I had the opportunity to visit Southern California this weekend. I expect I may be down there more often as time goes by…Anyway, my funny boyfriend and I were looking at the different neighborhoods in LA.

As a northern Californian, LA is known as nothing else. Subtle distinctions such as “Orange County” or “San Bernardino” are seen as a sign of denial–a way for LA residents to distance themselves from the horror that is LA. After all, they are all just a bunch of uncultured, conformist, republican suburbanites, aren’t they? And the fact that LA has spread into several counties is startling to Bay Area residents, but not surprising once you consider their water-consuming, smog-producing habits.

With a sniff, we turn away and feel that someone ought to pass a law curbing the environmental hazard that IS Los Angeles.

So when my LA native boyfriend decided to show me around the area, I was astonished to discover that there were neighborhoods.

Traffic was awful; smog was incredibly awful, even leaving white buildings permanently smudged.
But through the air-muck, I could see mountains. There is nature there!
And there were places where the desert flora was untouched.

There are neighborhoods there, and cities. Here, I live in Sunnyvale, which butts up against Mountain View, Santa Clara and Los Altos. I couldn’t tell you exactly where the borders are, but I have a general idea. There are signs placed in discreet and ambiguous spots, to let you know that somewhere nearby, the next city begins.

In So Cal, you KNOW. There is some sort of edifice marking the entry into the next city. A stone concoction, or a large wooden sign saying “City Of Orange” or “WELCOME TO RANCHO CUCAMONGA” or “WELCOME TO CLAREMONT.”

I find this disorienting. I mean, I am pleased to know what city I am in, but I feel like it is too sudden! I haven’t had time to say goodbye to the city I am leaving. I was only beginning to enjoy the welcome of Upland, and appreciate the trees and flowers, when I am whiplashed into the welcome of Claremont. It’s terribly abrupt. It seems like there should be a buffer between the cities, a margin, or a no-man’s land to allow for some differentiation.

As with everything, there is a trick to the names of cities, too. I had learned some of this here, already. When cities were first settled, most of the time they were formed in the fertile valleys. All the people would go to the valleys, and make their houses and businesses there, and before you knew it, you had a city! Marvelous. But then all the people who had done especially well in the fertile valleys began to feel crowded and common, so they had to find a way to look down on the rest of the not-so-successful city-dwellers. They moved up the hill a little bit. Therefore, neighborhoods with “Hills” after the name are ritzy neighborhoods: Los Altos Hills, Oakland Hills. This holds true in So Cal, too. I got to go visit the very ritzy neighborhood of Claremont Hills, where the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg lives.

But there are more! In So Cal, if “Beach” comes after a name, it’s expensive. Long Beach, Huntington Beach. That one is not so hard to figure out, even though there aren’t any beach neighborhoods in my neck of the woods. The one that surprised me was “Ranch.” If you have “Ranch” at the end of a name, it is also ritzy.

So I asked my boyfriend and anthropological guide for the day, “Does that include ‘Rancho’?”

“No,” he said. “Rancho is different.”

Hmm….These people are surprisingly subtle. They bear watching. Pay attention!