LA gets some really bad press. In some ways it’s well deserved. The only murder stories that make the news are those where kids are killed or injured. There were three of them tonight. The deaths that are attributed to the gang violence that is rampant in some parts of the city, seem to be treated more like death by natural causes. Given that the life expectancy of African Americans in some areas of the US is 37 years, you can see why.
On the other hand, despite the lingering haze that the weather channel tells us is ‘fog’, the city is a unique part of America and, probably, the world. We jumped the Santa Monica Freeway into downtown LA this morning and with very little trouble, had ourselves parked and on the downtown DASH bus inside half an hour. Traffic moved fairly well on the four to six lanes each way. As most Americans are very good drivers, all this works amazingly well. Along the way, through the haze, the high-rise buildings of this huge Megalopolis lined the freeway for the 12-15 miles into central LA. It seems that LA has almost the same number of skyscrapers as New York City; they are just scattered over an area about half the size of the whole of New York State.
Despite the common view both in the US and elsewhere, LA does have a city heart and it’s not too bad. Many of the older (1930s) buildings are either Mexican era reproductions or excellent Art Deco masterpieces. The fabulous Union Station is both. Along with the nearby Pueblo de Los Angeles, the history of this city is well preserved. We loved the oldest house in LA, the Adobe Avilo. Right in the middle of this crazy city, you can sit alone in a small, quiet courtyard with desert dust, cactus and orange trees.
Modern buildings are set in open plazas with landscaped gardens and evergreen trees, including Moreton Bay figs.
The heyday of the downtown movie houses that once lined Broadway have long gone. Bargain bazaars and cheap food outlets now occupy the once-grand foyers of the Odeon, the Tower, the Palace and many other, long-defunct picture shows. Some day, this whole area will be restored, and what is now a seedy area of urban decay, will have a new life.
Back in Santa Monica this afternoon, we were down to T-shirts for a walk on the beach. The distance from the ocean to the sidewalk is almost 1 kilometer of sand. This clean golden sand is raked and rolled every night to keep it neat.
An amazingly small section of Santa Monica Beach is home to about fifteen (mostly private) dwellings sitting right on the beach. They seem to have been there since the 1930s or 40s and their owners must have been very distressed when Highway 1 was created at their backyards. Never mind, the price tags for what were probably once simple beach shacks, would probably console them.
Image is all in the illusion that is Hollywood. That image has been very effectively projected, because the reality is far from magical.
By day, Hollywood Boulevard is just a street. Sure, there are some movie theatres and a few attractions like a Wax Works, Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the Hollywood Guinness Book of Records. Grotty souvenir shops and the ubiquitous chain fast food restaurants fill-in the spaces in the 2-3 kilometers that form the Hollywood strip. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was the one point of real interest. From the early years of the ‘Hollywood Movie Era’, the greatest stars have been invited to write messages and put their hand and foot (in some cases, nose and hoof) prints into the theatre’s concrete sidewalk.
Rodeo Drive was another disappointment. A small enclave of exclusive, characterless, brand-name shops in a bland streetscape dominated by financial district high-rise buildings. At 11a.m., the rich and famous had yet to surface.
Houses in Beverly Hills are happily not as over sold as the rest of the ‘Hollywood glitter’. Even in these winter months, the gardens are beautiful and, without exception, homes are truly stylish and tasteful (with the assistance of the Mexican “help”).
In the midst of all this glitz and glamour are the La Brea Tar Pits. For thousands of years, tar expelled from oil deposits has oozed to the surface of the earth, setting deadly traps for hundreds of thousands of animals whose fossilised bones have been excavated since the early 1900s. A well-presented (though small) museum contains complete skeletons of extinct animals that roamed the LA Valley hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Driving around LA is an experience in itself. Traffic flows as long as you avoid peak hours. Parking is not a problem even in the centre of tourist areas like Hollywood and Beverly Hills. But how many cars are there in this city? Parking lots line most major roads and in the many centres of this mammoth city, high-rise parking blocks are almost as numerous as other buildings. Meanwhile, every alley, street and freeway is packed with cars.. cars.. cars..
Our last full day in the US.
After two months we have just about got the hang of freeway driving. Today we jumped the I-405 to Long Beach to see the Queen Mary. Six ‘traffic-packed’ lanes each way travel at 70-80 miles per hour, (that’s 120-130 kms per hour) with a speed limit of 65 mph. Nobody seems to abide by the limit even though it’s rigidly enforced. The theory seems to be that there are so many of ‘us’ – drivers, and so few of ‘them’ – the Highway Patrol. It’s a bit like a single lion stalking the mass migration of wildebeest on the Serengeti. Every now and then, the lion pounces on a slow wildebeest. The message is that one should never be the lagging vehicle in a group when the Highway Patrol vehicle slips up an on-ramp to join the fray. To avoid such a fate, just go like hell!
After two days of hazy skies, we were treated to a clear and very warm (22C) day. The Queen Mary was an interesting, although outrageously expensive outing. Walking the halls of this grand lady, one could easily imagine the ‘high life’ enjoyed by first class travellers. Many thousands of Australian troops travelled on the Queen Mary in far less luxurious circumstances as they were transported to Africa and the Middle East in the early days of WWII.
As the afternoon heated up, we drove north through Malibu. A beautiful drive with beaches and headlands that seem to go on forever. The many rich and famous who have houses on the Malibu coast seem to accept great risks, with their expensive houses teetering over the ocean supported by wooden pylons.
To top it all off, we walked along the beach from Santa Monica to Venice Beach this afternoon, witnessing a beautiful sunset and hundreds of very ‘different’ people!!
While we are swanning about in shirt sleeves, the news tonight has stories of Arctic weather conditions all up the East Coast. The Hudson is freezing over. Florida has temperatures below zero… and we are hot!!!
We have again been blessed with great weather throughout this trip. It has rained on two days out of two months and even then, only for parts of the day. We will reflect further on our US ‘adventure’ when we get home.
29 January (Reflections)
Travel to the USA was always low on our travel priority list.
Now that we have finally had a taste we will return.
Our previous reluctance can probably be attributed to a perception that the USA would be much the same as home. To some extent, this was true. Language and some cultural aspects were obviously no surprise. What did hit us was the gap between the projected image of the US and the reality.
Sure, there is no questioning the nation’s pre-eminence on the world’s stage, the great monetary wealth, phenomenal infrastructure, industry, natural resources and, above all, the total devotion of its citizens to their country and all it represents. And this is what is projected and believed by most, both in and outside the US.
But what about the millions of poor and homeless who haunt every city and town? We have seen rural poverty at home in Australia and in Eastern Europe and the few drunks and unfortunates who live in the streets of Australian and European cities. The scale of the problem in the USA was a shock. Perhaps it’s the difference between the more egalitarian semi-socialist systems at home and in Europe as opposed to the US’s interpretation of capitalism?
The divide is clear, and sadly, it’s still geographic and racial. Broadly speaking, west of the Mississippi is a vastly different world to the crowded cities of the east. Statistically, African Americans, who are far more numerous in the east and south, are more likely to die young and die poor. Compounding this huge social divide, is the fact that many Americans from the safe, green, clean, ‘cheer-leader’ side of the tracks seem blissfully unaware that there is another world out there.
Having said what had to be said…
The USA is GREAT!
People are friendly and polite – VERY polite. Travel is easy – if expensive! And the scenery is breathtaking. We feel as though we have in some ways visited a number of different countries within the US.
New York is a world on its own and most Americans see it in the same way.. ‘New York is not America’. Exciting, BIG city feel, art and culture up there with the best of them, but definitely not America.
New England and the north east has a certain ‘old world charm’.
The ‘Old South’ retains and dotes on the heritage of the ante-bellum culture with which it is romantically linked. Grinding away under this façade is the reality of some yet unhealed scars of the segregation years and the development of a large ‘underclass’ of poor, both black and white.
Texas! What can you say? BIG. Beautiful and exciting!
The West coast and the ‘desert states’ felt a lot like home –with the exception of Las Vegas (Wow! - where did that place come from?) – laid-back, beaches, natural wonders and a diverse, but fairly settled, ‘cool’ populace.
See the footprints in the photo above? They’re heading for Egypt and maybe a return to Turkey………………………………….
Paul & Janita