La Famossisima Repubblica Angelina
Callum Ruddock

Long read

Iimagine XVth century Florence wasn’t too different from Los Angeles. In between two palm trees and a Chevron, Masaccio would have sat down for his morning iced coffee. Renaissance men jog topless. It is hot. The air is hot. Leather car seats are hot. A young Botticelli, hungover, sips a macha and snaps a few selfies. The Medicis bicker, worried about the profitability of their chain of health spas, chomping on SweetGreens, topping themselves up with lip fillers. Angelinos as much as Florentines enjoy the end of summer in their city state.

At the Brentwood Country Mart I suck up a takeout lunch. A big bowl of leafy greens. All water cress. Heaps of the stuff. With cheese. Fork in one hand, book in the other. A peripheral celebrity has wandered in. She orders a big cup of soda; spills half of it all over herself. It must be easy with fame so commonplace, fame with less attention; big names cheaper by the dozen, one amongst a crowd of many influencers, Los Angeles is a haven. My fork hand is slapped. I am told to stop gawking, that I cannot fully appreciate the food whilst looking, but I am not convinced; it is not the sustenance I am interested in. Absorbing two things at once: bagels and Rosecrans Baldwin – a writer and L. A. resident whose name is so American the likes of Butch Van Artsdalen, Robert August, and Corky Caroll begin to sound foreign.

Rosecrans tells me, “Los Angeles is covered in gold if you’re a writer.” I try very hard to find it. I look at the sea, try to taste it in the supermarket, but it is too much and I am forced to retreat to the air-conditioning of my friend’s station wagon, always ending up in Brentwood where the city’s life swirls and stops. Los Angeles has plenty of patrons here, way up in the Hills, people with money to pay for the city state’s trinkets and ornaments, for its shows and restaurants. And then there is me chomping on what remains of Los Angeles’ salad.
    I am nobody. A nada, zilch, zero, and I like that. Leaving Brentwood for the rest of the city each morning is how I learn the city state’s optimism. Los Angeles is sanguine, a hell hole for stoics, propelled by wishful thinking and a belief that if you look for it, you will find it. Around a pool I do find some, faced with my friend Amanda’s contemporary city state family, the Glickmans, who have lived in the hills since the 2000s and have built a warm place where nervous faces like me are welcomed. Sunday dinners are without question held at the grandparents who live a five minutes’ walk away. “Invest in distillation” an uncle recommends. “We’re big Arsenal fans.” “Why don’t you have some more salad and kebab?” They are the types that let an unknown host a pool party for twenty or so twenty-somethings in their garden. They take me to dinners, to see the Dodgers beat the Padres, for cold soba when I am hungover. They are L. A. folk. Magnanimous. Papa seems to have worked with just about everyone, his insight is genuine and playful and I am content (for once) to sit with a beer and listen to him tell me about John Major and British politics.

In their kitchen I meet more of the family. Pasta is chopped into baby sized chunks for a blonde toddler, the youngest of the familial clan, who is intent on patting the big stinky dog and tearing around the house with a hoover. Grandma fetches me more beer. Papa rustles around in his closet for a baseball shirt. The city state has offered me a brood of my own and I feel part of it.

After dinner settles, I scald myself on a boiling water tap, concealing the burn because I am embarrassed, too stupid to realise what it was. My arse is always sweaty. The baggy jeans I wear don’t help. I don’t ‘do' California elegantly. I cross the road in the wrong places, Santa Monica’s big blue bus nearly the end of me. I watch a man leave his drink standing in the midday heat only to come back to it an hour later, now a warm treat. Los Angeles can at times feel like a ‘life simulator’, built to test out how extreme life can be. Everyone’s skin is clear, and everything is spoken confidently. They accept the flip to tip iPad screen thrust into your gaze with coffee. I tip 20 percent. I figure the customer-barista interaction is 20 percent better than at home, so it feels worth it.

A man could forget he was ever British here. The American way of life feels more pronounced. Not ‘rootin tootin’ but undeniably unapologetic, like sucking on a piece of ginger or smacking yourself in the thigh as you stand to get out of bed. The cultural power of the ocean stands out strongest. Angelinos went from fearing the water and the white sharks in the middle of the XIXth century to eagerly embracing the endless summer surf by the mid 60s. The water temperature rarely drops below 10Cº, and by July it’s 23 in the water, 40 out. This is ok though. The ocean is the good kind. Its waves are medium sized (2-4ft on Hermosa) and in the summer even bigger. Plenty enough for me to covered and wet; salty and sopping; free of whatever burdened me in England, coated in sun, starting to feel a bit better about myself. My hand still hurts.

The word destiny gets thrown about. That and self-help, the great Americanism that rejects old Europe’s mantra, ‘how your life turns out isn’t really up to you’. Angelinos own themselves. Los Angeles in fact, owns itself. Through its utilities, the mighty Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (well covered by Joan Didion); its transport, tied to the growing Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the port and airport too. The litigation that binds city to county to state to country. Everything in writing. Everything open to interpretation. A fine from the mayor for having planted the wrong kind of grass on the verge. Small state means big state. It's complex, but so is the route to power.

Travel up and head east. Past City Hall then the aqueduct, where Los Angeles rejects the ocean, opting instead for its Californian umbilical that brings water from upstate Owens Valley Lake. East, past the billboards that advertise over the phone tarot card readers who charge 70 cents a minute. Not here but there. Reggaeton plays from my Uber’s stereo. The sound of the SoCal accent, the call of the West, streams into the city, carried by 18 wheelers, Toyota Camrys, contributing to a borderless messy whole.

Lines in the sand tell us much about Los Angeles’ future, the sound coming from the radio a subtle hint. Introducing the L. A. Unified School District, an area totalling 710 square miles which includes most of the city of Los Angeles along with all portions of 26 cities and unincorporated areas of L. A. County; responsible for the education of the city state’s next generation, 74 percent of which (as of 2019) are Hispanic. L. A. is teetering, political change emanates from the East side. A city founded by Los pobladores will choose Spanish, sometimes blended with English by the Glickmans when needed, perhaps aware their city is now something else.


Angelinos, perhaps as a result of this change, have an itchier soul than most. They find beauty where others don’t. Life can be a Hockney if you are prosperous, aspic otherwise. Like jellied eels, Angelinos will take something know to be palatable, preserve it in collagen, and offer it up to a starved public willing to nod politely and agree it truly is a work of art. Good food should be eaten on plastic chairs. A scenic view must charge entry. A golden coast must be driven down, never walked. Rosecrans knows this.
“Rarely simply itself, Los Angeles is often … summoned to express another: a midwestern suburb; a Pacific Rim metropole; a heteropolis-suggesting a land full of love for difference and all things weird: sideways skyscrapers, pluralisation, chicken shawarma burritos. For some it … [is] simpler. It’s Houston plus porn.”

Moving across the city, blasting through Venice and up Abbot Kinney Blvd in a worn-out Mini Cooper, I ask my friend Olivia what keeps her sane in the duplicity, “There is a confidence that you have to have to live here, otherwise you can get lost in all of it. We are like used car salesmen, selling every other person some trussed up version of ourselves.”

This produces a strong bond between citizen and city state. Angelinos evolve to be a breed of their own. To live in Los Angeles necessitates the constant ingestion of antacids. Los Angeles is a gut. Most get swallowed. Digested. Shit out. Their time in the city lasts as long as they can stomach it and it can stomach them. And yet the city state still draws from the pool of burnt-out hopefuls seeking acclaim, a destination, or as Brent Faiyaz puts it, “the places of places”.

Tougher humans will of course survive longer, harder for the city state to chew, they sit in the gut longer. A bunch of prospering oddities living off a mountain side. Scruffy but infinitely charming in the shared dryness. Everybody else comes and goes. Everybody else has their limit. It is why, I am told, locals can spot an outsider like me from a mile off. We’re too slick. Too loud. Not yet swallowed. Rugged optimists. The lot of them. The Los Angeles American.

For some this ejection means poverty, a grotesque number end up on Skid Row. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, some 69,000 people experienced homelessness in Los Angeles County during 2022. Of these, more than 20,000 were provided with shelter on any night. 34 percent of them are Black, amongst a population of African Americans that represents only about 8 percent of the county’s population. Thousands are corralled downtown in a place which I describe as the ooze.  

“People around L. A. often speak of homelessness like it is preordained,” Rosecrans states, “That one of the richest kingdoms in the wealthiest nation in human history would also lack the will to keep it citizenry safe-a hypothesis that feels like fact, even common sense, and consequently enables people to talk about homeless people without ever talking to homeless people.”

Everyone I meet is frustrated, every single person has an opinion, had waded through Skid Row even. Its rawness does not stop me from going downtown. It does not stop me from seeing squalor unlike anything I have ever seen. It’s the Federal Government’s job, it’s the State’s prerogative, the County’s doing, the City’s fault, if citizens weren’t so filled with nimbyism, if America wasn’t so capitalist, if Republicans were in power, if the Democrats just acted, if the drugs came off the street, if the drugs were legal, if housing was free, if they’d just stop being, then we could solve it, then all would be resolved.

The people of Skid Row migrate here. When the winter settles in New York many thousands will walk across America towards the sun, where they will join established slum communities and try to survive in a city that will overlook them. The centralisation of poverty in one place, the squeezing of the poor, produces a rare bitter juice that taints the mouths of all Angelinos. It is not lost on them, but I am shocked they do not act. I am told they are scared.

“L. A. has had a large exodus in the past several years. Rampant crime, progressive politics that some believe is doing more harm than good, and exorbitant prices. And you see the backlash from people. People who have voted Democrat their entire life are now shifting. And can you blame them? When you get constant finger pointing and excuses for crime, homelessness, lack of prosecution, you lose the veil of deterrence. I've been lucky in where I live. But there are people who get stabbed, shot, punched in the face, harassed, etc and this happens in good neighbourhoods. L. A. is HUGE, so you will naturally get politics playing a major role in everything, but it does seem like it's coming to a head soon. Police departments will not tolerate getting defunded and people will not tolerate crime. If prevailing winds start to shift one way or the other, get the popcorn out!” – Jamie, ex-divorce attorney and friend.


Amanda, the Glickmans, Olivia and I go to Craigs for dinner; a safe space carved out in a booth at a restaurant that feels like a moth lamp, the prominent flocking there for wine and parmigiana. Over ribs I ask Amanda what she thinks of her city. “L. A. means Beverly Hills smelling of perfumed pine (I think they eject the scent onto the street); everyone smoking cigarettes even though they won’t drink dairy milk and go on hikes every morning; and everyone having connections-you can’t cry over nepotism-baby.”

The evening is filled with anecdotes, many of which I won’t remember, but they will be acute and American, and probably go like, “The amount of people I know who go to Palm Springs to swing … and then he said, I need some fried chicken and a blow job.”

Los Angeles is a city state because of these contradictions. There are L. A. stories and there are those in L. A. roles. I meet cartoonists, franchisers, lawyers, designers, dog-walkers, full time yogis, full time surfers, and a man whose job is to hunt down antisemites. I am told about a girl whose dad was in a jazz band with her grandad back in the 1970s. The dad played trumpet and grandad played drums. In the inner-city the Compton Cowboys ride past stunned drivers in their four by fours. A group of ex-gang members who rescue neglected horses; the marriage of the two a new type of civil society, black and mobile, infamous globally, they have collaborated with the likes of Boot Barn, Google and Playboy, naturally. In the burbs artists’ residences like Villa Aurora or the Lost Kids still prosper. To bob in the wake of L. A. soft power is a unique experience, the appetite for new art insatiable; remember, this is a city where people call the paparazzi on themselves.

Taste does not accompany money. Tackiness survives. Amanda and I go to a birthday party in Culver City. Navigating our way down an alley and around the back of a medium sized McMansion, owned coincidently by the producer of Star Trek, The Next Generation, we are greeted by friends of friends. There are piles of pizza boxes filled with pizza, red solo cups and lots and lots of weed. The garden is long, filling a valley. It is scruffy at the far end, with a large infinity pool near to the house. A tiny stream trickles down through the middle. I am told it is the source of the L. A. River. I somehow doubt this. We swim for a while and make small talk. The beers I bring as a peace offering are drunk before I am allowed one. People start to join us in the pool, more and more people arriving. We choose to leave before the party has really started. I need calm from the city. It will not offer me this easily.

I had peace on the flight over, and an empty row, though just after take-off a voice piped up from behind and asked to join me. Its name was Hugo, a boyish man who ordered us wine to celebrate crossing from Canada to America; who followed me on Instagram somewhere over Salt Lake City; who suggested we get a beer when we did land; who ultimately blanked my texts but insisted that if we didn’t manage to meet, we must get a pint back in London. A flight friend who stepped onto hot airport tarmac and ceased to exist. He told me his girlfriend was pretty. Pity, I would have liked to have met her.

I gained no extra insight descending into L. A. All squares from up there, the city state hadn’t started yet. Hugo knew nothing of the city and for that I envied him, my Los Angeles beginning at LAX and at security.
         “So, you live in Los Angeles?” the border guard asked, looking up from his paperwork.
         “No, I’m staying with my friend…”
         “So you don’t have a green card?”
         “No? I’m a tourist.”

Trying to catch me out, stop me from accessing all this cosmopolis, all these suburbs. The city spreads to fit its county, absorbing once rural towns like Lakewood and Whittier as it grows. Stopped only by geography, and even then, like a Virginia creeper, it climbs over and expands into the craggy valleys and brown gullies. The threat of an earthquake is the landscapes response. A threat that reaches past Burbank, whiles its way down South Western Avenue, spreading out slowly as it gets to orange county. It circles the city state, amassing around what Rosecrans describes as Los Angeles’ 100-mile radius of influence. It is the cause of the L. A. rush, the San Andreas nuisance that keeps Angelinos moving fast. And then one day, when L. A. faces its ultimate shakedown, insurers and litigators will beat to battle stations, fingers will waggle, trembling signatures will be drawn on settlements, but Angelinos will know who is to blame, it will be the Fault who is at fault. Mutually assured destruction.

I am told not to worry too hard. The houses have been quake proofed. Well, the newer ones at least, so not where I am staying. A lot across the street is undergoing revamp. The building under construction is meek looking, as if it is made from plywood stuck together with PVA glue. City state homes do not look homely, seemingly a trade-off between comfort and structural rigidity, one that requires beach towels stuffed under doorways when it rains, and unbearable heat without air conditioning. The L. A. I know is urban, but I find Angelinos to be quite comfortable in the countryside.

“A thing people didn’t often say when describing the city state was that it was a wilderness, despite being a biodiversity hot spot, a point of thermal anomalies, the only metropolis in the United State split by a mountain range. Los Angeles possesses the country’s largest urban national park in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It has the Angeles National Forest, forty minutes from Downtown, with more than half a million acres of forests and lakes, several mountains shy of ten thousand feet, and backcountry skiing.”

“For me it’s these rugged hills,” the L. A. novelist Percival Everett wrote in American Desert. “Hills that defy human occupation. Hills that are not on the way to anywhere.”

In America, the wilderness must be either tamed or kept, one cannot work with it. It is either yours or some higher power’s. The city state is a tough wide-open town. The private domain is more important and starts where the wilderness stops, Angelinos using the home for socialising and creativity. Throughout lockdown Amanda’s grandparents provided her with a studio (now a gym). Grandma pushed a plate of immaculately produced food through the door when needed, keeping a good distance, talking to each other, one outside, one in. I imagine thousands of others doing the same all at once, leaning from windows, chatting through open doors, shouting across streets. A menagerie of personality boxed into a city, Covid done in an L. A. way, loudly.

Los Angeles by sail is simpler, the wind taking you north up the sea past one coastline of passing possibilities, some poor then rich, some dirty then clean, passing starboard, prickly bits and all, like stroking a cactus. L. A. has multiple flavours this way. Rich tooth kissing, tongue wangling flavours, the next not afraid to disregard the prior, happy to stand up and declare itself, knowingly contradicting everyone else. A dollar slice pizza that costs six. A French bistro run by Midwesterners. A manicure that leaves you looking worse than before. Mashed potato and chocolate sauce. Suspicious street meats for supper.

Jamie elaborates over a beer, “L. A. has rough neighbourhoods, posh neighbourhoods, middle class, lower class, and everything in between. I've lived in the Hollywood area nearly my entire life, which has this odd fusion of the Russian/Soviet middle class community (albeit slowly declining) and the LGBTQ community right next to each other. Other than elementary, I never went to local schools and was bused into rough neighbourhoods for a surprisingly good middle school and a high school in the San Fernando valley. The Valley is its own life, climate, and people who also vary between lower/middle/upper classes. My immigrant background allows me to be absolutely comfortable in any situation, country, or group of people. I don't believe it's innate to me, but rather the melting pot I've waddled through in all my life.”

One road down from Mulholland, right in the heart of the Hollywood hills, is a viewing spot called the Briar Summit Open Space Preserve. A rarely visited scrap of land from which you can see right across the Los Angeles basin all the way down to the sea. At night the city is its most clear, that it could manage to contain itself is testament to its own sprawl. Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond the mountains, parking lots let off heat, piles of rubbish grow. Up here I can be at peace with the city, fit its entirety into one view. A world in a city, a city state, something that looks this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5AhU5Q7vH0 -
Somewhere I love.

Chargé d'affaires - Depuis 2020