This is (Not) Beauty

Words :

Héloïse Hakimi 

Photos :

Alex Madrid

I missed it all. The crisp air of September, the old stone buildings with their delicate wrought iron balconies, the paved sidewalks, the narrow streets and the familiar intertwined lines of the metro. Why had I left the most beautiful city on earth for Los Angeles’ banal buildings, impersonal highways, grey overload and its stifling heat? Why did I chose to move 5651.751 miles away from my beloved Paris to this indescribable conurbation?

What I did not know then, two days after having landed, was that the image of Los Angeles is treacherous. Los Angeles is not a city. Acknowledging that allowed me to understand and appreciate the beauty of LA, a beauty that is different from what I have always known and been taught—making the elusive beauty even more fascinating and breathtaking. A decisive factor in my acceptance of Los Angeles’ differences was Laure Murat, a French Literature professor at UCLA and her book: Ceci n’est pas une ville (This Is Not A City). LA and its unconventional urban features challenge the classic definition of a city. Amongst the city’s disproportion, heterogeneity, lack of center and distinct monuments, it is easy to feel disoriented, dazed and confused. Thus, embracing the city especially for these unconventional features was necessary in my journey to understand LA and to appreciate its beauty. By way of an interview with Laure Murat, and a recounting of my own evolving relationship with LA,

I attempt to explore the intricate beauty of Los Angeles.


In Ceci n’est pas une ville you explore the ability to fall in love with a city. You fell in love with Los Angeles but it is not the kind of love one would expect. It is not fascination; LA did not take you, it does not captivate you. What do you mean then when you write that you fell in love with LA?


Los Angeles doesn’t impose anything on visitors. In that sense, it is, symbolically, the anti-phallic city par excellence. In LA, you don’t feel compelled to visit monuments or museums, you feel invited to stroll or to drive without any specific goal. This “invitation” to discover and to dream triggered my love for LA. I was free and welcome, which is the perfect recipe for a love story. There is a softness in LA, basically provided by the light but also by this feeling of being invited and to “let go,” that is unappreciated.

Unlike Laure Murat, I did not fall in love with LA. I chose UCLA and thus Los Angeles over New York City, which nonetheless enthralled me, because of the vague memory of bright blue skies and constant sun I had. I expected LA to feel like a constant vacation. I expected long drives, with windows down and music blasting, I expected discovering cute coffee shops and small restaurants, I expected endless sunshine, I expected the LA I had experienced when visiting the first time. But LA is not that. I probably have to ascribe some of my dislike of the city to the overall state of mind I was in when I first moved here. I was devastated. As we drove around LA the first day I got here I remember finding everything I saw hideous. Everything was no longer blue but grey, the highways weren’t interesting, just overwhelming and swamp-like. Beauty is subjective and in order to appreciate beauty one needs to be in the right emotional state. Although I was finally somewhat visually satisfied when I first discovered the UCLA campus, LA’s impracticality and overall bizarreness took over my ability to enjoy its unique charm. LA is such an odd city, I had no idea how to approach it.


What exactly makes Los Angeles an unconventional city?


“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland”, famously said Tennessee Williams. Is Los Angeles Cleveland? I doubt it. LA is first unconventional by its size, of course. Everybody knows that but few people realize that Los Angeles fits the outlines of seven cities: San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cleveland—plus the island of Manhattan. In addition, LA is a horizontal city, where the body never feels stopped or blocked, which gives the impression of an endless and seamless territory. In Los Angeles, literally and figuratively, you always have a perspective. The second very unconventional quality of LA is its diversity. You can’t go outside without hearing so many different languages spoken on the streets. It gives you the sense of living in a world rather than a city. The third one is obviously the light. I have never seen such a quality of light, like a pink gold, every day. I have seen beautiful lights in different parts of the word, from Italy to Morocco. But such permanent softness is unique to LA.

I hate to think that I dislike what is different. But it’s probably what happened with LA. Paris is a small medieval city, built around the river La Seine. Its 20 concentrically organized neighborhoods (arrondissements) each have their identity but nonetheless constitute an homogenous city with a lively center. LA is a disorganized suburban patchwork of cities, linked together by disproportionate highways and endless boulevards. LA doesn’t have an architectural identity nor cultural center per say. You can get anywhere in Paris in less than forty-five minutes if you take the subway. You always know where you are in the city and there is hardly any neighborhood you have never explored. If you want to get somewhere in Paris, you are mostly walking or biking distance from it. Los Angeles is so big—13 times bigger than Paris—and its roads are so saturated that a thirty minute car ride is considered short. The car has become an entity in itself, the bubble that allows you to get around (if you do not get stuck in traffic). Although these comparisons might seem to give the win to Paris, when put in perspective, Los Angeles’ unconventionality is actually its strength. LA makes everyday life more difficult and less convenient—but it forces you to take time. The amount of time it takes to get around made me realize that a few minutes in a day is actually not that invaluable and that there is no point in rushing everything you do.


Why do you think LA is a particularly difficult city to appreciate for a lot of people?


LA’s size is intimidating. At first, it looks like a vast chaos with highways and endless boulevards. The dictatorship of the car is also a problem—although the bus network is very well-done and the metro, with the recent opening of the Expo-line, is improving. The fact that LA has no center in itself is also disorienting and probably disturbing for a lot of people, especially Europeans—used to have a more rational approach of what a city is. The trick is the following: rather than considering these issues as flaws, the visitor should make the most of it: the best way to find yourself is first to allow yourself to be lost.

LA is slow, Paris never stops. Paris is a museum city, LA is a non-city. LA gives you space but you can get lost, Paris safely envelops you but you can feel suffocated. Los Angeles and Paris cannot be compared and my mistake was to understand LA as I would apprehend any European city.  


How does one find beauty in Los Angeles? Did some places in particular help shape your love of LA?


I am not a good example because I love everything in LA. I love the contrast between the beautiful Eastern Building downtown (for instance) and the anonymous alleys with trash cans waiting to be picked up. I love the spectacular Observatory in Griffith Park, as well as any uncharacteristic mall, with nails salons and Mexican cafés. LA is always unexpected, wherever you go, because the beauty goes alongside with the banal, all the time. Therefore, you have to be constantly awake and curious. LA beauty relies in its panoramic views as well as in its details but also in the spectacular presence of nature. Poised between the mountains and the ocean, LA is a lush city, with parks, gardens, canyons, and hundreds of plants and flowers all over—not to mention the presence of my dear palm-trees.

Los Angeles taught me that beauty is not only an adjective but an emotion. Beauty is an overwhelming and exulting feeling. Beauty is subjective and personal. Beauty can be found everywhere and in the smallest things. Especially in the city of Angels.