THIS IS (NOT) L.A.: An Insider’s Take on the Real Los Angeles by Jen Bilik with Kate Sullivan is a love letter to Los Angeles, and an essential reality check and debunker of false myths about the city. An excerpt of the most L.A. and un-L.A. guide, including a foreword by the late Jonathan Gold.
THIS IS (NOT) L.A.
WHEN YOU LIVE IN LOS ANGELES, you are used to having your city explained to you by others, often by people who parachute in from out of town and write about what they find within twenty minutes of their Westside hotels. Los Angeles is the edge of the continent, populated by happy people with good teeth who all drive convertible BMWs or vintage Mustangs. We carry yoga mats around with us and drink $14 glasses of emerald-tinted juice. We’re not all in show business—that would be impossible—because some of us have to teach Pilates, wax surfboards, or refurbish the cute little bungalows in Echo Park that are snapped up by photographers from New York.
But the Los Angeles that most of us live in is a different beast entirely, a city of almost unimaginable diversity, the world’s center not just of entertainment at the moment but of aerospace and art.
We think of San Francisco as a pleasant place to spend a weekend. New Yorkers write endless think pieces on the difference between our city and theirs, but we smile—moving to Silver Lake is probably the most Brooklyn thing it is possible to do at the moment, and we just absorb their culture into the vast glittering mosaic, alongside a Koreatown so closely tied to the motherland that it may as well be a suburb of Seoul, San Gabriel Valley Chinese neighborhoods that stretch for twenty miles, and a Mexican popu- lation almost twice the size of Guadalajara.
I don’t mind the outsider’s idea of Los Angeles, to tell you the truth. Sometimes it’s fun to sit on the patio at Gjelina among TV actors and vacationing Condé Nast editors; the pizza is really pretty good, even when they put grilled radicchio on it. Parties at those Hollywood Hills mansions with the infinity pools and views out to Catalina Island are nice. I prefer earthquakes to blizzards, Santa Anas to nor’easters, and palm trees to sickly elms.
Los Angeles is where you get to reinvent yourself every day if you want; where you can slip through a rabbit hole and find yourself in an Iranian recording session, a sleepy Nigerian dining room, or a bar designed after a favorite haunt in distantly remembered Pyongyang. Within fifteen minutes of my house, I can hike a mountain trail, hang out with people whose job it is to monitor the weather on Mars, find food from regions of China I’m not sure I can find on a map, spend a day at the track, sip tea with bluebloods, or eat heaps of Jalisco-style fried chicken necks.
Have you ever surfed? It’s fun!
If you drive through Compton on the right day, you really can see lowriders bounce. When President Trump tried to scare Americans with visions of a taco truck on every corner, we sighed with delight. We get to celebrate Chinese New Year here, Vesak, Eid, Têt, Día de los Muertos, Nowruz, and a whole lot of holidays I’m forgetting. Kwanzaa was actually invented here.
San Francisco likes to think of Los Angeles as the place where civilization went to die.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
HOLLYWOOD IS GLAMOROUS
STARS DON’T JUST WORK IN HOLLYWOOD, THEY LIVE AND PLAY THERE TOO. HOLLYWOOD’S LEGENDARY THOROUGHFARES—VINE STREET, SUNSET BOULEVARD, AND HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD—ARE CELEBRITY HOT SPOTS WHERE YOU’RE BOUND TO SEE A-LISTERS GRABBING COFFEE OR OUT FOR A NIGHT ON THE TOWN.
Stars in L.A. are practically everywhere, all the time, and for the most part, they’re used to being gawked at.
—TIME OUT LOS ANGELES, 2015
You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard — THE KINKS, “CELLULOID HEROES”
THERE ARE SEVERAL HOLLYWOODS.
There’s the mythical, imaginary dimension called Hollywood—a state of mind defined by glamour, fame, wealth, beauty, artistry, ambition, and tragedy. Then there’s the industry known as Hollywood—a field of commerce involving multinational corpora- tions, bottom lines, investors, lobbyists, and unions. As it happens, working in the movie and TV industry is significantly less glitzy than rumored. And most of the jobs are far from creative.
Finally, there’s Hollywood, the neighborhood. It’s a truly special place, but not nearly as ritzy as legend suggests. It’s rich and poor, artistic and touristy. It’s buzzing with nightlife, steeped in history. But most movies and TV shows get made outside of Hollywood (the place). And if you’re hoping to spot a celebrity, Hollywood Boulevard is pretty much the last place you should be looking—unless, of course, it happens to be Oscars night.
REALITY CHECK #1:
HOLLYWOOD IS SURPRISINGLY POOR
Hollywood has had an extended makeover in recent years. But much of it is still grimy, gritty, and eccentric. It’s full of strip malls with massage joints, nail salons, and water stores (yes, that’s a thing). There are dive bars, street hustlers, crappy motels, shabby tourist traps, and all the chaos any Charles Bukowski fan could hope for.
A few myth-busting stats: Hollywood’s poverty rate is around 30% to 40%, comparable to Watts. Hollywood also has one of the highest homelessness rates in Los Angeles County. As the BBC reports, “Tourists are shocked to find themselves stepping over people draped in filthy blankets and begging on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Shop owners routinely swill the pavements to wash away urine and the accompanying stench.”
Hollywood is also a residential neighborhood with schools and churches, where kids grow up and people grow old. And it’s diverse, more than 42% Latino and encompasses ethnic enclaves such as Little Armenia and Thai Town.
What Hollywood is not is a place where you’re going to see A-listers walking down the sidewalk on a regular basis. Most of the stars are in the sidewalk—the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But even that’s not quite as magical as it seems. Those stars cost money—$30,000 at last check. And being a star doesn’t mean you get one. You have to want it, which may be why George Clooney doesn’t have one, but Donald Trump does.
The location of choice for many homeless kids . . . is Hollywood. Skid Row might be the end of the road. But [Hollywood] is definitely the beginning. — NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC’S INSIDE: SECRET AMERICA, 2013
REALITY CHECK #2:
THE “BIZ” IS A BUSINESS
Working in the movie and TV industry is significantly less glitzy than rumored. And most jobs in the industry have very little to do with the creative aspects of movies and entertainment. There are mail-room people, administrative and clerical workers, agents, publicists, accountants, and lawyers (lots of lawyers). There are people who work exclu- sively in insurance—not too alluring but absolutely essential, since every shoot needs to be well insured. On set, the majority of jobs are “below the line”—in other words, not actors, writers, directors, or producers. Shoots can be a grind, with workdays sometimes edging upward of sixteen hours. And unlike stars, who can retreat to plush trailers, crew responsibilities require a nose-to-the-grind- stone work ethic. The execution of just a few seconds of footage requires the full attention and balletic coordination of an entire crew of people. There are security guards, drivers, janitors, caterers, hard-hatted set builders, electricians, craftspeople, and technicians. There are lowly production assistants (better known as P.A.s) fetching coffee for the pro- ducers and sushi for the stars.
And that’s just to get the raw footage in the hands of the postproduction crew, who meticulously retool the day’s work into something to be obsessed over by another crew of editors, producers, and executives. Then there are entire wings of the industry dedicated to marketing, sales, distribution, licensing, royalties, and a host of other unglamorous pursuits. In other words, in its day-to-day execution, the entertainment industry is no more romantic than a factory.
Hollywood is a place you can’t geographically define. We don’t really know where it is. — JOHN FORD, DIRECTOR
MOVIES AREN’T MADE IN HOLLYWOOD
Contrary to myth, Hollywood doesn’t really have movie studios. True, Netflix moved to Hollywood from Beverly Hills in 2017, perhaps symbolizing the area’s resurgence as an entertainment center. But in terms of major studio lots, the only one located in Hollywood is Paramount. Disney, Universal, and Warner Bros. are all located in the San Fernando Valley. Fox and Sony are on the Westside. Even in the 1910s and 1920s, when the film industry was putting down roots, studios were built all over L.A.—particularly in Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Echo Park, as well as Culver City, Burbank, and Studio City.
For the last twenty years, however, film and TV shoots have migrated outside L.A.— and outside the United States—a process known as “runaway production.” The percentage of top-grossing films made in California has plummeted. In 1996, twenty of the fifty highest-earning movies were made here. By 2013, only four were.
Other states and countries—notably Canada—have made successful efforts to entice these productions away from California, causing a 10% drop between 2004 and 2012 alone. But recently the state launched a multimillion-dollar tax incentive program to bring these jobs back.
If you actually want to name where movies are made in Southern California, it’s not Hollywood, but the Thirty-Mile Zone (whence TMZ drew its name). The term refers to the thirty-mile radius around Beverly and La Cienega Boulevards that labor unions use to set pay rates. Almost all L.A.-based production takes place within the TMZ—outside it, producers are charged extra for mileage and travel. So at the very least, you could say that Hollywood is “in the zone.”
➜ “Hollywood” means many things.
➜ Hollywood (the industry) is pretty workaday.
➜ Hollywood (the place) has only one major movie studio.
➜ If you want to spot a star, try the Chateau Marmont.
Forget about film: Hollywood’s core is a musical holy land, with studios created by sonic prophets—such as Capitol Records’ famed echo chambers, designed by Les Paul, lying thirty feet below Vine Street. A staggering catalog of classic pop has been created in central Hollywood— Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Carole King’s Tapestry, to name a few. Fun fact: the blinking red light atop the Capitol building spells out “Hollywood” in Morse code.
STAR-SPOTTING CHEAT SHEET
If you do want to roll the celebrity-ogling dice, go sit in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont hotel, many celebrities’ natural habitat. A few more options to try:
■ Brentwood Country Mart
■ Whole Foods (any of them)
■ Gelson’s grocery stores (some of them)
■ LAX (the airport)
■ Hotel Bel-Air
■ Abbot Kinney Boulevard (Venice Beach)
■ VIP sections at concerts
■ The Grove shopping mall
■ Fred Segal boutique
■ Starbucks or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
■ The movies, especially the Hollywood Arclight Theater
■ Local farmers’ markets
■ Hiking (start with Runyon Canyon)
■ Dodgers and Lakers games
■ The private K–12 Crossroads School
■ Lobbies of CAA and William Morris
■ Fancy Westside gyms and spas
Excerpted from THIS IS (NOT) L.A.: An Insider’s Take on the Real Los Angeles, with permission of the author.
Jen Bilik is an L.A.-based author and the founder of Knock Knock, independent makers of witty books and gifts. Before starting the company in 2002, she was an editor and writer of books on art, architecture, urbanism, design, and popular culture. Drawing on her publishing background, she piloted Knock Knock’s expansion into books, authoring several herself while overseeing the production of over one hundred more. In January 2018, Jen spearheaded Knock Knock’s acquisition of Emily McDowell Studio and People, Places & Things (formerly known as Sisters of Los Angeles) to form the Who’s There Group. For Jen, the Who’s There family represents a stimulating culmination of many interests–art, craft, business, strategy, printing, writing, coordinating, managing–and she keeps them all well-honed by serving as the company’s CEO and key creative leader. Co-author of the highly anticipated THIS IS (NOT) L.A.: An Insider’s Take on the Real Los Angeles, Jen continues to play an active role in product development.