The City That Never Is: One vast junky back lot of sets old and new — the best too bright and full of wonder to ignore. Sharing space with this vast nothingness, they are the reason you go. Find them and be entertained. Be inspired. Find them and believe in this sporadically brilliant one-story metropolis, squeezed callously between a rape of incestuous freeways along a dried up river bed, cemented over, a real river that once flowed with pure water and glistened under a paradise of endless sun.
Now, the “L.A. River” lays there like a disgraced skeleton nobody dares claim – they are all too busy making deals, tearing down the old to make way for the new in an ever-expanding mess of off ramps and on ramps, over and under. Detour City. Perhaps one day there will be no way out. Coming back over the Grapevine, the bus came to a stop, and for two tortuous hours I watched the same trucks and cars moving ahead then behind us, over and over in slow slow motion, wondering if we would ever see land again. When we did, we managed to reach the place, where you transfer from bus-to-rail, called Bakersfield. (No, no, David, leave that one alone.)
But, it’s the “in-between” that counts. Move this way or that by a few miles, and another cultural oasis will smash your low opinion of the town. Will make you fall in love all over again with the towering treasures that keep its depressing sprawl an irresistible draw. The Disney Concert Hall, up there on top, soars and glides, dances and swirls — without ever moving an inch. Its mere existence, a miracle, shows the world how. Los Angeles knows how to show the world how. The Getty museum, next three images, elevates art high on an exalted hill overlooking the insulting urban patchwork below. It’s the American story, brother — you’ll find smaller versions of this depressing challenge everywhere. Maybe a few blocks up the street from where you live. Northern California’s Santa Rosa, once a tender little town, also suffers the rape of auto-mania. Guns and gas. Point made? Consider that last sentence a sincere act of honest journalism.
Come here and gawk: oil wells in front yards! Maybe still. A brand new modern subway of ugly claustrophobic carriages (who designed these -- the IRS?) putting you six feet under — when the Big Earthquake breaks you’ll already be where you may have ended up, anyway, your burial on the town.
I have come to loath a subway system I loved when it opened. Its individually designed stations, real artists in charge, showed the world how. But one rush hour, a few visits back, I pushed myself down below into a stuffed and hot Metro car, which stalled now and then, and could not wait for the liberation I prayed God would grant me. Suddenly, I rediscovered the charming relief of an above-ground bus ride! Glory on high! Something about fresh air and sunshine (okay, even smog) that appeals to my earth-bound nature.
Above L.A. once again, I exult in the humdrum rides that show me exactly where I am and where I am going. And, of course, the MTA is cutting back on buses to force commuters down into these rat holes of human transport. Why is it, then, that I never feel so doomed riding New York's rattletraps? For one reason, perhaps: the riders in Gotham speak my own language.
Here are a few of the bus-stop photos I took on my bus ride out Sunset Boulevard to Westwood for a connecting bus to the Getty art museum (This was intended to be a very sociological, award-winning photo spread, but then came Beverly Hills, with not a single soul anywhere at or around a bus stop. And there my project died.)
The elevated Gold Line, God bless it, feels so perfectly L.A. Something about the sunshine it favors. You glide, Disneyland-style, past a panorama of contrasts, cement plants to houses on hills, Italian style. To another great museum, the Norton Simon, you are sanely delivered. When the Big Quake rocks, I'd rather be above than below earth.
Now the Gold Line, extended, moves the other way too. I took it to reach another lovely oasis, Little Tokyo – the place that gave birth to the international acclaims that put a new troupe from Montreal, Cirque du Soleil, on the map. In 1987. I was there. Wherever it was that Cirque pitched its little tent, there should be a plaque marking the historic occasion. At the East West Players, they were presenting a revival of their 1999 work, Beijing Spring. There was much to enjoy in thunderbolts of youthful passion and protest, passionaely scored, crossing a busy stage. But the scene inevitably expected, "tank man" stopping a column of tanks dead in their tracks, never arrived. A major let down.
Sometimes, the city gets it right: That depressing slab of old downtown, around Broadway, that festered with huge homeless encampments, along with society's dangerous outcasts, is now being transformed into thousands of upscale new condos and apartments, and a thriving working class revival. Anything wrong with that? I have no problem with a return of civilization.
You can't sit here anymore! Shame on Union Station for these ropes, that deny one the right to enjoy its phenomenal atmosphere.
Worst thing about L.A? Well, I see less and less of my own whenever I visit. Ask somebody for directions and hear them tell you: “Me no speak English”. Half the population is now Mexican. They keep on coming (I’ll refrain from going political) and will soon dominate the demographic contest. What then? Our own version of South Africa -- hard working poor in tense alliance with a narrowing rich upper middle class?
An exhilarating bus ride to the Getty out in Brentwood takes me through Beverly Hills. You are in Never Never Land. Gorgeous scenery all the way.
At Fillippe's sawdust-over-the-floor restaurant, near Union Station, photos and posters hung during the era of the Paul Eagle's Circus Luncheon Club, ever shrinking in number and space allocation, still grace one wall.
Farewell, Back Lot City. You always send me away with a fresh goal; this time, I'm dreaming, how long before Union Station returns to its senses and cuts down the damn ropes encircling the lobby seats like prison-yard chains, killing the freedom for anyone to walk in, sit down, and savor the magnificence of it all? It's up to you L.A -- L.A.!
[all photos by Showbiz David]