My friend J is heading off to LA at the beginning of next week, and that has set me a-ponderin'. What would I recommend, from my years of visiting that city (where D has been living while working behind-the-scenes on a variety of TV shows), to a visitor who doesn't want to do the typical touristy rounds?
It has to be said that LA does resist the "typical tourism" that can envelop cities like NY and DC - largely because it is not a city in which one sets out to "do" things in any sort of strict, culture-vulturey way. Instead it is a city of peregrination* and of consumption. In LA, one eats, one shops**, one wanders. It is (with some notable exceptions, like the Hollywood sign) a city of experiences rather than of sights.
So what I recommend below are my favorite LA experiences, hoping to err neither on the side of the hopelessly touristy and mainstream, nor on the side of the truly avant-garde and hipster. So here you have it, not the Miracle Mile, but the Eccentric Ell:
- Traipse through the canals of Venice (left). The beach community of Venice, CA - before it became the home of Muscle Beach, cutting-edge skateboarding, and experimental art galleries - was laid out as a miniature version of its Mediterranean namesake. All the houses faced not roads but canals, and you could paddle to your neighbor's house to borrow a cup of sugar. Many of the canals have, I believe, been filled in now, but the watery blocks that remain are some of the most coveted property in the city. Some maintain their original small, beachy flavor; other plots have been bought by artists and architects and renovated in innovative and distinctive ways.
- While you are in Venice, nip over to Abbot Kinney (named after the visionary who created the original "Venice of America") for some intensely Californian window shopping. Sit at Jin Patisserie and partake in painfully exquisite tea and cakes.
- Blow your mind at The Museum of Jurassic Technology - I am reluctant to say too much about this experience, which will either thrust you into a state of the most profound rage or leave you with a feeling of quasi-religious mental displacement. Suffice it to say that 1) no, there is no such thing as Jurassic Technology, and 2) this shrine to eccentricity won its creator the MacArthur "Genius" Award. OK, that will not quite suffice, so let me say this: when you emerge out of the Cavalcade of Oddities that are the exhibits, and the Exercise in Productive (?) Bafflement that is the movie screening, and you move zombie-like into the Russian Tea-Room of Awkward Conversation, there to drink tea from the samovar and eat dry biscuits with your shell-shocked fellow travelers (er, museum-goers), you will finally understand, as my friend DD said in a swivet of ill-contained fury, that you are the primary exhibit in the MJT. If you must know more about this zen koan of an experience, visit this link or this one.
- Eat huge feasts incorporating many kinds of tiny foods for shockingly affordable prices. All my favorite foodstuffs in LA come in this form: dim sum, tapas, rijsttaffel. One type of feast is the exception to the affordability rule, but still well worth the attempt: Korean barbecue. Yum.
- See a film at Grauman's Chinese Theatre - If you choose one stereotypical tourist activity to engage in, I would make it this one. The one time I went to Grauman's Chinese, it was to see the execrable Be Cool, in which the characters lurk about Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Oh, the meta-piphany that was. See, Grauman's can make even Be Cool delightful. Almost. [The one alternative I would suggest for "stereotypical tourist activity" is one I have never myself experienced - a trip to the Observatory in Griffith Park to reenact Rebel without a Cause. It was closed for renovations the last time I was in the neighborhood.]
- Have the caprese at Pizzeria Mozza. Yes, that's a picture of it on the front page of the website: the most flavorful, on-the-vine tomatoes you have ever tasted, placed on top of a mozzarella burrata that can only be described as epiphanic. Try to ignore the twenty-something guys with expense accounts at the table next to you, ordering dozens of pizzas, taking a piece of each, and then leaving the rest to be thrown away. There is a special place in Dante's hell waiting for them. Its theme is the completion of tasks begun and the proper appreciation of good food. It is populated by grotesque creatures whose eyes are exactly the size of their enormous stomachs.
- See a show or a workshop at the Kirk Douglas. The most active (although by no means the only - this is a show business town, after all) theatre organization in LA is the Center Theatre Group, which runs the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas. Its shows and its ambiance can definitely tend toward the corporate, but its smallest theatre, the Kirk Douglas, is both the most cutting edge and the most romantic (it has renovated an old-fashioned marquis cinema in the middle of the charmingly pedestrian-friendly old Hollywood studio town of Culver City). You are most likely to see new work here, even work that is in the midst of being workshopped, giving you the opportunity to give playwrights, actors and directors your feedback. You can also catch established avant-garde theatre groups here (as paradoxical as that description may seem). It is our favorite of the LA theatre companies that D and I have sampled so far, and not just because it is a lovely evening walk from D's house.
- Drop by the Huntington in Pasadena. After strolling about in the gardens (stunning - there is nothing like seeing hummingbirds feed in the Shakespearean Garden in January), nip into the Library proper to see the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, complete with illuminated portraits of each of the pilgrims (including Geoffrey himself).
So I put it to you: does anyone have other LA eccentricities to recommend?
* See how I did that: from vultures to falcons? That's right: I work with words for a living. (Although, strictly speaking, peregrination implies pedestrian movement, while LA is - in Reyner Banham's words - an autopia. You can see his brilliantly English lovesick ode to LA below.)
** And LA shopping doesn't necessarily have the grimly corporate, acquisitive tinge that I generally associate with the activity, in part because - although it is a city entirely composed of strip malls - these strip malls are filled with independent businesses, unique boutiques, mom-and-pop endeavors, and restaurants offering up obscure national cuisines. There is more individuality in an LA strip-mall than I have encountered most other places.