My sister gave me a good primer on how she learned to live Los Angeles:
“Just accept that you’re always going to be in traffic and that everybody’s a tool, and you’ll be fine.”
It’s a bit harsh, but that’s my sister. The truth is, she loves L.A. And after a few years of coming here, so do I. It has a great deal in common with Miami (another city I love), in that both seem all about their surface shimmer and are, therefore, easy to dismiss. But if you’re willing to dig a little bit, you can find some amazing treasures.
My sister lives in Hollywood, near a convent that supports itself by baking homemade pumpkin bread. This is not the kind of establishment one expects to find within shouting distance of the Walk of Fame, but that’s L.A. Strange, lovely, phony, vain, and profound. An incongruous place. A city that has no business being where it is, and remains there just the same.
Some of that incongruity is on display on Fairfax Avenue, a strange combination of Jewish delicatessens and hip shoe stores where people stand in line for hours before opening so they can be the first to grab the latest kicks. One of the beloved spots on this street is called Cofax (Coffee on Fairfax), which intentionally shares a sonic similarity with baseball legend Sandy Koufax, possibly the greatest left-handed pitcher in history, as well as a nice Jewish boy who called his mother.
And, in typical incongruous fashion, the main attraction at an L.A. Dodger-themed coffee shop named for a Jewish legend is the breakfast burrito.
Do not try to steal my sister’s burrito.
I’m not quite sure what they put in the burrito at Cofax. Maybe opium? In any case, the flavor just pops out of it, and the line can get pretty severe. They also have bacon-topped donuts. I had one. It tasted about like you’d expect.
My sister has made this town her home for about seven years now, and seems to have found a lot of corners, great and small. As you drive around L.A. one of the first things you notice is the sheer immensity of it. There’s the city itself, and then there are the dozens of metropolitan regions that it overlaps. In fact, Orange County, to the south of Los Angeles County, has pretty much become a sprawling suburb of the city. Even its sports teams can’t let go. In 2005, the former Anaheim Angels (who were the California Angels before that), changed their name to the ridiculous Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, thereby taking a share of the L.A. market while also not-so-subtly acknowledging the insanity of their name, seeing as how they live in a completely different city with a population of almost 350,000 people.
I’ll say this for the Angels: They have beautiful ballpark. And if you are willing to brave the huge amount of freeway traffic to reach the park, you will see more than a few over-the-top L.A. touches, such as the “volcano” just over the center field wall and gluten-free beer and hot dogs. That’s right. Gluten free ballpark staples. Only in Southern California. Thank God “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” wasn’t written in Los Angeles.
Buy me something other than peanuts because I have a nut allergy and tooooofu chips!
Another study in the clashing of cultures sits downtown in the city’s financial district, where the Grand Central Market still goes strong after decades. Long a hidden gem, it’s now become a home to the kind of superhip coffee counters and food stands that might be too cool for you in a lot of places, but somehow seem kind of charming when they’re stashed in between the dried pepper stand and the Chinese chop suey joint that’s blasting salsa music.
The surging popularity of the spot means, of course, that the rents have gone up, so it remains to be seen how long the current balance will last. For now, there are an increasing number of newer spots wedges in with old standbys like China Cafe and La Casa Verde produce stand. You get both versions of downtown L.A. here: the one that hung on over the decades while everything but the business center emptied out, and the one that’s rediscovering the downtown and wants to be part of it. One hopes the new coexists with the old rather than forcing it out.
A short drive from the Central Market, one comes to a dessert place called the Pie Hole. Built into a warehouse, this little spot makes its name on a rotating list of pies, some of which have their recipes hanging in frames around the tables (with red lines through key bits of information, of course).
“They have Earl Grey Pie,” said my sister.
No, I thought. Not possible. Earl Grey is my drink of choice since I was in high school. How could anyone make it into pie form? But there it was. Sitting right next to the Mexican Chcoolate Pie.
“Oh man. I don’t know what to choose,” I said.
“Take both,” said the woman behind the counter, because she was Satan.
“Okay,” said I, because I am susceptible to temptation.
There are people out there who tell you not to overindulge. Who tell you that eating two slices of pie as rich as that cannot possibly be good for you. That, at a certain point, decadence becomes a punishment itself. Those people have a very valid point.
Also, I hate those people.
I am a sinner. I’m good with this.
Full of dessert and eager to get one more side of downtown L.A. before returning to Hollywood, we made our way to Olvera Street. Called “the birthplace of Los Angeles,” this little stretch of food stalls, restaurants, clothing shops and leather goods stores is the oldest part of the downtown area. In danger of being razed in the 1920’s, the street became a cultural preservation/tourist site in 1928, when the city agreed to have it made over into a section of stalls that would, it was hoped, recreate the essence of old Los Angeles, and provide a link to the Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican-American communities that built the city.
It’s a strange little slice of the city. On the one hand, it creates what could be considered a sterilized version of the town’s Latino past that is intended to appeal directly to tourists. On the other hand, it keeps a foothold of some of the city’s culture in place even as the downtown looks to “renovate” and “revitalize,” two common buzzwords that generally mean that a working-class population in a a neighborhood is about to get screwed.
Perhaps it’s no accident, then, that one of the street’s centerpieces is a painting by the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Mural detail inside the interpretive center on Olvera Street.
Unveiled in 1932, La America Tropical was as controversial at the time as its painter. Siqueiros, an avowed Marxist who would later lead an assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky in Mexico City, had already painted one controversial painting in the city (Street Meeting, which showed a group of workers listening to a speech by a labor organizer). That painting was washed over within a year. But if Street Meeting made the downtown elite uncomfortable, La America Tropical scared the shit out of them.
A ferocious attack on imperialism, which used the image of a young, crucified Indian as its centerpiece, the painting did not vibe with the nice, quiet version of a safe Mexican village that Olvera Street’s financial backers wanted to portray. The painting was whitewashed (both literally and figuratively) within a year. After the whitewash began to crack in the 1960’s, the mural started to reveal itself. In the 1990’s work began to preserve and restore the original mural, which today has a visitor center where anyone can come to study and learn about the work.
There’s something about the totality of Los Angeles in that story. It’s a city that, if you only look at the surface, can seem unbelievably sanitized and fake. But there are beautiful things happening just below the surface. In all of my visits, I still feel I’m only just scratching below that surface, and that’s enough to keep me coming back for everything I keep missing. The street culture. The high rises. The lovely hidden corners. And everything weird that sits below the bland perfection of that Hollywood shine.
Tickets to Angels games can be found on their website, right here.
Cofax Coffee is located at 440 N. Fairfax Avenue. They are open seven days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m. on Sunday). They have a website here.
Grand Central Market is located at 317 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. They have a beautiful website that profiles each of the vendors, and you can check it out right here.
The Pie Hole is located at 714 Traction Avenue. They are generally open from around 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning until 11:00 or midnight. They have a website here.
Information on Olvera Street, including the Siqueiros mural, can be found at their website here.