Monday, April 1, 2019

Los Angeles Transplants

(Note: This entry is backdated.  It was originally written April 9th, 2019.)

One of the most common questions you'll hear in Los Angeles is, "Where are you from?"  People in Los Angeles are slightly obsessed with each other's origins; there's certainly a pride that comes from having been born here.

Not to be confused with Pride.

I was not born here, and I also do not have a good answer to the question, "where are you from?"  I have moved around a lot, and the eight years I've spent in the same home in Los Angeles has been the longest I have ever settled anywhere.  Los Angeles in my adopted hometown.

But to "natives," the length of time you've been here doesn't matter.  "Native" is the world people in Los Angeles use to describe their status as people who were born here, and not, as I initially thought, referring to the Native Americans, specifically the Tongva, who were the tribe who previously occupied what is now the second-most populous city in America, with about 4 million residents.  (The Tongva, meanwhile, currently have less than 2,000 people remaining in their tribe.)

To understand the phenomenon of the Angelino obsession with "nativeness," I would like to refer to my terrible, ancient Guatemalan neighbor, Maria.  Maria likes cats and, as far as I can tell, not much else.  A few times a year we have a confrontation, usually over noise or the cats.  Maria feeds a large and every-expanding colony of feral cats in the neighborhood.  In our last confrontation, one of my dogs ran up to her, presumably to say hello, and she took a swing at the dog with her cane.  Rest assured that the dog is only six pounds and is no threat to Maria, and Maria is slow and missed actually hitting the dog, so no one was hurt.  However, I was irate that she would even attempt to hit my dog, and I told her as much.  "I would never hurt your cats," I pointed out.

"They were here before you," she responded.

Aside from being a very strange response (Maria has dementia and so her replies are often only loosely connected to the topic at hand), it gave me some insight into Maria's way of thinking.  The cats were there first and therefore they had a right to be there.  Never mind that the cats are dirty little disease vectors.  Never mind that I paid a pet deposit for my dogs to be there.  Never mind that I exercise far more control over my dogs than she does her cats.  In Maria's mind, the cats took precedent over the dogs and it had nothing to do with any practical measure, such as whether or not the animals were on our leases, or whether the animals were nuisances to our neighbors.  In Maria's mind, the cats had been there first, and that gave the cats some sort of authority over the dogs in all matters, regardless of any other context.

Not to say dogs are better than cats in general but there's a clear fucking winner here.

In L.A., a similar mentality reigns.  People who were born here consider themselves to "belong."  Transplants (the word used here to describe those who have moved to Los Angeles, especially recently) are generally frowned upon.

It's such a part of the local culture here that it's got its own slogan, complete with merchandise.  It's appeared on billboards and in advertisements.  The slogan is, "Los Angeles is full.  Go home," or, alternatively, "Don't come to Los Angeles; we're full."

Transplants are blamed for many of Los Angeles's most talked-about problems, including the terrible traffic and the homelessness.  Homelessness in Los Angeles has grown by 75% in the last six years, and I have heard more than one person suggest that the homeless who are appearing on the streets moved here.

To say we're "full" is a bit of an exaggeration.  There are about 7,545 people per square mile here.  Compare that to New York's population density: 27,000 people per square mile.

New York has a transplant "problem," too, of course.  A quarter of their population arrived after the year 2000.  Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, about 46% of people who live here were born in California.  And it's projected that native-born Californians are poised to take over as the majority. So the odd tribalism of scoffing at non-natives seems a little bit over-blown.  What's more, Los Angeles isn't growing nearly as fast as the average resident here would have you believe.  The state of California's growth rate has been declining and now hovers around 1% per year.  In the last decade, Los Angeles has had a 4.7% growth rate, which is only slightly higher than the national growth rate of 4.1%.

The fuss over transplants is especially odd when you consider that nearly every staple of Los Angeles is itself a transplant.  Unless you are one of the remaining 1,700 Tongva people, you can't claim to have true California "heritage."  And it's not only the people who are transplants.

Consider one of the most iconic entities of Los Angeles: the palm tree.

If you Google search "Los Angeles," then you'll see palm trees occupying a special focus in the foreground of the city skyline.  In fact, here's the top result in my images. 

And here's the top result for Los Angeles from the website Shutterstock.

But California has only one native species of palm: the California Fan Palm.  All of the other species are transplants.  Canary Island Date Palms, planted for their fruit, are, of course, from the Canary Islands, and the Queen's Palms that lined the streets of Beverly Hills and Hollywood are native to South America.

The temperate climate here means that just about anything can thrive.  Case in point: we have a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to a selection of invasive species in California, and a separate page for just the plants, listing well over a hundred and mentioning that this only encompasses "some."  It didn't even mention all of the parrots.  Keeping in line with the Los Angeles image of a luxurious, hyper-desirable paradise, wild green parrots (conures) live in clusters throughout the city, delighting tourists and infuriating residents, myself included.  (Those bastards are loud.)

While locals bemoan the presence of human transplants, they seem less concerned with the invasive plants and noxious weeds, despite the impact they have on the environment here.

Unlike the parrots, the palm trees have been here long enough to have earned some "local" status.

How did they get here?  Accounts vary.  According to some, the emergence of palm trees came from Spanish missionaries, who planted them for use on Palm Sunday.  But prior to the 1930s, palm trees weren't widely seen in the city.  The ubiquity of the palm tree in California owes itself, in part, to the association with tropical vacation climates, the popularity of palm gardens during the early 20th century, and a desire by developers to have Los Angeles seem exotic.  (During the 1930s, Los Angeles planted some 40,000 trees in preparation for the 1932 Olympics.)

The $100,000 project, which created 400 jobs, was part of a larger $5 million unemployment relief program.

I have also heard some accounts that the various palms here, like many of the other non-native plants and animals, simply came here by accident and then took over.  While this seems unlikely, it's worth noting that coconut palms are notorious for colonizing foreign shores by having their seeds (the coconuts) float long distances and then wash ashore and take root.  (So, in case you've ever wondered how much truth there is to the Monty Python skit about migrating coconuts, you now know that it's mixed in accuracy: coconuts do, in fact, migrate, but no swallows are involved.)

Ironically, or perhaps unironically, the exotic promise of paradise from these non-native trees attracted non-native people.  Hollywood became a golden, shining place that people idealized, and naturally, they wanted to move here.

Los Angeles residents should be proud that they've built such a desirable place.  Although the frequency of transplants here is exaggerated, there are many who came here and put down roots, much like a coconut washed ashore.  Those people should not be scorned, but celebrated.  Because if palm trees have taught us anything, it's that transplants shape Los Angeles culture, and given time, can become a cornerstone of what we view as "true Angelino."

True Angelinos have pride.  
...hometown or otherwise.

Of course, the alternative to accepting transplants with open arms would be to get angry at palm trees for not being local.  But that seems like a huge waste of energy.  People who move to Los Angeles are often here to stay, and maintaining an artificial pride in who came here first serves no purpose.  Instead of asking where people are from, perhaps we should begin asking what brought them here in the first place, or what they love about Los Angeles.  God knows, there's plenty to choose from.

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