Gay Talese’s Basement
by Maggie Frank
Everyone I know who has spent a week or less in Los Angeles has hated it. The freeways, the smog, the rows of cookie-cutter houses. They recognize the home of the evil masterminds behind urban sprawl and can’t wait to leave. It’s those of us who have stuck around who have been able to find the charm and the soul—yes, soul—that make the city the most complex urban area in the United States. Los Angeles the magazine requires a similar level of patience. Flip through it casually, and you’ll see what you might expect from a place nicknamed “Lala land.” But give it a little more time and you’ll find solid reporting and an insightful portrayal of the changing landscape of the city.
Month after month, the covers of Los Angeles reflect the very image of Los Angeles that has lodged itself in the national imagination.They are glossy, superficial and a little silly. Each cover illustrates the magazine’s theme for the month with a strong visual image. The cover for “Cheap Eats” month had a big picture of a hot dog. “Pets” month was a sad-eyed beagle. Cover lines play up flashy stories about celebrities with plenty of exclamation points. Nevertheless, most months you’ll find a few real reporting gems resting atop a comfy pillow of puff pieces and advertorials.
A touching profile of actor Chris Cooper, part of a package of “Movie Issue” stories, took me beyond the tired celeb-journalism formula. After spending the requisite number of column inches kissing Cooper’s newly minted A-list ass, reporter Steve Oney uses old-fashioned reporting techniques to give us an intimate, unsentimentalized portrait of Cooper and his wife Marianne’s grief over the recent loss of their 17-year-old son, who had suffered through illness his entire life. Too bad Oney made me wait until the jump page to find the most original part of the story.
I have also found quirky portraits of Angelenos that take the reader miles east of the typical celebrity journal’s coverage zone. One was the story of a weather-obsessed retired Cal Poly professor insisting from his Covina home that the 2004-2005 winter broke only the third-wettest winter record, not the second-wettest.
Although Editor-in-Chief Kit Rachlis did not grow up in Los Angeles, he has lived there since the 1980s and edited the alternative L.A. Weekly during the riots in 1992. Perhaps as a result of his experience, Rachlis has made the magazine a publication keenly aware of the ethnic diversity that defines the heart of the city more than its blighted landscape or Hollywood image ever could. In a June Mediabistro.com article, Rachlis talks about Los Angeles as “the diary of a great city” and “the magazine that tries to explain L.A. to itself.” Los Angeles’ owner, Emmis, which owns four other regional publications, including the venerated Texas Monthly, has given Rachlis the freedom to publish reporting on the significance of L.A.’s diverse cultural influences, influences that give Los Angeles the heart and soul for which it rarely receives credit.
The first reader letter printed in the February issue illustrates the editorial staff’s preoccupation with diversity. The letter critiques the magazine’s “disgusting” exclusion of non-white women on the cover of its December shopping issue, which included pictures of Robertson Boulevard frequenters like Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Jessica Simpson: the “cover would suggest that in spite of abundant L.A. shopping representation of ‘Young Hollywood’ actresses of Latin, Asian, and African American descent, only our Anglo, blond-haired actresses were worthy of exclusive front-cover exposure.”
The editors aren’t attempting simply to be politically correct here. Rather, they are demonstrating the duty they feel to report and reflect L.A.’s dominant Latino and Asian influences. Sometimes, the magazine appears to bend over backwards to reflect its awareness, as with this letter, the only printed response to the December cover story. Other times, the reflection comes naturally, as with “Reluctant Princess,” an article in the same issue about Yolanda Pérez, a Mexican-American jaripeo singer who grew up in San Bernardino County and fuses traditional northern Mexican music with West Coast rap. That article is an example of the magazine trying to “explain L.A. to itself.”
The rest of the country might want to listen in on the explanation. “Ethnic diversity” may be a politically correct catch phrase, but it is also reality in neighborhoods, schools and workplaces throughout L.A., and it is fast becoming real to citizens in the rest of the country. Latino and Asian immigration is breathing new life into cities across the United States, and Angelenos have had decades of experience adapting to it.
The magazine presents individual, localized portraits of the nation’s historic shift from a European-dominated culture. It takes its readers off the freeways, out of their cars, for a walk around the quaint and bustling neighborhoods that are their real homes. But, like inching ahead on L.A.’s infamous grid-locked freeways, you have to waste a lot of time plowing through Los Angeles’ pages before you get to the really good parts.