Los Angeles is an unusual city. Unlike other cities of its size, it’s not particularly known for its landmarks apart from Hollywood (see below). As I flew over the city to land at LAX on a sunny afternoon, I could have been flying over a vast suburb – the flat expanse of the city stretched for miles with its straight avenues and boulevards lined with two-storey buildings dwarfed by palm trees. The only tall buildings were a cluster of skyscrapers that made up Downtown
From 1904 to 1956 there was a 13 storey limit on buildings in the city, to keep the streets sunny and encourage outward, rather than upward, building construction. When the limit was repealed, tall buildings shot up in the Bunker Hill region. However, a law put into effect in 1974, (literally) shaped the way skyscrapers were constructed. The Emergency Helicopter Landing Facility Law required that buildings have space for a rooftop helipad, giving the flat top to L.A.’s skyscrapers, in contrast to the spikes of most other major cities’ silhouettes. In recent years Hollywood has been the focus of legal building-planning issues since the Hollywood Community Plan was drafted in 1988, approved in 2012, and then stopped in 2013 due to a lawsuit by neighbourhood residents. If the plan gets sorted out and implemented it will mean a big change for the Hollywood area, which is pretty grotty for one of the top tourist attractions of the city. Though that does add to the faded glamour of the boulevard.
L.A. has some great museums and galleries (the Getty, the Page museum at the La Brea Tar Pits), but my favourite was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). I could have spent days there. There were exhibitions of historical art from all over the world, housed in different buildings of different styles. There are your regular monochrome vertical walls for some of the exhibits, but other regions get creative. The walls of the Japanese pavilion are made to look like paper shoji, which gives a lovely soft, uniform light to the room. Also, in order to view what’s on display, you walk up or down a spiral ramp to get different views of the display sections.
I can understand why some people might find the design for the Art of the Ancient Americas garish and distracting, but I loved it. The colours really complimented the ceramics and made the silverwork shine.
Not only the buildings themselves but what decorates them is subject to some legal issues, as you can see from the video above. I was glad that I re-watched Exit Through the Gift Shop on the flight over. The shop and street art in L.A. really made the dull boxy buildings and car parks a lot more interesting.
One thing I would highly recommend is a walking tour by the Los Angeles Conservancy. They run tours around historic and interesting areas in the city on weekends, but I was lucky that they had some midweek evening tours during the summer because I was away at the weekends. I took the Art Deco tour which took us Downtown. As well as the beautiful Art Deco buildings from the ’20s and ’30s, we saw some older ones like the Beaux Arts PacMutual building from 1908 (below), as well as more recent, but more decrepit, movie theatres.
I could never picture Los Angeles as the setting for Film Noir because it’s just so sunny. But once night fell and I went from one former Downtown speakeasy to the next, I was able to get a sense of it.
This was not a former speakeasy, but a beer and hot-dog place in the Arts District where a lot of the street art was.
Now this is where the speakeasy was. It was actually in a room in the back where it was too dark to see the person’s face in front of you, let alone take a picture.
And on to a Cuban speakeasy where I drank rum from a coconut by firelight.
But as fun as it was to bar hop like a P.I. on the hunt for a cagey witness, it was pretty sobering to accidentally skirt by Skid Row. While many parts of the Downtown area are pretty run down, the trend towards gentrification is clear, and what’s good for the surrounding residents and businesses, may or may not be good for Skid Row.