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Another Angle on L.A.

Beyond the glitz, beyond the beach, beyond the freeways, there’s a city of neighborhoods waiting to be explored.

Photographs by Bryan Sheffield. (See some of his outtakes here.) This appeared in the March/April 2012 issue. 

I spent much of my childhood looking at Los Angeles through car windows. I grew up at the suburban edge of Santa Monica, and as one parent or the other toted me from ballet classes to piano lessons, I stared out at the gnarled coral trees, the serious drivers in other cars, the lit-up storefronts, and the endless traffic lights. It was a view of the city at a remove, not unlike the way most tourists encounter it when they first arrive, driving the web of freeways unsure where to go, enduring the legendary traffic as they gravitate toward the standard attractions featured in brochures, such as the Sunset Strip, Muscle Beach, and Disneyland. What they often see is the L.A. they know from TV and films—a city decked out in a spangly dress, serving drinks with tiny neon umbrellas to the throngs. Fun, playful, shallow.

I now live in the Hollywood area, and have for more than 12 years. After I finished grad school and returned to L.A., I wanted to live closer to the central part of the city (though L.A. notoriously has no center). But even here, in a neighborhood suited to walking, I still have to drive a lot. There are many pleasures to be derived from driving—cultivating the contemplative internal space that you experience while staring out those windows, listening to great NPR shows, and having total flexibility in your daily comings and goings. It is a form of freedom, a built-in four-wheeled escape, available at any moment.

But it also insulates you from the urban community. To really know L.A., you have to get out of your car. Stepping away from the wheel isn’t a natural impulse in a place so dominated by automobiles; more than 1,000 miles of electric streetcar railway crisscrossed Southern California for half a century, but it was all ripped up by the early ’60s. Now we have freeways. I had to be taught to appreciate L.A. sans car, and two people have been crucially helpful instructors.

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I became friends with Clifford Johnson right at the moment that I was bashing the L.A. bus system. We were at one of Los Angeles Times science columnist K.C. Cole’s wonderful Categorically Not events—a lecture series presented at the Santa Monica Art Studios (in a Santa Monica Airport hangar). A group of us were in a side gallery, peering at Christian Nold’s remarkable Newham Sensory Map of London, created by students who walked the streets and identified locations by smell. I made some dismissive remark about L.A.’s Rapid Transit District system, based on bad memories of two-hour bus rides I took as a teenager, winding down Sunset Boulevard to get to Melrose Avenue. “Ugh, it’s awful,” I said to someone else, and Clifford, a physicist from England and professor at the University of Southern California, leaned over to me. “It’s actually quite good,” he piped up amiably. He proceeded to tell me about all the useful routes he takes around town.

It shut me up to hear a Londoner, who’d spent years taking the first-rate Tube, accept and even celebrate the buses of Los Angeles.

Soon after, we made a plan to meet on a Sunday morning so I could see how he traverses the city. It’s not just the bus that Clifford is into—he’ll do whatever is possible to reduce his dependency on cars. He frequently takes the subway. He hikes up and down the glorious stairways built into the hills of Silver Lake, the artistic and diverse neighborhood between Hollywood and downtown L.A. And he especially loves his nifty fold-up Brompton bike, which he easily carried onto the Red Line Metro we rode to the Hollywood Farmers’ Market on Ivar Avenue. I had no bike that day, so Clifford walked his, waving at the owners of his favorite stands while I tried toothpicked samples of goat cheese. As he bought tomatoes and potatoes and placed them in his bike basket, he told me about L.A.’s bike-friendly features: CicLAvia, a day when 10 miles of streets are closed to cars; the expanding network of bike paths, including one through Culver City down to the ocean at Marina del Rey; the nonprofit Bicycle Kitchen, where you can learn to build and repair your own bike. I had known none of this.

I was so inspired by Clifford’s nontraditional approach to getting around L.A. that I went online and found my own Brompton bike, an engineering amazement that opens up in four easy steps and fits neatly beside the couch or into the car trunk. It wasn’t designed for long trail rides or racing in skintight Lycra bike shorts. It’s the perfect neighborhoody urban bike for a “nonbiker,” and I ride mine to run errands—whistling under trees, filling the basket with apples from a local market, and then loopily cruising home. These rides are especially beautiful in May, when the jacarandas are in full periwinkle splendor, an L.A. gift that, in my view, is equal to the cherry blossom displays of Tokyo or Washington, D.C.

After Clifford’s gentle scolding at the gallery, I also gave the bus a try, and now I take it once a week to USC, where I teach. On the ride, I grade papers, catch up on reading, or just close my eyes—the usual benefits of not having to navigate with two hands on a steering wheel. Hasidic men with furry black hats sit next to massage-therapists-in-training wearing steel-blue scrubs. I read the Poetry in Motion/LA poems posted on the curving walls above the windows, and sometimes I get handed a Jesus pamphlet or two. Not long ago, the bus driver angrily looked into his wide rearview mirror and yelled, “People! There are two mothers with children up here without seats!” And there they were, standing at the front, two shy women holding large, sleeping babies. I hadn’t noticed. I got up and yielded my seat. Riding the bus provides reminders of other people’s lives in a way that driving a car rarely does.

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For a different street-level view of Los Angeles, I look to Christine Louise Berry, a theater producer and site-specific performance artist. I don’t know anybody else who has used L.A. as a canvas to the extent that Christine has. Through her nonprofit, Smart Gals Productions, she has developed original theater pieces that show off facets of Los Angeles I’d never seen before. For example, she sets up “Reading Preserves” installations around town; people can sit in a quiet space—decorated with bits of text and quotes from favorite books—and read in unexpected places such as the gallery in the Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood or the West Hollywood Book Fair.

Last year, Christine orchestrated a personalized bus outing as a gift for my birthday. We met at Café Tropical, a homey, divey coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, just northwest of downtown L.A. After a breakfast of pastries and Cuban coffee, we hopped on a 201 bus, Christine’s favorite line, and rode past the tree-lined Silver Lake reservoir to Atwater Village, an early-20th-century subdivision between Silver Lake and Glendale. From the big bus windows, the life of the city appears closer. You feel more involved—the lumbering bus, as a participant in the daily lives of so many people, doesn’t have that separate-bubble feel of a car.

Sitting beside Christine as the bus coasted around the dark blue reservoir, watching the cars below us on the hill struggle with the traffic, I understood what she meant when she’d told me earlier that the 201 has a sort of old-world friendliness. We chatted away until we arrived in a village of plain, boxy storefronts and little houses. Atwater feels like a small town, just beginning to exhibit some spillover of hipness from nearby Los Feliz, the district that rises from Hollywood Boulevard to the edge of Griffith Park. “Riding the 201 makes going to Trader Joe’s feel like a European holiday,” Christine said. When we got off, we spent a half hour in a gardening shop, looking at knickknacks and buying dresses inexplicably hung on display next to rakes and hoes.

Christine’s tour de force of public-transportation-as-performance was her 2005 piece The 12 Days of Christmas. She fashioned a 12-day series of events, which included card games, live music, and theater, around the Gold Line Metro system, a light-rail line that runs from downtown L.A. to Pasadena and had exactly 12 aboveground stops north of Union Station at the time. On the 12th night, a group of us hopped off at the Sierra Madre Villa stop in Pasadena. With candles in paper bags flicker-lighting the way, we came to a parking structure and climbed to the roof, where we found a drum circle banging out into the night (for “12 drummers drumming”). That evening, I saw and heard a new facet of Pasadena. The other events provided unique perspectives on each specific neighborhood: a “two turtle doves” visit to the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts at Lincoln Heights; a “five golden rings” peek into the Future Studio Gallery in Highland Park; “six geese a-laying” in Mission Street Yoga at the Mission stop. Each place—explored from a Gold Line station instead of taken in peripherally by narrowly focused eyes glued to the 110 freeway—felt fresh to me. This may be obvious to those who have long relished public trans- portation, but L.A. is a different city when you step out into the middle of it.

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Recently a friend and I hopped on that same Gold Line and took its new branch south. We passed through Little Tokyo and disembarked near Boyle Heights, where we walked along the residential streets in the still largely ungentrified and friendly-feeling neighborhood. There were a few boarded-up windows, but there were kids rolling along on bikes, too, and baseballs and Hula-Hoops strewn on lawns. It was such a pleasure to be on foot, to feel the city’s cityness, to be in the midst of the functioning urban environment, which you miss when you’re constantly preoccupied with bumper-to-bumper gridlock and parking.

We wound our way past liquor stores, clothing shops, and the impressive Orthodox Jewish synagogue known as the Breed Street Shul, to a bookstore called Libros Schmibros. David Kipen, a native Angeleno and the former book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, opened Libros Schmibros in 2010. He came up with the name to acknowledge both the Yiddish roots of the area and its current Latino population.

Inside the bookstore we found Kipen, tall and cheerful, somehow managing to greet every customer while recommending a mystery series to an elderly man from the neighborhood and giving a tour to visitors from across town. Libros Schmibros is both a used bookstore—with classic ’60s pocket paperbacks on a spinning rack in the corner—and, if you live in L.A., a lending library. A booster of his neighborhood, Kipen cosponsored Orale!: An Evening of Boyle Heights Stories, held at the Breed Street Shul in November 2011, and Libros Schmibros has become a crossroads for readers from all over the city.

From the bookstore, we walked a few blocks to Guisados, a newly popular East L.A. taqueria recommended to us by Kipen (and praised by L.A. Weekly food guru Jonathan Gold). We snacked on homemade tortillas and delicious stewed meats, the solicitous owner served us complimentary tastes of horchata, and I experienced that faint hint of happily tired feet. It’s a sensation that comes from long, rambling walks, and I do not connect it with Los Angeles nearly as much as I’d like. I love walking for hours, and it takes some effort to make that happen here.

Yet I do live in a walking neighborhood, chosen for exactly that. A seven-block stroll takes me to beautiful Sycamore Avenue, not far from Hancock Park; there’s a particular stretch between Melrose Avenue and Third Street where the stately old duplexes from the ’20s, surrounded by grand sycamore trees, light up with a golden interior glow at dusk. It feels a little like the eighth arrondissement of Paris.

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As with the bike, what I appreciate most is the everydayness of walking: the bank two blocks from my house, the turtle pond I pass on the way to the corner market to buy a burrito, the elegant letterpress card shop with its array of hand-printed paper. I’m just five blocks from Pan Pacific Park, a stretch of land complete with a baseball diamond, a soccer field, and vendors selling Popsicles, all somehow, miraculously, unaffected by the sprawling mall known as the Grove that opened up next door 10 years ago. I was worried that the mall would creep over and spoil the area’s wholesomeness, but the park endures, almost like a secret. On weekends the grills are taken up by birthday party steaks and sausages, with ornate piñatas of Bart Simpson hanging from trees, ready to be whacked.

“Only a nobody walks in L.A.,” the band Missing Persons famously sang in their 1982 single. The song is dated, definitely, but maybe there’s some hidden truth in the lyric. Don’t Los Angeles and its visitors need a break from the insistence on always being a glitzy “somebody”? It is this jump—out of the car and onto a bus, bike, or sidewalk—into “nobodyness” that helps us find a more surprising city. A