In Which I Discover LA is not NYC

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April 21, 2011

Sara Press, Apiary

For the past year and a half, I’ve had a vague feeling of guilt whenever I get on the plane to Los Angeles – like I’m cheating on my true love as I sneak off to enjoy the sunny, citrus-filled goodness of California, while she sits alone with a martini, the bar counter silently shaking from the rumbles of the subway below.

Like many a Hollywood tale, my bicoastal travels all started with a big man with a cigar. I run the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, which supports a group of emerging artists living in New York City and creating new Jewish culture. The Six Points team had been thinking about how we could take the model elsewhere when we captured the interest of a Jewish Philanthropist, Mr. X. He was everything a Hollywood movie man should be – large, obsesssed with cars, and even more interested, it seemed, in his cuban cigar. His support (along with the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles) created the opportunity to explore bringing the Six Points Fellowship – along with my NYC attitude, Jewish assumptions, and bicyclefocused lifestyle to Los Angeles? I suppose it was a bit far-reaching, chutzpadik even, to just think I could drop into the second largest city in the US and figure it all out. “It’s different,” the Angelenos all said. I gave a self-assured nod in my handmade-in- Brooklyn dress, but it turned out I had a lot to learn – not least of which is that the best way to upset an Angeleno is to make NYC comparisons. My two biggest lessons were about geography and industry. New York’s hub has very different implications for Jewish art than Los Angeles’ complex neighborhood life. Likewise, Los Angeles’ mass media industry offers a different cultural economy than artists are likely to find in New York.

I jumped into planning my cultural exploration with my NYC goggles, setting up numerous meetings every day, stacking a handful of arts events every night. First lesson: geography matters in Los Angeles. The problem of geography strikes you as soon as you realize you have to get in a car to get anywhere. After years in New York, I barely remembered how to drive. My first day in a car I was late to nearly everything (though the upside was that I caught up on the most popular songs of 2009). Beyond the annoyance of traffic jams, however, location impacts movement and how people organize their lives, in turn affecting how culture develops and how artists work. This city is organized (or not, one might say) differently from New York’s core and hinterlands model. Los Angeles is more easily understood not as one central city but as a series of small neighborhoods, many of which, despite assumptions to the contrary, are walk-able and somewhat self-contained.

I was astonished to see how this neighborhood-based geography maps onto culture and the Jews. In Los Angeles, there is a major division between the Eastside and the Westside that is integral to the Jewish and cultural dialogue. Most young artists live and work in the creative Eastside neighborhoods of Silverlake, Echo Park, Highland Park and Eagle Rock, with tendrils creeping into Downtown LA and Chinatown. In my Brooklyn-centered brain, these mirror neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick, and come with the attendant snobby coffee boutiques, vintage clothing shops, and skinny jeans explosion.

Not surprisingly, the majority of cultural venues attended by people in their 20s and 30s are also located in these neighborhoods, such as popular clubs, galleries, small theaters, and DIY multi-use spaces that present the work of local artists. This Eastside ecosystem works: there are pockets of artists who live and work nearby, creating micro-communities around different areas like rock music, a neighborhood-based venue, or larger creative collaborations. The geographic concentration also stems from the huge inconvenience of shlepping anywhere else to make art, see art, or have dinner at that artsy hipster vegan restaurant. Everyone drives a lot in Los Angeles, but I have yet to find anyone who wants to drive more. When googlemaps tells you it could take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to travel to your destination, you really reconsider just how excited you are to see that band.

There are a few exceptions to this Eastside dominance. Areas like Venice Beach retain an artistic air, but I found only older artists who had managed to snap up real estate before bohemian nostalgia became rampant and prices sky-rocketed. Hollywood hosts a number of young artists lucky enough to find affordable housing and scores of 99-seat theaters (cheaper to run because their size exempts them from Actor’s Equity union rules and thus expensive salaries for actors) but the area doesn’t have the creationconsumption feedback loop and community of other areas.

Given these concentrations of artists, finding them proved easier than I expected. However, I did encounter a surprising difficulty: while the artists are all on the Eastside, the majority of Jewish activity is happening on the Westside. And by Jewish, I don’t just mean the old school Jewish stuff – the large established congregations and organizations – but also the new- Jew activities like the independent minyans. This wasn’t always the case. Through World War II, Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just east of Downtown LA, was the center of Jewish life, supposedly housing the largest American Jewish community outside of NYC. But starting in the 1950s, Jews began to move both west and into the Valley. As in New York’s Bronx, you can still find older Jews nostalgic about this shift from East to West.

One Tuesday evening, for example, I found myself in a non-ironic dive bar called Dear John (the only bar within walking distance) next to a 70-something woman nursing a martini. She walked me through her life story: born in Brooklyn, moved to Boyle Heights, raised among Jewish delis and stores, and now steeped in regret at seeing the change in the area. Despite the generational racism peppering the dialogue, her sadness felt very real. She now lived on the Westside, but still yearned for her Eastside Jewish life.

Here is the fundamental conundrum of creating a community of Jewish artists in Lost Angeles: the Jewish artists and creative workers are all on the Eastside, but most Jewish activity happening on the Westside. And this barrier is not only geographical, although driving across town is a factor. When I talked with Eastsiders I consistently heard that those Westside events just didn’t feel right, too Westside, not their people. Part of this conceptual division is real; there are neighborhood differences, and I found that there was a slicked-back, mini-skirted professional meat-market feel to some Westside events, which I’d probably also avoid. On the other hand, there are places in the Westside that feel open and diverse, but assumptions have prevented young Jewish creatives from finding meaningful or interesting ways to connect. This is a big gap. We need to start both seeding Jewish activity in Eastside neighborhoods and supporting Westside activities that speak to more diverse types of young Jews.

Geography alone does not exhaust the differences between the New York and Los Angeles Jewish cultural worlds. In Los Angeles, “The Industry” impacts all areas of the city’s culture. Although often casually referred to as a monolithic empire, the people and companies that produce television, movies, and mainstream media in Los Angeles are incredibly diverse and employ thousands of different kinds of artists. In NYC, an artist’s day job is rarely related to their creative interests and pursuits. In LA, there are numerous opportunities for young artists to get industry gigs that are related to their creative focus, although often these jobs come with very little creative control. I found musicians who write movie soundtracks, visual artists who assist art directors, and independent filmmakers who hold the cameras for reality TV. These are a different breed of day job from the NYC waiter, receptionist, and teacher that I was accustomed to encountering.

Being able to earn money using your creative skills has benefits and drawbacks. The most obvious benefit is that these jobs often pay well. They also can lead to contacts and networks that can build your career, if your career goal is to remain within the industry. However, if your aim is to do creative work outside the industry, these jobs can end up draining creative energy. One young artist, after filming months of reality TV-crafted melodrama, felt that her creative soul had been corrupted and halted all work on her own projects.

With money to be made so readily in the Industry, artists are often discouraged from pursuing ideas that don’t fit into Industry-style work or that have little financial potential. Even though outlets that New Yorkers would think of as supporting independent aesthetic activity – agents, gallerists, and managers – discourage this kind of creative exploration, making it difficult for artists to get projects off the ground. Unsurprisingly, art that has a particularly Jewish focus often ends up on this cutting floor. Los Angeles has a distinct lack of organizations or institutions that exist to support the creation of new Jewish work, so Jewish ideas often stay dormant. My hope is that as the project I run, the Six Points Fellowship, begins to provide financial support, and establish a creative network, these Jewish artists will emerge and exciting Jewish projects can come to fruition.

I’ve come to enjoy my trips to Los Angeles. Now that I’ve found the right neighborhoods, I’ve been able to swap my car for a bike. I’ve learned how to stalk the best taco trucks and begun to discover a community of Angelenos who believe in Jewish art and its ability to transform the culture of the town and its people. I am excited about the work that we at Six Points can do to make that transformation possible. That said, on my last trip to LA, I was walking through West Hollywood, window shopping, and I saw a clever version of the iconic I heart NY tee shirt. Inside the heart, in clear block letters was the word MISS, visually layering the love and the longing. Delicious taco in hand, I thought to myself nevertheless, “yes, my heart too misses New York City.”

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