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institute Sesquiotic



Los Angeles Without a Car (version 1)

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 agrees.

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 - - and the bus route finder on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) website - - 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 pudenda-shaped pasta.

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 a pop.

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.



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