I'm not really much of a computer game person, but one game I remember playing with my brother when we were younger was Sim City. This game involved choosing an area of land to construct a city upon, an urban utopia for its residents, Sims. Amid the 90's soundtrack of computerised beeps, we would build huge grids of residential and commercial blocks, anything was possible. As Sim-Gods, we could buy and build anything our young minds imagined, no matter how outlandish or unrealistic the appearance. Our oversized retro computer monitor was our oyster.
This is what the authorities, developers and prospective property owners must've felt like when they constructed Los Angeles, and the result is remarkably similar.
I flew into Los Angeles at night, my overly-air conditioned plane floating over a sea of yellow lights for an eternity. LAX airport seemed infinite, too. One of the main attractants for the original prospectors heading 'out west' was the seemingly limitless space. LA has apparently taken up most of it.
After a night out which resembled a real-life episode of The Hills, my host, chauffeur, bank and events planner Rachel drove me around this metropolis, the second biggest city in the US. Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Venice Beach, Malibu and Bel Air are all names I recognise purely from that most American of institutions, television, and previously they’d seemed as real to me as Hogwarts, Mordor and Neverland.
Since my guided tour of LA… not much has changed. They exist, but everything about them seems fake and empty, like a constructed reality. The uniform streets resemble squared paper, lined with neat rows of production-line cars. The imported trees, coiffeured to perfection, resemble huge green poodles – the least you’d expect when spending up to $30,000 a tree. The residents walking their pedicured mutts are white and middle class, their lives a shining advert for the American Dream.
I felt like I’d somehow digitalized myself and entered one of our Sim City games of years gone by. Luckily, Rachel was able to provide a real-life translation of the surgically-enhanced world blurring by. The areas around Downtown, and LA by night reveal a grittier, poorer and perhaps more realistic side of this city, and it’s far from the American dream. Homeless people, drunks and other unfortunate people on the darker fringes of society populate the streets with saddening frequency. For these sorts of people, America hasn’t fulfilled it’s promise as the land of opportunity, maybe Grand Theft Auto would be a more appropriate computer-game comparison.
LA has been an eye-opening ‘Welcome to America’, but I wouldn’t say that I dislike it. It just seems to me that the worst aspects of American culture, namely greed, materialism and economic inequality are exaggerated in this divided city. I’ve spent the last 5 months in much poorer countries, but countries where the sense of community is incredibly strong and the streets are full of life. America feels like a much emptier, lonelier place in comparison.
However, the kindness and generosity of my hosts for the past 3 days has left me with renewed positivity, and has reignited my interest in travelling around this vast country in the future. As for the present, the next chapter of my adventure starts tonight when I fly to Sydney, Australia.