BY HAL SPARKS
When I'm not on a stand-up tour of the country, thrilling people in the Bible Belt with my razor sharp wit and polysyllabic dissections of pop culture and socio-political shenanigans, I live in Los Angeles. I have loved here, I have lost here... I shot Dude, Where's My Car?, Spider-man 2 and VH1's “I Love the 80s!" here. In short, Los Angeles and I have bonded.
I was having an argument with a friend the other day about what part of L.A. is the best and as I was just about to chuck a porcelain vase lamp with a stain glass shade at his head for suggesting “Culver City back in the day,” I realized something: there is no best place to live in L.A. Each neighborhood has pluses and minuses that are effectively moot points for anyone who doesn’t live there. That’s what’s so great about it; no one place has everything. And some places, quite frankly, have nothing! And there are people who love that about Burbank... I kid... sorta.
I live on the “Wesside!” and there is a lot to like about being within bicycle distance of the beach. Namely that there are plenty of bicycles around to steal. They are like ripe apples ready to be plucked and when you’re done riding, you just lean it against a building and hope it finds it’s way home. It’s like an involuntary ride-share program. Some people find the tourists on Venice Beach to be a nuisance. Personally I love seeing a tourist spot a man rollerblading in a g-string and covered in gold body paint. With every alternating thought of disgust and wonder I see flashing in their eyes, I am transported back to when I first came to L.A. You could call me sentimental. I’m sure there are people who hate the Westside and there are certainly reasons to. Floppy-heeled rich teenagers -- who are amazingly hopped on enough Starbucks coffee to bring a frozen Woolly Mammoth back to life, and yet are so emotionally lethargic that they seem stuck between comatose and pre-Danny Boyle zombies -- litter the sidewalks of Brentwood like driftwood after a Hurricane. It’s like High School Musical 4 but with no songs and a bad case of narcolepsy. But that’s common in well-to-do areas and Brentwood is as snooty a place as you can get and still have a Soup Plantation.
When I first moved to Los Angeles there was no 3rd Street Promenade, no Grove and Old Town Pasadena was still under a non-democratic Fiefdom. There were no walking malls or shopping areas. The shiny tourist friendly Hollywood of today was so decayed that one would not be surprised to see Donald Pleasance standing on a wall firing a machine gun yelling “YOU’RE THE DUKE! A NUMBER ONE! You’re The DUKE!!” Walking in L.A. was so discouraged that they actually gave tickets for it. Being new to town, I didn’t take it seriously and ended up getting booted. While waiting for a light to change on my way to Ralphs to buy Kool-Aid mix for an “experiment,” a meter maid put a large Steel Yellow Ski-Boot on my right foot and a “Do not Move” sticker on my chest. They only agreed to take it off after I payed a fine and let them keep my shoes... which they said made me a possible “flight risk.” When I tried to explain the difference between walking and flying, I was tasered and forced to eat my body weight in frozen yogurt.
These days L.A. has made terrific strides in creating areas where people can actually pretend to live in a city. It’s totally neat. 3rd street used to be just that... a street! Once a month Santa Monica would block off the street for a combination Street Fair/Farmer’s Market/Game Show Audience recruitment center. And it was very successful. Especially contrasting how empty and depressing the street was the rest of the month. It only took officials 70 some odd years to jump at this obviously great opportunity and turn a place -- once so dead and devoid of business that shops sold tumbleweeds like cotton candy -- into the greatest reminder of why it’s insanely stupid to have a mall with a roof in a place with the most temperate weather in the country. And not only is 3rd street a great place to shop, eat and see a movie... even at the same time... but the incredible glut of street musicians and the overlap of their competing musical styles creates the most wonderful, what I call, “Accidental Jazz”! All alone, a girl being forced by her mother to sing songs she will not understand for a decade, a Mexican immigrant with a child’s drum set and a headset wireless mic playing “Juan Tanamera” and a sax player who seems not to notice his instrument has no reed, might be lame bordering on sad.. but together they are Jazz heaven! I’m beginning to think “promenade” is french for “groooooooove”.
After the success of turning 3rd street into the perfect Apple Store delivery system, The Farmers Market on Fairfax was targeted and BULLSEYE! We got the Grove. The Grove, which in a fantastically ironic move only has three trees, was, I believe, designed by the folks who brought you Epcot center, the designers behind Abercrombie & Fitch and the last living Disney Animator who worked on “Steamboat Willy.” It has a train (Luckily!) that not only goes less than one one block but doesn’t actually go the length of the whole... er... Grove. That might seem ridiculous or moronic to you, but it is a necessity since Angelenos are so new to walking that it must be taken in small doses. Many people in L.A. are literally “breaking in” their atrophied legs at places like this. And from years of only using their right leg to break and hit the gas, many spend their first trip to The Grove pivoting in a circle. The Grove is especially successful in making the old Farmers Market look dangerously unsanitary instead of quaint.
Hollywood followed suit and, apart from the occasional Ryan Seacrest billboard, has seem some great improvements. Hollywood used to be filled with dingy bars with criminally insane employees and now they have been replaced with chain bars that only LOOK like they are dingy with criminally insane employees. Phew! Well done! And let's not forget the convenience factor. It used to be very difficult to be molested by a physically unappealing stranger dressed as a cartoon character, superhero or movie star. Not to mention, expensive! Now it’s as easy as asking the wrong person for a picture. Thankfully, if one goes more than five blocks east of Highland there is still plenty of “authentic Hollywood” left. The development money apparently dried up somewhere around Vine, as it should. Things at that classic corner on the right night can make the most depressing parts of Boogie Nights look like Finding Nemo and, if you’re lucky, you even might see an ex-celebrity sleeping on their own star. But remember, don’t hassle the Hoff!
Not all of L.A.’s hoods needed a facelift to excite tourist and locals alike. Ironically, Beverly Hills, a place that has never shied away from facelifts, is one of those places. The name Beverly Hills sounds like a singer in an old, Bing Crosby film. And it looks like one. Not in her hay-day but years later when she still goes to fundraisers jacked up on barbiturates. My favorite thing is the fact that Beverly Hills is a rich town for no other reason than it is -- and, no offense -- has been. Beverly Hills has the look, feel and sometimes smell, of old money. Wedged in between West Hollywood, Century City and Westwood, Beverly Hills is not within even tip-toed viewing distance of the ocean. The Hills aren’t superior to The Palisades or much of Encino for that matter. It is a community that skates on reputation more than content. It’s like the Milli Vanilli of incorporated townships. Most know it simply for Rodeo Drive and the glitz and glamour of that shopping area and the most popular restaurant is a take-away sandwich stand and a chain spaghetti joint. Ooo-la-la! (Full Disclosure: I am the owner of an Ermenegildo Zegno tuxedo that I got in Beverly Hills. But in my defense, even though it was brutally expensive and I look devastatingly handsome in it, I only wear it when I am spying for Queen and country.)
Beverly Hills is one of the constants in the ever-changing universe that is Los Angeles but it’s not alone. Melrose is the only true classic area of L.A. that has remained both completely functional, walkable and dirty enough to maintain a sense of what Michael Bay’s art director calls “realistic realism.” I don’t spend as much time on Melrose as I used to, but then again I don’t wear as many open-chested drawstring white linen shirts as I used to. Since Golden Apple moved to the opposite end of Melrose, across La Brea, and the old spot was used for a Scientology Coffee Shop (I shat you not), I have chosen to do more of my shopping on the road. Melrose is a great place for used t-shirts (but then so is my closet) so whether I go to Melrose often depends on whether I need used cowboy boots or if The Groundlings are debuting their new joke for the year. It remains a good tourist place but the thing that makes it truly authentic is that, as a local, you can forget it exists really easily! Most shopping trips to Melrose are preceded by a “I coulda had a V8!” moment and most are followed by one as well.
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My point is that L.A. of 2008 is not the L.A. of 19*cough* when I first arrived. For better or worse, L.A. has transformed into a much more foot friendly city. Driving is still a necessity here as it always has been. But at least we actually have some “real” destinations. Which is very helpful since so many people in L.A. have stage 5 “Road Rage” and nothing is more embarrassing than getting socio-pathologically angry about someone keeping you from getting to a place you don’t even like! Driving in L.A. is no day at the beach... especially if that is your destination. Reinhold Niebuhr once said about driving in Los Angeles, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference... in bed,” At least I think that’s what he said. We were at Hamasaku on Santa Monica Boulevard and his mouth was full.
Living in L.A. is like eating pancakes... not in a stack... but laid out flat, end to end, like a quilt. It's still delicious; it’s just a little more work. It’s not convenient like the TV dinner style layout of New York, the great Taco layout of San Francisco, or the doughnut that is downtown Chicago. In L.A. you have to you to have a car. You see, L.A. does have one main neighborhood. Its your car. And it has to be better than your apartment because you will spend more in it than you will, well, anywhere. L.A. became the home of every luxury package that car companies offer and every after-market accoutrement since our cars are our home away from home away from our parent’s house. It’s the programmable seats, the MP3 jacks, the DVD players etc that keep the vast majority of us from mounting an M-50 machine gun on the roof and driving through traffic like a scene out of the last Rambo movie. But you gotta admit, L.A. driving wouldn't be this frustrating if there weren't such cool, obscure and interesting places to go... I love L.A.
p.s. Yes on 2 no on h8te!