Los Angeles: Take a trip to its dark side

The epicentre of shopping and showbiz, Hollywood is an essential stop on any tour of Los Angeles. But it's Downtown that lures novelist Kate Mosse
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The Independent Travel

My husband lived in LA for six months and hated every moment of it. All the smog, all that plastic surgery, all those fake smiles - the City of Angels was not for him. Everybody told me I'd hate it. But LA was the first stop on a two-week book tour across America, west coast to east, and I was curious.

As I left a wet and chilly Heathrow, I couldn't help thinking that in return for a bit of sun, I'd forgive a lot. Rather than Brett Easton Ellis's drug-fuelled Lunar Park or a silver-haired, gun-toting Tom Cruise in Collateral, I was imagining Chandler's Philip Marlowe and thinking of the hot Santa Ana winds immortalised by the great writer Joan Didion. Far from thinking it kitsch, I wanted to see Sunset Boulevard and the Strip, Bel Air and Union Station, the historic Downtown buildings around Olvera Street. I'd got the sharply ironic sounds of Mancunian-turned LA-resident Morrissey's You are the Quarry on replay in my mind and Ry Cooder's tribute to the displaced Latino communities of 1950s East LA, Chavez Ravine, in my bag. California here I come...

From its founding as a pueblo in 1781, when a mixed bag of Spaniards, Indians, mestizos and mission fathers arrived at the riverside in what is now Downtown LA, to the arrival of the first American settlers in 1846 and the treaty that first saw the Stars and Stripes fly over the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles has attracted those looking for the good life. Even the earthquakes responsible for creating the coastline, and the major quakes of the 1850s and 1930s - or those that rattled the land in 1971 and 1994 - have not deterred settlers. Over the decades, the city has recast itself as a health haven, agricultural paradise, movie capital of the world and international trade centre. It is now the second largest city in America with more than four million urban dwellers and 10 million throughout LA county. Latinos, who were once driven from Los Angeles, now make up more than 40 per cent of the population. New Chinatown lies Downtown and is home to more than 200,000 Chinese Americans. Little Tokyo lies further south. There are black neighbourhoods, Hispanic, Korean, Jewish, Vietnamese, Russian, Armenian. Over 80 different languages are spoken in schools and on the streets.

Los Angeles rests in a valley surrounded by five ranges and the ocean, a land of sandy beaches, tawny hills and wind-ruffled deserts. At night, from the air, it is an illuminated chessboard extending from the Pacific to the dark fringe of the mountains.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon when the plane landed at LAX, and the temperature was nudging 70 degrees. The sky was an endless blue and palm trees lined the roads out of the airport. My media escort Ann edged onto the freeway. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper - although I've experienced worse on the M25 - but even the stream of cars looked exotic, beautiful even, in the pink afternoon light.

As we drove slowly north, the San Gabriel mountains were sharp on the horizon, and the San Bernadino range beside them seemed to embrace the sprawling city in a natural arc. Because the Pacific fog creates a natural form of air conditioning and insulation, the mercury rarely drops below 40 or rises above 80. As a rule, September and October are the hottest months, but Los Angeles was in the grip of an unseasonal heatwave - the day after I left the thermometer hit 81. Brilliant after a long, English winter.

I was staying at the Beverly Hilton on the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard, which runs west to east from the coast through Beverly Hills, West Hollywood to Hollywood itself. The hotel had been the venue for the Golden Globes two weeks earlier. As we swept up the ramp to the glass and gold front doors, the banners were still up.

I'd got a few hours before my first dinner with the US booksellers, so to stop myself falling asleep I decided to immerse myself in the celebrity lifestyle of upmarket Los Angeles. Thanks to an ever-changing schedule - which had left me with barely more than 24 hours in LA - I'd got no time to waste and felt honour-bound to dedicate at least a couple of those hours to star-gazing. I headed for Rodeo Drive. Only three blocks long, it has the reputation for being one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world. I walked up one side and down the other. I peered in the window of Tiffany's and gazed at the displays of crystals in Lalique and the limited-edition designer watches in David Orgell, but it left me cold. Too much conspicuous consumption, too much macho building and plate glass for my tastes. My attention was caught, though, by Two Rodeo, a rather incongruous cobbled lane, which opened in 1990 and was designed to reproduce a European shopping street, complete with foundations, street lamps and a piazza. More than anything, it reminded me that this was the birthplace of the movies, where nothing is what it seems. The only beautiful piece of architecture was Anderton Court, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1953. The light seemed to bounce off the surfaces, one true picture in the hall of mirrors.

I'd been told that while Rodeo Drive was still the most famous shopping street to outsiders, insiders knew that Robertson, between Beverly and 3rd, was currently the coolest stretch of retail in LA. Although I was less interested in shopping than sightseeing, I reckoned I'd got just enough time to get there and back. I walked east along Wilshire Boulevard, past Staples Centre and famous Barneys New York with its rooftop deli. Rather than look in more shop windows, I was hoping to find The Ivy, home from home for the A-list - Demi Moore, Jennifer Lopez (in her Ben Affleck days), Jennifer Aniston (in her Brad Pitt days), Penelope Cruz (in her Tom Cruise days), Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jack Nicholson - you name 'em, they've been photographed here. And it was at The Ivy that Danny DeVito and John Travolta meet in the 1995 movie Get Shorty. In the still afternoon sunshine of a Wednesday in February, all was calm on the western front. A bouncer, ears wired and dressed in black, stood at the entrance to the famous patio, but no one was coming in or going out. There were a couple of eager tourists taking photographs of themselves in front of the distinctive white picket fence, but it felt more Kansas than Hollywood. Tired, I walked back to the hotel to the comforting arms of crime writer Robert Crais. The city came more to life in his 1999 classic LA Reqiuem than it had in three hours wandering the streets of Beverly Hills.

It was dark when Ann arrived to pick me up to take me to Providence, an eatery so fantastically "hip and happening", as she put it, that it didn't yet appear in any of my guidebooks. We drove along the Santa Monica Boulevard towards West Hollywood. A bookstore flashed uniquely, as Larkin might have said, as we sailed past 3rd and Beverly Boulevard. An imposing Mormon Temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, opposite LA-West Travelodge and, a little further on, a place of worship for the local Sephardic Congregation. Beverly City Hall was floodlit, a beautiful white building in an oasis of green. The sweeping residential stretch gave way to stores as we came into West Hollywood. A liquor store, a nail bar next to a shop selling caged birds. The Hollywood Rubber Store, Hollywood Central Studios. Everywhere were boards advertising palm reading, tarot; a handwritten sign read "psychic tea leaves...". The idea made my head spin.

We were heading for Melrose Avenue, one of the trendiest streets in West Hollywood and the heart of the gay quarter. Previously run-down and tatty, since the 1980s the dingy clubs and fading clothes shops have been replaced by ultra-hip boutiques and interior design show rooms. Since we'd made good time, Ann detoured past one of the most famous bookshops in LA, A Different Light Bookstore. It was shut, but the windows were lit; another thing to put on my list for next time. She also pointed out the Chateau Marmont, an extraordinary faux-French 18th-century palace, which opened in the 1920s. With its bright white walls and grey slate turrets reminiscent of the Loire Valley, like so much else in Tinseltown it looked like a stage set. Over the years it has played host to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Mick Jagger and Howard Hughes, among others. It's where John Belushi died in 1982. And it's where Lindsay Lohan - who I realised was the current femme de choix of LA - is currently living while her Sunset Boulevard apartment is renovated.

Providence - like all top restaurants in LA - has valet parking, a brilliant idea and a bargain at $4.50. We had a private area, behind a screen, which sat 10 of us. The purpose of the tour was to meet independent booksellers, so there were guests from all of the leading independents, including Vroman's Bookstore and the iconic Book Soup, where, at readings, the audience is often more celebrated than the authors.

Rather than ordering individually, my publisher had opted for a five-course tasting menu (at $105 per head including wine pairing). The chef was Michael Cimarusti, the chef de cuisine Paul Shoemaker, and their growing reputation is built on modern French cuisine and seafood. We started with Santa Barbara spiny lobster with a 2003 tokay pinot gris. The second course was sweetbreads, served with a 2003 rioja from Montebuna, followed by New Zealand grouper served with a truffle fondue and fava beans. I wasn't sure what I was eating by this stage, except it involved beans, but the 1998 Leroy Bourgogne went down a treat. We finished with Chestnut Napoleon - a mousse with vanilla-armagnac ice-cream and crispy arlette, with a 1998 dessert wine from Domaine Pietri-Geraud.

The next day my flight was in the late afternoon, so after an early swim I set out to explore Downtown. Ann had warned me that public transport was hopeless - and that it was hard to flag down a taxi on the street - so I decided to walk and try to get the Metro Red Line back from Union Station.

Even though Los Angeles is often portrayed as a sprawling urban wasteland with no centre, the heart of the city is in the area first settled, around Olvera Street and what is now the Civic Center, along the Los Angeles River (now no more than a trickle). At the turn of the 20th century, the elite Bunker Hill section of Downtown was full of Victorian houses and elegant hotels, and is now the city's cultural centre. But the neighbourhood deteriorated into a slum until in the 1960s, when it was levelled and given over to dirt, weeds and endless carparks. In the 1980s, towering glass and steel high-rises starting shooting up in the area adjoining the financial district, but late at night and at weekends when the 200,000-odd workers left their offices it was like a ghost town.

Now, Downtown is enjoying a renaissance - the TriBeCa of LA - as more luxury apartments are built. There are five distinct areas: Olvera Street, Chinatown, the Civic Center, Central Downtown (which includes the financial district) and Little Tokyo.

It took me nearly an hour to walk from the hotel to Olvera Street. Named after LA's first county judge, it's a fantastically vibrant and bustling Mexican marketplace with puestos (stalls) selling handmade tortillas and tacos, huaraches (sandals), piñatas, sweets and churros (hot, delicious deep-fried donuts). It's the perfect antidote to the exclusivity and sterility of Rodeo Drive.

If you need advice on what to see or where to go, the Visitors' Center is in an impressive 1887 brick-faced Victorian building called Sepulveda House. But if you're happy wandering and seeing what comes up, start in the historic adobe square, the Old Plaza. It is lined with trees and boasts a wrought-iron bandstand - don't miss the plaque listing the names of El Pueblo's original settlers.

But more eye-catching and stunning are the resident artist's Leo Politi's murals on the white-washed wall of the Biscailuz Building, which has been the main office for the pueblo for many years. "The Blessing of the Animals" - depicting the centuries-old tradition of thanking animals - shows women in full blue, green or silver skirts and brown-robed monks, surrounded by goats, doves, rabbits, sheep and children, with a fiddle player and a harpist in the background. It's the sort of painting that makes you stop and stare, since you simply can't take in all the detail in one go. On the far side of North Main Street is the Old Plaza Church. First dedicated as a church in 1822, it's the city's oldest Catholic church. Unassuming from the outside, inside the painted ceiling is magnificent.

For lunch, I sought out one of the city's landmark cafés. Founded in 1908, Philippe the Original is home to "the original French dipped sandwich" - lamb, pork, beef, oven-roast turkey, ham - and only one block from Union Station, midway between Olvera Street and Chinatown. Brown awnings stretched out over the pavement. Inside, it was like stepping back in time. The sawdust on the floor, the servers' uniforms, the memorabilia and photographs covering every surface of the wall, the amazing confectionery display - all this could have come straight out of a 1930s movie. Every day, there are two different soups as well as salads and lots of side orders - fritos and Doritos, pickled eggs, kosher dill pickle or a jar of chilli peppers.

After lunch, I headed up into Chinatown. The original LA Chinatown was torn down in the 1930s to build Union Station and relocated a few blocks north. The main shopping area is North Spring Street, where shops are packed with souvenirs and goods ranging from hats to fortune-telling sticks, Chinese medicines to fresh fish and herbs.

From Chinatown, I went to the Civic Center district. An enclave of towering high-rises, stately city buildings and theatres, the centrepiece is City Hall itself, a 1928 building made famous as the headquarters of the Daily Planet in Superman. Across the street is the Los Angeles Times building, but more interesting is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels on West Temple Street, which was completed in 2002 and replaced the traditional 1876 cathedral. Built out of concrete, with virtually no right angles, only the 50-foot cross on the front gives a clue as to what it is. Inside, is the famous 42-ton, 6,019-pipe organ. Reluctant to give up the sun - especially since I was heading north to Minneapolis next - I didn't go in. A little weary now, I turned left and headed south towards Bunker Hill. I didn't have time to take the funicular or cable car railway known as Angels' Flight, but pressed on to Frank Gehry's magnificent stainless-steel home for the LA Philharmonic, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. More a work of art than a building, the sails dominate South Grand Avenue. But I'd run out of time. Rather than wrestle with the metro, I headed for the California Plaza and a kind doorman at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel organised a cab to take me back to Beverly Hills.

Three hours later - with the rolling Hispanic rhythms and mariachi horns of Ry Cooder's Chavez Ravine in my headphones - I was back at LAX, frustrated to be leaving. Even though I'd crammed a great deal into a very short time, I'd not even scratched the surface. As we took off into a sky that was turning from blue to violet, I looked back at the astonishing layer of pollution that hangs over the city - almost beautiful in the twilight - and knew I'd be back.