Admit LA to the alpha-city club

Outposts of Hauser & Wirth, the Swiss gallery, feel dauntingly private. The one on 69th Street in Manhattan suggests the office of an algorithmic hedge fund with a single-page website. The one in London is a black-clad thing on Savile Row, near an oligarch-favoured triple-starred sushi bar and (the local concession to bohemia) a Vivienne Westwood.

Consider, then, LA’s branch. So open and many-doored is this white building, set among train lines and the city’s alleged river, I once entered it by mistake. With much less of a local collecting elite to serve, it is forced to have the democratic ethos of a museum, not a gallery.

The absence of that overclass is one reason why LA is so often denied world status. The notion of a global or “alpha” city is vague, but most tabulations, weighing economic and cultural heft, put London and New York in a league of two, with Paris and Tokyo chasing. LA does not make the top 10 compiled by the Knight Frank estate agents and Citi Private Bank (Zurich does), or by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (Beijing does). A more culture-biased list by Tokyo’s Institute for Urban Studies admits Berlin but not LA.

You have a sense of my task here, then. To make the case for LA as an alpha city feels so transgressive that, even here in Silver Lake, I look over my shoulder as I write. But I am spoilt for lines of argument. Entertainment is a more powerful industry than banking, if by power we mean the shaping of global tastes and habits. With the biggest container port in the western hemisphere, LA’s centrality to world trade is something shoppers have discovered the hard and expensive way of late. At more than a third, its foreign-born population is about the same as that of London and New York. In 2019, crowning its artistic ascent, it joined both of those cities on the Frieze circuit.

It should grow even closer to the outside world over time. In raw weight of international traffic, LAX can’t be Heathrow or even Changi, but it is being revamped out of its present decrepitude for the next but one Olympic Games. If Zoom displaces business travel for good, geographic remoteness, the clinching argument against living here, will matter a bit less anyway. And it is not as if New York is a lily pad from which to hop wanderlustfully around: with Mexico near at hand, LA is closer to a country with a different first language.

The reasons to accord LA at least Parisian billing mount and mount until — put this down to the paranoia induced by all the legal weed here — I start to suspect bias. Or, rather, a blind spot. Opinion-forming elites, sometimes even non-western ones, are so often North Atlantic in their educations and reference points. Their feel for an Asia-facing city is correspondingly weak.

It wouldn’t matter if it didn’t reveal a wider lack of mental readiness for the modern world. Here is a test: guess the population of Vietnam. Even the best-read and travelled people I know undershoot the right answer, which, at about 100m, applies to the Philippines too. Both diasporas are present in large number in and around LA. Even before we count Koreatown, and the not one but two Little Tokyos, LA qualifies among the most Asian cities outside Asia. It is certainly a better place than London or New York from which to feel the gravitational pull of a continent that would be the world’s largest even without China.

At times, nothing is as parochial as the NY-Lon definition of “global”. It is culpable for the framing of LA as the world’s glamour capital and little more. True, pushed to describe Merois in West Hollywood at dinner service, my offering is “indoor Baywatch”. But the container crisis alone should have made clear the broader strategic value of LA. Much of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, which might or might not be used in earnest in the coming years, is down the coast at San Diego.

The wonder is that the locals themselves don’t bang their drum more. If English self-effacement is an assertion of superiority, so too is the Angeleno lack of touchiness, at times even curiosity, about their city’s place in the world. LA’s best claim to membership of the club is that it doesn’t want to join.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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