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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

He Has His Walking Points

Neil Hopper navigates the L.A. area with his feet. What intrigues this urban adventurer isn't the destination, but 'the spaces in between.'

September 16, 2004|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

Neil Hopper had only a ghost of a game plan when he set out walking one Saturday. He wanted to cross the Los Angeles River on 6th Street. He thought he'd take in a stretch of Whittier Boulevard. He figured he'd then head to the industrial city of Vernon and wind up at its last wigwag, an old-time railroad signal.

Between river and wigwag, what he'd encounter would be mostly a mystery, which suited this urban adventurer just fine. The point of his walks, he said, is not to get somewhere:

"I like the spaces in between."

By 10 a.m., Hopper stood at the corner of Mateo and East 6th, waiting patiently for the traffic light to turn green. Then he stepped onto the bridge, arms gently swinging, feet slightly splayed -- a small, efficient-looking figure in crisp jeans, a long-sleeve button-down shirt and sensible brown leather walking shoes.

He bore sole witness to the shadows of blank-faced factories and warehouses, alone in a corner of downtown.

*

Hopper used to live like other people, in his own small slice of city. Safely sealed behind the wheel of his car, he traveled daily between his apartment and his job, traversing just one square mile of Hollywood.

Then, in 1999, the Red Line rolled into his neighborhood. Hopper hopped on and became an explorer.

Sure, he'd gone downtown before, when he had to, for jury duty. He associated it with white-knuckle driving, headachy parking, crowded courthouse waiting rooms.

Whisked to the city center sidewalks by subway, freed from staring at the car bumper in front of him, he noticed other things. He saw paint peeling on the facades of majestic old movie houses, formerly ritzy hotels housing bargain stores. He loved the crumble of it.

Soon he wondered what else he'd been missing.

"I asked myself, 'Is it possible for a normal, sedentary human being to walk 10 miles in the city?' "

To find out, he walked from Hollywood to downtown. He walked to Burbank and to Pasadena. He bought walking shoes and anti-blister socks and spent his weekends taking on El Monte, Alhambra, Hermosa Beach and Cypress Park. Drawn to the big streets that cut through the city, he checked out Slauson Avenue, Eagle Rock Boulevard, Imperial Highway, San Fernando Road. Commercial strips that drivers register as blurs became distinct to him. He noticed their details.

*

The 6th Street bridge is elegant, even where paint flakes away and parched brown vines choke its Art Deco obelisks. In 1932, when it was built, it was a sight to see, the longest concrete span in California. On this day, Hopper paused partway across. Below him stretched the flat gray roofs of large industrial buildings. To his right, railroad tracks, a concrete river, a cat's cradle of freeways.

"Oh, I've got to get a picture of those ducts," he said as he pulled his camera from a case on his belt and trained it on a rooftop tangle of fat gray coils.

Across the bridge, a bearded man appeared, clanking along a shopping cart of cans. The man waved before crouching to scoop up a cigarette butt, and then he was gone.

*

Hopper works at a post-production house, maintaining equipment on the night shift. He's an engineer with an engineer's methodical mind. He appreciates order.

A few months into his walking spree, he felt the need to record his travels. He set up a website. After a while, he bought a camera. In the last few years, he has taken maybe 3,000 pictures while walking.

On the home page he has written a brief statement of purpose:

"This is my contribution to all the useless information on the Internet -- some maps and photographic byproducts of my obsession with experiencing the greater Los Angeles area up close and personal."

His name and e-mail address don't appear. Hopper isn't looking for feedback or companionship.

On www.walkinginla.com, he catalogs each walk by date -- as in "February 29, 2004 Eastern Avenue." A click on a walk brings up a map, with a bold black line marking his path. Underneath each map are photos -- of parking lots, motels, mini-malls, power lines and train tracks. One photo shows a dumpster full of overripe tomatoes. Another, a pink-and-white Victoria's Secret bag lying on a dirty sidewalk.

One of Hopper's photos shows the L.A. River on a gray day. What water there is looks brown. Graffiti color the concrete banks. Above the banks are railroad tracks, with high-voltage towers looming over them. The caption reads: "The picturesque Los Angeles River meanders its way toward the Pacific Ocean on a beautiful Southern California day."

"Even the ugly things, I find beauty in. A lot of them make me laugh, and that's a form of beauty," he said.

*

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