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A Sense of Place

Unlike older cities, L.A. remains resolutely enigmatic, daring each of us to create and recreate the city inside us.

October 06, 2002|LEO BRAUDY | Leo Braudy holds the position of University Professor at USC and is the author of "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History."

I like cities. I like their ins and outs, their odd corners, their ghostly overlays of past and present, like a living, breathing archeological dig.

During the years I lived in New York, Baltimore, Paris and Rome, it was easy to see myself in the old image of a city dweller. I was the flaneur, the stroller of boulevards, the "Walker in the City" (as the title of Alfred Kazin's 1951 book on New York put it)--making my way through the crowds, jauntily observing the scene.

Now I live in Los Angeles, where city means something else. In Paris or New York, a tour of the monuments--the Eiffel Tower, Central Park, Notre Dame, St. Patrick's Cathedral--is in some sense a tour of the city. But show people the Getty, the new Moneo cathedral and the rising Disney Hall, and what do they know about L.A.?

This is not a place of famous landmarks and historic squares. Instead of such easily mappable concentrations, L.A. is a scattering of riches, where a wrong turn or a detour on purpose can discover a whole new world, a neighborhood where the fairway trees are coated in tinfoil for Christmas, or a fine restaurant glowing unobtrusively in a seedy strip mall. In other places, I lived in the city. But ultimately, L.A. is the city in me, the city I weave together for myself out of the wealth of materials it provides, a fabric that constantly changes from year to year.

When I first moved here almost 20 years ago, I wanted to get my bearings, and so I learned the freeways, the city's skeleton. But like a skeleton, the city I got to know had a bloodless feel. The freeways get us around, but they divide up the whole.

Now we're being told by secession promoters that we should follow the logic of the freeways and carve the body of L.A. up into even more self-involved fragments. Perhaps, instead, each of us could try at least once a week to get out of our narrow day-to-day arteries and explore the messy, unmanageable, wonderful whole. Drive on surface streets and get lost on purpose. Follow odd avenues and enter neighborhoods just to see what they are like and how they form the real veins, muscle and flesh of the city.

If you have no idea where to begin, I have developed a tour of sorts that I give to visitors. If you can't grasp why the city should remain whole, perhaps you should take it.

We will start--selfishly, because I live nearby in Los Feliz--at the Griffith Observatory, a good place to satisfy the cliche-seekers eager to see the Hollywood sign. Here, rather than existing as a detached icon, it is set in its proper context, with Hollywood, the Baldwin Hills, Palos Verdes, the beach, and Catalina (on a clear day) sprawling out to the south and west. From there, we head down through Fern Dell, with its Gabrielino spring (now a water fountain)--a handy symbol of the importance of water in creating the city we just gazed upon, as well as a reminder of the native tribes that were here before the first settlers came.

Water especially transformed the Valley, and part of its story could be traced down Los Feliz Boulevard, past the Mulholland Fountain, to the L.A. River, whose sandy bottom here somehow escaped the attention of the Army Corps of Engineers and its concrete mixers. Following the river north to the Valley, we pass the Ferraro Soccer grounds where the De Anza party camped in 1776 on the way to San Jose. Here, past the zoo and the Autry Museum, the river turns west toward an even more bucolic life in the Sepulveda Basin, but we might continue north to the Mission San Fernando--founded not many years later--where the Valley got its name.

So much of that California past still exists in Los Angeles on both sides of the mountains. But the more familiar influence on the image of L.A. past and present is the film industry, and its own shrines dot the landscape. Back in Los Feliz and Hollywood, on busy Franklin Avenue near the 101 overpass, we look up at the Alto Nido, where Billy Wilder housed the heroes of both "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard." On nearby Ivar is the apartment house where Nathanael West spent time as the manager to help pay the rent while he contemplated writing "The Day of the Locust."

Of course, the locations have changed since their glory days. The Cansino Dance Studio, where Rita Hayworth, nee Margarita Cansino, learned her steps as a girl, is now a gift shop, having also been over the years a check-cashing agency and a distressed furniture store called Nostalgia, L.A. A few miles away in Silver Lake, the sets for D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," which languished for years at the corner of Sunset and Hollywood, have disappeared. But his old sound stage is now part of the flamenco restaurant El Cid.

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