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L.A. at Large

Journey to Center of a City With No Center


You know them by their guidebooks, fanny packs and befuddlement. They stand at intersections in downtown L.A., trying to look nonchalant while wondering where the sights are and if they're about to get mugged. They've just landed in the city and assume that downtown is the center of things in L.A. If you told them that many Angelenos have never been to the city's historic heart, they'd never believe you.

They are tourists, of course--easy to empathize with if you've ever found yourself in their shoes on a faraway street corner. But in downtown Los Angeles, center of a city that has no center, they stand out like gazelles caught in the headlights.

At the corner of 4th and Hill streets, Helga and Karl Heinz Roessler are a case in point. She's getting a bottle of water out of his backpack. He's squinting at a street sign. When asked if he needs help, Karl Heinz says stiffly, no, he has a map.

The Roesslers are from Munich and are staying at a hotel near LAX.

Though the couple made a beeline for it, downtown didn't even place on the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau's most recent list of the top 10 tourist sites in the area. (In 1995, Universal Studios came in first, followed by Disneyland the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive and Venice Beach). Still, it's not unusual to see tourists wandering along Broadway or Figueroa Street. Some are there on purpose, others by accident. But it's the rare traveler who knows precisely what to make of downtown L.A.

"The architecture is really quite nice," says Helga Roessler, "although this place hasn't the cozy atmosphere of Munchen."

That's an understatement on the massive scale of L.A. itself.

Lucy Bradley, programming director at Hosteling International's Santa Monica hotel, which caters largely to overseas visitors, says a few of her guests venture downtown. "But they seem slightly confused when they get back," Bradley adds.

Many tourists who come downtown arrive with similar misconceptions, or no conceptions at all. "It's as if they just got off the bus here. They don't have anything, even maps," says Jeff Godsil, assistant manager of the Thomas Bros. Maps store on West 6th Street.

Sitting on a patio outside Grand Central Market, Christopher Ang and Alagesan Alagappan from Malaysia are trying to figure out how to get to the Greyhound Bus terminal to buy tickets to Las Vegas. "Are these the only big buildings you have?" Ang asks. "We have more big buildings in Kuala Lumpur."

"Are there any palaces here?" asks Alagappan.

The Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau has an information center on Figueroa Street, between Wilshire Boulevard and 7th Street, with a multilingual staff and more brochures and maps than these two Malaysians could stuff in their backpacks. And everyday, the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, financed by area merchants, dispatches a fleet of six information kiosks on wheels, stationed for two hours at a time in spots heavily trafficked by tourists, such as Pershing Square and the landing of the Angels Walk funicular. (The funicular closed indefinitely after a fatal accident last month). The kiosks are staffed by cheerful "ambassadors" in purple polo shirts. They know, perhaps better than anyone, how discombobulating L.A. can be for visitors.

Carolyn Gentle, an ambassador for six months, says, "Lots of people think Hollywood is here, that they're going to find movie stars' homes, the Walk of Fame and Mann's Chinese Theatre."

Her colleague, Ruth De Leon, has more than once had to disabuse tourists of the notion that the beach lies just west of the Wilshire Grand Hotel, about where the Harbor Freeway is. "Most don't have cars, so they're sometimes disappointed. But we tell them how to get to Hollywood and Universal City on the Red Line Metro," she says.

Randall Ely, chief operating officer of the downtown merchants' district, says many tourists--and especially those from overseas--choose to stay downtown because of its "central" location, that is, almost equidistant from Disneyland and Universal City.

Half the guests at the New Otani Hotel on South Los Angeles Street are from Asia. Sales and marketing director, Clinton Fischler, says they're intimidated by skid row but are far more disappointed by the tawdriness of Hollywood.

Uno Thimansson, manager of the 285-room Hotel Figueroa near the convention center, says his guests are primarily bus tourists from Europe and Japan. The Japanese often follow an L.A.-Anaheim-Las Vegas itinerary; many Europeans--which these days includes many East Germans--do three-week "Western highlights" bus tours that include San Diego, Scottsdale, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Carmel and L.A.

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