A City of Dreams

No, New York isn’t becoming Los Angeles.

urban lights by chris burden at lacma
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At the start of the year, the New York Times used the opening of New York’s first recreational cannabis store to ask a question that wasn’t on anyone’s mind: “Is New York Turning Into Los Angeles?

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

California wasn’t the first state to legalize recreational pot (it wasn’t even the fourth), and as a lifelong resident until recently, I can tell you that Los Angeles is no stonier a place than, say, Portland or Anchorage, so to call a recreational dispensary “a staple of Los Angeles living,” as Michael M. Grynbaum does in the article, hardly seems warranted. He does, however, offer further evidence of the “Los Angeles lifestyle” that’s apparently overtaking Manhattan so much that the neighborhood that was once home to Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat is now known (probably mostly to real estate agents) as LiLA, which rolls off the tongue and has better SEO than “Little LA.” Even before they got a pot store, Grynbaum says, New Yorkers had started dressing down, eating dinner earlier, driving more, and staying home more—a paradoxical feat I’d thought only we Angelenos could master.

When seen through the lens of the global pandemic (remember that?), these data points seem like a justifiable response to a global pandemic, not examples of a “bicoastal vibe war” that I’m only just hearing about. Perhaps the least refutable thing he notes is the baffling weather swap that’s befallen the two cities of late, in which L.A. is regularly graced with New York’s trademark humidity.

But within these arguable assertions are clichés woven like so much organic cotton through the vegan mattresses at the new Avocado “experience center” on Fifth Avenue. Sound baths, ketamine, and crystals color Grynbaum’s new Los Angeles–inflected New York. He cites not just one or two but entire sections of mocktails creeping onto Manhattan menus, the vegan-ization of fine dining, but also the preponderance of L.A.-based chicken and sushi franchises in Midtown. The acquisition of “the city’s last single-screen movie house” (in 2019, but trends take a long time to gel), the building of a soundstage by Netflix, and even the construction of an artificial beach are harbingers of our consciously unconsciously coupling cities. This putrid, matcha-tinted vision is rounded out by the presence of athleisure, pop wellness, luxury bongs, and other desperate quackeries that you really can’t blame on Los Angeles beyond certain parts of Venice. (If the Times really wants to start a war, the paper can ask whether Venice even is Los Angeles.)

When my husband and I “grabbed a slice” after taking the Metro to see Einstein on the Beach in downtown L.A. a few years ago, not once did I think, “This place is turning into New York.” And that’s not just because the phrase “turning into” has, if you’ll forgive my West Coast–ness, pretty bad vibes. Beyond being somewhat inaccurate (Netflix, a company from Northern California, is made to represent Hollywood, a city located on Mars; the beach is a thankless trek for most Angelenos), it’s not exactly, like, cool to, like, lump a whole bunch of dumb-sounding stuff together and affix to it the name of a city that was totally minding its own business and just doing its thing. If New Yorkers find themselves faced with too many ayahuasca parties, better questions might be “Is New York Getting Worse Too?” and “Should we move somewhere we can get a four-bedroom house for half the price of this walk-up studio?”

Bad ideas have to come from places—one could geotag them all day—but they also have to catch on in places. In this case, some bad ideas have extended far past San Francisco or wherever they originated and made their way to New York. A dynamic, constantly changing city full of dreamers and schemers, New York can either absorb these things (like grain bowls) or reject them (like the Kushners).

So it’s up to you, New Yorkers, to experience each California-branded vibe to see whether it’s rotten or ripe.

As a native Angeleno, I can tell you this: Beware of anyone who wants to drain your lymph nodes or invites you up to finger their Himalayan singing bowls, but I encourage you to keep a Zen beginner’s mind about unfamiliar Los Angeles things. People seem to like the pot. Who knows, maybe it would mellow you guys out. Drinking less, while not an L.A. idea, is one I think we can all drink to, and earlier dining just makes sense when you realize there’s really nothing to stay up for anymore.

Perhaps the confluence of all these trippy forces will spark some New Yorkers to send more of their urbane culture west. This Valley girl would love it. Until then, you can have your humidity back.•

Stacey Grenrock-Woods is a regular contributor to Esquire and a former correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
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