I haven’t always loved L.A. The first time I ever visited, I had the same preconceptions most people have—that it’s a soulless dystopia whose main industry feeds on fantasy and spits out garbage, a city of psychotics, bimbos, and gangs of errant youths.
Well, those things are certainly true, and so Hollywood should be avoided—both the figurative Hollywood (the entertainment-industrial-pub- licity complex) and the literal one (the seamy area south of that iconic sign on the hillside). The Los Angeles I learned to love is the scrambling, difficult city around Hollywood and the mix of people and cultures that came to this intensely weird paradise of flower and stone. These migrants built some stunning towns, gardens, buildings, and works of art. To see them, to see what happens when you throw a bunch of visionaries and hard-working people into a garden on the edge of a desert, you have to get in a car and drive. You can see a lot in an L.A. weekend. Start in the center of the city and head outward, through the ethnic neighborhoods and the urban enclaves, to the sea, the mountains, and the Watts Towers.
Contrary to myth, L.A. has a downtown with vintage mood and architecture. In the midst of it all, at the intersection of Olive and Fifth streets, is Pershing Square, a wide-open plaza with giant orange balls, modernist slabs, and an urban waterfall. Here you can ponder L.A.’s glamorous distant past (the majestic Biltmore Hotel is across the street) and its recent past (the square is surrounded by skyscrapers). Wander down Fifth to Grand Avenue and the Central Library, which was built in the early twenties; take in its pyramided tower capping the heads and torsos of classical smart guys, the inside rotunda decorated with murals dramatizing California history, and the terraced grounds thick with trees and bushes. Then walk east to Broadway, a bustling Latino main street full of bargain shops, cheap restaurants, and antique movie palaces. Broadway was the city’s entertainment center before World War II, and it’s still the largest historic theater district in the country. As you wander amid the music and chatter, you’ll pass florid old theaters like the State, the Palace, and the Orpheum (all still open), the gorgeous Los Angeles (closed), and the adjoining trio of the Arcade, Cameo, and Roxie, all converted into discount shops.
Step inside the nondescript office building at 304 South Broadway and go from the bubbling street chaos into a cathedral of light. Walking into the 104-year-old Bradbury Building is like entering a curiously misplaced vision of the future. Visitors find themselves whispering quietly in the great courtyard, which is five stories high and illuminated by a tinted glass roof. The walls are brick and deep brown wood, the railings elaborate black wrought iron, the floors Mexican tile, the staircases Belgian marble. Two open-cage elevators, also wrought iron, slowly move up and down the center space, taking people to offices that open out onto balconies overlooking the courtyard. Designed by an inexperienced draftsman as an homage to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, an 1888 novel about a utopian 2000, the Bradbury Building was featured in the noirish sci-fi film Blade Runner.
Just east of the Bradbury is Little Tokyo. Have lunch in one of the little restaurants on First Street, then head west on Wilshire Boulevard through historic MacArthur Park, the northern fringe of Koreatown, and the deco-ized Miracle Mile, to get to Museum Row. The coolest stop here is the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, better known as the La Brea Tar Pits (5801 Wilshire Boulevard). Cynics complain that L.A. has no history, but the pits—which contain oil that surfaced 35,000 years ago in shallow pools of water and then coagulated into goopy asphalt—hold the largest bunch of Pleistocene fossils ever found in one place. Over the past seventy years more than one hundred tons of fossil bones have been