Journey to the Center of L.A.
Thursday, May 30, 2002
The point of living in a city always on the move is to do the same--to see it, sense it, experience it.
By MARY McNAMARA
People who say Los Angeles would be great if it wasn't for all the driving have missed the point of Los Angeles. This city is all about the driving. People who say Los Angeles lacks a center have missed the other point of Los Angeles. They envision white spires, weathered-green domes and tiled entryways, buildings and streets with architectural gravitas where men go to make important things happen. But the world has changed. Gone are the days when the Acropolis, the Imperial Palace, London's City, D.C.'s Beltway signified the ultimate centers of power. Now the important things happen en route, over phone lines, on airplanes, in cars equipped with laptops and television screens. Los Angeles has always understood this. It has always been a city of movement, two-thirds energy, one-third mass. Just look at it on the map.
Los Angeles is what happened when the American West closed, when the boots and wagon wheels hit the soft sand and the sea, when people staggered across the desert or the river and tagged the pueblo like it was the sanctuary of a cathedral or home base. Safe. This is where all the rush wound up. People came for gold and land, for jobs and fame, for one more chance to stay clean, for a shot at the perfect wave or a decent education. Then they stayed. No wonder rush hour lasts most of the day.
According to Webster's, the primary definition of "drive" is "to force to go; urge onward; push forward." To "control the movement of [an automobile, horse and wagon, locomotive]" ranks fifth. If you think about it this way, Los Angeles makes perfect sense.
People who say Los Angeles lacks a center are just not paying attention as they make their way to work or school or the ballgame or the beach. The center of this city is all around you when you drive. We who live here should know this by now. We should not apologize for all the driving, for the distances we traverse to do the simplest things, any more than New York should apologize for its congested sidewalks or Moscow its winters. Close your eyes and think of what Los Angeles is known for. The Sunset Strip, Hollywood Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, Pacific Coast Highway. To evoke L.A. in a film, all you need is a three-second shot of a red convertible driving down a river of asphalt lined with royal palms and laved with sunshine.
You really don't even need the car.
From downtown to the beach, the city is strung west to east with such streets, some of them boulevards; others, avenues. Their names stack up as shiny and sweet as a roll of new dimes. Venice, Pico, Olympic and Wilshire, Santa Monica, Melrose, Beverly, then Fountain, Franklin, Hollywood and Sunset. Further north there's Ventura, Victory, Burbank and Foothill. They are latticed by north-south streets and avenues, some of which run the entire vertical length of the city. A few, under one name or another, run from the Valley to the sea. Garfield, Eastern, Alameda and Vermont, Virgil, Crenshaw and Western, La Brea, Fairfax, Crescent Heights and Robertson. In the west, the streets slant, like the shoreline, like the sunlight; Sawtelle, Centinela, Culver and Lincoln.
To an Angeleno, the names are as familiar as the kids in homeroom, some as well-known as family. You will rarely hear an Angeleno use the words "street" or "avenue" or "boulevard"; we are on a first-name basis with our thoroughfares. Each has its own mood, purpose, persona. If Melrose is a night-blooming club kid, then Beverly is her older, more serene auntie and Pico their plain-talking neighbor who can fix anything on wheels. Our streets evoke the same range of emotions our circles of friends do--we love Fountain and hate Santa Monica; even after all the years, National remains a mystery and San Fernando is as uninteresting as it is dependable.
If you live in Los Angeles long enough, you will sometimes catch yourself choosing your route out of desire, out of mood, rather than expediency. Has it been a while since you've slid along the stately corridor of Wilshire or crested the commercial sprawl of 3rd Street? Do you need to follow the taproot of La Brea from the 10 to the Hollywood Hills or, even better, follow Western through the guts of the city as it makes all stops from Griffith Park to San Pedro?
On the longer streets you get more than a tour of the city, you get the world. Count the languages on the signs as you go south on Vermont, east on Olympic. On one sidewalk, women in purdah pass by men wearing black leather hip-huggers and makeup; on another, a clot of TV executives makes way for a hand-holding string of Catholic schoolkids while, nearby, men in flannel shirts lean against a chain-link fence and smoke, waiting for daywork.
The streets of Los Angeles move you from one place to another faster than any thoroughfare in the world. Even in gridlock. In the space of two blocks, razor-wired car-tow lots give way to emerald aprons of grass and $2-million houses; the canyon roads take you from Beverly Hills up and over a sudden hilly wilderness then into the suburban serenity of the Valley in less than 20 minutes.
You can follow Sunset, too often pared down in the collective imagination to the cluttered playroom of the Strip, from the cliffs of the Pacific Palisades all the way to downtown where it turns into Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. No Californian should leave this world without doing it at least once. There are moments of splendid vistas--some, like Mulholland or PCH, are well known. Others take you by surprise. When turning onto the top of Vermont or any of its north-south companions, there is the breath-catching moment before descent, like the split-second before the drop on a water flume ride. The city rolls out in front of you, a three-dimensional tapestry glittering with movement, and whoosh, here you go.
When you drive you can see different stages of the city's history pushed together, overlapping in places, like layers of shale and sandstone, like a presence of an ancient Roman wall beneath the ruins of a medieval castle beneath a modern bank. Burrowing through the western end of Venice Boulevard, you see the former vacation bungalows of rich inlanders next to once-dirt-cheap artist lofts all surrounded by the tourist mecca dream of Abbot Kinney, which now lends "charm" to the million-dollar refurbs of canal-side condos.
Every city has streets and scenery and neighborhoods that change with time, but in Los Angeles it's possible to move through five ethnic neighborhoods, and two weather systems, on the way to the mall. And the moving itself is key--impossibly, the center holds because it is not stationary, it is not static. The bones of this city are still soft. L.A. is young enough to be mesmerized by the sound of keys jingling, to lie and say, "we're out of milk," just for the opportunity to grab those keys and go. It doesn't really matter where. All the wheres are interesting when you're moving.
Fantasies are woven behind the windshield, resentments listed, avowals made and broken in the length of a stoplight. Likewise, people say things to each other in the car that they would never say in the office, or the bedroom, because driving is a world unto itself. You are in a metal bubble, you are in a place neither here nor there. Things said or done seem less tied to reality; they might stick, they might not. What happens in the car exists outside the rules applied to public and private behavior--driving, you are somewhere in between. You are ever in the act of leaving or of going. The difference is not always clear.
Even the art form of this city requires movement, distance--a mural seen up close or gazed at like a portrait makes no sense. Only from the street, and in passing, is its beauty revealed.
We need to remember this as we face down our commutes and complain about the lack of left-turn signals, the inexplicable narrowing of lanes. We need to pay attention to what is passing, within and without, to take back the streets of our city, of our collective identity. Here in Los Angeles we force the world to go, we urge each other onward, we push everything forward. Here in Los Angeles, we carry the center of our city and ourselves with us. Here in Los Angeles, we drive.
Mary McNamara is a Times staff writer.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times