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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

The Canals by Amanda Montell

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.

"Tip the world over on its side, and everything loose will land in Los Angeles."
—Frank Lloyd Wright

I never know where to take people when they come to visit me in LA. I like to think my friends are too sophisticated for the stereotypical Hollywood route. The Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame—it never even feels tempting to take them to the beach. The idea is to prove that LA is unexpected. That it defies its shallow, plastic reputation. I want to show my out-of-towners that LA has character, like New York does. That it wasn't a mistake for me to move here.

I came to LA for Ben. His job was here and I followed him. I hate admitting that, even to myself. I prefer to pretend it was a more independent choice. Maybe it was for the wine or a personal sense of manifest destiny. But I never dreamt of Southern California like I dreamt of New York City. I felt so proud when friends came to visit me there. So allegiant.

LA doesn't put its personality on display. It keeps it hidden in deep, unknowable pockets. In liquid trenches. If you walk out my front door now, you'll find a suburb. A grass-lined sidewalk, a row of stucco houses, silence.

My first trip to LA was in 2010. Autumn. Ben picked me up at the Southwest arrivals gate in a cherry red '91 BMW convertible. I was visiting from NYU, but Ben had already moved to LA—become a Southern Californian, through and through. We'd be bicoastal until I finished college. The distance didn't scare me; my concern was that I'd get to know LA and I'd hate it, because I understood that if Ben and I were to last, I'd have to leave New York behind.

"Hop in, babe," Ben smiled, blonde and white-toothed. I knew the air in LA was supposed to be filthy with car exhaust, but it seemed pleasant to me—dry and warm. Promising.

At Ben's apartment in Santa Monica, we opened the windows and drank beers in the daytime. We'd been together for only five months, and the combination of new love and my early afternoon buzz made my stomach tickle. We walked to the Third Street Promenade, where Ben bought me a vanilla cupcake and a wide brim hat, which blew off into the ocean fifteen minutes later, as we leaned too far off the Santa Monica Pier. I gasped, reaching after it.

I had always been wary of the Pacific. Its size. Its mysticism. I preferred the sort of water you could look across and see the other side. Take the Hudson. If we leaned too far off the railing at Battery Park, at least I knew my hat would end up in New Jersey.

"Don't worry, babe, I'll buy you a new hat every time you come to the beach with me," Ben grinned. California did suit him.

As the sun sank behind the far edge of the water, we hung out on the boardwalk and ordered shrimp tacos from a yellow truck.

At dusk, Ben was out of ideas.

We kicked a seashell eight blocks back to his apartment, and as the purple-lighted street become increasingly barren, I began to dread that the rumors were true. It was barely 8pm, and LA was already dozing off. Locking up boutiques, getting diners drunk and tired. Becoming a wasteland. I walked nervously beside the man I loved, convinced that the intrigue of this town ended at a cupcake and a suntan, where everyone said it would.

Which probably explains why, when Ben finally mentioned the canals that night, I thought he was referencing a local rock band. "The Canals." I imagined four slender hipsters playing synthesized noise before a crowded club in Hollywood. It didn't occur to me that he could be talking about bodies of water. After dark, when Ben decided we'd spend our evening in Venice and drove us southward, I refused to believe a neighborhood in Los Angeles with rivers for streets and boats for cars even existed.

"I swear," he defended. "Like in Italy."

"But Italy doesn't keep its canals a secret," I insisted. "How have I never heard of these?"

"I don't know, babe," he laughed, taking a sharp left on Lincoln.

Ben and I wound through narrow, unlit streets. Ten minutes later, we arrived. Parked in a damp, empty alley. Ben took me by the hand. We rounded several tight corners. Then, out of the dark, a slender white arch appeared in the foreground.

"See?" he whispered.

I squinted.

Illuminated by the moon and a string of dock lights lay a 20-foot wide waterway, two rows of colored mansions on either side. A curved ivory bridge connected the banks. Gondolas and paddleboats decorated the winking water, roped to miniature ports. On land, bougainvilleas swathed the walls of waterside palaces in every form—some three stories high and Spanish style, some flat and wooden like bungalows. Others with Art Deco exteriors, turrets, turtle ponds, balconies, gazebos. It was Beverly Hills, afloat. Surreal, a kingdom.

"There are more."

Homes fit for movie sets, spaced no further than five feet apart, lined canals by the dozens. Yet unlike any city attraction I'd ever seen, the neighborhood was desolate. It didn't feel deserted, though. It felt pristine.

"Is it usually more crowded?" I asked, eyeing a two-story made entirely of glass.

"Never," Ben said. "It's always like this."

"Wow," I whispered.

"I guess people go to the beach if they want water."

Alone, we crossed each bridge, picking our favorite houses, guessing sticker prices. Laughing in the dark.

Four years later. Ben and I worked out. I moved to LA, and by the time I did, it didn't feel so much like a sacrifice. Because no matter how much you worship New York, it will never love you back. It has too many people to look after. Too little room. After a few years of the good fight, I was ready for calmer waters.

I take all my visitors to the canals. Maybe the narrow channels don't wear their excitement on their sleeve, but that's the very reason why they continue to mystify me. It's their dreamlike spirit I'm taken with. Their self-unawareness. But most of all, it’s how quintessentially they speak of Los Angeles—this bizarre place, so expansive and hard to dissect that even the most beguiling things can feel unblemished, undiscovered, because everybody's simply gone to the beach instead.


Amanda Montell is an East Coast-born writer, blogger and peach Snapple enthusiast living in Los Angeles. She graduated magna cum laude from NYU in December 2013. She doesn’t have any books or fancy awards yet, but in the meantime, here’s her Instagram account.