Coast

Like an aging starlet, Los Angeles does not seem to be relishing its birthday: 200 years old yesterday.

Bernadette Peters led the singing at a birthday ceremony outside City Hall. The Hollywood Bowl planned a few concerts. A 5.2-magnitude offshore earthquake--"God's birthday greeting," a radio commentator said--rattled cupboards. Some bicentennial exhibits and commemorative articles have appeared, but that's about it. A city that sees itself as a new thing under the sun, a gleaming vanguard for the rest of the country, squirms at hints of advancing age.

Jack Smith, the city's leading columnist and a man who thinks people should appreciate this historic occasion, complained rather sharply in the Los Angeles Times of "a populace that notoriously has the attention span of a 6-month-old Airedale."

But then that has always been Angelenos' great strength, as well as weakness. Los Angeles has been a place where people could come to forget their failures elsewhere, and soak up the optimism of many sunny days. Here new industries, based on insubstantial things, like strips of celluloid, may revolutionize national life and create many new millionaires. Power and culture shift so quickly and unpredictably in Los Angeles that few families can claim the ancient prerogatives of the brahmins of Boston or San Francisco.

Commentators impressed by Los Angeles' love for new things have made much of its black mayor, Tom Bradley, who now leads in the race to be elected the first black governor in America. But the city's African heritage goes back to the very beginning. The 44 tired, dusty pobladores (settlers) who ended a seven-month journey from Mexico and settled here Sept. 4, 1781, included only two Spaniards.

John D. Weaver, the city's best known historian, said, "The rest were Indians, Negroes and mestizos (of mixed ancestry). The blood of Africa flowed in the veins of 26 pobladores. A Spanish law had always made it easy for black bondsmen to buy their freedom in New Spain, and custom had raised no barriers to intermarriage."

The little colonial settlement (El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles, "the town of the Queen of the Angels") became a Mexican provincial capital, then a U.S. frontier boom town, then the great capital of the western American states.

But Los Angeles now finds itself a city of the world. A "kosher burrito" stand run by Koreans on First Street coexists with west Hollywood's China Club, a restaurant where waiters in punk rock costumes serve fine oriental food. One by one, foreign consulates Letter From the Coast are moving here from San Francisco, the former cosmopolitan capital of the West.

Los Angeles has 3 million people, making it the nation's third most populous city, but its Anglo population has slipped to 48 percent, overtaken by a mix of Hispanics (28 percent), blacks (17 percent), Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and residents from nearly every Pacific island you could name.

The city handles $42 billion a year in international trade. Glassy new towers of several multinational banks dominate a downtown skyline once pierced only by the dowdy City Hall, which was destroyed so spectacularly in the movie "War of the Worlds."

Los Angeles thrives as an aerospace center, a fruit and vegetable shipping point, a place for bankers, lawyers, computer specialists and other dull folk. But it prefers to celebrate its shinier side, the entertainment industry, just as TV game shows here claim to originate from "Hollywood" even though their studios are some distance from that old, decaying neighborhood.

Thus, scheduled as principal speakers at the City Hall birthday celebration, were actors LeVar Burton, Jean Stapleton, Brock Peters and Eddie Albert. A "bicentennial quiz" in Los Angeles magazine asks readers to recite the first movie ever filmed here (The Count of Monte Cristo, 1907), the first manufactured screen personality (Theda Bara) and guess if it is true that the town of Runnymeade changed its name to Tarzana to honor Los Angeles resident Edgar Rice Burroughs (true).

The city revels in that reputation as a den of philistines. The magazine quiz asks readers to identify these quotes:

"It is as if you tipped the United States up and all the commonplace people slid down there into southern California." (Frank Lloyd Wright.)

"I don't want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light." (Woody Allen.)

In Los Angeles lore, outcasts get the last laugh because they try harder. What Smith calls "the greatest speech of all time" was uttered by city water superintendent William Mulholland in 1913 at the dedication of the aqueduct that brought Owens Valley water to the city. Mulholland said: "There it is! Take it."

The original settlers in 1781 had their troubles and expelled three of their members as "useless." But the granddaughter of one of these, motivated by that spirit, ended up owning a 4,500-acre ranch outside the original settlement. Equally opportunistic Los Angeles businessmen later subdivided the ranch. It is now called Beverly Hills.