LAX: You’re ugly, LA


For the first nine years I lived in LA I was at war with a driving range. I have nothing against golf, mind you. Rather I hated the bloated bubble of green mesh that contained the driving range, a ragged box of netting that billowed in the breeze, ostensibly to prevent the wayward balls from tapping on the roofs of its neighbors.

The green monster was taller than anything in the surrounding area. It began to loom on the horizon from miles away as I’d drive the 101 towards Hollywood, growing bigger and gaudier and dingier as I got closer to the Melrose exit. As even more of an affront, it was next door to my favorite ice cream parlor, and I’d have to walk by it every time I got my scoops of salty chocolate and olive oil gelato.

Why did I hate it so? Like much of Los Angeles, it was ugly.

Experience beautiful Lake Broadway, right in the heart of downtown LA!

Los Angeles is definitely in the running to be one of the ugliest places I have ever been. 75% our buildings are made from exposed cinderblocks. The stucco we’ve swabbed over the other 25% isn’t making matters any better. The freeways lacing through our basins cut wide, cement gashes in our once-scenic neighborhoods. The streets are too wide. The trees are too few. I mean, would you just look at this photo I took of downtown? Ugly apartments, reflected in an ugly hole in the ground, in an ugly vacant lot!

Of course, the optimist in me says that living in an ugly city is good. Without any ugly we wouldn’t have anything to make prettier. We can have a hand in shaping our own cities, seeing the flaws and improving upon them. But this positive thinking often leaves me exasperated and depressed. How can I work to fix a city that can’t see past its own wrecking balls? When did shoddy landscaping become acceptable in a city where our weather is perfect? What kind of a place values cars over people? Why did we tear down an entire downtown and build another one—yet one that still has ugly holes in ugly vacant lots?!

Seems like a lot of these vinyl signs aren't getting repaired

That’s why I hated the driving range net so much. It cast a shadow over an entire neighborhood, yes, but it mostly represented to me how LA has no respect for itself. I walk around the city moaning about our lack of sculpted parks and Beaux-Arts buildings (which are, by the very nature of their names, beautiful). I fret about the unshaded sidewalks and mourn the crappy bus stops. Why us?

What LA needs is someone to take control of our ugliness. I’m not talking about some powerless Ugly Council that hands out tickets. I’m talking about some Robert Mosesian dictator who would sweep his hands over the city and instantly de-uglify it. I will gladly volunteer for the job. In fact, here are a few things I would declare ugly immediately:

  • Vinyl signs
  • Parking lots
  • McMansions
  • Transit-Oriented Developments with Bright Colors and Bad Retail
  • Freeway onramps
  • Freeway offramps
  • Hollywood & Highland

Note that I believe ugly is an equal opportunity characteristic. I’m not calling for that loaded word “gentrification” here. The worst offenders when it comes to ugly are the homes of the very rich. The best and most beautiful signage—the handpainted kind—is often found in lower income neighborhoods. Very few things over 100 years old can be considered ugly, yet very few new buildings escape being whacked by the fugly stick. Example: Nothing can help these ghastly new houses I found in Silver Lake.

Ugliest houses I've ever seen

Dude, they have GOLD TRIM.

One day, while riding my bike home, I realized the evil net had vanished. And not just the net, the driving range itself. It had been replaced by a coming-soon, non-golfing facility for Los Angeles Community College. How long had it been gone? How had I not noticed that it was no longer spreading its evil green tentacles of tackiness over Hel-Mel?

When I went to get ice cream one week A.N. (After Net), I stopped in front of the former driving range to celebrate the newly blue sky, unencumbered by fraying green mesh. As I looked at the architectural rendering of what was to come, I felt a twinge of loss for the regulars who I used to watch chainsmoking between swings. And the Korean pop music that blasted well into the night. And that weird restaurant on the second floor. And the fact that, hilariously, you could play golf in the middle of the city, aiming your drives for the Hollywood sign. I looked up at what now was a hole in the neighborhood. It was only then that I realized how much I missed it.

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder, of course. One man’s driving range net is another man’s Disney Concert Hall. The best parts of LA make us feel proud to live where we do. But the worst parts of the urban environment—the chock-a-block apartments, the cracking liquor signage, the seedy vacant lots—are what make LA so interesting. And the fact that we get the entire spectrum, all stacked on top of each other, sometimes on the same block, scattered across this wide basin, makes us the best worst-looking place on the planet. And maybe that’s the beauty of living in LA.

What about you? Do you think LA’s ugly?

I’m celebrating ten years in LA with ten days of LA stories. Go here for more LAX.

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  • Marissa Gluck

    “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

  • Alissa

    LOVE THAT. So true.

  • Anonymous

    It’s ugly. I think you hit on the real reason why it’s ugly when you said the city doesn’t respect itself. And the reason for that, in my opinion, is that LA is a disaggregated region of communities that don’t have much to do with one another, with everyone geographically and socially motivated to worry only about their own back yards and with little incentive to think about the city holistically.

    There’s plenty of unfortunate segregation in NYC too, but at least here everyone rides the subway together, meets up at Union Square together, picnics at Central or Prospect Park together, walks down every street together. I’m really not trying to say ‘LA should be more like NYC’ but it wouldn’t hurt the city’s looks to try.

  • Alissa

    I think that’s a great point and extremely true—I often wonder if LA would be even more different if it wasn’t carved up into the dozens of cities that make up the metropolitan area. I agree that Angelenos need to experience more common culture to gain that same sense of pride for where they live. Will more transit do it?

  • Lillian Davenport-Partac

    Ugh, I totally know what you mean!! My neighborhood here in Chicago has lots of vintage charm and shady side streets, but on the main streets there exists, as you said, “Transit-Oriented Developments with Bright Colors and Bad Retail”. I’m actually positioning myself as someone who would like to develop the neighborhood and one way to do that is with GOOD signage! (I’m a designer.) This post really hit home fore me. I can’t stand bald sunlight on asphalt.

  • Mitchell

    You’re focusing on an ugly part of the city. Try reporting on Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, etc…LA has beautiful cities within the county. There are ugly parts of every city.

  • Fiof

    Two words: car culture