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 pulled from the ooze. Many skeletons have been reconstructed in the museum, including a Harlan’s giant ground sloth and a short-faced bear.
Next, drive south to Venice Boulevard and continue west, to Culver City, the home of the inscrutable Museum of Jurassic Technology (9341 Venice). An introductory video speaks of the museum’s spirit of “incongruity borne of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena.” You could say that. Carefully crafted exhibits include the stink ant, a rain forest critter that dies and grows a spore-filled horn; the deprong mori (or piercing devil), a bat that flies through walls; Geoffrey Sonnabend and his theory that memory is an illusion; and “The Garden of Eden on Wheels—Collections from Los Angeles Mobile Home and Trailer Parks.” One of the funniest exhibits is a collection of letters sent to the Mount Wilson Observatory in the Angeles National Forest northeast of Pasadena between 1931 and 1935 (“I have written to many Scientific Journals and told them to keep my letters on file so as to KNOW I WAS FIRST in discovering the LAWS of nature before any modern scientific man did”). You find yourself asking, Is this for real or is it a sly joke? The answer is yes.
Continue west on Venice Boulevard to watch the sun set. Take a calm little walk along the peaceful canals of Venice, just south of the boulevard and not far from the beach, before getting to the notorious boardwalk. The restless carnival is still going on there in the twilight hours: millennial preachers; a turbaned, Rollerblading electric guitarist with a tiny Marshall amplifier around his neck; fortune-tellers; street musicians; amateurish painters; girls with faraway eyes; and rows of shops filled with cheap sunglasses and silly T-shirts. You can rent in-line skates or bikes and zip or stumble all the way up the bike path through Santa Monica toward Malibu. Or you can just wander the beach and watch the sunset. Many pause at the long moment when the sun slips out of the sky; some clap.
The next morning, get up and drive to Watts, about twenty minutes from downtown, to see the Watts Towers (1765 East 107th Street), one of the world’s most peculiar visions come to life. Resembling the jeweled skeleton of a dream city, the towers—the three main ones are 99 feet 6 inches, 97 feet 10 inches, and 55 feet tall—and low walls back up to railroad tracks on a dead-end street in a gray, blighted neighborhood. They were created by an obsessive Italian immigrant, Sam Rodia, from 1921 to 1954. A tile setter in his early forties when he started, Rodia worked alone and had no bolting, riveting, or welding tools. He held the bars together with steel mesh, chicken wire, and cement mortar and used the railroad tracks for bending the bars. Before the outside mortar hardened, he pressed into it—in rows, circles, and other determined patterns—some 70,000 colorful seashells, stones, tiles, and fragments of pottery, plates, and bottles. In 1990 the towers were declared both a National Historic Landmark and a State of California Historic Monument. They are undergoing a painstaking restoration using the same methods Rodia used, but even with the scaffolding, the towers are well worth seeing.
Head back north and spend the afternoon in Griffith Park, a 4,107-acre Überplayground that overlooks the city from the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains. Besides 53 miles of trails that wind through the steep hills and grassy meadows, the grounds feature the Los Angeles Zoo, with more than 1,200 animals; the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage; the old locomotives of the Travel Town Transportation Museum; and the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium, which has exhibits, a laserium, and a large telescope. The most fun of all is looking out over the sprawling city from atop the observatory’s high walls. The Hollywood sign, clear on even the smoggiest of days, is closer than ever up there, though the real challenge is trying to figure out the city below. You won’t, but that’s what weekends are for.