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Lawrence Weschler Weighs in on LA

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Anyone can tell you what's wrong with Los Angeles and its surrounding areas, but few can clearly articulate what's right, magical and true about this place as well as Lawrence Weschler does in his 1998 New Yorker essay, "LA Glows," which is included in Weschler's latest collection of New Yorker articles, Vermeer in Bosnia.

That essay inspired many Angelenos, including local writer Jim Ruland, who interviews Weschler in the "The Golden West" issue of the online literary magazine, "The God Particle."

Weschler, who was raised in Van Nuys, has fascinating things to say about Culver City's intelligencia, The LA Reader and Matt Groening.

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Here's a taste:

TGP: ...I would like to know what, in your opinion, makes LA so special?

LW: Obviously the light is one of the things, which I write about a lot. One of the things that makes LA so special is it’s where I come from. I think anywhere you come from is really special. I don’t want to fetishize it, but having said that, one of the things I think that LA is not, is stupid. I think LA is intellectually really lively. It has this interesting confluence of influences. Obviously you have influences from Mexico and Asia and things like that, but then you have weird things on top of that: German-Jewish — who would have thought? Texas black — the Water Mosley thing. It’s a cliché to say that LA is a global city, but it’s true...

[Los Angeles Times Book Review Editor] Steve Wasserman claims that LA is the single best book buying market in the country, and my response to that is, Why is that surprising? It jives completely with my experience of going to people’s houses all over LA. They’ve got nice libraries. People are reading. It doesn’t surprise me. The whole premise of this conversation, parenthetically assumes that it’s between LA and New York. I suspect there is great stuff going on in Tulsa, too. Or Chicago. Chicago is a really great city.

Keep reading for more excerpts from the interview. Photo by Nitsa.

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TGP: How often do you visit [LA]?

LW: I come back four or five times a year, whenever I can really, but my impression is that it is being strangulated by the traffic in a way that it didn’t used to be. There was a whole kind of aesthetic that came out of driving the freeways, zooming along, your thoughts taking shape in a way that couldn’t happen in New York on the subways. It’s a little bit less the case now.

TGP: True, but there are almost always alternatives to traffic, and one of the results of our urban sprawl is that now you can find neighborhoods that are less spread out, more self-contained. What are some of your favorite places in LA?

LW: When I lived in Santa Monica I lived 15 blocks from the Palisade, and I never went to the ocean because I hate sand, but I loved being 15 blocks from where it all stops. On the one hand, it’s where all the pressure of population comes to an end; and on the other it’s where tomorrow’s weather arrives. That kind of feeling. In more recent years, obviously, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. For that matter, Culver City is a really quirky, funny place. It has all kinds of wonderful, weird stuff. The Hare Krishna Temple, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Culver Hotel. I love hanging out in Culver City, going to India Sweets and Spices for a nice chai.

TGP: Have you been to the Center for Land Use Interpretation?

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LW: It’s a terrific place. I was just there yesterday and there were people there who had just come back from a two-day bus trip from the Owens Valley. In some ways it’s this really wonderful and, quite consciously, complement to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in that it is an incredibly grounded museum — literally — next to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is kind of floating off the ground. The Center for Land Use Interpretation thinks about stuff you never think about as stuff to think about. Sewage systems. Drainage. Abandoned oil fields. Some really cool stuff.

TGP: Thanks to repeated visits, and, in large part, your book, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, I feel like I have a handle on what the museum is all about. When new things arrive or when things change it doesn’t throw me off, but the last time I went and saw the Center for Land Use Interpretation next door, I didn’t know what to make of it. Is this part of it? Is this real? It took me back to that first experience of walking into the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I experienced the whole gamut of feelings — This is amazing! I’ve been tricked! — in about five seconds, right there on the sidewalk. I didn’t realize it was indeed a real and reputable institution until I read that they won a Guggenheim.

LW: That’s what I mean by the vibrant intellectual life in Culver City. Who would have thought? But there are lots of smart people thinking smart thoughts on both sides of that wall, which is quite porous. If you go into the innards of the place they are connected back there. They are like Siamese twins: the blood flows between them and so forth.

TGP: Yet the stereotype of LA as a shallow and vacuous place persists. What’s the impetus for that? Even San Franciscans, who ought to know better, do it.

LW: Well it is spread out. So it’s harder for new places to form, but when they do form, they’re very interesting.