Even with the small apartments, the crowded streets and the noise, I wouldn’t opt to make a life anywhere but in a big city. You just don’t get the kind of constant culture, diversity and kinetic qualities in the suburbs that you do in a city. Having freshly left Los Angeles to pursue my master’s at Harvard, I made a list of the best qualities I saw in each of the cities I’ve ever lived in. After all, thoughts about the future are expressly prevalent during post-graduate studies — and in two to three years, I will be graduating and deliberating over my next destination. This is a heavy decision, as my chosen city will not only be the place that I will pursue my career, but my entire life. The list I generated helped me figure out just how important it is to me that a city offer intellectual and creative outlets
Neil Simon once claimed that there are only 72 interesting people in Los Angeles. To Simon’s probable horror, I not only lived in L.A., but it’s the city I call home and know best. Two years ago, I would have been inclined to go on the defense and remind any believers of Simon’s aphorism that my hometown has a lot to offer — incomparable weather for one. Celebrities confined to billboards in other cities excitingly gallivant through their natural Hollywood habitat. One can get a taco de lengua from a food truck on Pico just as authentic as one from a taquería in Cozumel.
When I returned to L.A. from Boston during my first winter holiday, I made it halfway through the 10 day visit before I yearned to be back in Massachusetts. It seemed no amount of tacos de lengua could mollify the fact that I’d developed a time limit with L.A. Perhaps Simon’s words are apt and being inundated in intellectual Boston washed the Hollywood glitter from my eyes. Regardless, it became clear that my list of favorite city qualities included little from L.A. and I wasn’t quite sure why.
I had a nomadic upbringing. In addition to Boston I lived in New York, where I frequented SoHo galleries and restaurant openings — a new eatery almost every week, always serving an obscure ethnic cuisine from a different continent than before. New York’s diversity and cultural offerings are incomparable and its dynamism is exhilarating. I lived in Chicago during university and even in the midst of the latest political sideshow or mob trial; the citizens were always welcoming and down-to-earth. I found myself hopping from jazz clubs, to productions of NPR’s “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me” to the latest pizzeria partaking in Chicago’s apparently ongoing weird topping contest. What did I do in L.A., might one ask? To be pithy: I hung out with porn stars. What didn’t I do? Read books.
Moving back to L.A. after university wasn’t part of my plan. I was supposed to get my master’s at Yale, then be a writer in London like fellow SAIC ex-pat David Sedaris. It was a mini-apocalypse when the plans I’d outlined since high school fell apart through one letter from Yale telling me I was wait-listed. With no plan B in my back pocket, I took the first writing job that I was offered — entertainment marketing for two years. Let me reveal the qualities of L.A. that did indeed make my list: perpetually relaxing weather and easy to leave your stresses behind. L.A provided a desperately needed escape from the cerebral. In a matter of months, I went from finishing a thesis about the political economy to writing about Kardashians and porn star cross-overs. For all it’s worth, at the time I loved my life for what it was: a colorful detour filled with incredible people. During my recent winter break however, the color didn’t make up for the lack of the appreciable intellect found in Boston.
I find Boston to be deeply intellectual, historic and politically savvy. A classmate posited that perhaps I wasn’t averse to L.A., but that I immediately loved Boston. It’s a feasible theory. I am a writer and a bookish art lover with a penchant for the opera. I couldn’t deny that upon moving to Boston, I felt engulfed in intellect: young people on the T talking about starting non-profits, recent Ivy graduates swapping stories at the Thinking Cup. Once in Copley Square, I overheard a group of stylish 20-somethings go from a debate over the Glass Steagall Act’s social implications to deciding to visit the research collections at the Boston Public Library — for fun.
However, while Boston may have reactivated faculties that I forgot I had when living in L.A., I would still be hard-pressed to say I love Boston after only four months. Though I now realize that a city’s lack of immediately recognizable and driving intellect is a deal-breaker for me.
Something L.A. has above any city I’ve lived in is that it’s home to the most important people in my life. On a 75 degree December morning, I had brunch with my friends Kently and Jisun at Huckleberry in Santa Monica. Kently defended L.A.: “People have to cater to what drives the city forward. Here, it’s entertainment. It’s not to say that you can’t be intellectual in L.A.” Jisun, who is a screenwriter, added, ”The… news cycle of L.A… about celebrity culture [is a] surface preoccupation [that] blinds people to what L.A. really has to offer …if a person seeks to become worldly — barring specific parameters to the type of sophistication one seeks — that can be achieved almost anywhere.”
I know that I could hone my intellect in L.A. in unobstructed ways. However, being immersed in palpable intelligence in Boston made me see that I’m not looking to just be smart in some city. I want my city to deluge me with an immediate air of intellect in social activities as well as school and work. On a given Friday, I want my friends to say, “Let’s see Aung San Suu Kyi speak then have drinks at the new Mickalene Thomas exhibit!” instead of, “let’s go to that Hollywood club and dance to Britney.”
In regard to sophistication, Jisun’s appeal struck a significant chord with me. One mustn’t inhibit what “sophistication” is, but instead be receptive to diverse views of it. I considered my experiences on the East Coast truly sophisticated — a plethora of French restaurants, English tea-houses and highballs at the Vineyard. Essentially, the “England” in “New England” hasn’t left Boston in many ways. L.A. wasn’t necessarily lacking sophistication. It was lacking a sort of Anglo-defined brand of ideals prominently associated with sophistication in the American collective psyche. After all, I studied writing in a Western university where I was taught that Shakespeare, Joyce and Austen defined the medium. Still, my ideal city would have diverse offerings, including a substantial influence of European culture as well as the Asian and Hispanic cultures so beautifully represented in L.A. I suppose that describes neither L.A. nor Boston.
Toward the end of my winter break, my friends and I grabbed drinks in West Hollywood where a man, upon finding out I was a writer, asked if I ever read books since, “no one does.” He told me that he hasn’t read a book since school, but that he is in movies and sometimes has to read parts of books in preparation for adaptations. Surprisingly, I didn’t hold contempt for him; I realized that I didn’t hold contempt for anyone like him. Nonetheless, it was at that moment that I realized I missed Boston.
None of these thoughts annulled the happiness of being around my friends in L.A. They’re an important component of the city that ultimately makes L.A. my hometown. After all, when Yale flipped my world upside down, this city was my solace. Today, however, I’m in a fortified state of confidence and the dynamics I need from a city are different now than when I was in distress. After Harvard, I need to pick up where I left off before I moved back to L.A. to take a break from pursuing my goals. I need to be in a city that can accommodate that, as Chicago did during my pursuit of education and as New York City did when I sought to hone my most professional and cultured self. I need to be in a city that is as diverse as it is grounded in history and as eccentric as it is sophisticated, to satisfy every layer of who I am as a person that grew up in different cities. Most importantly, I need these qualities to work together, in synergy.
I’m not sure if Boston is what I am looking for, but it’s a step in the right direction. Perhaps if I keep moving in that direction, my future can lead to my ideal city: somewhere fast-paced and cultured, where Boston-like intellect can meet halfway with L.A.-like color and flair — apologies to Neil Simon.