March 14, 2005

El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula

You're not supposed to like Los Angeles. New Yorkers will tell you it's soulless suburban sprawl, you can't walk anywhere, you spend all your time stuck in traffic, breathing toxic smog. San Franciscans will warn you that it's full of plastic people, air-kissing backstabbing phonies who can't think about anything but flashy cars, chiseled abs, and which celebrity name to drop next. And people from other countries will know without ever having been that it exemplifies the very worst of narcissistic self-congratulatory America.

But in the same way that Europeans don't get the USA - don't understand the size and diversity of the place, that there are at least a half-dozen Americas tucked uncomfortably into one legal nation - non-Angelenos will never grok L.A. Yes, it's sort of a relentless pea soup of suburbia thickened only occasionally by clusters of density, but hidden in this bland fog are a few terrific places. I'm now back in Canada (like a snowbird; it's not a coincidence that winter has almost ended) but I will miss Los Angeles.

Well. Sort of. LA proper is an exhausting sprawl of a city, that much is true. But I will miss my 'hood, Venice and Santa Monica, the beachfront communities to the west of the official city. Venice is sort of a declasse beach-bum strip, populated by artists, freaks, hippies, and surfers, along with the denizens of its million-dollar canal-front homes. Santa Monica is upscale beautiful-people land, wide tree-lined boulevards and elegant pedestrian shopping thoroughfares, yoga studios and juice bars. I lived right smack on the border, a block from the beach, and I can't think of a better place to be in all of Southern California.

And I did enjoy roving through the rest of the city. County. Area. DMZ. Whatever you call it. It's important to understand that Los Angeles is not so much a city in the traditional sense as a) a state of mind, b) a network of freeways, c) a greater urban area comparable in size to Belgium. It wasn't planned; it wasn't designed; it just grew. And so it is the least European of all the cities in the USA, 100% pure accept-no-substitutes America, with all the loathsome excess and jaw-dropping awe that that implies.

But there is as much good as bad. And so, in an attempt to defend a city that is so often the target of so much vitriol, I give you a quick, entirely unbiased, exhaustively researched, and absolutely indisputable guide to How To Live and What To Do in the City of Angels:

1. Catalina Island,

It is here, on this island "about an hour" from the Long Beach ferry terminal, that Natalie Wood died her mysterious death. It is here that the world's must brutally difficult marathon is run every year. (The runners tend to puke their guts out before the race even begins, on the unshielded-from-the-Pacific ferry ride to the starting line; then it's 26.2 miles / 44.1 km on muddy trails over steep hills. My sister ran it a couple of years ago and finished in 4:35, compared to her usual marathon time of something like 3:20). It is here that the world's biggest ballroom dance floor was built, more than a half-century ago. And it is here that you can find the only decent diving in Southern California.

Most of the island is a nature conservancy - its only real settlement is quaint little Avalon, pop. 3500, whose population gets around mostly on golf carts. (There are strict limits on car permits.) The rest is barren wilderness crossed only by occasional dirt trails. I arrived with plans to rent a mountain bike and explore for a day, but inclement weather - God smiting SoCal with intermittent monsoons yet again - intervened, turning dirt into impassable mud, so I spent the night huddled in a hotel room, waiting for a day of diving.

Said day dawned, well, no, it didn't really, that was the problem. Dark thick rain. Meaning wet (which doesn't tend to trouble divers) and low-visibility (which does). The sky was dark, the seas were high, and our hopes were low - but it started to clear the moment the first of us giant-leaped into the sea. By the time I got in, about two minutes later, a widening crack of brilliant blue stretched across the sky. When we came up forty minutes later, the sun was blazing, and it stayed that way through the whole second dive.

I've never dived in kelp before. You don't usually dive for the vegetation, but kelp forest is just spectacular. Huge towers and curtains of gossamer golden fronds, bejewelled with spherical seed pods, rose all around us, and below them, dense bushes, each made of ten thousand tightly clustered golden strands, flickered gently with the current. There were lobsters, crabs, and moray eels hidden in the rocks beneath the kelp. Massive schools of small fish passed by and among us. Other, larger fish, the exact same shade of gold as the kelp, swam alone through its thickets. It was beautiful. It was also goddamn cold. Forty minutes in water which is 56F/12C at the surface and considerably colder seventy feet down. I strongly recommend the diving here, but if you're not hard-core, wait 'til summer.

2. Watts Towers,

Simon Rodia had a dream. He wanted to "do something big". So one day this 42-year-old construction worker began to build something on an abandoned plot of land near his home in South Los Angeles. Over the next 33 years, with no training in art or architecture, working primarily with found materials and simple tools, with no designs, bolts, or safety harness, Rodia constructed the largest single work of art ever created by one person - a fantastic overlapping ship-shaped structure, like some fantasyland scaffolding, featuring three 100-foot towers, bejewelled with pebbles, beads, bits of metal, shards of 7-Up bottles. It looks gossamer-fragile, but tests show it can stand up to winds and earthquakes better than modern skyscrapers do. When he finished the towers, Rodia moved north, without a word of explanation, and never went back to see them again. Go see them if you can. They're extraordinary.

3. Venice Boardwalk

This is the Los Angeles you dream of. A wide, soft-sand beach, where surfers prowl the breaking waves; hundreds of buskers, performers, and street merchants ply their skills and wares for the crowds; and bikini-clad babes, Muscle Beach bodybuilders, Midwestern tourists, freaks and greenlighters, misfits and movie stars, roam the boardwalk, next to the bike trail that carries runners, rollerbladers, and cyclists, keeping West Coast fit year-round. The sunsets are stunning, the nearby cafes and boutiques are terrific, and the peoplewatching is unmatched. I spent the last two months living a block away, and now I wouldn't live anywhere else in the city.

4. Downtown

Yes, Virginia, Los Angeles has a downtown. Neglected for decades, allowed to degenerate into a soulless forest of skyscrapers on one side of Hope Street, and on the other, Skid Row: not an abstraction but a real physical place, full of thousands of homeless, junkies, alcoholics, no-hopers, and the skankiest prostitutes ever. (Pause to shudder with revulsion.) Daily parking prices plunge from $30 to $3 in eight blocks as you move east; not because Los Angelenos hate walking (though they do) but because wealthy businesspeople would have legitimate security concerns at the cheaper parking lots. I felt slightly uneasy myself, when I went there armed with a camera, after passing crackheads on the way down from my chosen el-cheapo garage, and then riding up on the elevator with another; these were the harmless enfeebled type, but where there's smoke...

And once upon a time this area was glamour and money, playground of the great and the good. LA's Broadway once rivalled Manhattan's, home to a half-dozen majestic theatres, ornate superluxury hotels, and architectural gems like the world-famous Bradbury building. A slow regentrification is now in progress; yoga studios, art galleries, and quietly expensive bistros are beginning to sprout in Skid Row; but still, a walk around the downtown is like a case study in urban archaeology, a hunt for the relics of the Golden Age. Enormous, palatial old buildings, with masonry that rivals the best of New York's, are occupied by cheap stores that reminded me a whole lot of Third World downtowns (in fact, at ground level, the district looks a lot more like Tijuana than like an American city, except Tijuana doesn't have near as many desperate rough sleepers.) Photos don't capture the feel, but all the same, have a look. And if you're here, or you visit, go see it for yourself. By day.

5. The Drive

It's easy to forget that Los Angeles nestles in some of California's more spectacular oceanfront hills and ridges. Forget Malibu - it's dull as dishwater unless you have an invitation past one of its carefully-walled-with-hedges estates. Rather, in true SoCal fashion, get behind the wheel. (You have a car, right? 'Cause 'round here, you drive or you're dogmeat.) Drive up the glorious Pacific Coast Highway to Las Flores Canyon Road, which turns into Rambla Pacifica, with its accident-inducing glorious views; then turn onto Mulholland Drive, which winds its vertiginous way along the top of the ridge that separates Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley; finally, turn right into Laurel Canyon, through the surreal Hollywood Hills, all steep snaky roads and movie-star mansions; and then, almost without warning, you emerge into the neon glitz of the Sunset Strip. If you haven't been won over to the LA way of life yet, keep going straight to the airport, 'cause you're beyond all hope.

6. The Movie Palaces - American Cinametheque, Beverly Cinema

It's Hollywood, after all, so go see a movie - but never mind that Hollywood crap. Check out the classics at the American Cinematheque Institute's two glorious theatres, or the funkier and more declasse New Beverly. If it's ancient, obscure, foreign, or legendary - especially if it's all four - you can catch it here on the big screen sooner or later.

7. Indie 103,

LA also boasts The Coolest Radio Station Of All Time. Indie 103 plays Frank Sinatra, Social Distortion, Moby, and Def Leppard back-to-back, if they're in the mood. Steve Jones, once of the Sex Pistols, runs a two-hour show called Jonesy's Jukebox, with the weirdest collection of celebrity guests ever (even forewarned, I nearly ran off the road when I once heard "And here I am with my special guest Vidal Sassoon" in Jonesy's Cockney accent). Dave Navarro, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction, DJs on weekends. You never know what you're about to hear; that's the appeal.

8. The Magic Castle,

The bad news is you need an invitation. But if you know someone who knows someone, this is one of the most amazing nights out in town. From flashy stage magic to jaw-dropping close-up card and coin tricks, the Magic Castle, the world's preeminent magicians' club has a half-dozen stages where you can see the world's greatest magicians strut their stuff. The decor is fun, the ghosts are plentiful, the food is good, but most of all, I absolutely guarantee that your mind will be blown. Beg, blackmail or browbeat to get there. But note the formal dress code.

9. The Museum Of Jurassic Technology,

The MJT's founder won a MacArthur "genius grant" for his curation of this stunning, hard-to-find collection of ... um ... well ... uh. Words fail me. I don't think I can really describe exactly what you'll find in here. Curios, relics, exhibits, some of them of the more bizarre blind alleyways down which science has gone, some of them more like performance art. Probably the most original museum in the world. You may not get it, you may not even like it, but I can assure you that you've never seen its like.

10. Where To Eat

A few recommendations on where to dine while visiting the above:

Pink's, on La Brea, at the end of the Melrose Ave funky shopping strip, is an LA institution. Serving the hugest, greasiest, tastiest hot dogs you will ever encounter. There's a reason there's a 30-minute queue of famished people lined up before it at all hours of day and night.

For dessert, head Sweet Lady Jane's, on Melrose about a half-hour walk west of La Brea. Take your time, work up an appetite; this place serves the best desserts and pastries in a 500-mile radius.

Toi, on Sunset east of the Strip, serves good Thai food with great decor, and is open 'til 4AM to boot.

The greatest pizza in the world can be found at Bravo Pizza, in Santa Monica, on Main north of Ocean Park. Their "cheese explosion" features four cheeses, spinach, and roast cloves of garlic. It's better than crack.

Serious foodies have plenty of options, but pick of the litter is Eurochow,, just off Wilshire near UCLA, where the stunning interior is more than matched by the quality of the food. Or, if you're in Santa Monica, try Shutters or the Ivy By The Beach.

And don't forget that the fast-food industry started in LA. El Pollo Loco, a Mexican import, is miles tastier than KFC, but better yet is the legendary In-N-Out Burger chain, with all-fresh ingredients, French fries that actually taste like potatoes, and burgers that taste as good as those from your backyard-barbeque, all for a lower price than Mickey D's. Order your burgers "animal style". Trust me.

Here endeth your city guide. And your guide is now moving to Montreal, where there is still snow on the ground. If I'm found dead of hypothermia wearing shorts and a tank top, just make sure you tell the Sûreté du Québec, it was LA what did me in. Lord knows I won't be the first.