Most guidebooks to L.A. will counsel you directly to rent a car. How
can you hope to take in any of this ridiculously expansive city - the
city proper is 467 square miles, and the five county area, with its
88 mostly contiguous cities, is 34,149 square miles - without a car?
The place just doesn't end. See it on foot? Senseless.
And when Aina and I did just that - walked from our Hollywood hotel
to Beverly Hills and back, and subsequently explored Griffith Park and
even Santa Monica without benefit of rental car - everybody thought
we were out of our minds. They may have been right, too, especially
since Aina's a professional figure skater and needed to keep her legs
in working order for performance. Oh, but it was worth it. Even Aina
The number one most remarkable thing about Los Angeles and its fellow
cities is also the number one reason to see it on foot: the architecture.
It's simply astounding in its diversity, its huge number of styles,
its incessant variety and its frequent richness. There are a whole lot
of people in this town with whacks of dinero, and they seem to like
owning utterly individual - often almost chaotically-designed - houses
in numerous styles ranging from Spanish colonial to modernist to art
deco to arts and crafts, every one apparently of the six-bedroom variety
and many of them crazy-glued to the sides of cliffs (and served by a
wild vermicelli of climbing roads).
But even in the seedier neighborhoods, of which there are quite enough,
the architecture is exemplary: all the classic styles of the last six
decades, many of which have been largely erased from other cities, existing
here in their archetypes, every one lovingly decayed by sun, smog and
insufficient maintenance. If you drive around, you can see a lot more
of these places, by quantity, but you can also see a lot less of each
individual one, and you'll miss a number of them altogether. Pounding
the pavement lets you get up close and personal. And it means that you
won't have to be distracted by dealing with the traffic - the least
laid-back thing about L.A. - or, for that matter, with negotiating pedestrian
traffic, since the sidewalks are usually pretty empty (because everybody
with sense and money drives).
We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy
Awards, snugly ensconced in the walk of fame and right across the street
from Mann's Chinese Theatre with its cemented footprints. Step out the
front door onto Hollywood Boulevard and you're treading on the likes
of Cybill Shepherd and The Original Fifth Dimension. The wallpaper to
this carpet is a bit less special - the neighborhood's had its glory
days and now it's mostly souvenir shops and liquor stores and places
you can't take children. Once you've seen the historical stuff, you're
bound to want to get out and check out other bits of the city.
We headed first to Melrose Avenue, which we had been told was home
to a cornucopia of the funkiest shops. But we didn't see much of anything
we couldn't get back home in Toronto on Queen West - aside from empty
sidewalks and long stretches of not all that much. Now, admittedly,
if you're from a town that's not long on funky accoutrements, and you'd
really like to gussy yourself up in wonky sunglasses and pick up a few
tribal artifacts for your retro coffee table, Melrose is a wicked place
to hit. You can also pass some innocuously seedy establishments and
have a full helping of run-of-the-mill late-mid-20th-century architecture.
As to Aina and me, we just kept walking, past a lot of palm trees, residences
and little shops, and one shopping mall, Beverly Center.
Beverly Center! Ah, that must be a real top-quality mall, yes? Well,
top of the parking garage, for one thing. One has to ascend by several
flights of escalators as though to a postmodern Aztec sacrifice. The
reward at the top is a mall much like many others. In fact, it's kind
of amazing how you can be anywhere and step into a mall and immediately
enter an environment that is utterly familiar. The Gap, the Sharper
Image, all the usual staples of malls in areas where people have money
to spend. But also a few smaller places, such as the one where Aina
and I sampled assorted seasoned nuts and dried fruits and bought a bag
of vegetable chips, which we finished within about four blocks.
Our next destination was the famed Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Rodeo
Drive peels obliquely off Wilshire. The famous chunk is a mere three
blocks of high-fashion stores, pretty much the same stores you'll find
in New York or on Bloor West in Toronto or in quite a few other places,
in none of which a person who can't even rent a car has any hope of
thinking of affording the excruciatingly designed vestments coyly proffered
as the apotheosis of chic. Ferre, Armani, Chanel, blah blah blah. We'd
been walking since 10:00, it was about 1:00 now, and the most striking
thing about Rodeo Drive for us was the absence of any place to eat.
We didn't bother stopping into the stores - what's the point? The buildings
themselves weren't utterly striking, and we weren't dressed in such
a way as not to be condescended to. So we went hunting for lunch.
It turns out that the street with restaurants is two blocks east: Cañon
Drive. Lots of nice places, including Chasen's, where a producer-looking
guy (who probably was a producer; how many people can afford
to eat there?) was seated alone on the patio perusing something or other
(a script, perhaps?) and was later, on our second pass, to be seen with
an actress-looking woman. We walked down to see what Spago looked like,
since it's apparently famous. Spago looked like a building hiding behind
greenery, an entrance deep enough to prevent seeing into, and three
orange-coated guys out front to park cars and screen the riffraff. Buh-bye.
We headed north and had very nice and surprisingly affordable Italian
food at a nice and full bistro on a corner. Then we set out northward.
As you walk north of the vaunted shopping district and cross Santa
Monica Boulevard, the streets immediately become residential and curve
gracefully and gradually upwards until Sunset Boulevard, which demarcates
the edge of the real hills. And what residential! Every house a beautifully,
often exquisitely, designed near-mansion, but all of them a mere lawn's-breadth
away from the street. Very few of the homes in this stretch had big
walls or blinding hedges, although assorted barriers did exist, and
private security warnings were in evidence.
A quick word on private security. It must be one of the biggest industries
in Los Angeles, right up there with valet parking. Cars, guards and
signs are ubiquitous, especially in the neighborhoods that are the most
beautiful to walk around, and also at many business establishments and
in such places as LRT stations (where I was glad to see them, OK?).
I have this image of dwellers in the hills on the northwest side of
L.A. looking out across the broad level expanse of the city below and
calculating that half the houses below house the people who guard their
homes and businesses, and the other half house the people who park their
cars. Oh, and somewhere in there are the people who clean their houses.
I wondered what the point of a bus line along Sunset through Beverly
was until I saw a Hispanic housemaid waiting at a stop.
We stopped for a rest at the top of Rodeo, at Sunset, in Will Rogers
Memorial Park, a nice raised triangle of palm trees and reflecting pool
situated across from the pink - a very Angeleno color, pink, lots of
striking buildings the shade of strawberry ice cream - as I was saying,
the pink Beverly Hills Hotel. Then we headed eastward again along
Sunset. Sunset's a bit less scenic, at least at first, because it goes
by the sides and backs - and high walls - of all those beautiful houses.
But there are also plenty of trees and other assorted greenery, not
to mention the one thing you don't get as good a look at on foot:
all those expensive cars whipping by. After a certain point, commercial
buildings loomed again, mostly ones built in the '50s and '60s. To the
right, hills with houses clinging direly to their sides; to the left,
an only slightly gentler hill down to the flats which we had traversed
scant hours earlier. Ahead: the Sunset Strip.
The Sunset Strip has a smallish feeling for much of it due to its nestling
into the side of a steepening hill and its constant curves which restrict
the forward view. The fact that many of the buildings are one storey
and most of the rest are two aids this effect. And the shops? A mixed
bag of the funky and the functional for much of it - a nice bookstore,
for instance, and a largish tchotchke shop with numerous Star Wars
paratexts. The architecture includes a green flying saucer of a building
(not a shop but rather someone's offices) and the House of Blues, surely
the most salient structure on the Strip for its thoroughgoing adherence
to the Crummy Decaying Delta Tin Shack style of design (and rest assured
that it is very well-maintained Crummy Decaying Delta Tin Shack, looking
ready to spew forth fresh swamp monsters every hour on the quarter-hour).
Also on the up-and-down middle of the strip is the Viper Room, co-owned
by Johnny Depp and site of River Phoenix's untimely demise. We didn't
go inside, but we were amazed at how utterly unprepossessing the outside
is - a small sign, a flight of stairs, a black wall of a building. Who
needs flash when you've got fame?
The sidewalks are not crowded along Sunset, but it's not because people
stay home. We had the peculiar experience of going down a mostly empty
sidewalk and walking into a perfectly crowded coffee joint. Where did
all the people come from? When I headed to the back to use the little
boys' room, I searched for a transporter beam and found what was tantamount:
a rear parking lot full of cars. In Los Angeles, people even drive to
coffee joints. They materialize through the back door and exit again
the same way, and the closest they come to the sidewalk is when they
choose to sit out in the boulevard seating.
To my mind, you haven't really seen a city until you've seen the city,
as much of it as possible in a single sweep of the eye. And how many
movies have had enticing mythopoeic vistas of Los Angeles from brush-covered
hills? Therefore, the next day I insisted that we go up to the Griffith
Park Observatory. The rest of the trip, I promised Aina, was up to her
determination, just as long as she would grant me this one thing.
When you look at Griffith Park on a map of the Los Angeles area, you
may well wonder how it is that such a huge swatch of turf - 4107 acres,
the largest municipal park in the U.S. - managed to be kept aside for
so long in this infinity of urbanization. Go there and you'll figure
it out. A good place to stick a park is on land that you just can't
do much else with, and, sure enough, a rather large percentage of Griffith
Park is on those chaparral-covered hills and ravines which erupt all
across the northern side of L.A. (beyond which is even more L.A., the
San Fernando Valley). The road up to the observatory forms a wavy incomplete
paper clip of a line as it goes up first one side of a ravine and then
the other. It doesn't have any footpaths or sidewalks along it, either.
Now, I love walking. Can't get enough of it. I have nearly endless
stamina in my legs and I don't mind if they're sore the next day. Aina
likes walking. She has great legs but she also needs them for work.
She took the opportunity to remind me of this as we ascended by foot
for the better part of an hour, the view getting better by degrees.
But however you get there, even if it's by foot, you simply must go
up to the Observatory if you have a bit of time to see L.A. The view
is cinematic, cinescopic even (no - it's Omnimax, actually). Aside from
getting to see more haze than you thought you'd ever take in at one
sweep of the eyes, you can see just about everything south of the mountains
in L.A. You can take in that lofty view of the flatlands whereon dwell
the private security agents, valet parkers and domestic servants. You
can see the downtown, which, contrary to what some say, is every bit
as much of a downtown as many other cities have, tall buildings and
all. You can also feel like you're in a movie (actually, everywhere
in L.A., like everywhere in New York, can give you that feeling). Rebel
Without a Cause had some scene or other up here - so I'm told; I've
never seen it.
The next day (Wednesday), Aina had publicity to go to, and I took the
opportunity to see the downtown. Fortunately, in the weeks before going
to meet Aina in L.A., I had cruised the web and found the Metropolitan
Transit Authority's website - www.mta.net - and the bus route finder
on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) website
- www.scag.ca.gov/transit/ - and I had printed off the awkwardly-sized
bus schedules of several routes, so I was ready. I headed downtown,
hopped off at Hill and Third, and quickly scurried over to the Bradbury
building. The what? Have you ever seen Blade Runner? The cool
place that Sebastian Coe lived in. It's actually offices, and they won't
let you go past the first flight of stairs from the lobby. But you can
get a nice sense of the airy and ornate central atrium, which is its
selling feature. There are a number of other interesting buildings and
sights downtown, including some attractive skyscrapers, a fresh food
market, and museums (I managed to see both buildings of the Museum of
Contemporary Art, separated as they are by nine blocks).
For the foot-weary perambulator, there's also the Angel's Flight, a
funicular - in the vernacular, a wee train pulled by ropes up an incline.
It makes trips almost as often as the lights change. It's only 315 feet
long, you see. It's been there on the side of Bunker Hill since 1901,
ferrying the indolent, the curious, and the simply disinclined to walking
up the incline. It has as much charm as San Francisco's vastly more
famous cable cars, although its route is a touch more limited; it's
also less crowded (there was one other person on it when I took
it up), and it's a darn sight less expensive - you pay twenty-five cents
at the top (I suppose if you take it up and haven't got the fare, you
might have to take it down again. Or they could kick you out the back
of the car - it has no safety gate or similar contrivance, and one bad
misstep at the top of the route could result in a snowball roll to the
bottom, right into the upper entrance of the lower car).
There are also a couple of ethnically-flavored areas in the vicinity.
Little Tokyo is on the east side of the downtown, with an obligatory
tourist-friendly lane of shops and restaurants, plus enough stores which
are aimed at the Japanese population to assure one that it's not just
there for looks. And just north of downtown on the other side of the
Santa Ana Freeway is El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, the
old Spanish roots of the town. It's not very big, but you can have a
wee pleasant stroll along Olvera Street, past some old and restored
buildings and rows of stalls and carts selling purses, cheap hats and
other crafts just like they sell to fatuous tourists in Mexico. Some
of the items looked reasonably inviting; the atmosphere had that "authentic"
stencil on it. The buildings were genuinely old, and, for a switch,
L.A. felt cozy as I went down this narrow cobbled street between the
carts and the restaurants, not a car in sight, and people actually walking.
I think they were all tourists, pretty much.
Thursday was a day off for Aina: no show, lots of time to see whatever.
Whatever, in this case, we decided, would be Santa Monica. No! We didn't
walk there from Hollywood! We wanted to spend our day seeing the place,
not just getting there and back. We took the bus. And the route is scenic,
especially just west of Beverly Hills, where Wilshire runs up and down
little hills just south of UCLA, threading through a neighborhood of
expensive homes and chi-chi hotels. After it crosses the San Diego Freeway,
the route gets more ordinary, entering the city of Santa Monica and
making straight towards the ocean down a serviceable stretch of passable
Americana (the same little bit of America that brought us such cultural
high-water marks as Three's Company).
We headed first for the shopping on Main Street, just a couple of streets
back from the beach, between Hollister and Rose. And a tip here for
those who want an artsy stretch of shopping, and one that has a reasonable
density and sustainable interest for a nice, manageable half-dozen blocks:
scratch the vaunted Melrose Avenue and make for Main Street. I'm not
saying that Main Street is the apotheosis of hip or funky - if you want
that, you'd better head east, and I mean New York, Boston, Philly, Toronto,
each of which has one or more noteworthy stretches with much higher
hipness-to-foot ratio than anything achievable in the dilute urbanity
of southern California - but it's the place where you can see really
nice dresses, interesting crafts, reasonably hip coffee joints, and
even a MOCA shop and a volunteer-staffed candle-soap-and-other-counterculture-parvenu-luxuries
store supporting the social projects of the Episcopalian Church, and
all without having to walk past a lot of irrelevant places shoehorned
in between. In our various digressions into the assorted shops we saw
crafty stationery, arty moveables, and sundry items such as the ever-popular
The other shopping district we went to was the Third Street Promenade,
three blocks of pedestrian mall in the tradition of pedestrian malls
everywhere, capped at the east end by a passable shopping mall (how
passable? we passed right through it and kept going). The Promenade
is a nice place if you just feel like shopping at decent stores, many
or even most of which are local avatars of chain gods.
On the way from Main to Third Street, we walked down to the beach and
along to the pier. If you're looking for a most distinctive architectural
quality to Santa Monica, it would have to be the waterfront hotels.
Most of the city is low buildings, be they houses, apartments, or shops;
they're less ostentatious than what you'll find in Beverly and up the
Hollywood Hills, but not as insipid and monotonous as what fills up
the wide swaths of L.A. that tourists have no good reason to see. The
waterfront hotels, on the other hand, have the sort of styling and apparent
class that one might associate with the twenties and thirties. And as
you walk north along the beach, you have them on your right, with low
houses, trees, and Ocean Avenue; you have a wide stretch of beach to
your left; and ahead of you, you have, in the distance, mountains curving
northwest towards Malibu, but in the foreground, Santa Monica Pier,
most visible because of its Ferris wheel and roller coaster. The pier
is in essence a little amusement park - with all that entails - jutting
out into the ocean on a strip of planks. The roller coaster wasn't going
when we stopped by; no loss, it's a piddly little thing anyway. But
the Ferris wheel afforded us a nice view of the environs at two bucks
After dinner, we took the bus back from Santa Monica through the cooling
night air. And, just for a little extra dash of that L.A. flavor - since
we had managed to miss the violence of the freeways - as we were crossing
Wilshire at Fairfax to make a bus transfer, a police car came along,
sirens going. The driver stopped at the light, leaned out and asked
us (we were at the median strip) whether we had seen a shooting there.
We said we had not. The light turned amber, we scurried on to the bus
stop for our connection back to Hollywood, and the cop car sat sedated
awaiting a green.
You might get the impression from this travelogue that there's little
to do later in the evening in L.A. Certainly even one local averred
that everything dies down earlier here because all the movie people
have to get up early. But this same local - a friend of a friend - took
us in his car two evenings in a row to various night spots, each time
getting us back after three. These things required us to get a lift,
however. Walking to and from them would have been out of the question,
and the buses run infrequently and then not at all as the night draws
on. L.A. at night is more convenient - and safer, to be sure - from
a car. But L.A. during the day is much more fascinating by foot.