Day 2: Ann’s tour

GET READY FOR PHOTOS. I was not economical with my snapshots. Partly this was because the weather during my first two days here was incredibly hot, and I alas did not bring either of my straw hats. (I missed them very badly on this trip.)

I also just crammed a lot of sight seeing into this day, and it was not conducive to a lot of sit-and-drawing. I shall remedy that on future outings, because I would have liked to take more time to soak it all in. I was eager to tackle Ann’s list though, and it was a long one.

Most of Ann’s destinations were routed through Union Station, and the first suggestion was to head back there and really look around. It is sort of two buildings in one. The Bus Terminal side is where I came in yesterday (and today), is all golden bricks on the outside, very grand and modern (in an old school way — modern like 1960s).

If you come in at the top, (the floor above the fishtanks) you are greeted by a giant mural.

LA is covered in murals, and I regret that I did not spend lots of time with the ones I saw. (I blame the heat sizzling up my unaccustomed Oregonian skin). There was a particularly beautiful one on a…federal building? mere blocks from here. But they are everywhere, and they are all a sight to behold. This one is domed by a gorgeous ceiling with intricate glasswork.

Underneath we see hints of the true era of the building in the typography of the signage.

The passageway is very interesting because you pass additional passageways that lead to train platforms.

You aren’t supposed to go up through those passageways unless you have a reason — in fact there’s posted signs everywhere telling you NOT TO, so you can’t really see anything other than the main passageway you’re walking through. But you CAN hear the sounds of trains, leaking up through all those passageways. It’s like walking through corridors of possibilities.

Most of the rest of the building is in a high art-deco style, with very ornate embellishments throughout.

Very posh waiting area. (For ticketed rail passengers only) Very posh waiting area. (For ticketed rail passengers only) Gorgeous ceiling Gorgeous ceiling

Every detail was so perfect. I honestly spent an hour on the western side of the building, taking photos and marveling. This is no forlorn wooden bench in an empty room. Union Station here is a major transit hub, servicing Amtrak, inner city rail, city buses, shuttle and express buses to various locations in the metro area, and of course a taxi waiting area. This was the first place I could have picked up an Uber yesterday. It feels more like an airport. There’s lighted lists for departures and arrivals. There’s a little shoe shine stand in the center with a news stand and a few refreshment places.

It seems like it has undergone massive renovation in preparations for the 75th anniversary of the building in 2014. Everything is clean, colorful, and beautiful. The waiting area features roomy bench-chairs have upholstered leather cushions. The original ticketing booths were roped off, but I hope to God they actually use those, because what could be better?

As you leave you are greeted with a mess of palm trees, and spread of whitewashed adobe buildings that lead you to Olvera Street — the birthplace of Los Angeles. And the epicenter of cute.

The first thing you actually see (apart from this darling thing, excellent for people-watching) is the Biscailuz Building, built in 1925 as a conference headquarters for the United Methodist Church. Today it searches as the Consulate-General of Mexico. And of course the first thing you really notice see is the mural of St. Francais’ Blessing of the Animals, painted by Leo Politi in 1979.

According to the plaque, the building is named after a county sheriff who ‘assisted Christine Sterling in preserving the area’. I’m not sure how he assisted her exactly, there is surprisingly little information about Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz online. I at first assumed he provided the inmates that served as Sterling’s restoration crew in 1928, but these were actually provided by Police Chief James Davis, who sounds like a fairly ruthless character. Maybe they just didn’t want to name a Christian conference center after a man who “emphasized firearm training” and became entangled with allegations of corruption.

Christine Sterling’s name comes up several times on signs on Olvera Street. She is the reason the oldest building in Los Angeles is still standing, and the person we have to thank for the overall feel of the place — an odd mixture of romanticized historical stereotype and celebration of heritage. Alvaro Parra has a great write up that explains more about Sterling and her vision of “a Mexican Street of yesterday in a city of Today”.

Because the reclamation and rechristening of Wine Street was a calculated act of marketing, it’s a tricky place to wrap your head around. There’s a Disneyland-ish, movie-set-like feeling to the area. It’s beautiful, of course — nice textures and colors and smells everywhere you look. (And what else — that’s precisely how it was designed.)

It’s hard to know what is “real” (that is, original to the 1800s), what is staged to look “real” (that is, inserted in the 1920s), and what has been restored to either state due to earthquakes. And whether any of that matters since it is all part of the complicated timeline of the place.

However, it was a grand place to eat my picnic lunch, and it was fun to stand around in ancient home compounds restored/saved from the days when California was still Mexico.

From here I walked to City Hall, which is of course bustling with official activity. There were hints of something special — more secret paintings tucked in behind blinding white stone — but inside was all grey and official business.

It felt a little weird to breeze into here, all sunshine and floral cotton, and pass through a metal detector just to see some scenery. I was a felt a little sheepish as the security guard asked me to state my purpose.

….I…I’ve been told there is an observation tower on the 27th floor?

He winked at me and said, did anybody tell you to go to the 3rd and 4th floor too? No? Well, make sure you do.

Boy was he right.

In Portland such a dazzling display would come with plaques explaining where all this glamour comes from, or why it exists. I haven’t looked that hard online, but as yet this is all a beautiful mystery to me. The most I have learned about the building was that it was built in 1928, has been retrofitted for earthquakes, and wa featured quite a bit on mid-century television. (It was Clark Kent’s Daily Mirror in the 1950s, and the building played itself in Dragnet, as the show (at least on the radio) took place in Los Angeles and the police officers worked out of…city hall!) I have since learned that the the concrete in the central tower of the was made with sand from each of California’s fifty eight counties and water from its twenty-one historical missions, which is exquisite. But no word on why these floors are dripping with adornment.

These photos were taken from the 4th floor, looking down at the third, and when I got off the elevator on other non-restricted floors briefly it looked like most of the building is not like this, but in fact the sort of Bureaucratic Drab typical of city office buildings.

To get up to the 27th floor — where the observtion deck is — requires a musical-elevator sequence. (Take a floors 1-10 car and then transfer to a 11-22 car, from there a 26 car, which leads you to a grand staircase to the top.) One is briefly on the 22nd floor which appears to exclusively house the Mayor’s office. On his door it also says “gang reduction and youth development”

There is only one big room on the 27th floor and it appears to be where the Mayor gives press conferences. There is a podium with the city seal on the front, and great tall windows that were closed with big red velvet curtains, so it was fairly cool up there. You exit through green doors and enjoy a 360* view of the city, with signs pointing out various landmarks, which helped. LA is a bewildering, vast place, but I could at least see where I had been, and sort of where I am staying.

I am ending this because it is HUGE and I feel like there needs to be a break in the narrative. But we are getting to the most important part of my day: Watts Towers.

Day 2: Ann’s tour 2017-03-10T08:44:42+00:00

Day 1: Arriving

By the time I reached Union Station I had been in transit about seven hours. City bus to light rail to airport, airplane to fancy shuttle bus to Union Station.

The fancy shuttle bus was suggested to me by my AirBnB host in one of our final logistics emails. I was grateful for the tip — the flat fee was MUCH cheaper than a taxi would have been, and it gave me at least an hour to relax just one last time before the burst of mental activity that comes from trying to navigate a new place. And fortunately Union Station at Los Angeles does a lovely job of trying to calm passengers down.

The place was covered in plants and tilework, and featured a gorgeous, ENORMOUS pair of fishtanks flanking the main foyer. I did not linger — as I didn’t want to keep my AirBnB host waiting too long — but I did think, I need to come back here.


I fly with confidence and I tend to bus and subway with a similar confidence, which can get one into trouble if one is not careful. I blame New York for this: my first real encounter with public transit was the New York subway system, and I had to navigate not only myself but my mother, who is a dear but didn’t take to the rapidity of adopted city life as quickly as my 17-year-old brain did. (We were only there a few days).

I also fall into that trap of not wanting to seem like a tourist, because TOURIST sends the dual signals of CLUELESS and OUTSIDER, which when you are a traveling alone can seem like bad signals to send. I don’t mind the whole gaping at things / taking pictures / staring in awe, because I do that anyway, a lot longer than most civilians. And it’s definitely not about blending in, because that’s NEVER been something I go in for. It’s just the Obviously Not From ‘Round Here thing I dislike.

Where did this come from? I didn’t grow up with these silly notions — we traveled a lot and played tourist in our own hometown, because what good are sights that remain unseen? I think Portland may have instilled this tourist-dread to me, because the demographics of Portland are shifting very quickly. The story often boils down to: Californians being ‘left behind’ by the technocrats move up to my neck of the woods where by local standards they are rich, and buy eye-sore condos that stand atop the ashes of beloved historic buildings. These transplants thereby drive the rents up, attract incomprehensible restaurants, clog our dainty streets with their big cumbersome cars, and drive away what made Portland worth coming to in the first place.

The story is obviously way more complicated than that — and that story does not take into account the historic displacement of people of color via red lining nor its countless previous instances of indelicate gentrification — and of course not EVERYONE who visits Portland falls in love with it and wants to stay. But it may be where desire to “pass” as a local comes from. This deft stepping from one bus to another without looking at a map.

It is something I need to shake, because it was to be my undoing on two notable occasions on this trip. The first happened now: as I hopped onto a bus and left Union Station. The direction was right and the route was right, but as soon as it pulled away from the curb, I thought, how am I going to know where my stop is?

Undoubtedly I assumed a look of mild panic. Or maybe it was just how I was dressed, (not like LA women), clutching the tell-tale SUITCASE which was not fooling anybody. I was from out of town, from another PLANET really, utterly alone and without a soul to turn to. Until, that is, an older woman across the isle from me caught my eye and smiled.

Are you from out of town?

I said yes, just flew in, and she smiles and welcomes me to Los Angeles. Her name is Ann. She’s lived in LA over ten years and LOVES the city. She takes transit all the time. You don’t need a car in LA!

I agreed, telling her I intended to spend my whole week here without renting a car.

She grins and says that’s GREAT. You’re doing it right. No need to spend your visit stuck in traffic.

She crosses the isle and begins to point out landmarks as we pass them. She asks me what I’m here for, I say an art show, and she says oh! You’re an artist! She begins to suggest things to do — things an artist might enjoy. I pull out my notebook and start to try and write these things down, and she says, you know what, you email me. I can give you a better list that way.

She fishes out a little slip of paper with her name and email address on it, and I hand her my card. And finally, with a little urgency, I tell her, I don’t know where my stop is.

I give her the neighborhood, and the cross streets, and tells me that I am actually on an express bus, that may not actually stop where I need it to. (Blast!) But before I can stop her, she is up and talking with the bus driver, and cajoles him to stop at the cross street I mention. What a gal! I thank her, we shake hands, and I walk up the hill towards my home base.

The view on the way to home base.  The view on the way to home base. This is the porch of my AirBnB, where I spent essentially ALL of my time.  This is the porch of my AirBnB, where I spent essentially ALL of my time.

Not twenty minutes later, after settling in a bit, I email her to assure her that I have indeed made it to my destination, and to thank her for rescuing me.

In response, Ann sends me an itinerary.

This is only a piece of it, transcribed onto paper for the following day. It was organized by region, little tours including points of interest great views, and things of artistic and cultural importance. And each tour was routed clearly via transit around Union Station or the neighborhood I was staying in.

It was such an incredible gift to be given, and such a generous thing for this woman to do for a complete stranger. I resolved that the following day — my first full day in Los Angeles, I would adopt Ann’s itinerary.

Day 1: Arriving 2017-03-06T12:08:15+00:00

LA: Intro

When I was about fourteen my family and I went to Disneyland.

Going to Disneyland is not the same thing as going to Los Angeles, particularly as we didn’t really venture that far beyond Anaheim. Aside from the obligatory Hollywood Day we pretty much stuck close to the world of fantasy, keeping reality at bay with the hefty entry fee. (One could argue that’s what Hollywood does too.)

What I remember most about LA from that trip was a lot of pollution, and a grey drab city off in the smoggy distance, impossible to capture with my disposable camera.

Other than this, my impressions of Los Angeles came from two very different eras:

1.) the impression one gets from old movies and radio shows circa 1930s – 50s, of LA being the dream machine, a place where movie magic happens, where Echo Park is mentioned constantly as a romantic date night spot.

2.) The modern consensus that LA is a dirty, vapid, consumerist city that is married to the automobile and refuses to join the 21st Century.

Because I’d never really BEEN to this city — and because these impressions that surely did not tell the whole story — I resolved to visit during the Manifest:Justice show.

I solicited help from a friend, a former Angeleno who is constantly advocating for the city. He gave me lots of great pointers, big and small. (Among them: eat a dirty dog and visit the Time Travel Mart.)

On his advice I set about looking for accommodation in the Echo Park neighborhood. I am new to AirBnb and was amazed at the range available — when I looked it was everything from an entire house in Beverly Hills to a beanbag on the floor of someone’s livingroom in Koreatown. Whatever your needs or style of travel, it was there. What this naturalist artist wanted was something peaceful, affordable, and historic (read: charming, functional and shabby. A place the muppets would have stayed in the late 70s).

I finally found something just right, whose images even promised a tranquil porch to sit and collect myself after what would surely be a rattling experience in the daily bustle of Somewhere New. I began to look at maps and make lists of things I might do, got packing, and somewhere in there did those pictures for the Willamette Week.

Then, I was off.

LA: Intro 2017-03-06T12:09:38+00:00