Jan Morris (b. 1926, Clevedon, Storbritannia)


Written by Jan Morris

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Los Angeles: The Know-How City, 1976

When the car arrived the mesh was tightened, and L.A. built its incomparable freeways. These remain the city’s grandest and most exciting artifacts. Snaky, sinuous, undulating, high on stilts or sunk in cuttings, they are like so many concrete tentacles, winding themselves around each block, each district, burrowing, evading, clambering, clasping every corner of the metropolis as if they are squeezing it all together to make the parts stick. They are inescapable, not just visually, but emotionally. They are always there, generally a few blocks away; they enter everyone’s lives, and seem to dominate all arrangements.

To most strangers they suggest chaos, or at least purgatory, and there can certainly be more soothing notices than the one on the Santa Ana Freeway which announces MERGING BUSES AHEAD. There comes a moment, though, when something clicks in one’s own mechanism, and suddenly one grasps the rhythm of the freeway system, mastering its tribal or ritual forms, and discovers it to be not a disruptive element at all, but a kind of computer key to the use of Los Angeles. One is processed by the freeways. Elevated as they generally are above the flat and centerless expanse of the city, they provide a navigational aid, into which one locks oneself for guidance. Everything is clearer then. There are the mountains, to the north and east. There is the glimmering ocean. The civic landmarks of L.A., such as they are, display themselves conveniently for you, the pattern of the place unfolds until, properly briefed by the experience, the time comes for you to unlock from the system, undo your safety belt, and take the right-hand lane into the everyday life below.

The moment this first happened to me, Los Angeles happened too, and I glimpsed the real meaning of the city, and realized how firmly it had been disciplined by the rules of its own conviction.

 

© 1976 Jan Morris, Rolling Stone; 1980 New York: Oxford University Press

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