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Best View From Money: La Cañada Flintridge Country Club

What first hits your nose is the perspiration scent of canyon sage that rims the country club’s parking lot, 1,600 feet above sea level. The big homes directly below, with their aqua-blue swimming pools and juniper windbreaks, probably look a lot like yours if you belong to this club. The horizon beyond is troubled with blights that are easily imagined away as blessings in metaphoric disguise: The noisy Foothill Freeway becomes the River of Life; Forest Lawn Cemetery — death — is graciously blocked by the San Rafael Hills; and that curtain of smog and haze hung over the basin floor hides a place you really, after all, want hidden — Flat Los Angeles. Flat L.A. is a reminder, a warning: It’s the city with flattened expectations and steamrollered lives, a city with a 5 o’clock shadow and broken taillights. From above the parking lot drift sounds of splashing children and chattering mothers at the country club pool. They belong to your world and yet there are times, as you head for the nearby putting green, when you feel like an outsider — a fugitive coyote hiding from the moms and splashing children. How did you get up here, 1,600 feet above sea level, with a nine iron in hand? You stare down the long fairway and wonder what it looked like when it was a box canyon, long before the bulldozers came.

Best View from Justice: District Attorney’s Office, Temple Street and Broadway, Downtown

It’s a wonder Steve Cooley gets anything done. The District Attorney’s 18th-floor office enjoys a sweeping, hi-def southern exposure — it’s impossible to tear yourself away from its view of downtown Los Angeles and beyond, to the peninsula. If it’s true the most spectacular views are from the ugliest buildings, then the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center only confirms the obvious. Built in 1971, this 19-story Stalinist behemoth is far more believable as the Hall of Records it once was, or an American replica of Moscow’s Rossiya Hotel. The D.A.’s office sits atop floor after floor of courtrooms and holding cells. It’s where indictments are planned and trials plotted, but outside the D.A.’s windows is a city tearing itself apart and rebuilding. New edifices include the CalTrans building at 100 North Main and, to the west, Disney Hall, while ancient L.A. is represented by old St. Vibiana’s and, down Hill Street, the Eastern Columbia Building. More pointed, however, than individual architectural monuments is the symbolic landscape seen by the D.A. Almost directly below Cooley’s windows is the new LAPD headquarters, rising on First Street like a slice of glass cake; the fading L.A. Times, which once ruled the city, sits across from it, and, west on Sixth Street, Good Samaritan Hospital, where many a patient will eventually figure as a crime witness. Closest and perhaps more telling, though, is the leveled footprint of the old California Supreme Court Building, on whose sunbaked concrete skateboarders perform half-cabs and fakies. The foundation floor, enveloped by still-tended flora, stretches like a blank canvas. It’s surrounded by streets and offices in which people are being robbed and killed every day, some with guns, some with pens.

Best Gazing from the Golden Hood: Baldwin Hills

From one of the $1 million decks on South Cloverdale Avenue, Los Angeles looks vaguely familiar yet radically different. Inside out, almost — a parallel, alternate Los Angeles. There’s a tart metaphor here for Baldwin Hills, the affluent African-American neighborhood long ago dubbed the Golden Ghetto. Baldwin Hills (named for Lucky, not James) sees the city from the opposite direction of residents in the Hollywood Hills. Wilshire Boulevard and City Hall are roughly equidistant to both the terminus of Cloverdale in the south, and high up on Outpost Drive to the north, but from Baldwin Hills all the reassuring Hollywood and downtown landmarks appear small, insignificant. The Hollywood sign is a faint caption, Capitol Records and Library Tower get lost in the clutter of other buildings. Where’s the Blue Whale? What happened to Pan Pacific Park? Baldwin Hills’ power-line towers and radio beacons don’t help sightlines, but the reason for most of the disorientation of visitors to BH is that they don’t live here. Successful hill dwellers look across the urban plain, past Rodeo Road, at that other BH, with that other Rodeo thoroughfare, and cannot help but wonder if people in Beverly Hills are looking up at them this very moment — or even know where to look.

 

Best Up From the Bottom: MacArthur Park Metro Station

You might feel like you’re trapped in a fancy Chinese restaurant as you walk out of the MacArthur Park Red Line station, what with its great walls of shiny scarlet tiles. Suddenly, as you’re about to ascend from this subterranean cave to Alvarado Street, the perspective dreamily changes. Looking up, beyond the escalator glimmer of rail and steps, the eye sees an enormous post card of blue sky and a single palm tree. Suddenly you forget the day’s headaches — the crummy job you’ve just come from, the claustrophobic ride over here and the roachy room you’re headed to. Mechanical stairs lift you heavenward, the sky mural expands: more palms, gulls wheeling above MacArthur Park’s lake, peeling paletta-cart bells. Alvarado stretches, impossibly deserted for a split second, as waddling pigeons gather to form your entourage. Up on the sidewalk men sit on milk crates, in wheelchairs — there’s always the legless guy with silver duct tape on his stumps. Great buildings — the Asbury, Park Plaza, Westlake Theatre! — huddle in the distance like old movie stars with sagging faces. In the open air you don’t look back to the underworld you’ve left behind but take in a park with its lovers on the grass, birds sleeping on an island that lies in a lake that shouldn’t exist. You feel like a million dollars, tax-free.

 

Best View From Heaven: Griffith Park Observatory

The observatory is sometimes so dismissively associated with tourists and high school field trips (including the famous one from Rebel Without a Cause) that it takes a visit by distant relatives to make you realize how ethereal this place really is. Elevation is everything in L.A., and the home of the big telescope is more than 500 feet higher than Hollywood’s celebrated if overly pricey Yoshimura restaurant. The observatory grounds are also a more democratic wonder than Yoshimura, since parking is free and, along with the Santa Monica Pier, is one of those rare public spaces in L.A. County where ethnic and class lines melt away. Nighttime is the right time to visit — not because you’ll see any stars in the foggy, light-polluted sky (though you will, at least on those days when the telescopes are out in force), but because it’s when a chilly sense of mystery cloaks the observatory’s parapets with the damp air. Surrounded by steep, chapparel-covered hills, you look at the illuminated city below and, like millions who’ve come to L.A., try to orient yourself. The big red signs of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Hancock Park’s Ravenswood apartments help frame the anarchy, even if they’re too far to actually read. But there are always those huge blacked-out areas that, during the day, are expensive neighborhoods or golf courses but now seem dark and forbidding. After a while you stop wondering what’s going on down there, having caught yourself, once again, trying to make sense of this town.


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