YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Patchwork of Cities

Hollywood, mountains and beaches, ethnic diversity, kitsch and historic landmarks--it's all here, but you can't walk there. And you must sample the parts to appreciate the whole.


Angelenos long ago learned to ignore derogatory quips about their hometown. Norman Mailer called L.A. the Queen City of Plastic. Raymond Chandler wrote that it had "no more personality than a paper cup." But H. L. Mencken's crack that L.A. is "19 suburbs in search of a metropolis" . . . well, even the city's biggest boosters would have to admit there's some truth to that.

L.A. pieced itself together from smaller towns, and then oozed into the remaining cracks. Its growth from "city" in 1900 to "metro area" by 1950 produced little homogenization, however. Today it's nearly impossible to get a taste of the whole place without sampling all its parts--a tall order for anyone without unlimited free time.

Often overlooked in favor of the beaches and theme parks, Downtown Los Angeles offers the closest thing to a Reader's Digest version of L.A. The city grew out from a pueblo founded by the Spanish in 1781. Close to that spot is El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, which encompasses a plaza, many historic buildings and the Olvera Street market.

The 1920s were Los Angeles' boom years, and the old business center survives in the Historic Core. This is also the starting point for Angel's Walk, an unguided walking tour with signs that illuminate the city's history, though proximity to skid row still scares many off. Not far away is the Fashion District, the nation's largest garment industry, and the wholesale Flower Mart.

L.A.'s first suburb, Angelino Heights, is definitely inner-city today. On this hilltop, restored Victorian houses frame views of downtown skyscrapers and several of the city's older ethnic neighborhoods. The current Chinatown started in the late '30s, a replacement for the neighborhood displaced by Union Station--itself worth a visit. (Today the largest ethnic Chinese population can be found in Monterey Park, a city about six miles east of downtown.) Little Tokyo has remained in place since about 1900, and historic events are marked on a timeline along the sidewalk. It's impossible to pinpoint a single Latino center; Los Angeles County is, after all, 44% Latino. But Boyle Heights and East L.A. are home to several important cultural centers including Self-Help Graphics, Plaza de la Raza and Mariachi Plaza.

West of downtown, a trip along Wilshire Boulevard puts some of the city's other pieces together. (A favorite car game: Name the language on the sign. Armenian or Arabic? Chinese or Korean?) MacArthur Park, of "left the cake out in the rain" fame, is a now-faded stretch of regal hotels and apartment buildings marked by giant rooftop neon signs. West of that is Koreatown, sometimes forgotten, but probably the largest of L.A.'s ethnic neighborhoods. The so-called Miracle Mile segment of Wilshire bridged the gap between downtown and Beverly Hills in the '20s, drawing patrons to shops in fancy Moderne and Deco-style buildings.

Just north is the Fairfax District, center of the local Orthodox Jewish population, where the Farmer's Market can be found as well as Canter's Deli, open 24 hours. Past Fairfax on Wilshire the number of BMWs and Mercedes increase gradually until you reach Beverly Hills. A map to the "stars' homes" may or may not be accurate, but a drive through northern Beverly Hills satisfies all mansion-gazing desires.

Heading west again on Wilshire, drivers pass through the golf course of the Los Angeles Country Club and emerge in Westwood, one of the few places with high-rise apartment buildings. UCLA abuts the shopping district, which is reestablishing its reputation for good restaurants. It's always been known for its giant movie theaters--where most movie premieres are held.

One of the most densely populated parts of the county, West Hollywood is also the hub of the gay community. It's a small town (pop. 36,000) with a big night life, as the Sunset Strip falls within its borders. A drink? A tattoo? A rockin' show? It's all available with valet parking.

Regular old Hollywood also has lots of night life--it's just less flamboyant than its westerly neighbor. Generally, Hollywood has fewer movie stars and more T-shirt shops than folks imagine, but it always makes tourists' short list, if only for the Walk of Fame, Mann's Chinese movie theater and the Hollywood sign. That sign, by the way, looms over Hollywood from Griffith Park. Its rugged hills cover five square miles containing dozens of trails, outlooks, sports facilities and the landmark Griffith Observatory.

South of downtown, another L.A. landmark, Watts Towers, has been undergoing painstaking restoration and earthquake repair for six years and isn't done yet. The spiraling towers can be seen despite being partially surrounded by scaffolding, but there are no tours.

The cultural heart of black Los Angeles is Leimert Park, a small shopping district that has flourished as an arts community during the '90s. The park itself was recently rehabilitated, and dance studios, theaters, galleries and jazz clubs line Degnan Boulevard.

Los Angeles Times Articles