Pop Culture
Apr 16, 2024, 06:24AM

Los Angeles For Dummies

Los Angeles can nourish you. Or destroy you.

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When friends visit from out of town, they’ll often ask me to show them the real Los Angeles. I’ll start by taking them north on the 5 Freeway out of the city towards Santa Clarita. I exit at Roxford Street then turn left on Foothill Boulevard and park beside an innocuous hillside covered with chaparral shrubs. I point to the pipes zigzagging down the mountain and tell them this is where LA begins.

In 1913, engineer William Mulholland christened the Los Angeles aqueduct transporting water from the Eastern Sierra to the Los Angeles Basin. The water was appropriated from the Owens River Valley destroying a vast agricultural plain in Eastern California. Without this precious water, Los Angeles would be a desert.

In essence, Los Angeles was born courtesy of a massive water grift.

From Sylmar, I’ll drive my friends south on the 5 Freeway through the San Fernando Valley to the 110 Freeway in Pasadena. This is the oldest freeway in Los Angeles, originally called the “Arroyo Seco Parkway.” It opened in 1940 and connects Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles.

This is the second grift that formed Los Angeles. The LA freeway system.
Los Angeles has 527 miles of freeways. Locals know them by their numbers. There’s the 10 (Santa Monica Fwy), the 5 (Golden State Fwy), the 405 (San Diego Fwy) and the 110 (Harbor Fwy). The Los Angeles Times estimated that residents spend 119 hours stuck in freeway traffic each year.

In 1944, the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act allowed for 1938 miles of freeways to be built in California. These freeways displaced thousands of minority and lower-income residents. In his book The Color of Law, author Richard Rothstein tells of how government policy utilized “redlining,” the separation of white and black populations. City planners used eminent domain to destroy thousands of Los Angeles homes. Once the freeways were put in place, minorities moved south while white residents moved north toward the hills.

After treating my friends to a freeway traffic jam, we double back through downtown to Chavez Ravine, location of Dodger Stadium. This brings us to LA Grift #3.

In order to build Dodger Stadium, the city used eminent domain to evict residents from three Mexican-American communities in the neighborhoods of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop. The land was initially acquired to build public housing. Once the neighborhoods were destroyed and the residents removed, the city abandoned the public housing plan and conveyed the land to the Dodgers.

For LA Grift #4, we drive past three prominent churches near Dodger Stadium. There’s the Angelus Temple in Echo Park, founded by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. This was the first megachurch in America and established the money-grubbing model later emulated by Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The second is the Theosophical Society in Los Feliz founded by Russian spiritualist Helena Blavatsky. She claimed to be a medium who could speak to the departed. Theosophy merges science, religion and philosophy and is credited with forging the template for the new age movement. Third is the Church of Scientology on Franklin Avenue. Founded by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology is inspired by sci-fi tropes like spaceships, spacemen and intergalactic travel based around a cosmic catastrophe that occurred 75 million years ago. This space-age religion is worth upwards of $1.75 billion (according to the Scientology Money Project blog), not bad for a fledgling church.

These disparate houses of worships helped make Los Angeles the center of alternative spiritual practice in America. Famous LA cults include the Manson Family who lived on Spahn Ranch near Chatsworth. The Source Family was led by Father Yod, proprietor of the famed Source Restaurant on the Sunset Strip. Mazdaznan was a 1920s cult of sun-worshippers engaged in self flagellation to drive out demons. Helios was a jazz age cult in Glassell Park based on communal property ownership and free love. Whatever the kooky religious practice, it can be found in Los Angeles.

By this point on my makeshift LA tour, my friends are usually begging for escape. I take them for lunch to the Beachwood Cafe not far from the Hollywood sign. We grab a table beneath old black and white photos of the iconic sign that originally read “HOLLYWOODLAND.”

The Hollywoodland sign was erected in 1923 as a promotion for a real estate development. The sign was initially covered with light bulbs and flashed Holly then Wood then Land. In 1932, a British stage actress named Peg Entwistle climbed to the top of the “H” and leaped to her death. She’d struggled for acting roles and fell into depression. According to legend, the day after her suicide she received a letter offering her the lead role in a play about a woman driven to suicide.

During World War II, the Hollywoodland real estate development went bankrupt. The sign fell into disrepair and was donated to the city. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce removed the “LAND” section in 1949 and unveiled the new Hollywood sign promoting the film industry. It was nearly torn down in the 1970s until Hugh Hefner raised funds to save the day.

The discussion of Hollywood prompts my friends to ask if any celebrities live in the area. I point to the house across the street from the cafe that belonged to actor Ned Beatty and prior to that Busby Berkeley. Beachwood Canyon residents from the past include Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, John Barrymore and Bela Lugosi. Rather than a makeshift tour of stars homes, I take my friends hiking.

One of the great perks of living in Los Angeles are the great hiking trails on the surrounding mountains. My favorite spot is Franklin Canyon. Located on 600 acres between Beverly Hills and the San Fernando Valley, the park has five miles of trails and a three-acre lake home to ducks, turtles, frogs, bass and trout. The lake was featured in the opening titles of The Andy Griffith Show and in Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Birders flock to the park to see woodpeckers, quail, wren, owls, grebes and hooded orioles. Animals include mountain lions, deer, bobcats, coyote, rabbits, raccoon, possum and skunk. There are myriad snakes including racers, gopher snakes, king snakes and western rattlers.

Los Angeles trees and foliage reflect the people in the city: attractive but complicated. Jacaranda trees have purple flowers that smell like grape soda when blooming but develop a urine-like odor after they fall to the ground. Oleander trees display pink, red and white flowers that are beautiful but deadly. Just a small nibble of one Oleander petal can induce a heart attack. Sago palms are toxic if chewed and are a common killer of dogs. Castor bean plants boast exotic red flowers but contain the poison ricin. (LA police have tried unsuccessfully to outlaw the plants.) The gorgeous poppies that flourish in the spring can be used to produce heroin. The seeds are used on bagels and muffins but it’s illegal to sell poppy seeds in sprouted form.

The iconic palm trees that embody Los Angeles are not native to the area. More than 40,000 Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) were imported from Mexico as part of a beautification project connected to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Real estate developers hoped the palms would attract east coast home buyers looking for a tropical climate.

Long before Los Angeles became the second most populated city in the country (behind New York), the land was inhabited by the indigenous Tongva tribe. The Tongva hunted and fished and created a modest farming community using water from the Río Porciúncula (the LA River). In 1542, Spain claimed the land. The Spanish formally founded the city in 1781 naming it El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (“The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels”).

After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the population exploded as Americans migrated west. In 1880, Los Angeles was inhabited by 11,000 people. By 1930, the population increased to 1.2 million. The 2020 census gauged the population at 3.9 million. Hispanics make up 47 percent of the city, Whites 29 percent, Asians 12 percent and Blacks eight percent.

Dorothy Parker wrote, “Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city.” This diversity is what makes the city an exciting place to live. There’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Thai Town, Little Bangladesh, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia. On Pico Boulevard between La Cienega and Robertson, there’s an Orthodox Jewish community with kosher markets and restaurants. On Fairfax south of Olympic you enter Little Ethiopia. Drive south to Leimart Park and you’ll find authentic soul food. East on the 10 Freeway to Boyle Heights leads you to the best Oaxacan and Sinaloan food north of the border.

Newcomers to Los Angeles are often overwhelmed by the sprawling metropolis. (Jack Kerouac wrote “L.A. is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.”) Despite it’s size, Los Angeles can feel like a small town. People keep to their own neighborhoods patronizing the same coffee houses, restaurants and markets. Hillside denizens avoid the flatlands, westsiders don’t drive east of Sepulveda, midtowners stay out of the valley.
At night, the hills of Los Angeles come alive with the sound of howling coyotes and the scent of night blooming jasmine. From October through March, the city’s pelted by hot Santa Ana winds making you feel as if an earthquake or fire is imminent. Locals call this “earthquake weather.”

Los Angeles shows little loyalty to its own past. Famous landmarks like the Ambassador Hotel (where RFK was killed) and Pickfair (home to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks) were torn down. Legendary restaurants like the Brown Derby and Chasen’s were razed upon closing. The Atomic Cafe, a punk rock diner where I once ate pecan pie in a booth next to David Bowie, is now a Metro Station. Gorky’s Russian Cafe where you could get three a.m. borscht is now a flower shop.

With theaters closing and the film industry struggling, LA isn’t the entertainment haven it once was. Actors, directors, models and artists still flock here en masse. Less than one percent will manifest their dreams. Most settle for dream mutations like gig worker, escort or nude model.

Los Angeles can nourish you. Or destroy you. The city has a bevy of treasure, but you have to seek it out. Or you can be like Peg Entwistle and find your own giant “H” to make your mark.


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