L.A. Is a City State

No one seems to know what Los Angeles is, exactly: city of angels, revenge city, or something else.

Triptych of people on the streets of L.A.
Ryan Staley

Updated at 11:54 a.m. ET on June 3, 2021.

Two weeks after my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, a large man pedaled up to me in a parking lot in West Hollywood. He was sunburned, caked in grime. His bike was sized for a 12-year-old boy. Perhaps it had recently belonged to a 12-year-old boy. The man skidded to a halt and growled, “If I made a movie called Revenge City, would you go watch it?”

I said, “What?”

“If I made a movie, Revenge City, would you watch it?”

It was early in the morning, just past sunrise. “Based on the title,” I said, “yeah, probably.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said smugly, and zoomed away.

No one seems to know what Los Angeles is, exactly: city of angels, revenge city, or something else. In 1925, Aldous Huxley called it “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis.” William Faulkner, screenwriting in the middle of the century, said it was the “plastic asshole of the world.” “I often tell people that Los Angeles makes no sense if you talk about it out loud,” the local essayist Lynell George once wrote. “The land of slow-float car chases and girls with Mercurochrome hair.” People use Los Angeles to refer to both the city and the county, which in fact is composed of 88 separate cities. L.A. refers more broadly to what’s known as Greater Los Angeles—that is, the largest metropolitan region in the United States, stretching from the hills of Santa Barbara to the hinterlands of San Diego. It is colossal and miscellaneous: some 19 million inhabitants spread over thousands of square miles.*

To call L.A. a city doesn’t account for its game of thrones, the ways that county supervisors, city-council members, and eccentric billionaires tug at power. Metropolis doesn’t consider our countryside and endless townships. The idea that L.A. County is a collection of villages and suburbs doesn’t do justice to a place that’s bigger than 40 U.S. states in population, bigger economically than almost all of them. And yet L.A. is simultaneously too dense with city centers to be dismissed as a single sprawl. A heteropolis, meaning a place that loves difference, may seem right at times, considering L.A.’s openness to foreign cultures and strange ideas. But L.A. is a closed place, too. Privatized neighborhoods bristle with security features. A sizable gap continues to widen between the wealthy in their towers (the hills) and the workers in the fields (the flats).

I began to crisscross the freeways, interviewing dozens of people across the Southland, in an effort to pin down the nature of the place. The best way to conceptualize Los Angeles, all my research told me, was as a version of the city-state.

Triptych of people on the streets of LA
Ryan Staley

Dividing the world into countries is only a few centuries old, whereas the city-state dates back to the beginning of recorded history. The formal definition of a city-state is a sovereign metropolis and its surrounding territory: a city that functions as the center of political, economic, and cultural life for a body of people tied together by geography and trade, a landscape and its resources. Mesopotamia and the Tigris. Istanbul and the Bosphorus. Corinth, Sparta, the Mueang of Southeast Asia. Perhaps best known are the city-states that thrived in Italy prior to its unification: Renaissance strongholds including Florence, Venice, and Milan. Contemporary versions are Singapore and Monaco; an argument could be made for Dubai or Abu Dhabi, even Vatican City. The model mostly fell away during the rise of nations, but distress caused by globalization, manifesting in everything from Brexit to the climate crisis, suggests some appetite for more localized control, and room for the city-state’s return.

Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbes suggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup.

Greater L.A. has shipping covered: The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the country’s busiest. It checks off illegal cash flow, too. In 2014, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert E. Dugdale called L.A. the epicenter of narco-dollar money laundering; during the coronavirus pandemic, federal agents seized more than $1 million after shutdowns disrupted systems used by drug-trafficking groups. Whole swaths of the city are owned by investors from Asia, Russia, and the Middle East, who find L.A. a safer place to invest than back home. The museums have become some of the world’s finest; same for its restaurants. Finally, Los Angeles is scheduled to be one of several cities in North America to feature World Cup matches in 2026, and the Olympics will arrive in 2028, making L.A. the first American city to host the summer games three times.

The city-state label rings true to me for hazier reasons as well. Los Angeles lacks the bedrock Americana that anchor towns like Chicago, New York, and Boston. In terms of identity, it doesn’t attach to the state of California the way that Houston and Dallas serve Texas. As for international ties, Miami has Latin America, Seattle has Canada and Asia, but Los Angeles, perhaps the city of globalism, has everybody. We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.

“I absolutely think of Los Angeles as a city-state,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me a few months ago. “The root of politics is the same as the root word in Greek for “city”: polis. People engage in politics because they came to a city and vice versa.” I wanted to point out that lots of citizens don’t engage with Greater L.A. in the way he described. If anything, civic life here often feels optional. Residents stay in the bounds of their neighborhood. Voters supported a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build supportive housing, but progress on the homeless problem is abysmal, stymied in part by NIMBYism. To borrow Garcetti’s measure, had life in the Greek city-states been as complacent, as mean, as L.A. often feels? “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” the ancient historian Thucydides wrote, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.”

Triptych of people on the streets of LA
Ryan stALEY

My unspoken question for Garcetti was a nod to the fact that the city-state label can stretch only so far, at least until Los Angeles secedes from the United States. Angelenos may not always feel particularly American, but L.A. continues to receive policies and funding from Sacramento, which receives the nod—or not—from Washington. Our tap water flows from the Colorado River. A fifth of our power is from a coal plant in Utah. Los Angeles simply isn’t self-reliant. We have plenty of investment from abroad, but no local currency. The world’s largest jail system, but no independent military. Garcetti recently proposed a guaranteed-basic-income program that would be the country’s largest experiment of its kind—but that’s only even theoretically possible thanks to funding from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Whatever the best term for L.A. is, the exercise of defining the place seems worthwhile because Los Angeles so often feels less like a city of the present than a kingdom from the future, trying to tell us all something about what’s coming next. Go an hour in any direction from Dodger Stadium and it’s hard to tell where the realm stops. One essential feature of existence in Los Angeles, as many have pointed out, is an awareness of impermanence. We’re intimately in touch with earthquakes and fires, unrest and inequality, gig work and precarity. And yes, L.A. is a poster child for American poverty. It is a case study of California’s property-based politics gone tragically wrong. But it’s also a place where people from around the world, from wildly different backgrounds, more or less live in peace.

Soon enough, the lucky ones among us—or the very unlucky ones—will be invited to Musk-Bezos, a new city-state on Mars. Everybody else will move permanently onto the internet, to empires that baby Zuckerbergs have yet to magic into being. Until then, the city-state of Los Angeles will persist in its corner: the land of promise, but also the land of broken promises. City of revenge. City of sunsets. Tragic, triumphant, beautiful all the same. “There are a lot of things that are true of Los Angeles that are also true of other American cities,” the local novelist Héctor Tobar told me. “But in no other American cities are those truths as evident as they are in L.A.”

*This article previously misstated the population of the Greater Los Angeles area. It is 19 million, not 11 million.