Encyclopedia Britannica Insulted L.A. — So I Fought Back
Every once in a while, some well-meaning but ignorant individual accuses me of hating Los Angeles.
You don't understand, I say. I was born here. I've lived here my whole life. I know the entire lyrics to Randy Newman's I Love L.A. You don't understand: I saved this city... from a disparaging entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Let me explain.
It was back in the heady days of early 2005. George W. Bush had just begun his second term as President of the United States, Britney Spears had just won her first Grammy for the hit dance single Toxic, and I was working for a little startup called ODVD Games. We made pop culture trivia games like Shout About Movies, Shout About Music, and the lesser-known Shout About Country Music. I spent about half my time editing video, and the other half writing trivia questions.
This was back in the early days of Wikipedia, and Encyclopedia Britannica – the oldest English-language encyclopedia – was still the gold standard for presidential inauguration dates or facts about Bono. And yet one day, while combing through the online version, I noticed something: its entry on Los Angeles was horribly mean! Here's one sampling:
Angelenos live in enclaves walled off from one another by ethnic, cultural, and economic differences. They go their own way, surfing, riding, skiing, yachting, hiking, playing golf and tennis. Nowhere in the world is the pursuit of happiness more unabashedly hedonistic, and, perhaps, no city in modern times has been so universally envied, imitated, ridiculed, and, because of what it may portend, feared. As early as 1927 it was recognized by Bruce Bliven as a melting pot in which the civilization of the future may be seen bubbling darkly up in a foreshadowing brew.
The city is grotesquely shaped, like a charred scrap of paper, with independent municipalities such as Beverly Hills and Culver City as well as unincorporated county land lying within its boundaries.
Foreshadowing brew? Grotesquely shaped? This hardly seemed like the dry, objective tone one had come to expect from an encyclopedia. I checked entries on other major American cities. This is what Britannica had to say about New York:
New York is the most ethnically diverse, religiously varied, commercially driven, famously congested, and, in the eyes of many, the most attractive urban centre in the country. No other city has contributed more images to the collective consciousness of Americans.
Right then, L.A. was a melting pot of foreshadowing brew, while NYC was gloriously diverse.
San Francisco holds a secure place in the United States' romantic dream of itself as a cool, elegant, handsome, worldly seaport whose steep streets offer breathtaking views of one of the world's greatest bays. According to the dream, San Franciscans are sophisticates whose lives hold full measures of such civilized pleasures as music, art, and good food. Their children are to be pitied, for, as the wife of publishing magnate Nelson Doubleday once said, “They will probably grow up thinking all cities are so wonderful.” To San Franciscans their city is a magical place, almost an island, saved by its location and history from the sprawl and monotony that afflicts so much of urban California.
I mean, I like San Francisco too, but we're supposed to pity their children because the city is so goddamn beautiful? That's a bit over the top.
What about New Orleans?
New Orleans is a city of paradox and contrast: while it shares the urban problems afflicting other U.S. cities, it has nevertheless preserved an exuberant and uninhibited spirit.
So L.A. was basically living in a state of apartheid, while New Orleans was a city of contrast. We were surfing, yachting, hedonistic savages; New Orleanians were exuberant.
I was pissed.
And so I wrote a letter to Encyclopedia Britannica, protesting their anti-Los Angeles bias. They sent me back some form letter. I then started a letter-writing campaign, emailing all my friends, posting on, ahem, MySpace and Friendster, urging everyone to write to Encyclopedia Britannica and put an end to their shameful L.A. bashing.
My campaign was met mostly with indifference. A few people agreed with me. Probably just as many said they agreed with Britannica. Still others disagreed with Britannica but liked the entry because too many people were moving here already.
My argument was basically, this is a barometer for how the rest of the country sees us. If you said this about New York to a New Yorker, he would punch you in the face. Where was the outrage? Where was the pride? This was about how we as Angelenos viewed our city, and indeed ourselves.
People couldn't have cared less.
But then I caught a lucky break. My friend Seven McDonald had a column in L.A. Weekly called 24-Seven, in which she wrote short profiles about interesting people. I think a lot of times she just wrote about friends of hers.
So Seven came over to my apartment and interviewed me and pretty soon there was an article about me! She called me The Defender, and quoted me saying this:
If the encyclopedia is saying these things about Los Angeles, it is indicative of how Los Angeles is being perceived. I mean, what the hell did L.A. ever do to the world? We supplied the world with movies and television. What do we get in return? Nothing — a kick in the teeth. I probably wouldn’t feel so strongly about Los Angeles if everyone else didn’t hate it so much.
Somebody’s got to defend this city.
The response was modest. I got a few compliments. I got made fun of a little. There was no indication that Seven's article made any difference at all. But then, a few months later, out of nowhere, Encyclopedia Britannica changed its entry on Los Angeles. The offending paragraphs had disappeared, replaced with this:
A semitropical metropolis of palm trees and swimming pools, television studios and aerospace factories, Los Angeles has become the second most populous city and metropolitan area (after New York) in the United States. The city sprawls across a broad coastal plain agreeably situated between mountains and ocean. Its hallmark is an architecturally dramatic network of freeways. The automobile so dominates life in this uniquely mobile community that Reyner Banham, an English observer who took his cue from scholars who study Italian in order to read Dante, is said to have learned to drive a car so he could ‘read Los Angeles in the original.’
So they were still sort of making fun of us – it was a bit like a neg. But it was respectful. We were "agreeably situated" and our freeways were dramatic. And they quoted Reyner Banham, perhaps the greatest L.A. lover of all time. It got a bit darker a few graphs down:
The metropolitan area has paid for its spectacular growth by acquiring such urban attributes as smog-filled skies, polluted harbours, clogged freeways, crowded classrooms, explosive ethnic enclaves, and annual budgets teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Since the city and the county are so intertwined physically and spiritually, any consideration of Los Angeles must move back and forth between the two entities.
Sure, it was critical. But it was basically true. And a bit later:
The city is irregularly shaped, like a charred scrap of paper, with independent municipalities such as Beverly Hills and Culver City as well as unincorporated county land lying within its boundaries. “Los Angeles represents the ultimate segregation of the unfit,” Bertrand Russell declared, and Frank Lloyd Wright agreed. “It is as if you tipped the United States up and all the commonplace people slid down there into Southern California,” he remarked in 1940, but within the next few years Los Angeles had become so overrun with such gifted European refugees as Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht, Bruno Walter, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Alfred Neumann that the city had come to be dubbed “The Fourth Weimar Republic.”
Our shape, apparently, had been upgraded from grotesque to irregular, though it was still like a charred scrap of paper. And apparently a lot of really cool Germans used to live here?
Oh well. It was an improvement. I declared victory and moved on with my life. Besides, Wikipedia was exploding into the largest collection of human knowledge ever created; Britannica was getting its just desserts.
I recently looked up Britannica's current entry on Los Angeles. Here's what it reads like now:
The lifestyle of Los Angeles residents (who are called Angelenos) relies on the automobile, idealizes the single-family dwelling, and favours informality. With notable exceptions, the skyline is primarily horizontal rather than vertical. Los Angeles is a place of extraordinary ethnic and racial diversity, owing largely to immigration, and, like other world cities, it reflects a growing gap between rich and poor.
Los Angeles has endured the barbs of many detractors. Critics refer to it either as a laid-back “la-la land” or, conversely, as a place reeling from earthquakes, fire, smog, gang warfare, and riots. The city’s defenders admire its mild climate and geographic variety. They claim that its major social problems are similar to those of all big cities and are perhaps even less severe there than elsewhere. In fact, some observers regard it as the most modern and quintessential American city.
The new article is more accurate and much more fair. But I couldn't help but feel disappointed when I read it. It's not as zippy, not as fun. It's boring, bland. It's all "critics say" and "observers regard." Even the "quintessential American city" part sounds patronizing, damning us with faint praise.
I realized too that the old entry, the one I fought so hard against, was a product of a time that's just about passed us by, a time when it was fashionable to hate Los Angeles. In 1993, Time magazine asked, "Is Los Angeles Going to Hell?" The cover art left no doubt to the editorial opinion. Back then, being The Defender was, in some ways, an act of contrarianism.
But since then, L.A. bashing has gone out of favor. We've become more like the rest of the country and the rest of the country has become more like us. Our problems – lack of affordable housing, crumbling infrastructure – seem commonplace and unremarkable.
And so I actually found myself pining for the older article, for the days when Encyclopedia Britannica hated our guts and everyone else did too.
Follow the writer on Twitter @HillelAron
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