Ciudad Sangre

Text by Gabriel Leif Bellman
Photography by Ruvan

Like bees in a hive altering their wings to fit the wax, urban low-fliers buzz to the beat of their surroundings. From the intrinsically collective call-and-response wisdom of the classic DJ Kool party record announcing, “Fuck it, I ain’t from Philly, but I don’t give a fuck about that. It ain’t where you from,” with the audience screaming, “It’s where you at,” – city dwellers come from all over to adopt the shape of that urban mold they choose to heat wax in. Whether, like Chris Wallace, you only go back to Cali strictly for the weather, women and the weed, or only visit Manhattan in the springtime like a sliced up Damien Hurst cow on display at the MOMA, the fact remains: no matter how much time you spend in a city, it changes you.

How come New York is so Woody and Wu, while LA is so soft-core-slow-mo-volleyball, and why is San Francisco so Kerouac-y and too Krishna-conscious for LA and too drum-circle for New York? How can you just tell where somebody is from? From the all-black uniform of the 212 to the thong-song of 213, throngs of self-professed individuals move to “the City” to “find themselves” and instead soldier up as emissaries of that city. How come cities define us instead of the versa?

Can you imagine Jack Nicholson’s Manhattan, Spike Lee’s Pasadena, Robert De Niro’s Mission District? Is there any doubt that even stiff, powerful celebrity personas would drip into the city they moved to? Why are we so malleable that we adopt the urban design of our zip codes? Subconsciously, we are playing identity geography all the time (“Where are you from?” usually precedes “What do you do?”), a nod to the fact that cities affect people more than what people do to themselves. Why is this?

After moving from Los Angeles to New York to San Francisco, I always get the question: How would you compare them? SF to NYC? Or LA? (Actually, most people don’t ask about LA, preferring to let it slumber in its own perpetual state of near-haze that comes from the perfect mixture of sprawl, smog and smiling Swedish extras. But as much as people bash LA, it will still be there in a million years – it’s like the cockroach-armadillo of the city phylum – and for the record, I love LA with all its Kobe-ized individual space-cadet Fantasias.)
Here are two misconceptions about the SF vs. NYC vs. LA debate:

1. LA is shallow (AKA “I hate LA”)
San Franciscans and New Yorkers love to take potshots at the sunny city. But LA doesn’t care – it’s sitting in the sun wondering why people are playa hating. The fact remains, New Yorkers and San Franciscans are just as shallow – it’s just not played out in plastic-saline bulbous bras. Find a political argument in Berkeley or an Ivy League party in the Hamptons, and it’s the same foot-deep section of the pool. People are tribal, they stratify along different lines: LA’s looks, SF’s political tribes and NY’s bourgeois are the same kind of shallow – it’s just that you can see it sooner in LA because killer wax tans stand out sooner than Dartmouth summer gossip. LA is just blatant about it.

2. People are friendlier on the West Coast (and New Yorkers are rude)
No. People in New York are always up in each other’s grills. On the subway, on the street, there is nothing in NYC that isn’t about sharing your reality with others. Yet go into a bar in New York and you can talk casually and freely with people around you. But in LA, and to a lesser extent in SF, people live in bubbles – they take cars to meet friends, and they are generally shocked when somebody talks to them. The Left Coast is insular – it’s full of tiny pockets of subcultures (the Castro, the Marina) that never, ever mix. People are nicer on the West Coast, but they aren’t friendlier. They’ve already got friends that they came with waiting in the car. The bubble phenomenon of the Left Coast leads to minions who are so eager to invite others to join diversity demonstrations – but then they glare at the bar when somebody from a different group talks to them. That won’t fly on the D-train.

Sure, big city prices are high, but you aren’t just getting a living space: you’re getting an education on who to be and how to act. Obvious factors like weather make LA’s laugh last, SF’s smile crisp and New Yorkers get right to the point. In the shadows of skyscrapers, on the piers at the beach, or on cable cars, cities are busy training impressionable young adults to go forth and do their bidding. Like monkeys in cages or cheetahs roaming the Serengeti, the reason Sarah Jessica Parker goes from roller girl in L.A. Story to neurotic Carrie in Sex and the City has nothing to do with her. She’s just playing the same young lady. Persona by city. So order a slice of pepperoni from Joe’s Pizza in the Village and wonder about the lack of brothers on the wall, scribble poetry at Gary Danko while waiting for your drinks, and grab a milkshake at Mel’s to gossip about the fate of Punky Brewster. You are what you eat. If you want change, move. Otherwise, let your palm prints soak into the concrete. It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you live.