I’m of about a million minds when it comes to Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles. For one thing, it’s an ambitious and audacious piece of writing. For another—like so many studies of Los Angeles—the book makes leaps it can’t quite sustain. As to why this is, it has to do with the fluid nature of the city, which is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Yes, Los Angeles is sprawling, amorphous, urbanism as metastasis. But it is also an intimate network of neighborhoods.
Baldwin doesn’t linger on either of these states of being in Everything Now—which is OK. One of the abiding pleasures of Southern California is the space it offers all of us to engage on our own terms. For Baldwin, the points of intersection are personal, familial even: among his ancestors is the 19th-century California congressman William Starke Rosecrans, for whom Los Angeles’s Rosecrans Avenue is named. They are also anthropological. What I mean is that he makes no excuses for being a (relatively) new arrival himself.
“I come,” he writes, “from Illinois, Tennessee, and Connecticut. I studied in rural Maine and urban South Africa. Before Los Angeles…I lived in New York City; Paris, France; and the woods of North Carolina. All of which is to say that I’m a little indifferent as to whether what I put down here has been thought by somebody before me, because it seems so likely; if anything, the deeper my research and reporting went, the greater my appreciation grew for others’ confessions.”
Baldwin isn’t kidding about his appreciation for other people’s confessions; his book is peppered with quotes and cultural references, including (full disclosure) one from me. At times, this can get distracting or feel like overload. I’m thinking particularly of one early sequence in which he cites Reyner Banham, Carey McWilliams, Helen Hunt Jackson, Geoff Manaugh, Roxane Gay, and Mike Davis, all within a two-page span. Those are some essential voices, and every one of them has a place in a book like this, but it might also be useful to slow things down a little, to throw less at us all at once.
Still, the breathlessness of this and other moments gives Everything Now a jangly urgency, not unlike the way it feels to move through the city, which Baldwin posits as an entity unto itself. “Nearly a quarter of the way into the twenty-first century,” he argues,
Los Angeles had straggled, sprawled, and germinated to become a swamp-thing megalopolis, so boundless it was nearly impossible to perceive head-on.
Less of a city than a county.
Less of a community than a climate.
Less of a metropolis than an eighty-eight-city nation-state.
Such a description recalls something the playwright Luis Alfaro once told me: “That’s the thing about Los Angeles, it’s like a bunch of little border towns, and you have to cross over those borders. If you figure out the dynamics of each little border town, you can get along well.” The collage city, let’s say, a hybrid of the urban, the suburban, and the rural.
At the same time, the notion of Los Angeles as city-state offers a bold extrapolation, not only of Alfaro’s border-town motif but also of Mike Davis’s “Fortress L.A.” I think of Davis’s description, in City of Quartz, of Los Angeles as more expansive than its geographic boundaries, a territory that reaches “from the country-club homes of Santa Barbara to the shanty colonias of Ensenada,…encompassing six counties and a corner of Baja California.”
That is the territory Baldwin intends to map.
At times, this leads to some familiar suppositions about cults and Hollywood or the loneliness of a city on the edge of forever, or forever on the edge. More essential are the peripheries, whether physical or metaphorical: landscapes (the border, for example) where legacies of past and present provoke questions of identity and place.
Everything Now is at its most effective when it traverses these peripheries, some of which exist at the city’s core. One is Skid Row, which is the axis for a homelessness crisis that COVID-19 has only rendered more acute. Baldwin’s account of this is nuanced, indicting not only gentrifiers and developers but also people like himself. “I hated it, despaired about it, and sometimes tried not to see it,” he admits. “Conflicting feelings boiled inside me every day. Anger, shame, guilt. Frustration, disassociation, fatigue. I gave money to the local food bank and nonprofits.” He continues: “A lot of the time I just wanted the problem to go away.”
What Baldwin is addressing is denial, which has long been a throughline in the city’s set of narratives. How else to explain living in a basin “epicentral” (to borrow Davis’s formulation) to dozens of active fault lines, subject to fire and flood and drought? Everything Now touches on these issues, although its treatments can sometimes feel derivative. As someone who was in Los Angeles during Northridge, I remember less “a great earthquake” than a harbinger, a precursor of the truly great earthquake to come.
“Between fires and earthquake,” former Los Angeles Magazine editor in chief Kit Rachlis tells Baldwin, “you feel much closer to nature not being a beneficent force. There’s no woo-woo about it…. One associates New Age gauziness with California, but the flip side is that Californians are much more familiar with how violent nature can be.” This is, to me, the most essential secret of Los Angeles: that the clichés and their contradictions are equally true. It’s a raw place, urbanity as incongruity, a city without a center that somehow coalesces through the shared experience of 11 million lives.
“If there is a predominant feeling in the city-state,” Baldwin observes, “it is not loneliness or daze, but an uneasy temporariness, a sense of life’s impermanence: the tension of anticipation while so much quivers on the line. Ethnic division, ethnic celebration. Haves, have-nots. Industrial decline, industrial revival.” He’s not wrong, although the temporary sensation he’s describing is (in the sweetest of paradoxes) the most sustaining aspect of the place. It reminds us of our ephemerality. It reminds us that everything will disappear. In that regard, Los Angeles is the most existential landscape I have ever known.
Baldwin acknowledges this in his closing pages, when he visits California City, a failed development in the Mojave. The scene inverts the opening of City of Quartz, which unfolds in Llano, another unrealized utopia. The effect is of one more edge, one more periphery, both cautionary tale and curio: “the brown noise of the desert, an echo of an interval briefly realized before cleansings by drought and time.” This is how Los Angeles inevitably ends.•