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L.A.'s intimate stranger

A German tourist has a passion for the city's architecture. His website is a defining portrait of buildings that most locals take for granted.

April 11, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

YOU-are-here.comdisplays Schall's quirky way of looking at L.A. The site is divided into downtown and the rest of L.A. County. Street photography and restaurants get their own categories. And Schall has thrown in a couple of trompe l'oeils for good measure, digitally altering several L.A. billboards in photos to make them advertisements for the website.

Building descriptions on the website are deliberately spare in language -- mostly to avoid embarrassing grammatical mistakes in English. (Schall is still haunted by the time he used a German spelling, calling Little Tokyo Little Tokio. "Everyone was making fun of it." )

Schall's free time in Germany now is almost completely devoted to the website -- doing research, adding pictures and, increasingly, answering fan mail. He works from a wooden desk in the corner of his Kornwestheim loft, equipped with two computers and a special hard drive to hold all of the photos. Bookshelves nearby are stuffed with the hundreds of reference books Schall has about Los Angeles, including a Thomas Guide he keeps close.

For Schall's 40th birthday, his father gave him a travel book. But the subject matter -- Italy -- seems to underline how little most of Schall's friends and family know about his passion for the City of Angels.

Schall thinks he has come to see Los Angeles as a city that is underappreciated by its inhabitants, who too often remain ensconced in particular neighborhoods or routines.

He finds that Angelenos are more inclined to use his website than walk around the corner to observe the city on their own.

"Maybe people here are more busy," Schall said. "But they never leave the car or the train, between work and home. I thought, that's the reason they don't see a lot."

Schall, by contrast, credits most of the expanse and breadth of the site to his deliberate attempt to see the slower side of the city by walking its streets.

With each new trip, Schall adds to Angelenos' collective knowledge of their city and their region. He's cataloged almost all of the buildings along Broadway in downtown and highlighted suburban residential projects developed by noted architects.

Bernstein, of the city's historical resource office, called Schall the latest in a series of visitors to Los Angeles -- including H.L. Mencken, William Faulkner and British critic Reyner Banham -- who have brought a fresh eye to the city.

"Not just the obvious, well-known landmarks," he said.

Each time Schall visits Los Angeles, he said, he feels that he has gotten to know the city better, and he wonders whether he's finally accomplished his goal and can put the website aside and move on with his life.

But L.A.'s siren call is just too powerful to ignore.

"Every year, while I am here, I say, I am finished," he said. "Then I work on stuff, doing research. And I say, 'Ah, there's something else.' "

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