Los Angeles is unique among American cities for the many individual towns contained within its borders. I don't mean neighborhoods like Hollywood or Venice, which are part of the City of Los Angeles, but those independent cities with their own laws, mayors, city councils, street signs and police forces, surrounded by LA though they may be.
- West Hollywood. Hollywood is part of LA. North Hollywood is part of LA. But West Hollywood is its own city with its own rules. Founded in 1984 by a gay population who sought to form a gay-friendly government, it is possibly the gayest city in the world, with 40% of its population of 37,000 identifying as homosexual. "WeHo" is a rampantly progressive city, with rent control, high environmental building standards and some pretty cool laws, such as forcing landlords to allow tenants who are ill or elderly to have pets. It's also where I live.
- Santa Monica. Eternally battling WeHo for the title of "most liberal city in Southern California," Santa Monica has become a little less groovy in recent years, due to large numbers of yuppies moving in to take advantage of its serene beachside life as well as its popular shops and restaurants. However, outside of the City of LA itself, it's the only town in this neck of the woods that still lets people with hybrid cars (such as yours truly) park at meters for free, and SM's cheap "Big Blue Bus" is great (you've seen it in action in the movie Speed). This is also where most of LA's European expats are found.
- Beverly Hills. Believe it or not, tony Beverly Hills also has rent control to benefit its many unheralded renters. What else can I add about one of the most famous "small towns" in the world? Well, it's a sister city to Cannes, and the traffic is terrible.
- Culver City. Once home to many movie studios, Culver City, which with its weirdly sprawling borders dominates much of West Los Angeles, is still home to Sony Pictures (i.e. Columbia/TriStar), and over the past decade has seen a real renaissance. I remember Culver City as a town that could be called half-residential, half-industrial, with old businesses and quiet single family homes. Today it's packed with chic art galleries, hip restaurants, and all the bad parking that comes with it.
- Malibu. Los Angeles the city doesn't exactly surround Malibu; mostly it's what you'd call "unincorporated" LA County, thanks to the barren Santa Monica Mountains which nestle this legendary community for rich show business types and miles and miles of pristine shoreline. Outside of a tiny "village" of shops, there's not much more to Malibu, except for the nearly annual wildfires which make one wonder why those millionaires put up with the risk.
- San Fernando. The gigantic San Fernando Valley, known simply as The Valley (as in "Valley Girl"), is part of the City of LA, although it is separated from Greater Los Angeles by the Hollywood Hills to the south. Tiny San Fernando, however, remains its own city: it never became part of LA because it had its own groundwater supply, unlike the rest of the Valley, which needed the Los Angeles aqueduct. Today its mostly Latino population numbers around 25,000 and it's known for low business taxes.
- Calabasas. San Fernando is at the east end of the Valley. Miles away, in the northwest, is Calabasas, a large, often wild area once used as a location for Hollywood Westerns. Today it still feels entirely different from the rest of LA or even the Valley, with suburban tracts hidden amongst rocky hills that wouldn't look out of place in Arizona. "Calabasas" means "pumpkins" in Spanish, and indeed, every October there's a pumpkin festival. Not entirely surrounded by LA, it also joins the small, mostly white suburban cities of Hidden Hills, Agoura Hills and Westlake Village, all on the border between Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
- Inglewood. South of the City of LA, yet almost entirely surrounded by LA itself save for a small nubbin, Inglewood has long been a working-class town, first for whites, then for blacks, and currently for Latinos and blacks. With a population of 130,000, Inglewood is home to the Hollywood Park horse race track and Randy's Donuts with the infamous two-story donut sculpture, and lives in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
- Avalon. We end with this quiet waterfront town, the only incorporated city on LA County's resort island of Santa Catalina. Full-sized vehicles are mostly banned in the city, and people motor around on golf carts. Its population numbers just over 3,000, but attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year from Los Angeles and beyond.