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My City_My Life

Los Angeles: Lights, camera, attitude

  • Story Highlights
  • Los Angeles is known as "the entertainment capital of the world"
  • Since the railroad came west it has grown to a metropolis of 3.8 million
  • The city has seen racial tensions, notably race riots in the early 90s
By Paul Willis
For CNN
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(CNN) -- The backdrop to countless movies and television shows, Los Angeles has been reproduced on film more times than any other city on the planet.

Los Angeles is a place that can both beguile and bemuse at the same time.

The L.A. metropolis spreads over nearly 500 square miles.

But just like the movie sets that went up in flames last year at Universal Studios, the Tinseltown glamour is often no more than a flimsy facade.

Behind the myth of Hollywood lies a swirling melting pot of a place where nearly half of people speak Spanish and where, for every rising star, there's at least a hundred wannabes waiting tables or entertaining tourists on Venice Beach.

At once a Lalaland filled with dreamers, Los Angeles has also been scene to some of the worst race riots in American history: a paradoxical place that spawned both Charlie Chaplin and Gangsta Rap.

These days, aside from the smog -- an ever present in a city plagued with so many cars and so little rainfall -- the atmosphere is less toxic than two decades ago when the city was awash with crack cocaine and guns.
Video Watch Wolfgang Puck take CNN on a tour of L.A. »

Schemes to gentrify the downtown and other areas, such as the construction of the Hollywood and Highland complex that includes the Kodak Theatre -- home to the Oscars since 2002 -- have gone some way to revitalizing the inner city.

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In any case, in a city with an estimated population of 3.8 million sprawling over a metropolis nearly 500 square miles in size, it's easy to avoid the sharper edges if you want to.

Not that that's so surprising. After all, where better to detune from reality than in a town whose success is entirely founded on our appetite for escapism.

And from its world class art galleries to the unashamed schmaltz of Disneyland and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it offers escapism for all tastes.

The Los Angeles story started in the late nineteenth century when Midwesterners attracted by the promise of a warm, dry climate followed the railroad west.

The boom times risked coming to a premature halt at the turn of the century due to water shortages, but the smart engineering and dark maneuverings of the city water department (maneuverings that helped inspire the classic film noir, Chinatown) resulted in the construction of water aqueducts that ensured the city's continued growth.
See pictures of Wolfgang Puck's Los Angeles

In the end though, light was the natural resource that mattered most. From the 1920s onwards, the motion picture industry grew into a worldwide phenomenon thanks to the abundance of clear, blue skies to help light the movie moguls' sets.

By the time the Golden Age of Hollywood came to an end, the boom town had morphed into a sprawling urban center and the lure of the limelight had earned the city the tag it retains to this day, that of "entertainment capital of the world."

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In the early nineties, the story lost its luster somewhat when years of marginalization suffered by African-Americans found a rallying point in the Rodney King beating. Despite a video that appeared to show police violently attacking King, the accused officers were acquitted. The verdict led to rioting in which 53 people died and large areas went up in flames.

The city is certainly no angel, it's true. Even so, whether it's tattooed bodybuilders rollerblading Santa Monica Boulevard, a Marilyn Monroe look alike blowing kisses outside Grauman's Chinese Theater or a blood red sunset dropping into the Pacific, Los Angeles is a place with a rare ability to beguile and bemuse in equal measure.

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