City of Angels
I read a great quote recently; I don’t remember exactly where – but upon investigation it is originally attributed to Canadian born American writer Saul Bellow – and it goes something like this: Whenever America tilts, anything that isn’t tightly screwed down rolls west to Southern California; and I suspect to Los Angeles in particular.
When I started to write this instalment of my California Odyssey I struggled; until the realisation dawned upon me that despite the fact I have spent more time in Los Angeles than in any other city in America, it is ironically the place I feel I know the least.
Part of the reason for this I suspect is the socio-geographical nature of Los Angeles. Whilst it may not be a city without a heart, both geographically and culturally it is difficult to find it. There is a ‘downtown’ area of course; a business centre whose towering skyscrapers can be seen vaguely through the smog from most other parts of the city. But beyond that Los Angeles is a vast sprawl of townships, neighbourhoods, districts and indistinct quarters like no other I have ever experienced. A place you must alternately dive into, and occasionally step back from, just to get your bearings.
And you do need to keep your bearings; because if you get lost in the wrong part of the city, you could get yourself into trouble. That’s because L.A. is also a heady, at once seductive and at the same time occasionally repulsive blend of natural beauty, great climate, money and power; but crucially it is markedly polarised (often along ethnic lines) between those who have it and want to hang on to it, and those who don’t and desperately want it; with the rest of the population caught in a sometimes uncomfortable no-man’s land in the middle. A real social and cultural melting-pot.
Covering around 500 square miles, the edges of the city and associated county are indistinct, with inland communities such as Pomona in the east and beach communities such as Venice and Santa Monica on the west coast; it stretches from Burbank and Hollywood in the north down through downtown and the business districts to Long Beach and beyond as far as Orange County and Disneyland in the south; with incredible natural, social and economic highs and lows throughout. As an outsider, navigating it, let alone exploring it, is not for the faint-hearted.
Whilst I can’t tell you authoritatively everything (or perhaps anything) about Los Angeles, I can tell you the reasons that drew (and continue to draw) me to it. Visiting L.A. has always been an ambition for me, simply because so much of the American culture I have long been fascinated with originated not just in California, but in and around Los Angeles in particular. As a child of the 1970s, a diet of American TV meant a diet of Los Angeles. L.A. is of course the home of American moviemaking (and later television); originally in Hollywood, now further north in Burbank and Studio City. Surfing and beach culture were born here; along with other counter-cultures like hot-rodding, car-customising and drag racing. The music business has also thrived here; landmarks like the Capitol Records building on Sunset Boulevard testaments to its presence.
It was with these cultural touchstones very much in mind I first visited in 2000, and again in 2009. Fascinating, intoxicating yet sometimes somewhat menacing – like playing with fire – I’ll try and give you a flavour of what I saw, sought out, and had thrust upon me, in the hope that it may help you navigate this sometimes bewildering and sprawling metropolis; if not to find the elusive heart within, at least to find some of its most iconic cultural history and a cross-section of places to start your exploration.
We first arrived in L.A. in March of 2000, ironically not on a freeway at all; but via Sunset Boulevard. Winding its way all the way from the Pacific Coast Highway (our route south from San Francisco), Sunset took us all the way from the ocean through Beverley Hills to Hollywood. Being a movie nut, it was in Hollywood we’d be staying; specifically at the iconic Roosevelt Hotel.
I knew Hollywood was no longer the moviemaking centre of the city of course; and indeed it had been through an era of decline into a seedy underworld since its long-past heyday (along with parts of iconic Sunset Boulevard at its eastern end); but the word was that Hollywood in particular had cleaned up its act, and for tourists still had enough of its long-gone moviemaking history and faded glamour to be worth a visit.
Riding along Sunset from the coast through Beverley Hills in the late afternoon was pretty relaxed compared to freeway driving; and by the time we turned north into West Hollywood, heading for Hollywood Boulevard, we had already seen some of the landmarks we recognised from movies, television and tourist guidebooks.
The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, at the time a Clarion hotel, sits on the south side of Hollywood Boulevard, right on the walk of fame and opposite Mann’s (originally Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre. Built in 1928 by a group including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin (who together founded United Artists), it hosted the first ever Academy Awards in its Blossom Room in 1929. The hotel is steeped in the history of old Hollywood. Famous residents include Marilyn Monroe; and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson allegedly taught Shirley Temple tap dance routines on the bottom steps of its lobby staircase.
The walk of fame right outside with its terrazzo and brass star-studded pavement, and the forecourt of Grauman’s Theatre opposite with its foot, handprints and signatures of Hollywood’s great and good may be typical ‘tourist’ attractions; but for anyone interested in cinema and cinema history they are nevertheless worth a visit.
By the time we returned to Hollywood in 2009, this western end of Hollywood Boulevard had been somewhat eclipsed by the new Kodak Theatre (and associated shopping mall) at the east end, which is now of course the ‘new’ home of the Oscars. I have to say that I found this new development a little soulless and corporate; even faded ‘old’ Hollywood held more interest for me.
This change over nearly ten years was also noticeable taking the Starline Tours ‘Hollywood Homes’ tour again; to some a slightly uncomfortable mix of tacky tourist ride and almost blatant voyeurism, it did at least give you a good orientation of the area and its various residential neighbourhoods, a glimpse (albeit over high hedges, gates and security patrolled walls) of some of the still-abundant wealth in parts of Los Angeles, and some fascinating insights into some of the stars and studio heads who built old Hollywood. By 2009 though, there was more emphasis on Hugh Grant, Dr Phil and Paris Hilton than on Louis B Mayer, Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck. This shift, this slipping away of old Hollywood history, hit home for me when our tour guide did not know that the original owner of the eerily abandoned and long derelict Nicolosi Estate at 414 Saint Pierre Road, designed by American architect Paul Revere Williams, with its now overgrown serpentine swimming pool and long dead waterfalls was none other than the original Tarzan himself (and Olympic swimming hero) Johnny Weissmuller. If you want history of old Hollywood, you may have to go digging for it.
In 2009 indeed Hollywood felt more like a superficial tourist attraction than ever; with visitors shuttling back and forth on tours and visits to Universal Studios just up the freeway in Studio City. Make no mistake though – I would hazard a guess that you should still keep your wits about you on Hollywood Boulevard at night, and on neighbouring Sunset Boulevard too.
Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Hills
Sunset Boulevard is a great way to shuttle between West Hollywood and the coastal resort of Santa Monica and the beach. If you’re passing through anyway, you really have to visit Beverley Hills, even if it’s just for a half hour, to marvel at the conspicuous wealth on display; shuttling daily between high-dollar cars at the kerbside and high-dollar shops on Rodeo Drive. Forget shopping though. If you have to ask the price of anything then you really can’t afford it; and unless you’re known at some of the stores and/or have an appointment, chances are you won’t even get through the door.
Starline Tours take in some of the residential areas of Beverley Hills, along with Bel Air and Holmby Hills on their tours, which is a great way to get an air-conditioned, guided tour of some exclusive real estate without the danger of being arrested (or even worse, shot for trespassing). Make no mistake many of these areas are gated communities, with private, armed security – so don’t go wandering around peering over hedges on your own. Though most of the homes are understandably hidden behind walls, gates and hedges, it is nevertheless interesting to see just how comfortably the rich and famous can live in Los Angeles; and just how jealously (and perhaps necessarily) they guard their privacy, security and property.
A much more free and easy (but equally beautiful) way to enjoy the north-west area of L.A. is to escape up into the Hollywood hills; driving the length of Mulholland Drive is highly recommended for a little peace and tranquility, with great scenery and views across the city to the south and Burbank to the north. Indeed this was a favourite pastime of British artist David Hockney. You may also get the occasional glimpse of some of the architectural wonders that make up the sparse but prime real estate up here. There are such notable examples as The Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, to be found in the hills in the Los Feliz area, south of Griffith Park; and other notable landmarks such as the Hollywood Bowl.
Beach Life: Santa Monica
Santa Monica is just one of a string of ocean-side communities stretching down the coast of LA county; but as it’s one of the largest and nearest to both the tourist attractions of Hollywood and Studio City, and the downtown Los Angeles area, it’s a good place to acquaint yourself with LA beach life; from the boardwalk and pier with its historic carousel, to its long stretches of perfect white sand. Santa Monica is Bay Watch.
The ‘city’ itself is also worth a look, with its historic deco-style hotels along Palisades park overlooking the ocean, and a reasonable (and altogether more affordable) range of shops and restaurants. Santa Monica is pretty safe and family friendly, during the day at least, though being the nearest beach community to the downtown L.A. area, you get quite a cross section of Angelinos from families to groups of young men enjoying the beach area. It’s not uncommon either to see the odd homeless bum drying out in the sun in Palisades park. Generally the Santa Monica police always have a reassuring presence around the beach area, along with the omni-present and iconic life guards.
Further down the coast there are other communities such as Venice Beach (famous for its ‘Muscle Beach’ body-building scene) and further south, surfing havens such as Huntington Beach, where it seemed to me you really did need to be young, virile, good-looking and affluent to mix comfortably with the beach crowd.
More Los Angeles
To the east of L.A. are inland communities such as Pomona and Fontana. Being a motorhead, these were of specific interest to me as the homes of the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) Museum and the Auto Club Speedway respectively. Southern California was a hot-bed of early hot rodding and car culture. Illegal street races were moved to purpose built drag strips, and organisations such as the NHRA and SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) were born to regulate the pursuit of speed as a leisure and sporting activity (and for some, a way of life) on the drag strips of So Cal and the nearby dry lakes such as El Mirage outside the city. Great car customizers such as George Barris also plied their trade in L.A.
To the south is the port of Los Angeles, at Long Beach. Long Beach is also known as the last resting place of the Great British steam liner, Queen Mary (now a floating hotel); and was also at one time the resting place of Howard Hughes ‘Spruce Goose’ (H4 Hercules) flying boat.
South and east of Long Beach, southern California stretches down through Orange County, home to Disneyland at Anaheim, and a variety of So Cal beach communities south towards San Diego. At its southernmost extreme, not far short of Dana Point, the picturesque town of San Juan Capistrano with its historic Spanish Mission is worth a visit, especially during the Festival of the Swallows, around March each year.
Of course, as I have already alluded, there is far more to L.A. than the areas I have highlighted here. There are notable omissions even from the tourist trail, such as the La Brea Tar Pits, The Getty Centre and a whole slew of other museums and galleries. There are whole areas of this vast city/county I have yet to explore; so it goes without saying that further visits are on the cards.
There are of course large areas of south central and eastern L.A. I don’t plan on visiting however; these are the areas that have their own unique social and economic problems to deal with and don’t need stupid tourists blundering around. Los Angeles, in addition to being the home of the glamorous entertainment industry and sun-soaked beach communities, is also after all let’s remember the gang capital of America.
So if you’re going, take a map. Know where you are, where you are heading, and what to expect when you get there. A wrong turn off the Hollywood Freeway in 2000 for example would have been the difference between visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, and finding yourself in the (then) notorious Rampart District.
So by all means go and explore this vast, sprawling, iconic metropolis. See the things that Los Angeles is happy to share with visitors. But be smart, and be respectful; most Angelinos in my experience have been pretty friendly; but you do get the sense, here more than anywhere else I have visited in California, that people at both ends of the social spectrum don’t always want you wandering around on their turf uninvited.
See you on the road.