As an urban planner, we’re brainwashed that Los Angeles is “bad” and San Francisco is “good” because of anti-urban sprawl and mass-transit mantras that have taken over ever since planning backpedaled against the car-centric Modernist heritage it had once promulgated. In planning school we learn how the planning profession is still reeling and trying to make sense of its mistakes, so much so that you wonder if they’ll ever get over it.
As a born and bred New Yorker, my conceptions were even more skewed because for our “kind,” there’s New York City and then there’s the rest of the world. A Manhattan Mini Storage ad sums it up best: “Remember, if you leave the city, you’ll have to live in America,” it proclaims in yellow Helvetica font plastered over an entire side of a building. But LA has become my second favorite city in America.
I was in Los Angeles for the American Planning Association‘s annual national conference. This wasn’t my first trip to LA, but it was my first “real” one. There was a brief sojourn in 2003 en route to Santa Barbara. The many many times my parents took me to Disneyland as a child. Then when I was 12, I flew to LA to be filmed as part of the Disney Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra. I spent my time oggling Gucci shoes on Rodeo Drive and practicing cello in bucolic Mount St. Mary’s College in West LA.
But this time, I stayed in downtown LA. I did everything Angelenos told me not to do. The first was to take the metro from the airport (as a good urban planner) which demonstrated to me exactly why I was told not to take it. While waiting at Greenline Station, a friendly airport worker from Guatemala befriended me and asked incredulously why I was taking the metro downtown, suggesting that I should call a friend. When she got off a stop later, she warned me to call 911 if anything happened. At 11:30pm, I was just very very out of place but I kept riding. I don’t think I would have grasped the city as well if I had not taken that first metro ride. I passed Compton, changed at Willowbrook and made my way to Metro Center and Pershing Square, all while getting followed and hit-on by interesting characters.
The second New Yorker thing I did in LA was to walk everywhere (within reason). I was staying at the historic Biltmore and the conference was taking place at the convention center (next to the Staples Center and LA Live). The concierge informed me that the only way to get there was to take a taxi or walk — “It takes 30 minutes!” he exclaimed with disdain. This seemed reasonable to me and I did this walk at least twice a day, taking a different route each time. Even though the metro and a direct bus to the convention center picked up just across from The Biltmore, it was no option for the concierge.
But then I thought, New Yorkers are equally strange about distance. Manhattanites complain that Brooklyn is just psychologically “too far,” or that the Lower East Side to Upper West is like “visiting another state.” The difference is that it’s just too hard to own a car in New York City (I’ve done it, it’s terrible). And so with that, I threw all my pre-conceived notions of Los Angeles out the door. I was ready to explore, and ultimately, to embrace the city.
In this city spotlight on Los Angeles, I’ll be reporting on LA’s Modernist Heritage and Art Deco downtown, but I’ll leave it up to the real Angelenos amongst our Untapped Cities contributors to share their LA with you, and how to explore it the “Untapped” way.