Recently, at a packed literary event in Hollywood, I joked to an acquaintance, "These are the only 150 people in Los Angeles who actually read books."
He gave me a Look and said, "Um, I seriously doubt that."
I could tell that while he knew I was joking around, he didn't find it particularly amusing. I immediately felt as if I'd put my foot in my mouth. And you know what? I had! Because he clearly held the view that many Los Angelenos are smart, intellectual folks of worth and substance –- and he was absolutely right!
I moved to Los Angeles five months ago, partly because I was working on a thing involving the shiny talking box (note: this is not a reference to my vagina) and partly because I like to tell jokes on stages and partly because sunshine is good for depressive types. And now I know full well that this city has a vibrant, thriving literature scene…and art scene…and rocket scientist scene (for reals). But in making small talk with this guy, I fell back on one of my old stereotypes.
As a born-and-bred snotty child of the metropolitan New York area, I grew up with quite an attitude about certain other regions of our great nation.
New England? Full of uptight, quaint country bumpkins (I would later live in Boston, which is full of funky artists and other non-uptight types.) The South? Full of racists. (I would later live in North Carolina and fall wholeheartedly in love with the smart, sexy, scintillating Southern United States. Also, Boston was more racist than Asheville, NC.) The Midwest? Full of people obsessed with cheese (I was right about that one).
Like many folks from the New York area, I had a particularly low opinion of residents of Los Angeles, California. I guess I absorbed that Valley Girl stereotype so popular in the '80s, as well as the idea that the City of Angels was full of fabulously gorgeous, fake, plastic, superficial, shallow, and just plain dumb folks. Because I was an ugly duckling who derived all her self-worth from academic accomplishment, it made me feel better about myself to imagine that all the perfect-looking people who lived in Los Angeles were also, well, stupid. That meant I was better than them, right? RIGHT?
Um, incorrect, Younger Intellectual Snob Sara.
Now I live here. And it turns out that I was wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG about the variety of interesting, smart, artsy, athletic, groovy, fun, kind, generous, creative humans to be found in this place. Frustratingly, even the hot ones can be fascinating and lovely. If you've ever wanted to meet a professional lawyer/recreational welder who looks like Adonis and quotes the Bhagavad Gita by heart and also volunteers at a nursing home on weekends, Los Angeles is probably the place to find him/her.
I sought out fellow LA transplants to find out if they, too, had found LA to be a far more multilayered, diverse, interesting and intellectually stimulating place than they'd expected.
Brandie, a 28-year-old transplant from Baltimore and Philly, put it quite eloquently: "When most people think about intelligence stereotypes in Los Angeles, they think of your generic Valley Girl or possibly your vapid shallow actresses. I'm not saying both of those things don't exist, but I've come to find that while living in Los Angeles it isn't necessarily that those people are dumb so much as caught up in themselves … while those people might not necessarily know who their mayor is, they definitely know what Jerry Bruckheimer is currently working on. So their intelligence is just more fine-tuned to their own industry. But there are also incredibly intelligent, passionate people here working in all capacities."
Glennis, 33, was raised in Colorado but lived in NYC for several years before her recent move to LA. In addition to being a very fabulous XOVain nail expert, she's a hilarious comedian. She said of the comedy scene in LA, "The women specifically are blowing me away with their smarts and humor. It's making the transition from NY to L.A. much easier and a lot more fun!"
Then I sought out a couple of natives to get their perspective.
Lora, a 44-year-old Los Angeles native who has since lived in New York, Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris, said, "I always find it a lazy assumption to say LA is filled with dumb people. Sure, if you skim the surface. But my friends are solid, grounded people that are incredibly bright and creative. If you look for intelligence, you'll find it, easily. If you don't look any further than the Sunset strip and Fred Segal, then it's your own damn fault."
Lauren, a 38-year-old Los Angeles native, who still lives in the city, told me, "I grew up in Los Angeles among highly intelligent, kind people who prized education and culture above all things. I was shocked to learn the rest of the country didn't see us that way." She added that her city is "eclectic, surprising, sunny," though "admittedly fucked-up."
I've realized that my view of Los Angeles as a hotbed of superficiality was about as accurate as the idea that "Jersey Shore" correctly represents all the denizens of my native homeland of New Jersey. And while my prejudice about Los Angeles was nowhere near as distasteful or potentially damaging as the homophobia and transphobia with which I grew up, it still strikes me as kind of a dick move to characterize an entire city as "dumb" or "shallow" or "fill-in-the-blank-negative-adjective."
A city as enormous as Los Angeles cannot possibly be any one thing. But I guess the city and its denizens seemed alien and unfamiliar to me when I was younger. And like many other fraidy-cats, I chose to mock the unknown.
Have you ever had your preconceived notions about a place dashed to bits and pieces? I'd love to hear about it in the comments. Perhaps you thought Oklahoma City sounded awful, and then you spent the greatest weekend of your life there. Or maybe you always dreamt of going to Paris and, upon arrival, were disappointed. Let's discuss!