Portland’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird.” Yes, Portland can be weird at times, but it is a place that is actively trying to be weird. LA, however, is a place that is better described as bizarre – and it doesn’t even try.
In Portland, you might see someone with crazy face piercings, wearing a clown suit, riding a two-story bike cobbled together by hand and playing a harmonica. And maybe they’re in the middle of transitioning from a man to a woman. Pretty run-of-the-mill weirdness. In LA, you will encounter things that are more profoundly strange.
I am talking about the La Brea Tar pits, of course. There you are, on the excessively hip westside of LA. You hit up the pastrami at the famous Canter’s deli and top it off with dessert at that one really hip bakery that has amazing gluten-free cakes that cost about one-month’s salary. Then you mosey down past LACMA, which is featuring a really fantastic exhibit about a designer whose name you don’t want to say because you’re not actually sure how to pronounce it. And there you will find a bubbling pit of prehistoric tar.
“La Brea Tar Pit” literally means “The Tar Tar Pit.” Also, it is not actually tar – it is an “asphalt seepage.” But whatever it is, it is definitively there, smack dab in the middle of LA’s urban center, filled with fossils of prehistoric critters, the teeth of saber-toothed cats and mastodon bones. One point for nature.
LA is assertively man-made. It’s fashion and film and music and point-of-view are completely freed from the tethers of reality. Nature and history are not notable influences – they are largely forgotten in so many ways. But what keeps LA bizarre is the way nature and history aggressively pop up in the middle of all of this city’s fancy-pants fantasy.
I remember visiting Descanso Gardens up towards Pasadena. The gardens are a lovely place, as you might imagine, built by newspaper baron Elias Manchester Brody. They have a famed camellia forest that is just huge with tons of massive bushes with beautiful blooms in pink and red and white. Wandering around the gardens, I found a sign in the main house with a little history on the property. It described the rise of self-made man who went from rags to riches through hard work and a knack for tapping into business opportunities. For instance:
“In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Boddy found himself with a business opportunity that was surely ambivalent at best. All along the west coast Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps to wait out the war, leaving businesses behind. Boddy acquired thousands of camellias from Francis Uyematsu, a successful local nurseryman, buying his entire stock. “
Just a footnote in one man’s life and in the history of a pretty place – but clearly a life-defining event for another man.
LA likes to forget that it was once a desert where wild animals roamed, a Native America village, a Spanish/Mexican colonial settlement, so many things it now no longer remotely resembles. But you’ll find that past in the footnotes. You just have to look.
P.S. The story of Francis Uyematsu is even more extraordinary than I could have imagined on my own – check out this LA Times article for more.