Travel: Los Angeles 2006 Travel Notes

[A travel report about visiting Los Angeles (and some surrounding areas) in late August 2006.  This is a companion-piece to my L.A.Con IV Convention Report.]

Palm trees tell you almost everything you need to know about Los Angeles.

They’re meant to impress you.  They stand in line in the median strip of boulevards and adorn the side of fancy streets in Beverly Hills.  For decades, the western world has been conditioned to think of palm trees as visual shorthand for “vacations”, and so they’re supposed to make you feel as if you’re slightly disconnected from reality.  For anyone not living above sub-tropical latitudes, palm trees are the one unmistakable sign that you’re not in your home state any more.

But palm trees are meant to be looked at from a distance.  Given how most palm trees aren’t indigenous to Southern California, the vast majority of the ones you see in the city were deliberately planted there at great cost.  They’re carefully trimmed so that only a puff of green remains atop a telephone pole, whereas real palm trees often sport a skirt of dead dry brown palms. If you take a look too closely at a picture-perfect palm tree, you often see the cuts in the trunk of the tree.  Practically useless and environmentally insignificant, palm trees are about groomed artificiality.

This is what a real palm tree looks like

That, as it turns out, is also the impression I kept from Los Angeles after my whirlwind visit in August 2006.  Nominally traveling to Anaheim for L.A.Con IV, the 64th World Science Fiction Convention (an event better-detailed in my Convention Report), I extended my stay over there to take a look at a city often filmed but rarely explained.  The following is a collection of impressions gleaned from a whopping two-and-a-half days of travel throughout the city of Los Angeles.  This isn’t much in which to form a coherent impression: I suppose that long-time residents will have a good laugh reading through this.

Background information & Going there

Regular readers of this web site already know that I live in the Ottawa (Canada) area, and that I’m not particularly well-traveled.  Adding Los Angeles to my list of visited cities was a major coup after New York (2001), Boston (2004) and Calgary (2005).  The official excuse for the trip was the 2006 Worldcon in Anaheim, but the real impetus was the chance to stroll through Hollywood boulevard, have a look at The Sign and stand on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Getting there, however, took some advance planning.  It was obvious from the travel schedules that there were no direct flights between Ottawa and the Los Angeles area.  Even the most optimistic flight itineraries from the nearest airport took me through lengthy layovers in Calgary (via Westjet) or at Chicago O’Hare (via just about everyone else).  Fortunately, there were direct flights between Montréal and LAX, which only required a car trip to Montréal.

Or, should I say, required a two-hour car trip starting at five o’clock in the morning.  Trudeau airport being what it is, that was followed by a frantic line-up at the Air Canada counter, a hurried good-bye to my car-driving siblings as I was hurried through baggage check-in, a lengthy 45-minutes wait before making it through the understaffed American customs station (Yes, these days you have to go through American customs in Montréal), another ten minutes through the endless security checks, half an hour’s wait before boarding and more waiting inside the plane.

The six-hour flight itself was packed, but generally without incident.  I had a Close Neighbor, who proved silent all the way to L.A.  As usual, I totally enjoyed the take-off.  There was almost no turbulence, which was somewhat of a disappointment, given how I actually enjoy moderate amounts of turbulence: how else do you know you’re up in the air?  The in-flight movie was OVER THE HEDGE, and one of the short films that followed was WALLACE AND GROMIT’S GRAND DAY OUT.  I had brought plenty of reading material, but somehow wasn’t able to make much progress there.  Dozing didn’t work out so well either.  I bought a Subway sandwich for lunch, though the 5$ sticker price was an exemplary lesson in the kind of monopoly pricing with which you can get away at 30,000 feet on a flight where no-one is allowed any food or liquid.  By a slight quirk of coincidence, I ended sitting right behind an acquaintance from Montréal’s fannish circles, also going to the same event in Anaheim.

Our approach to LAX was marked by two interesting sights.  The first was the landscape below the plane once it emerged from the clouds: Dark, sandy and rocky, it looked nothing like the usual sights above eastern Canada: that was our first clue that we were definitely somewhere else.

The second cool thing to see was another airliner approaching LAX: As it was going at a slower speed than our plane, it seemed to hang in mid-air, not too far away from our aircraft as we made our way above Los Angeles River.  This sight prompted my Close Neighbor to utter the only thing he said during the entire flight: “You don’t see that every day”.  Indeed.

Welcome to LAX.

Passage through LAX was uneventful, given the pre-clearance of all passengers through the Montréal customs.  My luggage made it through the airport without any problem, which was a relief.

Travel from LAX to Anaheim proved to be slightly more difficult: I knew there was a shuttle running from the Airport to the Disneyworld hotels every thirty minutes, but I nearly missed it given how other buses stood at the shuttle waiting area and the driver of the Disney Shuttle almost didn’t stop there.  Some frantic hand-waving ensued.  As it happened, my Montréal acquaintance and I were the only two passengers aboard the motor coach shuttle for that particular trip.

An overview of the visit(s)

My schedule allowed me only a limited amount of time away from the Anaheim Convention Center: Half of my first day in California, and two full days after the end of the convention.  My planning for the trip finally coalesced into three different expeditions to Los Angeles: Half a day spent going to see a movie in Hollywood, a full day aboard a guided bus tour and a final day spent walking around the city.  The following report is a mash-up of those three trips.

I should note, for posterity’s sake, that my first day in California ended up being an action-packed succession of planes, train and automobile trips, from waking up at 4:00 near Ottawa to racing across the continent to land in LAX, to grabbing a shuttle to the hotel, registering for the convention, catching a city bus from Disneyland to downtown Los Angeles, getting off at the right stop and taking the right subway train to Hollywood/Highland station.  There was almost no slack built into my intricately-planned schedule: one missed bus, one stupid mistake would have ruined the entire day.  Fortunately, no serious mistakes were made and the schedule worked just as I had planned it: I ended up at the world-renowned Grauman’s Chinese Theater ten minutes before showtime and so saw SNAKES ON A PLANE in the opulent comfort of a grandiose 2,200-seats movie theater with the finest screen and sound on the planet.  By the time I’ve traveled back to the hotel, walked around Anaheim and written down the day’s adventures, it was 1:00 local (4:00 Ottawa time): I’d spent twenty four hours up and running.  But, oh, what fun!

The guided bus tour ended up being a good idea, and this despite my dubiousness regarding organized tours in general.  The idea, for me, was to be hand-held through the most popular sights of the city and scratch the main attractions off the list before going to where I really wanted to.  I had a hard time finding a guided tour that skipped the boring “Movie Stars’ Homes” and minimized shopping, but I finally settled on an all-day tour of the city given by CoachUSA/Grey Lines from Anaheim.  We had the good luck of having a very entertaining bus driver to take care of us, and the day just flew by despite lengthy stops.  The trip for the bus tour went like this: Anaheim to downtown, driving through downtown to end up stopping for sights at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  Then it was a drive on Sunset Boulevard, alongside Beverly Hills and down to the Beverly Center where we stopped for a lengthy lunch.  From there, we drove down a number of boulevards (including Rodeo Drive) and made out way to the beach where we had the choice of stopping either at the Santa Monica Pier or Venice Beach.  After that, we briefly detoured to see LAX and drove back to the Anaheim hotels, where I was the last one dropped off.

As for my day walking around the city, I wanted to visit five areas: Hollywood (again), Downtown Los Angeles, the USC/Exposition Park area, the Watts Towers (time allowing) and Long Beach.  As for what really ended up happening that day… well, read on.

Getting around town

Getting around town presented its particular issues: Los Angeles is, in many way, the ultimate realization of America’s car culture: Ignoring geographic restrictions, the city is now sprawled over hundreds of square kilometers, with vast distances between areas of the city.

Welcome to Los Angeles. Hope you love freeways.

They say that it’s impossible to visit the Los Angeles without a car.  I disagree: If you have enough time, the mass transit system in L.A. is adequate, and it’s said to be getting better year after year.  Bus route 460 linked Disneyland to downtown L.A., though the twisty 45-minutes-long route between the Fullerton and Norwalk stations nearly drove me insane.  Once you do get on the metro (subway/light rail) system, you’ll find out that the stations are far apart, but they can allow you to hop from one end of the city to the other: I had no trouble planning an itinerary by relying on public transportation.  And all that for three dollars per day!

As a commuter with fifteen year’s experience riding the buses of Ottawa, I was fascinated to find out the lack of differences between taking the bus on either side of the continent.  Los Angeles buses are a bit newer yet definitely subject to more abuse: the glass on the windows is so vandalized and scratched that it’s difficult to take pictures outside, whereas fancy video screens are installed inside the buses, blaring advertisements to a captive audience in English and Spanish.  City Buses also gave me a good glimpse at the racial mix of the city’s non-driving class: I was a definite minority among the Latino/Black majority on those buses.  I was also quite pleased to note that bus behavior and etiquette seems similar from one end of the continent to the other.

Aboard bus route 460.

Public transit often offers its own unexpected rewards.  I ended up spending a total of almost six hours on city buses over my three days visiting L.A., and found myself seamlessly reverting to my Ottawa public transit habits, down to taking a seat at the back of the bus and reading paperbacks.  I mentioned earlier how I couldn’t get any reading done on the plane, but I found myself breezing through thick books as soon as I was on the bus.

I should also point out that bus ride 460 offers one of the biggest visual treats in the entire Los Angeles area: the spectacular reveal of the downtown area as the bus takes the high looping overpass that goes from the I-105 to the I-110.  It’s utterly mesmerizing… and completely impossible to photograph.  (Hey, I tried).

The new metro system seemed surprisingly clean and civilized to me, though I ended up taking it mostly on the privileged underground “red line” between downtown and Hollywood.  Other lines, such as the Blue Line light rail running through some of the dodgier areas of South Los Angeles or the east/west Green Line light rail running between the I-105 lanes, seemed a bit less refined.  But all told, the metro proved to be a pleasant surprise, and I note with considerable glee that the subway system is still expanding via new lines and extensions.  Now, if it could just be linked directly to LAX…

Subway, sweet Red Line subway.

On of my trip’s biggest ironies, given how Los Angeles is said to typify car culture, is how easy it is to walk through the city.  Compared to some so-called “pedestrian friendly” cities like Boston, Los Angeles has consistent signalization, wide sidewalks and few obstacles preventing walkers to go from point A to point B.  While the distances can be impossible to negotiate without hours of walking, L.A. proved surprisingly pleasant to navigate on foot.

A city of cities

Any sufficiently big city is made out of very different communities, and Los Angeles is certainly no exception with its dozens of different cities for different people occupying the same space.  Through my short time in L.A., I ended up looking at six different facets of the city.  Here they are:

Film Los Angeles – Hollywood Boulevard

For a cinephile such as myself, spending some time in Hollywood wasn’t optional.  Despite knowing that the bulk of the industry operated elsewhere in the Los Angeles area, Hollywood Boulevard seemed an unavoidable historical and cultural landmark.  As it happened, I ended up visiting the area three times.

The first time was, of course, to see SNAKES ON A PLANE at the Graumann’s Chinese Theater.  Given the delays in traveling between L.A. and Anaheim via an infrequently-scheduled bus route, I didn’t really have time to dawdle along or even spot the Hollywood sign on this first visit.

“Welcome to the historic Grumann’s Chinese Theater.
Now showing: Snakes on a Plane!!!”

That opportunity came during the guided bus tour, which stopped near the Chinese Theater and gave us forty-five minutes to gawk at the surroundings.  That gave me the opportunity to hop next door to the upscale Hollywood/Highland shopping center, which features a set of walkways strategically placed to give a fabulous view of the Hollywood sign.

I saw the sign.

Other notable attractions in the area include the Disney-owned El Capitan theater, the renowned Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Capitol Records tower and an assortment of odd museums usually called “tourist traps” in the tour guides (Ripley’s Believe it or now, the Hollywood Wax Museum, the Guinness Book of Records Museum, etc).  I certainly didn’t have time to look at everything in forty-five minutes, but I did manage to find and bring home a real paper copy of The Onion: score!

Well-stacked: The Capitol Records building.

My third trip to the Hollywood boulevard area took place relatively early in the morning, and it served to show how much the area is tourist-driven: Even at 9:00, the boulevard was empty of people, with stores blinds still shut down.  Hollywood is a city that sleeps late.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to wait until Amoeba Records opened, even less to catch a film at Arclight Cinemas.  Next time, perhaps…

High-Rise Los Angeles – The Downtown District

Our guided bus tour through downtown Los Angeles was interesting, but it wasn’t as good as walking down the actual streets of the district.  I began my trip at Union Station, then (after an uncomfortable passage through an area cluttered with sleeping or dawdling homeless people) snaked around the Los Angeles Cathedral, City Hall, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Public Library and the Bradbury Building on Broadway.

Here’s a thing you don’t expect: Downtown L.A. is clustered around Bunker Hill and the steepness of the streets adds a level of difficulty to downtown walking.  This is particularly odd given how the rest of the city seems built on a perfectly two-dimensional plain nestled between the mountains.  Suffice to say that you should have good walking shoes before tackling downtown.

Looking downhill: Streets of downtown Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Cathedral is said to be very impressive from the inside, but it’s almost impossible to photograph from the outside: it just looks like a big brick, with only the cross at the top of the building indicating that it’s a place of worship.  Conversely, the new Walt Disney Concert Hall is almost too photogenic: its complex shape makes it hard to photograph properly (and would probably drive a CAD/CAM modeler insane)

My brain hurts, and it’s not just the reflected sun:
The Walt Disney Concert Hall.

I had better luck with the City Hall, which remains as iconic now as when it was first built in the late twenties.  Another nice aspect of that area is how the fully mature trees provide a nice bit of shade.  (As you can expect from a patsy-white boy, I spent my days in southern California almost pathologically running from one shady area to another.  I still got sunburned three times, though, and you’ll get to read about all three of them later on.)

Just the facts, ma’am: Los Angeles City Hall.

I liked the streets of the downtown area at one exception: Broadway, which I found far too busy and not entirely friendly.  While vagrants, bums and homeless people are unavoidable in Los Angeles, Broadway (like most tourist destinations) seemed even worse that the rest of L.A.  I had no specific plans to stroll down Broadway (it was just the most direct route to the Bradbury building), and I made sure that I didn’t spend more time than strictly necessary on it.

As for the Bradbury building itself, I will note that its interior is far more impressive than its drab exterior:  Steel railings, wood paneling and a central open space give this old office building a charm that is absent from newer such towers.  Sadly, I didn’t dare take any pictures inside given that it’s a work area and that security is tight.

But it wouldn’t be a downtown area without high-rises, and Los Angeles has its share of spectacular landmarks.  While everyone is a big fan of the “U.S. Bank Tower” (best known as the “Library Tower”), the rest of the skyline is also quite captivating.  I rarely fail to feel awed by a bunch of high towers, but the L.A. skyline has a number of fascinating high points.

Collect them all: Los Angeles high-rises.

It’s also fun to note that even the 1976-vintage Bonaventure Hotel still holds up as an eye-catching, futuristic piece of architecture as it (like me) starts pushing thirty.

Funky future cool: The Bonaventure Hotel

But this love of high-rises is no equal to my undying devotion to public libraries, and the Central Library of the Los Angeles public library system is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Built around an open multi-level concept, the library feels as a Public Library should feel: Cultured, comfortable, well-stocked, friendly and even fun.  (I should single out the main-level “Popular Library”, which allows patrons to have quick access to the latest and most popular books in the library’s collection from a special separate section that feels airy and modern.  Good idea!)

One of the most pleasing aspects of downtown Los Angeles in this summer 2006 visit was the sense that the city is moving forward on a number of projects.  There were an impressive number of construction sites throughout downtown: indeed, latter checking on-line showed that there are numerous constructions projects planned for the downtown core.

Posh Los Angeles – Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills & Rodeo Boulevard

Our guided bus tour took some time going through the high-maintenance areas of Los Angeles –the bits that you get to see on TV and in the movies.

First was a drive on the Sunset Boulevard, where we got to see a number of landmarks such as the Viper Room night club, numerous billboards, theme establishments and vintage car dealerships.  The area is said to be a lot more fun after dark.

Hee-ha: What happens at the Saddle Ranch stays at the Saddle Ranch.

While buses are not allowed in Beverly Hills proper, we did skirt the edge of the area, passing near the famous sign and gawking at the curvy tree-lined streets of the enclave.

Prepared to be poshed.

This was followed by a stop at the massive Beverly center, an eight-story monstrosity where five of the eight floors are dedicated to parking and 160 stores are stuffed in the three upper floors, with a scattering of street-level establishments.  Not being interested in fashion, I quickly moved to the food court where I could get a decent lunch at an acceptable price.  (I’m happy to report that my Food Court socioeconomic index was a near 1:1 proportion: The ethnicity of the people serving the food was roughly similar to the ethnicity of the people eating the food.)  The Beverley Center’s eighth floor has a very nice terrace from which it’s possible to catch a good look (and good pictures) of the downtown towers and the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles east of the center.  The parking also offers great views of the city around the Beverly center, but security guards told me in no uncertain terms that photos were not allowed from the parking.  (Somehow, I’m sure they think that forbidding tourists from taking pictures is a vital counter-terrorist effort.)

I had time for a stroll around the block (nearby building: the Cedar Sinai hospital) before hopping on the bus for another bus trip through the streets of the rich and famous.  This time, Rodeo Drive was the focus of the ride.  Being completely deaf to brand names, though, this failed to attract my attention –though I’ll admit at being somewhat more interested in the high-end car dealerships and the sight of a Ferrari in the wild.

OMG! Ferrari Rodeo!

I didn’t return to that area on foot the following day: Just the thought of limiting my escapade in posh country to a guided tour, like tourists looking at a zoo, was amusing enough.  Plus, hey, I don’t have enough money to hang around that area.

Beach Los Angeles – Venice & Santa Monica Pier

It’s almost unthinkable for an inland tourist to go to Los Angeles and not look at the beach.  While there are miles and miles of sandy coast near Los Angeles, the two most famous spots out there are the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach.  Our guided bus tour gave us the choice between one or the other.  Not having any clear preference, I let myself stay on the bus and got out at the second choice, Venice Beach.

There is nothing to fear except the sun.

One good thing about Venice Beach is how it quickly leads to the beach.  I found myself drawn to the ocean, walking toward the water (slowly, making sure sand wouldn’t get in my shoes) and looking at the horizon, muttering “Next stop: Asia”.  It was a good day to be at the beach: the weather was both sunny and breezy, with the wind blowing steadily and the surf washing up on the sand.

There is nothing to fear except a tsunami

One thing that inlanders (or even east-coasters) can’t understand without first-hand observation is surf.  Surf on the East coast is silly: the wind points in the wrong direction and the waves are ridiculously small.  But the west coast is something else: The wind keeps pushing the waves and the motion of the water on the beach not only makes surf inevitable: it makes it tempting.


There is nothing to fear except amphibious shark-shaped alien invaders.

Oh, I resisted.  In fact, I never went close to the water.  But I did spend a long time staring at the ocean, fully conscious that the wind was having an entirely misleading effect on my continued resolution to stay out of the sun and avoid sunburns.  The area I was at, right next to Windward Avenue, features a breaker that allows for some fantastic sights of the waves crashing into the rocks.

There is nothing to fear except.. whoah, did you see that?

It also features a colorful graffiti wall where taggers can go and paint as much as they want to.  The smell of the canned paint carries for a certain distance.  As the picture suggests, so-called graffiti “artists” can’t be bothered to stick to the wall: the surrounding trees are just as painted as the wall itself.

There is nothing to fear except graffiti gangs.

Nearby, there’s a massive steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero named either “Voxal” or “Voxal 2000”. (It proved surprisingly difficult to obtain any information at all about this sculpture on the Internet)

There is nothing to fear except Voxal 2000… which is actually kind of spooky.

But I get bored easily.  Within minutes, as I was nursing a Subway-bought Dr. Pepper and walking down the Boardwalk, I realized that I still had more than an hour before the bus pick-up, and very little interest in spending more time in Venice.  Oh, it’s a colorful neighborhood all right: A mixture of counter-culture merchants, sixties rejects, pot activists (I was handed a pamphlet about “testing”), street performers, muscle-heavy culturists and pretty girls.  But this obviously wasn’t my scene, and the prospect of spending more than an hour wandering around just filled me with dreary ennui.

There is nothing to fear except for… aaah! Run! It’s a Ferris wheel!

So I looked north.  The Ferris wheel of the Santa Monica Pier beckoned, barely a few kilometers away.  As I was walking north on the Boardwalk, the next course of action seemed clear: Hoof it for a few minutes, visit the Pier and be on time at the first bus stop.  A look at a map I had in my backpack confirmed that barely three kilometers separated the Pier from Venice Beach: an easy 30-minutes walk.

Sneaky Ferris Wheel.

So that’s how I ended up walking the distance between the two alternate destinations of our bus tour, with enough time to visit both areas.  Now, the Santa Monica Pier isn’t necessarily more compelling than Venice Beach (if Venice is for countercultural people in their twenties and the teenagers looking up to them, the Pier is for families with children.), but it has its share of charms, spectacular sights (Hey, Ferris wheel!) and pretty girls.  For shutterbugs, it allows to take pictures of the beaches from an unusual angle.

(I’m not actually hand-gliding over the beach)

Alas, the walk had its price: At the end of the day, I ended up lightly sunburned –no doubt thanks to the deceptively cool sunny walk alongside the ocean.  But that’s the kind of sunburn I wish on everyone, if only for the experience.

Studious Los Angeles – USC Campus & Exposition Park

Dropped on my own in the city, it seemed to me that the USC/Exposition Park area had a lot of potential as a nice little walk.  University campuses have their own particular charm, and it was hard to resist the combined attraction of the California Science Center and the Olympic Memorial Stadium.  Looking at my map of Los Angeles (a map that curiously got less detailed as soon as it left downtown), the plan looked simple: Take the blue Line until Main station, walk southwest until the USC campus, walk south to the CSC/Olympic Stadium and then go west to the Vernon metro station.  What could go wrong?

As it happens, the trip to get to USC itself should have been a warning.  The culprit was, once again, the distances.  It took a while to get from the metro station to the USC campus, and the sun was really starting to hammer down.  While the campus itself is very pretty in the usual higher-education fashion, I was starting to feel a bit dulled by that point.

At least I got to see a number of interesting things.  The walk through the campus was fun, especially given the time of the year: The last few days of August are a time where everyone returns to campus after the summer session, and you could feel the excitement of a new school year.  Fraternity houses were advertising their frosh activities and the campus was buzzing with outdoors recruiters ready to pamphlet anyone who even came close to them.

Some of the bicycles at USC

One unexpected discovery was the Rose Garden that lies between the USC campus and the California Science Center.  I had seen the place described in guidebooks, but hadn’t paid any attention to it.  So it was with some surprise that I crossed a street, walked down a few dozen meters, crossed an entrance and found myself in a giant rose garden.  It smelled as you would expect, of course.

Further south, I also quite enjoyed looking at the public areas of the California Science Center.  The Science Plaza is breathtaking (the wonderful “Aerial” sculpture, in particular) and there was ample shade and water to rest a little.

The “Aerial” sculpture at the OSC Science PLaza

At the time I thought I couldn’t spare the time to go inside and breeze through the various exhibits.  In retrospect, I should have stayed inside for an hour or two, allowing the sun to get down a bit and catching my breath for a while.

But I was ready to keep going forward.  The next stop was only a few minutes south, the massive Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which hosted both of Los Angeles’ Olympics Games.

Site of the 1932 and 1984 summer olympics.

The closest thing to a celebrity sighting happened as I left the Exposition Park grounds heading south: I saw an eighteen wheeler belonging to Paramount Studios and signs telling “Blades” extra to park in a specific parking.  Looking at the IMDB, I see that Paramount is currently filming for a film called “Blades of Glory”, and that Exposition Park is listed as a filming location… along with Montréal, Québec.  Does this qualify as irony?

But barely one block south of said celebrity truck, walking down Hoover Avenue, it was obvious that I’d stepped off the reservation.  Indeed, I was about to take a trip in a very different Los Angeles…

Ghetto Los Angeles – Hoover/Vernon Avenue

I made two mistakes in pre-planning my USC/Exposition Park walking tour.

The first was on relying on an insufficiently detailed map of the city in figuring out that walking south Hoover Avenue, then turning east on Vernon Avenue would allow me to quickly reach the Vernon metro station.  This “quickly” turned out to be “roughly an hour’s walk”

My second mistake was a typically Canadian bumpkin assumption: That the presence of an Olympic stadium at one end of the walk and a major public transit station at the other meant that the neighborhood would be comfortably middle class.

What I had forgotten is that American city streets can literally have a good side and a wrong side.  That privileged areas can quickly turn into poor areas within a block or two.  That there is little gradient between the two.

Within minutes, I knew I had taken a wrong turn.  Patched up streets; cracked sidewalks; free-flowing trash everywhere; idle kids here and there; older people sitting on benches, looking at nothing in particular; no-name mom-and-pop stores with Spanish signage; no recognizable brand marks…  All buildings (even humble residential houses) were comfortably behind steel gates.

It took me forty-five minutes before seeing another white guy, and my first reaction was to wonder what he was doing there… and then what I was doing there.  He turned out to be a delivery man with a truck: I had no such excuse beyond being, shall we say, a bit out of my element.  By that time of the walk, I was really looking forward to reaching the metro station.

Yet I don’t believe that this was one of Los Angeles’ poorest area.  The cars looked relatively new (within this decade, let’s say), and there wasn’t much in terms of gangs or homelessness (in fact, this was probably the longest stretch in L.A. where there were no homeless people.)  Still, this area was dramatically poorer than anything I’ve had the misfortune of seeing in Canada.  And I know that this was hardly an exceptional neighborhood: the bus tours may not show you this side of Los Angeles, but even a look at the surroundings on a freeway will tell you that there’s plenty of misery out there.

As a good Canadian, by definition a liberal on social issues, it’s the kind of thing that made me think hard about the choices made by Canada versus the US.  It’s a phenomenon that I’ve seen in every big American city I’ve visited so far: the line between rich and poor is far more extreme than in Canada.  Beverly Hills is nice, sure, but if the price to pay to ensure its existence is entire neighborhoods that barely emerge from poverty, it’s not worth it: Egalitarianism never seems so respectable than when you look at those left behind by cut-throat capitalism.  I’ll gladly pay my taxes, vote the right way and support social programs if it means that there will never be an area like Vernon Avenue in my country.  (…at least that’s the goal.)

Let us be clear: I never felt in any sort of danger.  If people looked at me strangely, I didn’t notice it.  (And if they did, they probably saw a white guy in green clothes and red sunburned skin briskly going somewhere: I may have been out of place, but I wasn’t about to slow down and make trouble.)  It was around two o’clock, so the usual “don’t be there after sundown” rule didn’t apply.

And yet, looking around the web, I discovered two things.  For one, Hoover Avenue lies right in the middle of what was historically known as “South Central Los Angeles”.  Yes, I have walked the mean streets of South Central and lived to tell the tale.  Yes, I’ve been on Compton and Central avenue and escaped without a scratch.  I wonder if that can get me anything besides a “stupid tourist” badge?

The other doozy came up as I was googling “crime Hoover avenue Los Angeles”.  The official LAPD blog reported that, three days before I walked down the area,

On August 26, 2006, at about 12:20 a.m., 18 year-old Edy Palomino, and his friend were driving westbound on Vernon Avenue from Hoover Street. Suspects in a dark colored vehicle, drove parallel to Palomino and fired multiple rounds into the car.  Both Mr. Palomino and his friend were struck by the gunfire, causing Palomino’s car to crash with another vehicle that was traveling eastbound in the #1 lane of Vernon Avenue.  Los Angeles Fire Department Paramedics responded to the scene and provided medical treatment to Mr. Palomino.  Mr. Palomino failed to respond to the medical treatment and died of his injuries.  (…) The motive appears to be gang related.


(There are no pictures of this area of Los Angeles in this report for a few good reasons.)

South Central
Just another ordinary neighborhood… in South Central L.A.
(Picture taken from the safety of the Blue Line metro car…)

Tourist Los Angeles – Long Beach

After the Vernon Avenue trek, I ended at the Vernon metro station completely exhausted: there hadn’t been a lot of shade during the previous hour, and I was definitely feeling the effect: red skin, dry throat, lack of motivation to do anything but sit in an air-conditioned environment.  I scrapped the Watts Towers stop, thinking that I would be able to see them from the metro as it made its way south.  (Unfortunately, I later realized that I was sitting on the wrong side of the car for that.  Oh well.)

I wasn’t entirely wasted, though, and that’s how I let myself follow the Blue Line to its southernmost destination: Long Beach, home of the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Queen Mary.

Getting there required a short walk through a brand-new, charmingly manufactured shopping/entertainment complex named “The Pike” (taking back the name of a famous Long Beach attraction park torn town during the eighties).  The eeriness of the new development was heightened by the fact that, even at three o’clock in the afternoon, the place was completely empty.  No pedestrian traffic on the spotless sidewalks, no groups of teenagers looking for fun, no cars in the curvy roads in the middle of the complex.  It was a shocking moment to stand there in the middle of Prettytown, USA right after a tour through the living streets of the city, almost as if I’d taken the train to fantasyland.  (Indeed, further research revealed that no less an authority as the Long Beach Business Journal published an article in April 2006 titled “What Went Wrong At The Pike?  Panelists Discuss Potential Solutions For Underperforming Retail Center.”)

The Pike’s pedestrian Shoreland Overpass

But I wasn’t here for The Pike (though I appreciated its pedestrian overpass over Shoreland Drive): I was here for the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Why abandon my usual “walk everywhere, visit nothing” type of tourism?  Partly because the Aquarium presented an amusing counterbalance to my visit of Boston’s New England Aquarium, barely eight weeks earlier as a diversion from Readercon.  I found some balance in the idea of visiting aquariums on opposite sides of the country. (Next stop: Seattle and Miami)  Plus, it provided an anchor of an excuse to take a look at Long Beach.

Downtown Long Beach.

Being a landlubber, it doesn’t take much in an aquarium to fascinate me.  If the New England Aquarium has a fabulous centerpiece in its central four-storey tank, the Aquarium of the Pacific can take advantage of the warm climate for its “Shark Lagoon” exhibit: shallow tanks placed outdoors, so that you can look at baby sharks and rays up close, and even touch them if that amuses you.  (As the guide said: “They only bite if you put your fingers in their mouth –and that’s not very polite anyway.”)  Very cool stuff: It’s an experience to see a fully-grown manta ray pass by and break the surface close enough to touch.

Rays, hanging out in the sun.

The rest of the aquarium was a bit more conventional, but no less interesting.  Fish!  Coral!  Jellyfish!  Dangerous creatures!  Seahorses!  The only problem: too many kids running around.

The Aquarium of the Pacific’s main gallery display.

After the Aquarium, I spent some time in the Shoreline Park, just admiring the Queen Mary in the distance and reflecting upon the fact that this was pretty much the end of my entire L.A. tourism experience.  The only thing left to do was to return at the hotel, pack my bags, try to sleep and go back home.

The Queen Mary, not going anywhere.

Suburban Los Angeles – Anaheim/Garden Grove

Anaheim is, of course, Disneyland.  (Although, technically, Disneyland is almost at the edge of Anaheim city limits: I just had to walk south a block from my hotel to find myself in Garden Grove)  Perhaps the most amusing thing about Anaheim is how Disney’s influence had led to a ring of blandness around the entire park, as if the mouse was pacifying everything in sight.  The tourist is complicit in this, of course: bland is comfortable.  Disney Bland means home, except prettier.

The flipside of that, of course, is that Disneyland act as a magnet for artificiality.  Every lush lawn in the area inevitably comes complete with its set of automated sprinklers.  The glorious palm trees overlooking the streets were all trimmed and transplanted there.  Even the rocks sitting on the lawn outside my hotel were fakes: holes betrayed their true function as speakers for light mood music.  As befitting my attendance to a science-fiction convention, the proximity to Disneyland kept reminding me of Philip K Dick (who stayed not too far away) and his famous “fake fakes” speech:

In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces. For instance, suppose the Matterhorn turned into a genuine snow-covered mountain? What if the entire place, by a miracle of God’s power and wisdom, was changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, into something incorruptible? They would have to close down.

I mulled over that at length as I looked at the electrical wires running up palm trees to the floodlights designed to illuminate them at night.  I was lucky enough, during one of those morning walks, to run into one of the crews trimming palm trees: authentic facilitators of artificiality!

Making the world safe for prettier trees.

Still, you don’t have to look too far to drop back to reality: Walk a block away from Disneyland, and the Mouse goes away.  Suddenly, it’s all middle-class bungalows, cheap working-wage stores and people without Disney memorabilia, walking as if they know where they’re going.

This being said, “walking a block” in Anaheim/Garden Grove is still a fair amount of walking: Thanks to the oft-mentioned car culture of Southern California, “blocks” are something like 750 meters to a side: walking around one of them will take you 30-45 minutes.  I really had to hoof it to find the nearest Vons grocery store, which was obviously aimed at the poorer resident population: cramped space, security grillage on the windows, change credit machine at the front of the store… and cheap prices.

I spent a number of early mornings walking around the convention center area, trying to get a feel for the neighborhood outside Disneyland.  I don’t think I was completely successful (sticking to the main arteries has its limitations), but I had my “aha” moments. (Including a “walk around the block” that proved lengthier than I expected, and ended up earning me my first sunburn of the trip, a very mild one that I only discovered at the end of the day otherwise spent inside the convention center.)

One of Garden Grove’s only native attraction is the “Crystal Cathedral”, a massive non-denominational place of worship that is built with an awe-inspiring amount of glass.  Regardless of my feelings regarding what usually goes on in these kind of places, let’s just say that it’s very shiny in the morning sunlight.

A perfect union of religion and commerce.

You’re probably wondering if I did go to Disneyland.  Well, yes and no: I had no intention of going into the park itself, even less paying Disney for the privilege of doing so.  (Leaving aside the idea that theme parks designed for kids are fundamentally alien to childless males in their thirties, let’s just say that I’ve got fundamental political differences with a corporation that goes out and buys a copyright extension law every time Mickey Mouse threatens to fall into the public domain.)  But I did walk around the park itself, and even ventured into the freely-accessible “Downtown Disney” area for dinner one night.  Plus, of course, I took advantage of the Disneyland Shuttle going between LAX and the Disneyland area hotels.  Call it an even draw.

Miscellaneous details and observations

In no particular order, here are a few more observations I couldn’t fit in the above narrative:

I started by mentioning the palm trees, but it’s really the entire flora that fascinated me during my time in Southern California.  Visually, it’s an immediate sign that This Is Not Home: plants that wouldn’t survive in the wilderness of Ontario seem to grow almost accidentally in L.A.  Seeing my first front-yard Orange tree was an experience, and so was seeing what really looked like a banana tree.  (As I was walking down Vernon Avenue, no less.)  I was fascinated by the intricate topiaries in the area (the best of which being the “Mickey and Minnie” topiary at Disneyland), the cactus tree on the USC campus, the octopus-like aloes plant on Disneyland Drive, the front-yard cacti on West Street or the trees with waxy leaves that seemed to grow everywhere.  Heck, I was even surprised at finding sort-of maple trees.

I find it ironic that Los Angeles is a more bilingual city than Ottawa, though the “other language” is Spanish rather than French.  Nearly all of the public transit signalization is in both languages.  It’s not uncommon to find signs in both languages in storefronts and public places.  The Garden Grove Target store features a significant Latino CD section.  The poorer neighborhoods, of course, often revert back to full Spanish.  I could definitely see myself learning Spanish in a matter of weeks should I find myself living in Los Angeles permanently.

After eight days in the L.A. area, I’m not entirely convinced it has weather: other than some early-morning fog on three separate mornings, the dial remained stuck on a “sunny, 30C” setting all the time.  The relentless sun got tiring: I found myself missing a good thunderstorm, or even a cloudy day.

Due to the location of the hotel and the Anaheim convention center, food presented its own set of issues.  While I usually take care of breakfasts and lunches by buying my own food at grocery stores, this does nothing to solve the problem of dinners.  I often ended up at the handy Subway at the Harbour/Katella intersection: Experiments at Dennys and a nearby Indian restaurant were disappointments, while I really couldn’t afford to go at the Hilton Hotel restaurant more than once.  I thought I wanted a good sit-down meal at Downtown Disney, but quickly lost that particular appetite once I saw the crowds and the prices of the theme restaurants: I ended up getting a pricey sandwich at the “La Brea Bakery Express Counter”, which wasn’t so pricey once I tasted the sandwich (mmm) and realized I had lucked out on the cheapest meal in the entire park.  As far as eating in L.A. went, I can’t say that I’ve got any data points to report: I ended up getting a pizza slice at the Beverly Center Sbarro during the “guided bus tour” day, and absolutely nothing at all during my own “walk around” day.

Every time I travel to the United States, I find myself wondering if their television channels are getting even dumber than the last time.  Even my usual CNN couldn’t be trusted this time around, as both CNN and CNN Headline News seemed stuck in a week-long “JonBenet Ramsay killer!?” fever in the evenings.  It goes without saying that I can’t stomach even small doses of MSNBC or Fox News.  I finally found a good source of evening news (both local and international) in local CBS affiliate KCAL.  The worse thing, though, are the commercials: Half of them are for medical products, and the other half to dubious “get rich quick!” schemes: even if the programming was good, the commercial would drive me nuts if I was forced to listen to American TV all the time.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about spending only two days and a half in Los Angeles is the fact that I actually saw something at all.  L.A. contains multitudes: It goes without saying that I missed a number of things in the short time I was there.  So, as a scratch-pad for my next visit to the area, here’s a list of things left to see: the La Brea Tar Pits; the Arclight movie theater; the Watts Towers; Griffith Observatory (hopefully when it won’t be closed for construction) and the JPL along with the rest of Pasadena.

Coming back, consequences & conclusion

Coming back from Los Angeles was far less eventful that getting there: Though I still had to get up at four o’clock in the morning, take the lengthy shuttle back to the airport and stand in line for a while at the Air Canada counter, the rest of the LAX experience was uneventful and efficient.  The plane trip wasn’t terribly crowded, and we landed on time in Montréal where I was eventually found by my ride back home.

This trip had its share of consequences, though: After five days spent at a conference attended by six thousand people from all over the world, after three successive sunburns, after one ridiculously short final night, after six hours spent in the dry air of an airplane cabin, after the cumulative stress of traveling across the continent, guess what?  I woke up at home the following day with a raging cold, basically knocked out of action for three days –including the Thursday I had taken off work as “holiday” to “rest and recuperate.”

But even with the cold, the trip easily remains one of my high point for 2006.  Los Angeles is, as advertised in movies, an entirely different place.  You can even side me with the group that thinks it may be on an entirely different planet.

Still, it exemplifies the old “nice place to visit; wouldn’t want to live there” adage.  I kept being fascinated by palm trees during my entire stay in Southern California for a number of reasons.  Los Angeles, like it or not, isn’t supposed to exist: It was carved out of a semi-desertic climate through human obstinacy, even as nature was dead set against humans settling over there.  (Even today, it subsists on imported glacier water that may not be there forever.)  I kept wondering if this constant struggle isn’t somehow reflected in the way Los Angeles embraces artificiality.  Being in the Disneyland area didn’t help, of course, but then you see the ads for plastic surgery in the L.A. Weekly, the way the social divide between rich and poor is either flaunted or ignored, or the careful grooming of appearances to the detriment of authenticity.  Los Angeles is hardly alone in its desire to look better than it actually is, of course, but I kept looking and finding the cracks in the façade: the palm trees, for starters.  The pyramid of human sacrifice made to ensure that places like Beverly Hills can exist, for another.  Most of the city made me want to say “wow!”, but the other chunk made me want to throw up in absolute helplessness.

But what do I know, right?  I come from an area that barely ranks as a village on the L.A. scale.  If I did live in Los Angeles, I would probably turn into a raving Los Angelenos, in love with the city’s quirks as if they were virtues.  For all of my dubiousness about Lalaland, I can definitely see its appeal.

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