Following my day on the Coast Starlight travelling down from San Francisco, my first day in Los Angeles couldn’t have started in much more typical fashion as my cousin dropped me off at Santa Monica Pier under palm trees, blues skies and a blazing hot sun.
For my first two days in the city I had planned for a couple of days of hyper-touristy activity with a ticket for one of the many open top bus tours that crisscross the northern section of the city in the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills and head into Downtown. ‘Hopping’ onto the bus at its first stop in Santa Monica it wound its way through the wide palm-tree-lined streets and boulevards of the beach side city making it abundantly clear that this is one of the more up market areas of Los Angeles County.
From Santa Monica the tour headed into Westwood Village. The compact area of high-rise buildings next to a freeway was hardly what I’d picture when someone said village but, the explanation that it was built to serve the nearby university campus, gave it a little more context and we caught glimpses of the open park areas that lead up to the campus behind the buildings. While not quite as picturesque as its Berkeley counterpart the idea was obviously similar and did looked entirely different to any image of LA one might have.
‘Glamorous’ Beverley Hills was up next and the tour guide, a recording in a strangely false, over the top, British accent, made a point of highlighting the ‘Beverley Hills’ signs that welcome people to the area. Ironically the one we passed sat in the forecourt of a petrol station somewhat destroying the supposed mystique.
Despite that the surrounding area was clearly exceptionally well off with big houses set back from the widest streets I saw in the city, most with richly green central reservations that we were told were often used by ‘famous residents’ for jogging, though we didn’t see any of course.
It was here the two most frustrating elements of an otherwise enjoyable tour first cropped up. First were the constant references to the fact we might spot someone famous, despite the deserted streets and the fact that anyone with a reasonable level of fame would likely make sure to never buy property on a tour bus route. Secondly, and slightly more disturbingly, were the stories of celebrity murders and deaths – these cropped up throughout the tour but started here with the OJ Simpson case as we passed the street on which his former property lay.
While these kind of stories possibly combine to offer a fair reflection of the tourist appeal of Los Angeles, the glee with which the darker ones were recounted was somewhat disturbing – though I did notice we were spared the less celebrity events such as the Black Dahlia, possibly only because we didn’t pass close enough to the scene though.
After a change of bus, onto the tour’s Hollywood loop, on a back street behind Beverley Hills City Hall – again not showing the city’s best side – we headed through the shopping heart of Beverley Hills where it borders onto West Hollywood (more of that later) and towards LACMA and the Le Brea Tar Pits, where I ‘hopped off’.
Having been to LACMA last time I was here I headed around it into the park that contains the tar pits and I was surprised at quite how literal the name is. Entering the park the first thing I encountered was a small lake that was black with tar just under the surface and, in one corner, protruding from the water, along with the very noticeable smell. To illustrate just what the whole idea of the tar pits is, in the lake is a model of a trapped mammoth along with another on the bank as if trying to rescue it – while a little hokey looking these statues illustrate things well and set up what’s to come in the rest of the museum.
Inside the first thing you see is a cross-section block of tar full of the bones of several animals giving an idea of quite what has been unearthed here. This is followed by a wall-sized photo of the same site in the early 1900s with oil wells and barren earth in place of the green park and Beverly Hills, showing just how this area has changed in the last century.
A family friendly 3D film then introduces us to the changing landscapes from prehistory to now that led to the formation of the tar pits and how quite so many animals came to be found in one place from mammoths, to sabre tooth cats to dire wolves to, hinted at but less explicitly demonstrated, ancient humans. While simple in tone it set the scene well and had some nice touches and surprisingly good production values.
The rest of the museum was fairly simple with skeletons, animatronic dioramas and recreated statues of the various creatures that roamed the planes of this area as man was first staking his claim on the planet
Amongst this was a chance to see some of the sites archaeologists at work cleaning and analyzing some of the objects unearthed, while the most striking display was a wall of dire wolf skulls showing just how many skeletons had been pulled from the pits over the years, with more still being unearthed.
Back out in the park a few more tar pits are visible with one open to view ongoing excavations, showing just how near the surface some of these things are being found and making clear quite how much oil must still sit beneath the city.
From the tar pits it was only a few blocks to the Los Angeles Farmers Market, so I thought I’d walk over that way for lunch. As is typical with LA, despite the short walk between the two relatively well-known attractions (yes the Farmers Market is marketed as an attraction), I saw only two other pedestrians on the street between the two.
The market itself was a covered area with many small shops and stalls inside, mostly cafes and eateries with shared seating in between. The range of food available was astounding and speaks volumes about the city’s varied nature in terms of ethnic communities and all of it had at least some hint of being a genuine version of the cuisine rather than a strictly Americanised take.
After a snack I rejoined the bus tour for a drive along Melrose Avenue passed the High School apparently attended by Slash and members of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and a supposedly world-famous hot dog restaurant – in keeping with the tours use of hyperbole, I’d never heard of it.
More interestingly as we turned off Melrose it was clear we were now firmly in Hollywood as several studios were visible a block or so off the main streets we were navigating with one having housed RKO pictures at one stage of its history and now being used for several internationally popular TV shows.
From there we joined Hollywood Boulevard and its strange mix of ostentatious architecture, history and some of the most crass tourist baiting I’ve ever seen.
Leaving the bus at the junction of Hollywood and Highlands I made my way along the north side of the boulevard where the sidewalk is lined with stars baring the names of (at least) hundreds of stars of stage, screen, radio, music and theatre. While some of the names, particularly those on this stretch, are household names around the world, others are a real mix of known names and some who I have no idea who they were and if it weren’t for the symbol on their star I wouldn’t even know what they did.
These stars stretch up and down this and several adjoining streets with more being added all the time, though its hard to really discern quite why as they don’t really seem to be awarded for any particular reason other than to mark donations to the city – hence the hodgepodge nature of those featured I guess.
Graunman’s Chinese Theatre on the other hand features some more instantly recognisable names alongside their handprints in its courtyard, though I was again left wondering quite why they are there and what they mean.
While exploring the area I did my best to avoid the Scientology propaganda being handed out near one of several buildings associated with the alleged ‘church’ and in doing so stumbled across the other, lesser known, Grauman’s theatre location – the Egyptian. More modest in size and location than the Chinese counterpart it was in many ways more interesting to see as its typical Egyptian-style design added another layer to the confusing mish-mash that is Hollywood.
There was more Egyptian themed design in the Hollywood and Highlands mall where I spent a few minutes before meeting up with my cousin again and heading towards Pasadena for dinner and a movie.
The drive took us through Silverlake and a few other more residential areas and again showing just how different each of the cities that make up greater Los Angeles manage to be despite the fact they flow into one another without a break.
In Pasadena the venue for the movie was the Laemmle Playhouse 7 a real, old cinema, originally dating back to the early days of Hollywood, though obviously renovated since, but it still maintained something of the flavour of an older cinema and, as a small independent venue, had a great atmosphere to it that is sadly lacking from many cinemas today.
The film we came to see was All Things Must Pass, a history of Tower Records that was a genuinely fascinating story about the chain of record stores that started in Northern California and, by the mid-90s, was a worldwide brand. The movie is directed by Colin Hanks (son of Tom) and is currently on something of a roadshow type tour of independent cinemas and festivals, following a Kickstarter funding project and I would certainly recommend it if you have the chance to see it.
After the movie the drive back across the city was again surprisingly quick considering the distance covered rounding up my first of several very busy days in LA.