American times Los Angeles: This party ain't big enough for the both of us

SPENDING THE millennium celebrations in Los Angeles sounds about as much fun as hooking up your living room to a car exhaust pipe with the engine running: who wants to contemplate the next thousand years under a blanket of smog, urban blight, gang warfare and endless suburbs?

That, at least, is the jaundiced view from the millennial organisers in San Francisco, LA's perennial rival and a city now frantically trying to boost its own stock as the celebration draws closer. Ask a San Franciscan what he would think of travelling 350 miles south for the dawn of the 21st century, and he will probably refer you to Strange Days, the apocalyptic Ralph Fiennes movie that envisioned downtown LA on New Year's Eve 1999 as the monstrous scene of a running battle between rioting crowds and crypto-fascist police units.

Los Angeles may not have pastel houses, trolley cars or the Golden Gate Bridge, but it does have the crucial advantage of sheer size and the capacity to attract saturation media coverage. Come 1 January, every television camera in America will be pointing at the Rose Parade, the traditional array of giant floats that passes through the streets of Pasadena, northeast of downtown LA. (Estimated TV audience: up to 350 million people).

The night before, at the stroke of midnight, there will be a laser display at the Hollywood sign, one of the essential symbols of the century now passing. And that's not to mention the 2,000 Mexican folk dancers downtown, the 2,000 gospel singers in the traditional African America Crenshaw district, the 2,000 drummers at the port in San Pedro, the 2,000 line dancers hopping through the San Fernando Valley, plus myriad sky shows, firework displays and all-night dances.

Until recently, San Francisco had hoped to better all of that with a stunning fireworks and laser display on the Golden Gate Bridge. The aim was to make as much noise as a century ago, when San Francisco was in its heyday and LA barely a blip on the map. The 1899 end-of-year party was described by the Examiner newspaper at the time as "a tide of feverish life, tooting horns, crashing cymbals, jangling bells, beating cans, utilising every noise-producing device that ingenuity had heretofore produced and others that were unheard and undreamed of until last night".

Alas, not this time. A few days ago, the city abruptly cancelled the laser show at the bridge and a big fireworks display outside City Hall. Two reasons were given. The first was that the city had not raised the $3m (pounds 1.85m) necessary to stage the event. The second was a protest by environmentalists who worried that revellers near thebridge would damage the national parkland on either side.

"As the time zones change around the world," said Mary Currie, an official with the bridge, "there will be celebrations in Hong Kong, Paris, New York, but San Francisco probably will not leave a lasting impression."

Nobody could be more delighted about this than the powers that be in Los Angeles. The cancellations were reported in gleeful detail in the LA Times and held up as proof that San Francisco, for all its posturing and claims to cultural superiority, can't hold a candle to the multicultural chic and sheer energy of the capital of the movie industry.

The deeper truth, however, is that both cities' millennial bashes are in trouble. Across the US, hotel bookings have fallen short of expectations. Rather like the solar eclipse, the millennium has been sold as such a mob scene that most people have decided to stay at home.

As hotel prices have tumbled, LA and San Francisco have started savaging New York, boasting they will have better weather and more compelling entertainment than the ball-dropping ritual in Times Square. As Richard Riordan, LA's mayor, said: "Who wants to see someone drop the ball?"

The only city to stay out of the slanging matches has been Las Vegas, which is already booked solid for the period. Hotel rates there have jumped up to tenfold to meet demand. No wonder LA and San Francisco are so mad.