Contrary to What randy Newman may think…

I do NOT love L.A.  I don’t hate it either, but generally can take it or leave it. 

I just came back from a trip to SoCal for business, and I did what I’m generally quite good at – stretching out a business trip at no additional cost to my company and turning it into a little getaway and a chance to see a new city, with the flight subsidized by my employer.  I truly love doing that.

So what’s the deal with L.A.?  Well, to be honest, a lot of the negative stuff you may have heard is pretty much true.  There’s a lot of freakin’ traffic.  A lot.  Imagine the entire population of China trying to drive on the street you live on… that’s what the traffic is like.  There’s also smog, and there’s a certain level of superficiality to just about everything there.

First of all, the traffic.  Yes, its true, the traffic in L.A. sucks.  This is coming from someone regularly has to deal with Boston area traffic, which I thought sucked, but I now find out merely blows.  What’s the most amazing about it is that it is NOT just the highways during the rush hour commutes – it is the traffic on the streets and ALL HOURS of the day!  Trying to navigate down Santa Monica Boulevard on Saturday afternoon was nearly impossible and driving down Sunset Boulevard during… well, just driving down Sunset anytime just sucked.   It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that people have starved to death trying to get out of traffic, except with all the fast food places in L.A. that would be pretty much impossible.

(side note: Boston still takes the prize in total lack of traffic pattern logic and/or reason. For example: my flight to LA was at 6:30 on Thursday morning, so I figured I would stay over at an airport hotel Wednesday night.  I went out with Andrea that night, and ended up leaving her house in Newton around 11:30 p.m. to go to the hotel near Logan.  Thanks to the Mass Pike and Rte. 93 effectively being shut down, it took me – and several hundred cars clearly trying to find their way to Logan – about an hour to go five miles, including driving through half of downtown Boston) 

Second, the city is just really tough to get around.  I’m a big fan of big cities, but my idea of cities are based on Boston, Chicago, NYC, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, etc.  Concentrated hubs of metropolitan activity.  L.A. isn’t that sort of place.  It’s very rambling and spread out, which means everyone needs a car, which adds to the traffic and smog.  I think the city is probably TOO well designed – big, wide roads and tons of traffic controls and signs give the appearance of it being easy to drive in L.A., which means that everyone tries to drive – all at the same time.  So those big wide streets aren’t big and wide enough any more. 

Subways, buses, and cabs exist because people need them, and in other cities, they do.  These public transit systems do exist in L.A. but I’m not sure if anyone uses them, since everything is designed for cars.  Of course, that is also part of being a relatively newer city and not having buildings and streets from the 1700’s like cities on the East Coast. 

Between the traffic and the layout of the city, I ended up doing only a third of the things I wanted to do, which is unusual for me.

Third, there’s just a lack of a true “L.A. experience.”  When I travel, I want to make the most of visiting a new place.  I get a few tour guidebooks, a couple of maps, and surf the web so I can get a good feel for the city, its layout, how to get around, and where to go and what to do.  It preps me for the trip, makes me feel comfortable and prevents me from aimlessly wandering, looking for something to do while also maximizing my time. 

I usually look for a definitive eating experience, such as Cheesesteaks in Philly, pizza in Chicago, a hot dog from a street vendor in New York, a PoBoy in New Orleans, Chili in Cincinatti… you get the idea (ever notice how these things are NEVER healthy for you?).   Then I look for a music or entertainment scene that is associated with the city – I’ve been to a country dance hall in Dallas, several blues clubs in Chicago, jazz in New Orleans, and strip clubs in Tampa and New York (hey, when in Rome…). 

Then I look for the museums and/or major attractions in a city, such as the Art Museum (and its stairs) and Independence Park in Philly, the Empire State Building in New York, or the Book Depository and opposing Conspiracy Museum in Dallas. 

The other thing I love to look for is a unique food/merchandise farmer’s market type of place.  One of the best I’ve ever found was the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, and the Farmer’s Market in Dallas was a great experience. 

Lastly, I also try to figure out the “nightlife” area in a city – Elm street in Dallas, Lansdowne Street in Boston, Rush Street in Chicago, etc. etc.

Since this has worked so well for me in the past and for this trip, I tried to do the same, but right from the start it was difficult to identify the key L.A. experience in terms of culture, food, drink, or whatever. 

Again, this stems from a unique “problem” with LA, which I guess may not even be a problem in itself: the greater “city” of LA is made up of literally dozens of smaller cities and although in a few miles you can go through several of them, making you feel like you’re in the same place, you’re not.  Santa Monica is very different from Hollywood, which is surprisingly different from Beverly Hills, and none of them is like downtown LA itself.  So I guess you can look at it as an upside that there’s so many different parts – if they weren’t so much alike for a visitor.

See, my overall impression of LA is that it’s a huge collection of malls connected by highways.  Go to Santa Monica and you’ll find a neat little shopping area with the Santa Monica pier with some carnival rides and shops and restaurants.  Up from there is the pedestrian mall that has more shops and restaurants.  Then if you go to the “farmers market” in Hollywood, you’ll find that it has been built over with more Johnny Rockets, and Borders and Gap stores.  All the streets are lined with strip mall after strip mall. 

I realized how out of control this was when I saw the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are held.  Now, you think that the Oscars would be held in some incredible theater standing majestically by itself on Hollywood Boulevard – kind of like Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which is just next door.  However, it is actually surrounded by a MALL!  The entrance to the theater is basically a shopping mall, and it kind of feels like just a really fancy typical mall movie theater.  Rather disappointing. 

Let’s face it, one of the most defining places of Los Angeles is Rodeo Drive, which is really nothing but a very fancy, upscale shopping district.  Whee.

So anyway, before I go on and on dissing Los Angeles, I have to say that it is an amazing city, unlike just about any other.  Most large cities are variations on the same idea, but LA breaks that mold, which I guess isn’t that surprising.  There is certainly a lot to do, though I’m not sure if I feel like it is work going back to explore it all. 

If you want to do a lot of shopping, it’s a wet dream come true.  If you are into following the personal lives of the stars like a stalker (which I’m not into – in fact, I freakin’ HATE magazines like People, Us, Star, etc. and pretty much the entire “E!” channel), then it is obviously the place to be.  If you’re really into movies, I guess there’s some cool stuff there, but admittedly not as much as I thought there would be.  There are also some remarkable landscapes not far outside of the city that is again unlike just about anything else in the country. 

So my advice for the traveler finding him or herself in LA for only a day or two would be to pick a SINGLE area and explore it well.  If you want to hear music and party in the clubs, stay somewhere on Sunset (the old “Riot House Hyatt” or the Best Western, for example) and stick around there.  There’s enough bars, clubs and restaurants to keep you entertained for several days, never mind 1 or 2.  If you’re a movie fan, stay in Hollywood, or maybe Beverly Hills.  If you want the West Coast ocean/surfer experience, stay in Santa Monica or Venice Beach.  But overall, just pick a part and stick with it.  I made the mistake of trying to see as much as I could and as a result, didn’t see nearly as much as I wanted.

I’m not sure why LA didn’t appeal to me – I usually like variety and differences in culture and experiencing a wide range of new things.  I think part of it stems of the lack of identity I spoke of earlier.  When a city has defining cultural elements, it does more than just provide identity, it also provides character and charm.  I did not find LA charming in any sense.  As the definitive "big city," most people wouldn’t define New York City as “charming” either, but it does have character, a sense of identity, pride in that identity, and therefore, I think it does exude quite a bit of charm.  LA didn’t capture me in that way – nothing that made me want to stay there, move there, or urge me to come back and explore more. 

Anyway – that’s my philosophical view of Los Angeles.  Details of the trip coming up next!