LA: Past, Present, and the Future's Present Past

Charlie with a scrap artist's version of Bumblebee 




Charlie Jensen blogs about Art Walk, LA architecture, and the city's ghosts.





Last Thursday, Danielle and I were trying to figure out what my "blog perspective" might be.  When the question came up, my mind raced—and immediately went blank.  Then Danielle helpfully suggested I write about experiencing Los Angeles through my "brand new eyes," focusing on the things that resonate with me as I get settled and situated in this new city.

At this point, I'd lived in LA for 60 hours.  Let's preface it all with that.

I picked the right week to arrive.  Thursday night was downtown LA's monthly Art Walk event, so my friend Tim, who lives downtown, invited me over to check things out.  Since Arts for LA's offices are downtown, it's really the only part of town I've had a chance to see much of so far, so I knew exactly how to get there (no Siri needed).  The closer I drove to the Art Walk area, the denser the foot and car traffic became.  As I crept down Spring Street in my trusty, fuel-efficient Scion, I admit I gawked a bit at the streams of pedestrians passing by me on either side of the street.

Tim and I hit a few galleries, wandered through the Alexandria Hotel's swap-meet like arts sales space, and checked out a small dance party happening upstairs.  There were people everywhere.  It was really exciting to see so many people (and so many different kinds of people) out experiencing the arts, from young women executives to college men to families with small children.  There was also art everywhere, practically dripping off any vertical wall surface we passed, and more of it was being created out on the sidewalks, too.  And the local businesses in the Art Walk district were jam packed with those seeking a brief break with cocktails, food, or just a momentary reprieve from the hustle of the sidewalk.

At one point, Tim checked in to the Art Walk on Facebook, tagging me as being there with him.  We joined nearly 30,000 other people who had already checked in to the event.  The scale of that blew my mind.  According to the LA Times' Mapping LA site, which I've been using to better understand how all the different communities in the city link up, downtown itself is home to about 27,000 residents.  If we also assume (perhaps safely) that at least one-third to half the attendees don't bother to check in on Facebook...well, it might be said Art Walk alone doubles the population of downtown LA all on its own.

The thing that stands out to me most about downtown LA is its architecture.  Over the last three days, as I've walked or driven through downtown, I've noticed how every era has a presence on the street in LA.  I've lived in a few different cities each with its own signature—Minneapolis with its SkyWalk system, allowing residents and workers to avoid stepping foot into the frigid winter weather; Phoenix, where vacant buildings are reinhabited like hermit crab shells (the Pizza Hut that is now a bank, for instance); Washington, DC, where only one building rises above the height of the U.S. Capitol dome; and Tucson, with its seamless marriage of architecture and landscape.  But LA is something other, something more.  Perhaps its because my experience of LA was pre-emptively colored by movies and television—the classy elegance of the 1940s (Chinatown), the growing suburbanism of the 1950s (LA Confidential), the boxy modernism of the 1960s (The Graduate), the corporate decadence of the 1980s (Beverly Hills Cop), the disaffected 1990s (Reality Bites and Beverly Hills 90210) and the always-present shadowy underbelly (throughout film history but especially in 2004's Collateral).  

Over the weekend I rewatched a favorite film set in, for much of the story, downtown Los Angeles: (500) Days of Summer.  The film's male lead, Tom, is a frustrated architecture guy who spends much of the film reviewing the unique and historical buildings in the city, describing how the visionaries who designed LA's downtown core have a presence that lingers even today.

Who is LA, amid all these tropes and memories?  What strikes me most about it is the inescapable presence of its past—but perhaps this is because, being an outsider, I know its celebrity history best.  Everywhere I walked downtown on Thursday night felt oddly haunted, both by LA's actual past and its legend.  It was most tangible to me in the architecture, where deco buildings and marquees are dwarfed by glassy highrises, where the timeless neon glow of the city might obscure itself in a mist rising off night streets, where everyone arrives in the shell of a dream and outgrows it, becoming more fully themselves, more fully LA.