ONCE UPON A TIME, Los Angeles was a product in need of a buyer. The former Mexican colony was still dusty and underdeveloped decades after San Francisco had become the financial and cultural capital of the West. So, the advertisements began. California for Health, Pleasure and Residence, a book published in 1872 by the journalist Charles Nordhoff, was one such enticement, a best seller that single-handedly attracted Easterners to Los Angeles based on its climate. It was an early example of a successful marketing campaign that sold sunshine and sea breeze.

But sometime between the climate-based sales pitch of the fin-de-siècle and Joan Didion’s famous proclamation, six decades later, that “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” a distinct category of L.A. lit was born. This genre is devoted to dredging up the dark side of the City of Angels — of which there is, it would seem, an abundance. Think of Didion on the edge of breakdown, checking into a psychiatric hospital, telling us about her ramshackle Hollywood home and the would-be intruders who come to her door. More recently, think of Mike Davis, whose seminal 1990 book City of Quartz conjures a grim dystopia, politically, ecologically, and otherwise.

But the standard-setter was Carey McWilliams, a lawyer turned writer, and author of Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946). McWilliams’s book chronicled the racism, genocide, and cultural erasure of Los Angeles’s past; its dangerous climate (he was warning about the future of vast wildfires even then); its unnatural and unsustainable relationship to water. And he was a talented aphorist to boot. “[I]n California the lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they have never been have dimmed,” is one of his trademark summations. But for all the faults he detailed so remorselessly, he still loved Los Angeles. In fact, his passion for the city is memorialized on a wall in Pershing Square, where the following inscription is still visible: “It suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me — a ringside seat at the circus.”

To my mind, McWilliams has never gotten his full due. He was more than just a historian, he was Zelig, casually mentioning his own presence at a startling number of local flashpoints and sites of interest. He eventually moved east to become editor of The Nation, but his Southern California: An Island on the Land remains one of the most complete and prescient histories of Los Angeles, a timeless and astute portrait of a protean city.

Indeed, his influence can be felt in the newest entry in the ever-growing collection of books about Los Angeles, Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles by Rosecrans Baldwin. McWilliams had pointed out that “no single aspect of Southern California has attracted more attention than its fabled addiction to cults and cultists,” and Baldwin begins his book with a scene, set in a basement, where he is undergoing a grueling experience known as “Mastery in Transformational Training,” or M.I.T.T. This initiation involves five days locked in sweaty enactments of primal traumas with a group of strangers, where he’s publicly shamed when he heads to the bathroom at the wrong moment. It’s not exactly not a cult, he suggests, though its devoted members leap to deny this on Yelp. What draws them to the organization, as many of them tearfully confess, are the lonely privations of the city: “[T]o be a person in Los Angeles was to be an isolated person, an individual more exposed than in other places to risk: poverty, addictions, people who would take advantage.”

Baldwin, a journalist and novelist, owns the influence of his elders. “As to how far any efforts in this book agree with those of others,” he writes, “the author does not care much; what I’ve written makes little claim to novelty beyond the nature of details people shared with me.” He inserts this disclaimer like an inoculation in the opening pages, along with his other caveat: “And let’s get this out of the way: I have no innate credibility to write about Los Angeles.” What he means is that he’s not from around here, but the statement rings oddly defensive, given that Los Angeles is a city of outsiders, shaped by the waves of migration that constituted the city’s boom years, the period during which Los Angeles rapidly transformed from dusty outpost to teeming metropolis. The expression “I’m a stranger here myself,” according to McWilliams, may or may not have been coined in Los Angeles, but by 1930, only 20 percent of the local population was native-born. It was to this very fact that McWilliams attributed the free-floating loneliness that, he felt, plagued L.A.’s citizens — because, for so many people there, the city was never exactly home. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that the popularity of the cafeteria in Los Angeles is primarily due to the loneliness of the people.”

Baldwin positions himself as temperamentally agnostic on the question of L.A., telling us that his book “never intended to wear a Dodger cap. The history of Los Angeles doesn’t lack for boosters, and depictions continue to be overly optimistic or pessimistic.” His own summing up of the city is more present tense than past, and more down the line than heaven or hell. The question is: How do you evoke a city, especially given the multifaceted sprawl that, as Baldwin admits, makes capturing Los Angeles like “trying to pin down a cloud”? It’s trickier than it might seem.

Baldwin’s approach is to claim a new classification for Los Angeles: he calls it a “city-state,” in the classical sense of that term (think: Sparta). His working definition is something like a sovereign entity, “a metropolis and its territories.” After all, Los Angeles isn’t one huge city so much as it’s 88 smaller cities; “[t]he most populous county in the most populous state,” it’s “both megacity and suburb, multicentered and scattered.” Yet he doesn’t protest too much when various L.A. experts he interviews tell him the label isn’t quite right. Mike Davis remarks that “economically it doesn’t conform to the classical city-state because it’s not self-sustaining.” The futurist Geoff Manaugh tells Baldwin that a city-state “implies a core and a periphery” and that Los Angeles “has multiple cores and is all periphery.” Baldwin seems comfortable with the idea that city-state is more metaphor than fact, but even as metaphor, repeatedly invoked, it can feel diffuse. Baldwin’s notion of Los Angeles as city-state is further watered down when he refers to LAX, the airport, as “a city-state unto itself” because it is large and has its own SWAT team and theme song. (Though did you know that for $4,500 you can buy your way into LAX’s private entrance suite, one that shortens your trip from car to plane to a mere 70 steps, and serves you Sancerre on the way?)

Baldwin’s notion of Los Angeles as city-state ultimately feels more like pretext than argument. It’s an opportunity to take us on a tour of current-day Los Angeles, which Baldwin does in a series of sharply reported chapters. If they sometimes feel like not-quite-integrated pieces of magazine writing, that’s because at least three big sections of the book have previously appeared in other publications. But he holds the reader’s interest and writes with warmth and verve. In Baldwin’s company, we join mosquito patrols and visit a Malibu in flames; we travel from Sundance to Skid Row.

In fact, his writing on homelessness is some of the most effective in the book. As of 2020, there were roughly 65,000 unhoused residents of Los Angeles, making it the “epicenter of homelessness in the United States.” A recent study from Kaiser found that life expectancy for a homeless woman in L.A. is 48 years. Homelessness, Baldwin writes, is “the city-state’s great catastrophe.” In the months before the pandemic, Baldwin spent time on Skid Row, a 50-block area of Downtown with a history of poverty, not to mention constant demolition and displacement, dating back to the 1930s. Baldwin lives on the edge of Hollywood, not too far away. “One winter morning, at sunrise, I found a man near our front door, huddled over a campfire he’d built from our garbage,” he writes. “I hated it, despaired about it, and sometimes tried not to see it. Conflicting feelings boiled inside me every day.” He donates money and gives out water, but admits, honestly, “[a] lot of the time I just wanted the problem to go away.”

As he points out, removing “undesirables” has a long history in the city. In the 1850s, the Los Angeles Star demanded, “Cannot some plan be devised to remove [Native People] from our midst?” And in the Los Angeles of today, Baldwin wonders, “Was it a shock when authorities raided encampments and called their operation a ‘clean-up’ or ‘sweep,’ as if the people and their belongings were so much trash to be brushed away?” Baldwin’s reporting in this section is startling and valuable. “As of 2020,” he writes, “around 80 percent of children enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District lived below the poverty line.” Baldwin doesn’t have answers, but he also doesn’t shy away from looking straight at the humanitarian disaster taking place minutes away from Hollywood.

It’s hard to say, though, exactly where Hollywood begins and ends. “Hollywood” is the longstanding seduction, the enduring dream, “the narrative that outsiders pin to the city-state” — but where exactly is it? “The entertainment business often feels like an alien ship hovering over the county,” Baldwin writes. “Hollywood” could refer to “Toluca Lake, Burbank, Culver City,” or, as Carey McWilliams wrote, it could mean simply: “Where motion pictures are made, there is Hollywood.” Baldwin writes that, in the industry,

[e]veryone […] communicated to one another in a way to suggest, whether or not they liked the work itself, that they didn’t live in earthbound Los Angeles so much as in Hollywood’s hovering citadel, a flying vehicle that occasionally drifted away to Atlanta, or Vancouver — or Park City, Utah — affording first class views and snacks to those with union cards.

The point is that “Hollywood was and wasn’t ‘Hollywood,’ and Los Angeles was and wasn’t ‘Hollywood,’ and these things got confused.”

And by the way, while we are on the subject, Los Angeles is not exactly the same thing as “L.A.,” either. The writer D. J. Waldie, frequently quoted in Baldwin’s book, explains it well. Referring to Lakewood, the suburb Waldie captured in his 1996 memoir Holy Land, he tells Baldwin: “People who live here make a distinction between the municipal boundaries of the City of Los Angeles and the bigger thing called L.A., which extends into Orange County, out almost into the desert. We know we live in L.A., but we also know we don’t live in Los Angeles.”

Wherever and whatever it is, Los Angeles has a way of inspiring continual redefinition. An out-of-work television actress in a borrowed house in a canyon, holding her toy dog, tells Baldwin that she feels suicidal at the prospect of watching the Emmys. “I’ll tell you what Los Angeles is: it’s nothing. It doesn’t exist,” she says. And some days — bad days, mostly — he agrees with her. Baldwin himself is a shadow presence in the book, giving us hints of his own L.A. life: suffering through bad meetings with producers as he and his wife try to sell their screenplay, or waking up to find human excrement on his doorstep. We don’t know Baldwin much better by the end of this book than we do from his last exploration of a city: Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down (2012), a lighthearted account of the time he moved to Paris to work in advertising. In both books, he offers crisp and detailed dispatches from the environment he moves through, yet he provides only limited access to his inner reality.

But Baldwin is good on the moods of his cities. “If there is a predominant feeling in the city-state, it is not loneliness or daze, but an uneasy temporariness, a sense of life’s impermanence: the tension of anticipation while so much quivers on the line.” The “uneasy temporariness” he refers to is, inevitably, tied up in Los Angeles’s relationship to its own past. The question of memory in Los Angeles is a fraught one. “Virtually alone among big American cities, Los Angeles still lacks a scholarly municipal history,” writes Mike Davis, “a void of research that has become the accomplice of cliché and illusion.” Just this spring, a panel commissioned by Mayor Eric Garcetti released a 166-page report on how Los Angeles can properly grapple with its history and dispel what the mayor called its “comfortable amnesia.” The forgetfulness Garcetti refers to revolves around such events as the anti-Chinese massacre of 1871, the deporting of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans during the Depression to avoid welfare payments, and countless other odious chapters in the city’s history. It’s precisely this same “forgetfulness” that Carey McWilliams battled back in 1946.

Los Angeles is a monument to forgetfulness: the predilection for erasing its past is deep-rooted in this city of the future. The writer Lynell George, an L.A. native, writes in the mayor’s new report that, in her city, “everything keeps shifting, moving, blasting off.” So, she tells herself, “don’t get too attached” because accepting the city’s “fluidity” is part of what it means to be an Angeleno. That applies to neighborhoods, too, perhaps most of all. Baldwin quotes L.A.-born Paul Beatty, who writes in his 2015 novel, The Sellout:

In the wee hours of the night, after the community boards, homeowner associations, and real estate moguls banded together and coined descriptive names for nondescript neighborhoods, someone would bolt a large glittery Mediterranean-blue sign high up on a telephone pole. And when the fog lifted, the residents of the soon-to-be gentrified blocks awoke to find out they lived in Crest View, La Cienega Heights, or Westdale. Even though there weren’t any topographical features like crests, views, heights, or dales to be found within ten miles.

Having shown us around his town, Baldwin’s conclusion comes down to one word: “inequality.” This, he ultimately finds, is the “single story” of Los Angeles, to the extent that there is one. The problem is not so much that this isn’t true — of course it is — as that it’s obvious. But Baldwin comes to the judgment honestly: the observation, like the rest of his book, is heartfelt.

What makes a greater impression, though, is the peculiar mix he manages to convey along the way. It’s precisely Los Angeles’s fundamental ambiguity, its magnetic swirl of beauty and darkness, that makes books like Baldwin’s worth writing, and reading. Put in your time in L.A. and eventually you’ll feel the ambient sadness that Carey McWilliams discerned 75 years ago. The loneliness might hit you about 2:00 in the afternoon, walking along an empty sidewalk, say, when the famous sunshine is at its harshest and you have to blink to yank yourself out of the sun-drenched mirage. D. J. Waldie thinks of this syndrome in different terms. “Memories of the boomtime left Los Angeles with a fractured sense of place,” he writes in his 2020 book, Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place. “We Angelenos still want so much and are still so deceived.”

But if you can make it to 5:00 p.m., the sky turns gold, and wraps you up in its forgiving glow. It’s like two different cities, and that’s the point. Los Angeles offers itself up like an irresistible riddle, drawing in generations of writers, all attempting to force some definition on what Baldwin calls the “immense slouching shapelessness.” And yet, despite these many efforts to capture its elusive essence, somehow, still, there’s room for more.

¤

Casey Schwartz is the author of Attention: A Love Story (2020) and In the Mind Fields (2015). She writes regularly for The New York Times and she is an occasional resident of Los Angeles.