While visiting London several years ago, I went on the Jack the Ripper Walking Tour. This’ll be fun, I thought. And it was. The bespectacled tour guide entertained a small group of us as we tramped over the damp cobblestones and learned lots of interesting tidbits — not just about the doings of J the R but about the history and architecture of the neighborhood. It occurred to me that I — we — only do these kinds of things when we’re visiting other cities. But when we play tourist in our own city, we get a whole new sense of where we came from.
Downtown Insiders When it comes to local walking tours, the Los Angeles Conservancy is the leader of the pack. “There is a sense that L.A. doesn’t care about its history,” says Annie Laskey, program coordinator. “We teach people how to look.” After tours, she often hears people say, “I’ve walked past that building a hundred times and never noticed it.” Now they notice the carved snail on the Biltmore, and that carved dancer with her leg dangling outside the Million Dollar Theater.
“Our docents range in age from 18 to 84 and come from all different backgrounds,” Laskey says. “They all love the city, believe in preservation and are enthusiastic.” Each also brings his or her own interests to the tour. “You learn different things on the same tour,” Laskey says. “Maybe movie history, or where the ghosts are, or that the Black Dahlia was last seen at the Biltmore.”
The Conservancy offers tours on Downtown’s Evolving Skyline,which takes walkers through the Central Business District. It’s a Laskey fave: “It tells a great story of how cities grow and change. It also shows great public art and lots of good city gossip.” Other tours focus on Art Deco L.A., which includes the stunning Oviatt Building, The Historic Core, Little Tokyo, City Hall, Broadway Theaters, Union Station, Biltmore Hotel, San Pedro, Historic Spring Street, Union Station, USC, and Highland Park, where you’ll see how the streetcar and the construction of the Pasadena Freeway affected the neighborhood. Of course, the majority of the tours take place downtown, where the Conservancy is located. “This is our neighborhood,” says Laskey. “There are so many interesting and wonderful parts of the city that deserve tours that the Conservancy couldn’t possibly cover them all, no matter how much we might want to. We encourage neighborhood groups to start their own tours, and are happy to provide groups with information and advice on creating and running tours.” Tours cost $10 and reservations are required. (213) 623-2489 or www.laconservancy.org.
Hidden treasure: Under an
Echo Park bridge
Echo Park StairMasters What do we really know about Echo Park? The Echo Park Historical Society has all the secrets. Each tour, given on a rotating basis on the fourth Saturday morning of each month, takes about two hours and covers either Downtown Echo Park and Echo Park Lake; Elysian Park; or the “moderately strenuous” Echo Park Stairways, including Fellowship Park, Red Hill and the Harwell Harris House. Says spokesperson Jim Schneeweis, “People are always surprised to see that L.A. is not flat. They get to see where L.A.’s first film studios were located. And everybody’s still fascinated to learn all about Aimee Semple McPherson.” A $3 donation is asked. Reservations: (323) 860-8874. Information: www.historicechopark.org.
The Art Crowd If it’s the second Thursday of the month, it must be the Downtown Art Walk, brought to us by Bert Green Fine Art and the Gallery Row Organization. Green, who oversees the Art Walk, says that the street scene during the event is “straight out of New York City.” There are more galleries than you could visit in one tour, including such biggies as MOCA. “It’s always busy on the streets starting at noon, and then a whole different crowd shows up about 6:30 p.m. when things get more festive,” Green says. “They come from all over L.A. Some have reservations about walking around here. Downtown has a vibe; it can look scruffy or scary at first. But then they really enjoy it.” Tours are free, and a map can me found at www.downtownartwalk.com; guided tours are available for $25.
Sidewalk L.A. You might think that the Sierra Club’s idea of a fun walking tour is scaling Mount Baldy before breakfast. The nature organization actually offers trekking on sidewalks in genuine L.A. smog. The walks are all rated as “easy” or even “socially paced,” and include a Wilshire Walk (in its 24th year, happening on Oct. 30) that starts at One Wilshire Blvd. and ends 16 miles later at the ocean — but they won’t mock you for jumping on a bus back to your car at any point. There’s also the Multicultural Walk in Downtown L.A., which includes Chinatown and Olvera Street. The Hollywood Walk covers five miles’ worth of architecture, and goes beyond tourist attractions. (213) 387-4287 or angeles.sierraclub.org.
Chinatown Revealed The Chinatown Business Improvement District’s Undiscovered Chinatown Tour is a two-and-a-half-hour walk that goes off the beaten track. “Everyone loves seeing inside the Chua Thien Hau temple, smelling the incense that is burned constantly,” says Holly Barnhill, marketing consultant for the L.A. Chinatown Business Improvement District. “Some are really surprised at seeing all the food piled up along the walls and on the altars: bag upon bag of rice, rows of plastic bottles of cooking oil, and all kinds of fruit on the altars, even a Peking duck or two, laid out as an offering on an altar.” Another interesting fact you learn on the tour is that Chinatown harbors 27 family/village associations that have helped build Southern California’s Chinese-American population. In the early years, Chinese were not allowed to borrow money or own property, so they relied on these associations for everything from finding a job and a place to live to finding a wife and more. Another eye-opener for less art-savvy tour goers are the Chinatown galleries — 24 within a four-block radius — that have become a major part of L.A.’s art scene. Most of the gallery owners have kept the original signs of their shops (Happy Lion Gifts, Black Dragon Society, Bamboo Lane). And, says Barnhill, “Some people discover boba for the first time on these tours, and certainly most do not know of the original French and Italian communities that existed in the area.” Cost is $20; reservations are required. (213) 680-0243 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saluting Henry Gaylord Wilshire It’s not a walking tour (unless you really want to), but the Los Angeles Conservancy kicks off its Curating the City initiative to “turn Los Angeles into a living museum... and educate the public about L.A.’s architectural treasures.” Curating the City: Wilshire Boulevard, a one-day, self-guided architectural tour, takes place on October 2. An extensive brochure leads you to significant buildings that are normally closed to the public, including the Elks Club (not the Park Plaza Hotel), Bullocks Wilshire, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Johnie’s Coffee Shop (now mostly a movie set), Wadsworth Chapel, and the Miles Playhouse, where docents await to take you on a detailed tour. You’ll learn so much, you’ll be qualified to lead your own tours. Tickets are $35, $12.50 students; resv. required. Call (213) 623-CITY.