Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Two or three times this year I’ve had the same dream in which I find myself in an imaginary part of Los Angeles that, judging by its wedding-cake-layered, café-au-lait-toned architecture and spaghetti-neon signage, may have existed somewhere in the mid- to late 1940s. Don’t ask why, but I believe this neighborhood is located along Wilshire Boulevard just east of Hancock Park. In the dream, people are walking everywhere — past enormous cafés and through endless arcades of jewelry-store windows. I always awaken from these visits saddened, knowing that no such L.A. exists today, and probably never did — the stringy neon could be a memory from a Budapest vacation, and those tiered, dessert-colored buildings bear a suspicious resemblance to the pastries that people in these dreams always seem to be eating.

Still, for some reason I think of L.A.’s golden age ending with the 1940s — as though whatever personality the city had soured when Los Angeles changed from a big, boozy hick town to a Gordian knot of freeways and geranium-scented suburbs. My arrival in L.A. roughly coincided with the L.A. Weekly’s birth, and even now I maintain something of an immigrant’s view of the city. Whenever I imagine Los Angeles in the years between its golden age and the appearance of the Weekly, I picture an old man wearing a polyester sports coat (windowpane checks) who is waiting for a dirty, yellow-and-silver RTD bus — after he’s washed down a white-bread baloney sandwich with weak coffee at some place like the Pipers or Copper Penny.

I see this guy in my mind and think, That’s why everyone looks down on us! For it’s not only Hollywood and its vapid glamour that tars L.A. (“For 40 years it’s been the nation’s sexy if flaky starlet of a city,” the New Republic wrote 15 years ago, “though it’s always wanted to be taken seriously.”) The rest of the country feels disgust for Mr. Baloney Sandwich, our secret roving ambassador! Consider this 1982 appraisal by The Economist:

“There tend to be many real estate agents but rather few artists,” the writer sighed. “Lots of grasping people on the make, not so many generous ones who have made it.” And this was in a positive piece proclaiming that “Los Angeles has come of age.”

L.A. seems to have been coming of age for ages. The phrase typifies our glacial quest for respectability (to be a “world-class city”) and pops up on op-ed pages every time the city goes on a shopping spree and builds a new museum or cathedral, or buys itself a famous symphony conductor or art collection or sports team, or hosts a national spectacle.

I’m not sure when we first began to Come of Age — some might say when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved here in 1958. “The continued rise of the Dodgers,” Kevin Starr would rather deliriously write one day, “coincides with, and expresses, the rise of Los Angeles to international stature.” (Or at least second place in the Western Division of cities.)

Or perhaps it really started in 1965 with the opening of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Prior to then, the county’s two Picassos had been stored in an old tobacco shed in Winnetka.) One thing is certain: The re-assessments and obsessions with world-classiness began in earnest after 1982, when L.A. passed Chicago as the country’s second largest city.

Now the world had to take us seriously — even our biblical enemies, New York and San Francisco. No less an authority than Meetings & Conventions magazine declared, “With the 1984 Summer Olympic Games successfully tucked away, the area known as Greater Los Angeles has come of age as one of the world’s great travel destinations and, certainly, as a preferred meeting and convention site.” (Perhaps similar ad copy was written when the games were held here the first time — back

in 1932.)

By 1988 the Atlantic Monthly was getting into the act, with two cover-story-length pieces titled, eerily enough, “Los Angeles Comes of Age.”

“If present trends continue, and if certain nagging problems don’t overwhelm the metropolitan area,” wrote Charles Lockwood and Christopher B. Leinberger, “Los Angeles might even emerge as the Western Hemisphere’s leading city in the early twenty-first century.” And remember: This was written when the Hollywood Tropicana’s female mud-wrestling matches were the highlight of L.A.’s cultural season.

Since then, of course, we’ve entered the 21st century and have survived the 2000 Democratic Convention and basked in the glow of the Getty Center and Disney Hall. So why are we still so concerned about what others say about us? Frankly, I couldn’t care less. In fact, when outsiders diplomatically ask me about the downsides they’ve read or heard about the area known as Greater Los Angeles, I simply nod in agreement. Emboldened, the visitors begin to reveal their own prejudices, which they’ve learned to suppress in mixed company, and I just go along and agree with them.

Yes! It’s all true — even though we drive Miatas now and dine at the Water Grill, deep down we’re all Mr. Baloney Sandwich!

Well, it gets them off my back and even earns me a little sympathy — an obviously sensitive guy like me marooned in a place like that!

Hopefully, sooner or later, I’ll dream again of that strange L.A. neighborhood of cafés, arcades and pastry-colored buildings: At least there I will be in a world-class town — I mean, city.

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