26 November 2009

Santa Monica

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So I was back on the road again, jetting over the Pacific with a three day stopover in Los Angeles breaking the journey to England.  Los Angeles was the place I visited at the start of my very first overseas trip when my mother and I journeyed to the US in 1990, but since that time I’d not returned, aside from a few brief hours in a Culver City mall in 1999.  Los Angeles always seemed like hard work, with huge distances and scant public transport.  But with a bit of internet research I was confident I could get about the city and keep myself entertained for a few days, which would have the beneficial effect of breaking up the long and often spirit-sapping journey from Auckland to London.

Feeling surprisingly human after managing to get a few hours sleep on the flight from Auckland, I lugged my three bags onto the free minibus that toured the seemingly endless parking lots adjacent to LAX before dropping me at the transit centre – which is a fancy name for a bus stand.  There I picked up the Big Blue Bus to Santa Monica for the princely sum of 75 cents.  (It was fortunate that I had some quarters from my last visit to the US, because American buses are picky about taking exact change).  Forty-five minutes later at 4th and Broadway, Santa Monica, I recognised my stop and cleared out of the bus, allowing the other passengers some respite from my bulky possessions.

I’d chosen Santa Monica for my base because of its accessibility from LAX and the presence of a YHA.  Santa Monica is also a tourist destination in its own right, with its lovely beach and historic pier attracting many visitors.  It had also been in the news as the recent announcement that Santa Monica pier would be considered as the termination point of the famous Route 66 generated some controversy amongst purists.

The hostel is in a great location just a block from the pier and near the 3rd Street Promenade pedestrian mall in which the locals stroll and window-shop.  The Lonely Planet had referred to the hostel as ‘institutional’, but generally I’ve found that to be a plus rather than a minus because it contrasts with the sort of hostel I try to avoid, which is the ones described as ‘funky’ (or, even worse, ‘laid-back’).  The institutional description was accurate in that the hostel was well organised, smartly furnished, and scrubbed to within an inch of its life by an army of small Latino ladies.  Of particular interest to me was the large metal locker assigned to each guest, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about the bag with my laptop in it going wandering while I was out exploring.         

By the time I’d settled in at the hostel there was only time to explore the near neighbourhood.  It wasn’t far to the beginning of the far-reaching Wilshire Boulevard, which brought back memories of endless episodes of Chips watched as a child – every gap-filling stock footage always seemed to feature the radio-distorted voice of a female police controller going on about traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.  I strolled out on the pier, which was built in 1909 and has long been a focal point of the area.  The glowing sunset and its warm light proved to be an attraction in its own right.   

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As luck would have it, my main objective was to visit the Getty Center and the hostel had organised one of its weekly expeditions on my first full day in Los Angeles.  I waited in the lobby at 11am the next morning with my $5 expecting a minibus trip, but it turned out to be a volunteer who was going to guide the dozen or so hostellers to the Getty by public bus.  Given the complexities involved and the need to transfer midway, it probably made sense. 

The Center was built using a massive bequest of oil tycoon J Paul Getty(1892-1976), who was one of the richest men in the world.  It sits atop a jutting spur west of the UCLA campus and the wealthy homes of Bel Air.  Access to the museum is by an automated tram, which snakes its way up the ridge to the futuristically designed art precincts above.  The Getty’s collections are a mix of classical European artforms and some splendid photographic exhibits.  The highlight for me was the intriguing photos of Irving Penn, whose mid-20th century portraits of tradespeople in New York, London and Paris providing a rich insight into the economic and social history of the time. 

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Above: Getty stairs; Getty entrance foyer; detail of Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s portrait of Princess Leonilla of Seyn-Wittgenstein-Seyn (1843); detail of Fernand Khnopff’s portrait of Jeanne Kefer (1885); idealised female head sculpture by Augustin Pajou (1769-70)

In the hostel dorm I met two young Australian guys who had just flown in to explore America for the first time.  Later, I ran into them again and asked how they’d spent their first day in Los Angeles.  Their reply: “We’ve been drinking for five straight hours, and then we had dinner at Hooters”.  Nice to see young people taking an interest in local culture.

Staying in an American youth hostel also exposed me to a little of the commercial music being listened to by ‘the kids’, particularly at breakfast time in the cafeteria.  What surprised me about the tracks on high-rotate was the prevalence of autotuned vocals in many of the songs.  I hope this is only a passing trend, because it really overshadows good performances and encourages listeners to think that the performers aren’t capable of singing for themselves.  Plus it makes pop music sound like it’s all performed by Stephen Hawking, which aside from the initial novelty value can only be good in very small doses unless you’re somewhat more of a masochist than me.

The next day I took a freeway bus into downtown LA to explore.  It’s not the most inviting city centre, but there are a few sights to take in, particularly a selection of the city’s older buildings.  I was particularly keen to see the now disused Angels Flight funicular railway near Bunker Hill because it was mentioned in Michael Penn’s excellent song ‘Strange Season’ from his 1992 album Free-For-All, which also featured the Angels Flight on its cover.  I also paid a quick visit to the viewing platform atop the splendid edifice of the City Hall (1928) to see the city from on high. 

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Union Stn 20.11.09There was just time to admire the lofty spaciousness of the elegant Union Station before I took the Red Line subway westwards to explore the centre of Hollywood Boulevard.  Only $1.25 too – a bargain when compared to similar journeys in London.

Stitched Panorama As it happens, I was glad to have visited Hollywood but it turned out to not be my sort of place.  The exit to the subway station at Hollywood & Highland was swarming with tour vendors, lookalikes and hucksters, and despite the fact that the area has been tarted up, it all felt rather desperate, verging on seedy.  Sure, the lookalikes were amusing for a moment, particularly the pairing of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ with ‘Michael Jackson’ because the Jacko lookalike was distinguished by looking nothing like the actual Michael Jackson.  Still, you pays your money, you takes your chances.  I lingered a short while to have a look at the architectural excesses of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, spotted a power trio of Hollywood legends on the Walk of Fame (see below), and sauntered down Hollywood Boulevard to learn that the area is dominated by a slightly sleazy collection of wig shops and costumiers.  Still, you have to be impressed by the straight-ahead oddness of a place that sports a shop called Hollywood Ninja Inc. (6511 Hollywood Blvd) – its shop frontage touts the heady delights of ‘mace, water pictures [?], stun guns, handcuffs’. 

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Above: Hollywood Walk of Fame – Ray Harryhausen, Harold Lloyd and Jane Russell

I returned to Downtown on the Red Line and took the bus back to Santa Monica, where I boarded yet another bus to take me along the coast to nearby Venice Beach, home of a thriving LA counterculture.  If you want a tattoo, Venice is definitely the place to come.  Or if you want to buy beads.  As it was nearly dusk the majority of the usual crowds of odd types were relatively thin and the Venice Boardwalk was dominated by early evening roller-bladers, cyclists and walkers, but it was pleasant to spend an hour or so watching the gravity-defying antics at the skatebowl and soaking up the golden sunshine while it lasted.

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On my last night in Santa Monica I strolled out to the end of the pier to await the early sunset, enjoying the warm evening air and snapping away merrily with my camera trying to capture the exact moment.  There was also plenty of time after my meal of tasty shwarma (at Alexandria Cafe, 109 Broadway) to wander the 3rd Street Promenade, which was clogged with excited patrons queuing for the midnight screenings of the new Twilight movie.  Plenty of buskers had turned out to entertain them, including a guy with three skateboarding dogs, but the best was a female singer whose Suzanne Vega-styled vocals were so impressive that they even surpassed the cacophonous accompaniment of her hippie mate on bongos.  (Just say no to bongos, kids).  

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The next day I lugged my stuff out to the airport again and headed off to London.  It was an enjoyable few days in Los Angeles, and I was glad to have experienced the easy-going lifestyle in Santa Monica first hand.  I’d certainly base myself there again if I was passing through LA, and the call of the Getty and a few other galleries that I didn’t have time to visit, like the Hammer and the LACMA, may well encourage another visit soon.  I was particularly impressed with the good-naturedness of the locals – you would often observe strangers talking to each other amiably on the bus, and ready smiles seemed uniform amongst many Angelinos.  Perhaps they know they’re onto a good thing in Santa Monica by the sea.

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