the steaming asphalt of 500 road-rage inducing miles of freeway; from the sweltering inner city streets to the scorching sand of a beach in July; from a radiant cloudless sky on a balmy day in January to the towering wildfires of August. And on a sunny, breezy day (to clear the smog), the mile-high, snow-capped mountains to the east and the sparkling Pacific to the west rival the views of any other city in the world.
LA is hot, white hot. It's on the cutting edge of almost everything: the entertainment and music industries, of course, which breed and attract so much creative energy (as well as the requisite groupies and Beverly Hills glitterati), but also so much more. Home to an arts and culture scene that matches anything the East Coast can produce, its arts scene is explosive. Not only does it boast a number of world-class museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Huntington Library art collection and botanical gardens, and the Hammer Museum at UCLA, but it also has a plethora of street art that reflects LA's teeming population and diverse cultures. With more street murals than in any other city in the world, LA includes works by well-known artists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.
And if you want to talk about music…well. You know LA is the center for the recorded music industry (and all the accompanying icons such the Capitol Record building shaped like a stack of vinyl records), but it also supports live performance in a big way. Its stunning and expansive Music Center acts as a powerful magnet to worldwide talent, and includes the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theatre, and the Mark Taper Forum, as well as hosting resident companies Los Angeles Philharmonic, Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles Opera, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Complementing these luminous venues is the venerable Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theater, in addition to many other performance spaces outside of LA proper. But LA's musical influence goes far beyond its support of established talent; it was the center of a vibrant black musical community in the 30s and 40s with Charlie Mingus, Buddy Collette, and Gerald Wilson, and again in the 80s and 90s with hiphop and its subgenre gangsta rap led by Schoolly D, Ice-T, N.W.A, and others. The ultra-cool West Coast jazz also blossomed in LA in the 50s and 60s. Rock exploded here with the Doors, the Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield in the 60s followed by the hard rock and punk rock movements.
On the literary side, LA has provided sustenance and artistic material to dozens of writers and has been at the center of several literary movements, among them the LA crime-novel-meets-modern-angst flavor of the film noir movement fueled partly by LA authors Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, and Dashiell Hammet. Another great worth mentioning is Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, the existential story about the relationship between a big city and its residents.
Complementing this arts-heavy area are several world-class public and private universities, among them UCLA and its educational, research and sports cross-city rival USC (both Pac-10 schools), as well as numerous top-ranked colleges including Occidental, Cal Poly, and the Claremont Colleges to the east.
But LA's prominence is fueled by more than the arts and education. Its diversity is legendary (in spite of dozens of homogenous subdivisions and deadening malls). After Mexico City, it has the largest Mexican community in the world, but there's also Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Thai Town, Koreatown, (also the largest community of Koreans outside Korea), and even Little Armenia. These immigrant populations and ethnic neighborhoods make LA a true melting pot.
Finally, let's talk about transport, because you can't think about LA without considering its notoriety as one of the most flagrantly enthusiastic car cultures in the world – but it has also created one of the most extensive and effective rapid transit systems anywhere. Its daily ridership of 1.7 million (12% of all commuters) takes advantage of an extensive system of bus, subway, rapid transit buses, and light rail lines that crisscross LA County, complemented by a commuter rail system that links LA with neighboring counties.
Arts, music, education, film, international trade, technology: LA is a center for all of these. But while it's on the cutting edge, LA is also close to the abyss. In spite of its efforts at massive transit, its freeways groan under more than 12 million cars daily, and its car-related statistics are the stuff of legends, among them a daily migration of over 300 million miles, while 24/7 radio traffic reports are more numerous than roller-blading blondes on the Venice boardwalk. LA definitely has its share of big-city ills, including racial tensions, corrupt government, and stressed infrastructure.
But there's a reason 13 million people call it home. There is a magic in the air, and here more than anywhere, it's clear that the American dream is alive and well, and even a mediocre actor can become president.