Originally published in the Wildsam Field Guide to Los Angeles, 2017


LOS ANGELES IS sometimes referred to as “19 suburbs in search of a metropolis” or “72 suburbs in search of a city,” depending on which ad-riddled online compendium of famous quotes you’re referencing. The quote is attributed, variously, to Dorothy Parker and Aldous Huxley and H.L. Menken and Alexander Woollcott, but it doesn’t really matter who first committed it to paper. Like nearly everything said about Los Angeles by visiting New York writers, the observation is one that usually only rings true to total outsiders.

To sprawl, in the original Old English, meant to writhe or to lie thrashing about. In other words, sprawl is dynamic. It is a moving, changing thing. This city is indeed an ungainly sprawl of neighborhoods and mini-cities and glorified suburbs and planned communities—anyone in a rented Mustang or sitting on the top of a Gray Line bus can see that. But what these visitors and newcomers usually miss is that L.A.’s disparate parts are not in search of anything; they are thrashing in dozens of different directions. 

Every big city is a loose coalition of distinct neighborhoods, but the sheer spread of L.A. makes it particularly easy to feel untethered from the whole. Here, the neighborhoods’ very association is looser than in other places. And those of us who have come to love this place understand this as a cultural advantage–or, at the very least, a charming quirk. It’s up to individuals to seek the city, and that search creates their personal center.

Finding the center of Los Angeles is a process that is not always appealing or immediately apparent–even to those of us who have been through it ourselves. And this fact can make it difficult to defend Los Angeles to skeptics or to persuade new transplants to embrace its quirks. When I convinced my boyfriend to move from London to Los Angeles a few years ago, he struggled to apply his European notions of urban way-finding to his new California landscape. We lived just north of downtown, which initially provided some comfort that he was not exchanging true city life for an endless expanse of freeway-linked suburbs. But he quickly realized that here, “downtown” is not synonymous with “city center.” Unlike cities that are neatly demarcated by zones or arrondissements or postcodes that clearly mark the distance from a central point, Los Angeles refuses to agree on its core. The center is wherever you decide it is.

But it was difficult for me to articulate this to him. It had never occurred to me that a lack of geographic center was one of Los Angeles’ shortcomings as a city. Sure, we’d all like more comprehensive public transit and fewer guys with shirts unbuttoned to their navels and a better source of water than the Colorado River, 242 miles away. But a common, agreed-upon center? It was so far down my urban wish list that it hadn’t even registered. For me, like most Angelenos, the center is a subjective concept. In my case, it’s near the meeting of Echo Park Avenue and Sunset Boulevard–a junction where crucial elements such as the House of Spirits liquor store, a solid Walgreens, a fish-taco spot, several good bus lines, and a vegan restaurant come together.

My personal center is marked not just by the landmarks on the ground, but by the sound of helicopters circling above. It lies in a hilly patch of land between the 101 and 110 and 5 freeways, which makes it prime flyover territory for medical airlifts and traffic reports and aerial police chases. After I struggled to defend L.A.’s lack of agreed-upon center, this hyperlocal helicopter noise made me start to wonder if I might be able to better observe the city’s loose union of neighborhoods and suburbs from the air. Maybe I was wrong: Perhaps Los Angeles really does have a unified, definable center–geographical or otherwise—and I was simply grounded, unable to see it. Maybe the city’s natural boundaries, like mountains and freeways, are a centralizing force. At the very least, from above, I might be able to better figure out what unites us. Palm trees and bougainvillea? A view of the hills? Hot concrete?

A quick Google search leads me to Celebrity Helicopters, which is at the center of its own very L.A. Venn diagram: It’s a Compton-based aerial sightseeing company that caters to both tourists and Hollywood (“tours seen on The Bachelor!”) while doubling as a flight training school for kids from the neighborhood. I convince owner Robin Petgrave to let me tag along on one of his sightseeing flights. Robin was a transplant himself. Born in Jamaica and raised in Boston, he had a tough childhood in and out of foster care. Eventually, he found sports and went to college on a track scholarship. He moved to Los Angeles after graduation because he wanted to make it as an actor. But he’d always wanted to learn to fly, and he enrolled in a small flight school. From there he built his own helicopter company. His personal successes led him to create Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, where he teaches kids about aviation history and plants the seed that they, too, can become pilots. It’s a classic L.A. story of coming here to chase a Hollywood dream and falling in love with the city instead. (What, you’ve never heard that one? Trust me, it’s more common than you think.)

On this hazy, sunny fall day, a visitor named Luisa has booked a tour of L.A.’s celebrity homes and natural vistas. After a short wait in the office—kids who are enrolled in a tutoring program are running around, so it feels very much like a community center—Robin walks us out to the helicopter. Luisa sits in front with Robin. I sit in the back seat with a trainee pilot named Lucky, who explains to me that piloting a helicopter is much more difficult than flying a plane. For the first and only time, I feel a twinge of nervousness.

But we take off, and the feeling dissipates as I’m distracted by the city unfolding beneath me. It quickly becomes apparent that, even from the air, everyone’s center of Los Angeles is different. Robin begins pointing out landmarks: “This is where Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar are from. Those are the tennis courts where Venus and Serena Williams practiced. This is Watts, where the model Tyrese grew up.” We climb to 600 feet and veer north. “Those are the Jordan Downs Projects, where they filmed Training Day and Menace II Society.” I’m guessing that Robin’s center of L.A. is somewhere between Compton and black Hollywood. He also points out our common landmarks (the freeways, the mountains). Looking down on it from the air, Robin is in his element.

To me, though, so far being up this high just feels like being on a plane landing at LAX: miles of concrete in all directions. No sight of my personal center. No grand theories on what holds this city together. The helicopter approaches downtown, where the buildings look like they could scrape our thin metal underbelly. For the first time since takeoff, I feel light-headed. Robin instructs us to point our phone cameras out the left side window and angle them downward, then proceeds to take a sharp circle around the US Bank Tower. When I watch the video later, I hear myself giggling coyly as if the city itself is flirting with me. This is where my romantic notions of thrashing sprawl threaten to break down. I feel closest to my city here, hovering above its conventionally defined city center. This isn’t how it was supposed to go.

The architectural historian Reyner Banham, who was quite turned on by L.A.’s defiance of traditional urbanism, nevertheless sought to impose some order on our centerless city. He divided Los Angeles into four “ecologies”: the beaches of Surfurbia, the mansions of the Foothills, the valley-floor Plains of Id, and the freeways of Autopia. He relegated downtown, the stereotypical city center, to a sidenote. Each skyscraper and landmark of downtown L.A., he wrote, “stands as an unintegrated fragment in a downtown scene that began to disintegrate long ago–out of sheer irrelevance, as far as one can see.”

From the ground–even if you appreciate the easy beauty of Broadway’s strip of old movie theaters or feel charmed by Frank Gehry’s concert hall or hollowed out by the rows of tents on Skid Row—it’s easy to agree with Banham. But from the air, this is the first part of the tour that’s felt distinct, like we’re really getting somewhere. As we spin among the buildings, a sense of scale finally emerges. Up here, downtown is relevant.

Just as quickly, we leave it behind. We fly over my personal center, near Dodger Stadium, and for once I’m one of those thwapping noises that usually haunt me from above. I search for my center below. But even though I know all of the landmarks, we pass so quickly that I can’t lay eyes on the Walgreens or the liquor store or my house. I’ve only gotten context clues.

But I barely have time to think about it because we’re on to Griffith Park, where the dusty hills and observatory rise into our frame of reference just as the downtown buildings did. And I realize that downtown is not the center of L.A., it’s just that the height of the helicopter creates its own center: It prioritizes the vertical, and so the hills of Griffith are just as breathtaking as the skyscrapers downtown. 

As he maneuvers the helicopter through the hills, offering our first glimpse of the San Fernando Valley beyond, Robin continues to remind us of his own center. He points out places of interest below: “That’s Universal Studios, where they shot Blazing Saddles. And these are the Hollywood Hills—that’s Halle Berry’s house. That’s Lionel Richie’s house. That used to be Eddie Murphy’s house.” Robin and Lucky can’t believe it when they spot the helicopter from AirWolf— the 1980s TV series about a tricked-out military helicopter’s espionage missions—on display on the meticulously manicured grounds of a mansion. Robin triple-checks to make sure Lucky has gotten some good photos.

An hour later–long after we’ve flown the length of Malibu and Santa Monica at 135 mph over the blue-green water—they’ll still be talking about seeing “the real AirWolf.” And I’ll still be thinking about how, even though I saw Halle Berry’s house, I couldn’t place my personal center from the air. It’s as if, from high above, I lost a bit of my ownership of the city. Back on the ground, after I’ve skirted the edges of rush hour on unfamiliar side streets and found my way home, I’m recentered. And only then do I really relate to those skeptical outsiders and newcomers, and understand how tough it can be to chart this place for yourself—even though the payoff is incredible.

When non-locals remark on L.A.’s lack of center, it always seems that they are expressing unease at the deeper realization that no one is in charge here. L.A. was mostly shaped in haphazard reaction to population growth and human behavior and the whims of a few rich folks—not by urban planning vision or military strategy. It’s not just “new” in the sense that its oldest landmarks are less than a century old. It’s new because its geography is constantly being replotted and its sprawl is dynamic. It’s new because you can’t be sure what it will look like in three days, let alone 30 years. And on days that take you high up and far away from your routine, miles from the thrashing neighborhood you’ve chosen to tame for yourself, you can’t even be certain that your own center will hold. The suburbs are not in search of a city. You are the one who must do the searching.