3 Reasons Why I Grew to Love LA

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- (Cue one of the cheesiest ways to open an article): If you're like me, you were probably brought up, even if unintentionally, to hate Los Angeles. There's half a chance you still hate LA. If I had not gone through the process I have with respect to this city -- or, more aptly, this series of diverse city centers -- I might still hate it to.

As a kid, growing up in Niagara Falls, NY, Los Angeles was this place where weirdos lived. Fruits and nuts. Hollywood types. Liberals. As I got a bit older, I always wondered how Kennedy Democrats could turn so Republican and go along with the hijacking and demonization of the term "liberal," but I digress in favor of the somewhat-related subject matter at hand.

A year out of high school, my radio career took me to Miami in 1995, Pittsburgh in 1996, Dallas in 1997, and Las Vegas in 1999. Along the way I sent tapes (so old school) to stations in LA. I figured if a market that large would have me, I'd go there, despite the hesitation triggered by my preconceived notions.

Somewhere along the way I fell in love with cities.

Actually, it was the summer of 1999, while in Boston for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. I was so captivated by that city's urban terrain, I skipped the game to walk the streets. That's when I became a flaneur. On the flight back "home" to Las Vegas, I made the decision: I was moving to a big city.

LA never called. But San Francisco offered immediate opportunity. Plus it struck me as more of an actual city, in the traditional sense, than Los Angeles, so I decided to move there, arriving Labor Day weekend 1999.

Living in what Bay Area people call "The City" only intensified my dislike for LA, a place that, mind you, as of 1999, I had never set foot in.

People in San Francisco tend to hate LA, whereas, I have come to find, LA folks either love San Francisco, are indifferent or have no time for the petty debate Northern Californians seemingly obsess over. The moment you enter San Francisco's 49 square miles, you're actively programmed to hate LA.

To top off the experience, I chose to attend college while in San Francisco. I majored in urban studies, a discipline that uses Los Angeles to illustrate everything the professors who teach it think is "wrong" with modern cities. The academics I worked with at San Francisco State University (and, in graduate school, at the University of California-Irvine) were all fantastic, but, almost to a person, they made their students just as skeptical of and disgusted by Los Angeles as they clearly were.

UC-Irvine required a move to Orange County (south of Los Angles, north of San Diego), which, long story short, made me and my family long for something resembling "The City." So we moved to Los Angeles in 2007.

It's amazing what actual experience -- as opposed to talking out of an ass, steeped in ignorance -- can do. Since making Los Angeles (and now Santa Monica, for the last 3.5 years) home, I have grown to love the place.

LA has a way of making people who take the time to explore and understand it, love it.

These three "reasons" should help color the process that turned unfounded hate into near unconditional love. You're not getting "list article" fluff here. No I love LA because it has In-N-Out Burger. I hope to begin to illustrate the emotional connections we make with our, inherently social and psychological, built environments.

1. LA Has Hills

And, holy crap, the leaves change too!

That's a beautiful shot I took Monday morning somewhere in West Los Angeles, within spitting distance of Beverly Hills and Century City.

This one is from the east of Hollywood, west of Downtown neighborhood known as Echo Park.

Seems insignificant, but, from a not-so-symbolic standpoint, it's one of the things that helps you call bull on San Francisco-based haters who claim LA sucks.

One of their top gripes about LA is that it's "flat." It doesn't have hills like San Francisco does. False. You can cherry pick swaths of Los Angeles that are pretty much flat, but you would be making a generalization. LA is so diverse in every way that few generalizations hold.

Discovering LA has hills was akin to learning that, despite what your mother told you, no, you won't go blind. It's one of the first dominoes to fall in the process of realizing almost everything "they" told you (especially if "they" reside in San Francisco) about the Los Angeles region is not only false, but rooted in ignorant legend.

Once you start noticing hills in LA, you begin to question everything else you were predisposed to hate. It kicks off a thrilling process of unparalleled urban discovery.

2. LA is Dense and Walkable

They bury this one in the urban planning textbooks, but, depending on how you measure it, Los Angeles is more dense than San Francisco or even New York City. For the record, West Hollywood happens to be California's most walkable city. But these distinctions require the sort of context LA haters like to leave out.

When we refer to Los Angeles, we rarely define what we mean. It's probably best to say, "OK, we mean LA county, but we're going to create some realistic boundaries."

You have to make tough decisions; however, to truly enjoy and get the most out of LA, you have to shrink it. This isn't cheating. It's simply leveling the playing field.

San Franciscans act as if they made the conscious choice to be this dense metropolis when, in all reality, they had no choice. The City is constrained, therefore it's compactly organized. LA knows no bounds; as such, it -- and the entire Southern California region -- sprawls from oceanside, dozens of miles to majestic mountains.

Where San Francisco had the chance to sprawl, it did. Talk a walk down Geary Boulevard and tell me if you feel like you're traversing an urban gem. Plop yourself in some random suburb east or south of The City; you'll think you're in Phoenix on a cold and cloudy day.

That aside, my LA extends from Downtown, through Hollywood, everything along and adjacent to Wilshire (including cute little neighborhoods like Larchmont) into West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Century City, West Los Angeles and ending in Santa Monica, but including the beach cities on either side. So we'll say from Palos Verdes to Malibu and everything in between along the Pacific Coast.

This approach makes LA more manageable. And a better comparison case.

When you break it down the way I have, you begin to understand the dynamism of Los Angeles. It consists of dozens of dense, walkable cities within one massive sprawling metro. Heading to the San Fernando Valley from my LA feels like a road trip.

I have what I have come to understand as an advantage: My first several years of exploring this hefty chunk of Los Angeles (probably 20 miles long and 10 miles or so wide) happened via bicycle.

Riding a bike in LA eliminates the traffic issue.

Because you can move from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city within this urban canvas we call LA much more quickly on a bike than in a car, you can more easily make sense of the interconnections. Suddenly, you're hit with the shock and awe that it takes no longer to move from West Hollywood to West LA, by bike, than it does to get from Midtown to Greenwich Village in a taxicab.

Then, when you start moving through LA on four wheels, you're less irritated thanks to a better understanding of exactly what you're navigating. Plus you recall shortcuts you came upon via bike that, for one reason or another, drivers ignore (like using Carmelina off of Wilshire to bypass Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills on your way to Hollywood!).

Give me 15 minutes and I will have you in the middle of a dense, walkable, shops and services-filled city center in LA faster than you can say San Francisco's Mission District is overrun with pretentious hipsters.

No city in North America, save Toronto, Vancouver and Portland, has done a better job getting more dense and walkable than LA. It's remarkable really. Across LA, cities, local governments and planners have reclaimed parking lots, vacant buildings and other flavors of blight, replacing them with mixed-use centers that help provide the urban feel that tightens the aforementioned interconnections, makes a big city feel smaller and fosters the type of vibrancy Jane Jacobs wrote about.


3. LA Doesn't Do Stigma

It always struck me as odd that the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith reportedly did not like Los Angeles. A handful of people close to him even argued that the move to LA, from New York, "killed him," or, at least, contributed to his death.

In Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, William Todd Schultz relays Smith's take on both cities:

New York
There's just more people that look like I do. Not that ... I don't look any particular way, I don't think. But I'm not the ... People don't stare at me. I don't look outrageous at all. There's always much bigger freaks than me in New York, on every block

But, in LA, Elliott initially claimed he didn't feel "quite right there."

Los Angeles
(LA was full of) falsely tan people with great abs, that wear impossible clothes, and I'm always the scrappiest person walking down the street, and it makes me uncomfortable

Schultz notes that Elliott once told CNN, in reference to LA, that its cartoon image provided "good reason to check it out ... (to) get the cartoon out of the way and see what it's really like there."

That's what I have done. And, on the count of feeling like a freak, I gotta tell ya I'm a bit stunned at Smith's take. As with most things Elliott, there's got to be more to the story.

San Franciscans, through a smug self-righteousness and reputation leftover from the 60s, fool you into believing they're the most tolerant people in the world. That's crap.

Over the years, San Francisco, along with Manhattan, have become the least diverse cities in America. You don't need the Census to tell you this. Just walk around. (Note that I isolate Manhattan from the remaining NYC boroughs, given their obvious diversity). If diversity means upper-income to rich Whites and Asians, I stand corrected.

I'll remain seated.

It's easy to position yourself as a tolerant liberal in San Francisco (or Berkeley) when you don't live next door to "the other." When, no matter how many blocks you move, you see, predominantly, people who look just like you or look like what you expect.

Of course, the homeless -- folks who have become little more than props for urban grit -- in San Francisco are the exception. Many San Franciscans keep homeless people as pets these days, leaving them food and talking with them after buying a morning latte. It makes them feel good about themselves.

Full disclosure: Life in Santa Monica, the city I live in in LA, isn't all that different.

That said, the LA I describe, on the whole, requires an incredible tolerance, if not respectable patience, for diversity. I don't think most San Francisco liberals could hack living in LA districts such as Echo Park, Silverlake, Los Feliz or swaths of West LA. Because they're truly diverse.

You don't just walk down the shopping street and pat a homeless guy on the head each morning. Or attend some feel-good Latin dance class in the Mission District. You live side-by-side with people from all income levels and all corners of the globe, some with ways of living that clash with how we do urbanism in America.

All of this to say, freaks like me (or Elliott Smith) absolutely do not stand out in Los Angeles, especially on the east side of the city I have mapped out. If you don't just look different, but are psychologically flawed, it works out even better for you.

LA has the reputation of being a great place to work as a therapist, psychiatrist or pharmacist. An apparent overabundance of depression and anxiety diagnoses keep the work overflowing.

You know the (probably true) stereotypes: Everybody in LA has a shrink or Everybody in LA is on antidepressants. Sounds horrible at first, but I think it's one of the place's best features.

People who live here have come to not merely shrug off, but accept these designations. What's wrong with seeing a therapist or (and I can see the other side of this coin, no doubt) taking medication to maintain better mental health?

We tend to stigmatize these behaviors as a nation, creating and proliferating a whole host of bigger problems. Stigma kills. It takes the freaks and places them in a panopticon that, for many, leads to the inability to cope. That's not how it is in Los Angeles.

There's comfort in knowing not only that your neighbor might be just as "off" as you are, but there's a 50/50 chance he or she is willing to do the unthinkable, talk about it!

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Pendola makes frequent appearances on national television networks such as CNN and CNBC as well as TheStreet TV. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.

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