The City of Angels. Tinseltown. La la land. Los Angeles carries a reputation that precedes it in all directions, from the beaches full of beautiful people to the working-class barrios of the east side. It’s flocked to by those looking to flee their one-horse town and become stars, change the world or just start over. With such a long and lofty history, LA has accumulated a unique set of urban myths, and I want to take a look at a few of the most popular ones, and try to find the truth behind them.
“Thought this was a warm place/I must be in the wrong place” – Chicago, “South California Purples”
Pop musicians have written some incredible songs about Los Angeles and the diverse people who call it home. Not all of those songs are positive, or even factually correct. First, it does rain in Southern California. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, LA averaged 14.9 inches of rain over 34 days from 1981 to 2010. Pasadena, where I live, got an average of 21.2 inches over 43 days in the same time period. Not exactly the ever-present deluge of Seattle, but not Death Valley, either.
And while it may be a car town first and foremost, yes, some people walk in LA. Data from the National Household Travel Survey 2009 tells us that 19% of all trips made in LA County are done via walking and biking. Our number on the walkability index puts us just behind Portland, Oregon for safety and ease of things to walk to. Also, I can’t taste the bright lights when I walk down the Sunset Strip (not that I do anymore), a freeway doesn’t run through my yard and the city doesn’t smell like an airport runway. At least not most of it. Anymore.
“I don’t know but today seems kinda odd/No barking from the dog, no smog” – Ice Cube, “It Was a Good Day”
Thanks to aggressive legislation, mandatory smog checks for cars and improved emission standards on new vehicles, LA’s reputation as a smog-choked hellhole has become mostly overstated. Mostly.
With its combination of warm air, marine layer, copious freeways and mountains to trap particles, LA has always been susceptible to the gray smoking death mist known as smog. The first photo of smog in LA was taken in 1943, and it got a lot worse before it got even a little better. The City signed its first air quality control laws in 1947, and in 1959, the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board was formed to get a handle on auto emissions. But the smog kept blinding, choking and shrouding millions of Angelenos.
Finally, the tide started to turn, because of smog checks, catalytic converters, better gasoline pumps, cleaner fuels and a growing embrace of public transportation. Vehicle-related air pollutants have decreased by an astonishing 98 percent over the past 40 years, and the dreaded Smog Alerts have dipped into single digits in LA proper. According to an article from Freakonomics:
In 1979, the South Coast Air Basin (of which Los Angeles is a part) experienced 228 days above the state one-hour ozone standard; in 2007, the number of days in violation was down to 96. The change is even more dramatic when looking at individual communities. From 1979 to 2007, Pasadena dropped from 191 days over the limit to 13, Reseda from 138 to 22, Anaheim from 61 to 2, Pomona from 167 to 19, and West Los Angeles from 76 to 2. This story is replicated across the region. It is also broadly true for the other pollutants that comprise smog.
Don’t be mistaken, it’s still bad, particularly around the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach and in the San Fernando Valley. And the city routinely violates national clean air standards. In fact, LA was the third smoggiest metropolitan area in the country in 2010. But it is improving, and LA no longer is the automatic holder of the worst air quality in the country. Take THAT, Pittsburgh!
“A cool, beautiful serenity called Arizona Bay” – Bill Hicks
LA bashers and residents alike have long been enthralled by the next great earthquake to rumble from the San Andreas Fault ripping the state off the mainland United States and sending it tumbling into the Pacific. Unfortunately for those who bought land in western Arizona hoping for beachfront property, this is scientifically impossible.
The San Andreas Fault is the conjunction of two tectonic plates, the Pacific Plate, upon which California rests, and the North American plate. When the two plates move against each other, stress is generated, causing earthquakes. And the two plates are quite active, so they rub against each other often. Most quakes are barely noticeable, but a few have been devastating.
Happily for California, the plates are going in the wrong direction to break apart. While the Pacific Plate is moving, it’s slowing going northwesterly, meaning it’s moving up, not out. So about ten or fifteen million years from now, LA and San Francisco will be right on top of each other, which won’t do anything good for the staggering rents in either city. And we are due for a major earthquake. But the state itself will remain anchored to the country forever more, so don’t start planning that trip to Otisburg.
A few other earthquake myths: animals may or may not be able to sense earthquakes coming, but nobody knows for sure; there’s no such thing as earthquake weather; the ground can’t open up and swallow people (though people and cars can fall into fissures opened by strong quakes); big earthquakes don’t always happen early in the morning and quakes are NOT becoming more frequent, we’re just better equipped to detect the countless small ones. Also, the old myth that the safest place to be during a quake is inside a doorway is outdated and dangerous. As the California Department of Conservation says:
In a modern structure the doorway is no stronger than the rest of the building. Actually, you’re more likely to be hurt (by the door swinging wildly) in a doorway. And in a public building, you could be in danger from people trying to hurry outside. If you’re inside, get under a table or desk and hang on to it.
“I’m from Los Angeles. We invented gangs!” – Rush Hour 2
According to the LAPD, there are over 450 active street gangs in the city proper. Being that I’ve never been asked to join one, I don’t know how they initiate their members. One way I know they DON’T is by driving around with their headlights off and murdering the first unlucky soul who flashes their own lights to let them know their lights are off.
This silly urban legend has been around since the mid 80’s, and applied to dozens of cities, and it’s never been true. A perfect example of the power and longevity of moral panics, the story of gang members initiating newbies by having them kill oncoming motorists who flashed their lights actually began as a rumor about the Hell’s Angels in Montana. In the early 90’s it mutated into a rumor about “ethnic” LA street gangs targeting white people for death, and with the proliferation of gangsta rap into the heartland and LA’s seemingly-frequent riots, it took hold across the country. I heard about it while growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 90’s, and since California was as exotic to me as Singapore, I believed it without a second thought.
Every few years would see new outbreak of supposed gang-related terror, spread first by fax (that’s how old this rumor is), then email forward and now text messages. Some missives were from police, others from civilians warning of upcoming “gang initiation weekends.” The rumor has gone international, with urgent messages about light-flashing murders in Canada, London and most recently Mexico. It would seem that flashing your lights at an oncoming car is as dangerous as smoking.
But this urban myth is literally that, an urban myth, rooted in fear, ignorance and probably a bit of racism. In 30 years, no police department has recorded a single gang-related murder due to flashing headlights. The legend has spread through a general fear of gangs, pranksters playing jokes, police under pressure to follow every lead and concerned citizens who probably have a little too much time on their hands. Should you ever get an email, text or fax from someone warning you not to flash your lights at an oncoming car, simply point them to the excellent debunking of the myth from Snopes.
And if you see a car coming at you without its headlights on, do them a favor and flash yours. It’s just the civilized thing to do.
“I mean, who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light?” – Annie Hall
Some other miscellaneous myths and legends about Los Angeles that are worth poking a hole in:
- Not everyone in LA is in the entertainment industry. The city has the highest per capita number of people in “entertainment occupations,” but it’s still only about 1.8% of the population. Manufacturing, finance and healthcare employ far more people than “showbiz.”
- For all its millionaires and rock stars, LA is quite middle class. The median household income for 2007-2011 for the county was $56,266. 16.3% of county residents live below the poverty line.
- Despite the sprawling size of the city, LA isn’t a spread-out urban wasteland. In fact, the city has the highest population density in the nation, far “ahead” of New York.
- LA has a large, thriving, complex (overly complex, some might say) public transportation system. In 2006, 11% of workers in the city commuted by bus, subway or light rail – a higher percentage than Milwaukee, Denver or Houston.
- Walt Disney’s frozen severed head is not stored underneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Even if it were, how would it be reattached?
- There are tunnels underneath the city, but they are, as far as we know, not populated by lizard people.
- And we don’t even have the worst traffic in the nation anymore! Thank you very much, Washington DC.