The Great Divide

Sensing a thaw in the Cold War between O.C. and L.A.

I’ve been driving up to Los Angeles a lot lately. The neighbors pity me.

“L.A. again?” they gasp, as if to say, “More time in the gulag?”

I appreciate their compassion. It complements the way L.A. people gently furrow their brows when I say I live in Orange County. “Really?” they murmur politely. Then there’s a long pause in which I can see them wondering if I’m a birther. This is so entertaining, it almost makes up for the billions of hours I spend on the freeway.

But the other day, I found myself wondering how much longer L.A. and O.C. can sustain their mutual disapproval. It started with a phone call from a friend in West Los Angeles.

“I’m developing a real affection for Orange County,” my pal said, unable to conceal his amazement. In so many ways, he marveled, Orange County is turning out to be surprisingly stand-up.

For one thing, it’s now the one place in Southern California where you can attend a baseball game without a police escort. Plus, Orange County has great public television—something L.A. can’t say since KCET Channel 28 stopped carrying PBS programs and sold its studio to Scientologists. Who knew my friend’s beloved “NewsHour” one day would be brought to him from behind the Orange Curtain? Such developments are making him rethink all sorts of assumptions. Maybe O.C. is more public spirited than the People’s Republic of Santa Monica imagines.

“I hate to say it,” he admitted, “but maybe I was prejudiced.”

Them’s not the fightin’ words you usually hear ’round these parts. Southern California may seem open-minded, but don’t be fooled. That’s just the face we show the tourists. Truth is, Southern Californians have incredibly fixed opinions about one another. And we’d go to the mat for them mano a mano if we all didn’t have to drive an hour and a half each way to do it.

But the freeway is a drag, so we practice avoidance. This is how it has been for generations. O.C. is the red state and L.A. is the blue state and everything else is desert or ocean. If you aren’t sure where you belong, you drive around until you find your people. Then, with a good guard gate and a little planning, you need never have an uncomfortable interaction. Your children will marry their own kind, no one will contradict you at a cocktail party, and the rest of the metropolis will stay in your heart as it was when you last saw it, sometime in the middle of the Reagan administration. Which can be relaxing.

The problem is, things change here, sometimes right out from under you. You might go on vacation and come home to a whole new stereotype. Get off at the wrong exit and discover that Greater Los Angeles is way past ’60s political correctness, and O.C. is way more about tech than conservative wingnuts.

“Who put that office park in the chaparral?” you’ll wonder. “When did that artisan bakery show up in the ’hood? Why does that public television station keep showing footage of L. Ron Hubbard?” If you haven’t kept up, there’s just you and your preconceptions. Which aren’t relaxing. I know kids from gated communities who won’t go to the movies anywhere but those near The Shops at Mission Viejo. Children, life shouldn’t be that frightening.

As my friend said: We’re prejudiced. Even against ourselves sometimes. But calling ourselves out on it? You don’t hear that every day.

That’s why my friend’s remark piqued my interest. It’s a shout-out from one tribe to the other, a sign that the Cold War might be thawing. It’s hard to be a hater among people who like you. Besides, does the same sun not shine equally on Tustin and Topanga? Is the price of gas not a bummer on both the 91 and the 60? Do not “Los Angeles” and “Anaheim” both bedeck the name of our (better) Angels?

Write if your SoCal preconceptions have softened lately. I’ll pass it on if I ever get off this #%@ freeway.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.

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