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A Day Without a Car in Los Angeles

David Espinoza

September, 2004--Ask the average person on the street what it means to live on the edge and chances are, you'll get a different answer every time. For some, having a little of what George Carlin once referred to as "dangerous fun" may simply constitute ignoring the stewardess' instructions on how to apply an oxygen mask, switching back to regular instead of decaf, or skydiving blindfolded and naked over Baghdad. For me, no experience could be more death defying, more ESPN X-treme Sports meets Fear Factor, than spending a day exploring my native city of Los Angeles equipped with only a backpack, bicycle, and enough money for lunch and a day pass on the Metrorail.

My parents thought I was insane. They said I'd been living in Santa Cruz for too long. The patchuli oil and beach air had finally done away with what was left of my big city upbringing, damn those redwood-tree-hugging hippies! My wife begged me not to go--she quoted Missing Persons' 1980s hit "Walking in L.A.," you know, the one that goes, "Walking in L.A? Nobody walks in L.A."

"But honey, I'm not walking. I'm riding my bike."

"What's the difference? I hear being a pedestrian there is an arrestable offense. Lord only knows what they do to bicyclists."

Then it hit me. Maybe they were right. Had I already forgotten the last time I took a long bike ride in L.A? It was only about 4 months ago that my dad and I set out on a Sunday (low traffic factor) for a trail parallel to the L.A. riverbed and the 5 heading north, right past Elysian park, home to Dodger stadium and other illicit activities. Sure, we'd returned home safely but for the rest of the day my lungs felt like I'd smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds. Chances were the streets of Los Angeles were not amply fitted with bike lanes like my adopted city of Santa Cruz--and definitely no bike trails going the center of downtown…. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea.

No, I reasoned. Big cities are never as dangerous as soccer mom suburbanites and the rural poor make them out to be. Contrary to what almost one hundred years of Hollywood would have you believe, Los Angeles is more than a shallow silicon-filled blond aspiring actress. Los Angeles has depth, Los Angeles has character. And besides, spending a day exploring one of the most car-ependent cities in America without a car would highlight all the perqs of using public transportation as well as zero emissions vehicles. This day would be a loose experiment in proving this point.

Monday morning, East Los Angeles

East LA MuralsIn an attempt to avoid the morning rush hour, I set out from my parents home in North East Los Angeles after 9AM on my dad's 18 speed mountain bike (refitted with street tires). My first destination: my dad's elementary school in the heart of East L.A.--an area heavy on the hill, factory, and graffiti factor. This is where one of America's best rock n' roll bands, Los Lobos, got started, playing the dinky and now boarded up Latin Playboy on Cesar Chavez Blvd (formerly Brooklyn); this is where LA Times journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by an LA County Sheriff's tear gas canister on August 29th, 1970; it was here that, during the late 1980s, me and a handful of East L.A. kids began our daily hour long journey across town in a hulky yellow bus to the West Side,to be schooled in unfamiliar neighborhood with street names like Miracle Mile and Crescent Heights. It was quite a change from home, where practically every corner has a mural of La Virgen, and every other a portrait of Emiliano Zapata, and sometimes even Benito Juarez. Here, the billboards sport pictures of Los Tigres Del Norte, the Mexican equivalent of Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks --sure, you can say that many parts of L.A. look like this, but East L.A. is where it all got started, as far as I'm concerned.

East LA MuralsMost of this is easy to forget on your average Monday morning stuck in traffic, though. For in a car, Los Angeles is grayish blue skies seen through tinted windows and filtered by air conditioning. On a bike, it is a brilliant and terrifying mish mash of hot filthy concrete, diesel engine growls, and sublime blue skies. On a bike, all my senses are on code orange alert. Even with a helmet on, even with the morning rush hours over, I still feel like a Kansas homestead caught in the path of hundreds of four-wheeled tornadoes as I tackle the hill going over Soto Street, past a short bridge that connects North East L.A. to East L.A. proper.

To my right is the New Deal era general hospital (yes, the one that used to be on TV during the '80s). To my left, farther down the way, is Cal State Los Angeles--where the locals who have the grades but can't afford the UCLA tuition go. Beneath me are 5 to7 lanes of the 10 freeway, just before it connects to the 101 and the 5. Look out for dead pigeons, potholes, and broken glass; there's little room for mistakes here.

To draw a mental picture of East Los Angeles on a bright and sunny but surprisingly breezy day like this, think of hills with 1920s Spanish style stucco houses and potted cactuses on cracked concrete lawns. At this time of day, with everyone at work or taking care of the kids, the residential streets are all mine. I can coast down these paved hills past lime green houses without fear of cars, loose pit bulls, or ornery vatos. At this time of day, it's too early for anyone to hassle you. The layout of houses here are a gritty and chaotic rejection of the institution of tract homes out on the periphery of this sprawling metropolis. Though no one would readily admit it, there is an upside to being on the ass end of Hollywood--no ugly 1970s apartments like the ones you see in the "Slums of Beverly Hills" pepper these neighborhoods--even the projects here look better in comparison.

Somehow I find my way to Malabar Elementary to get my father's blessings as well as the code to his security chain. (I don't even leave my bike unlocked in Santa Cruz.) Upon hearing the route I took to get here, he rolls his eyes and points out a much safer way I could have gone. No matter, I'm here in one piece, and besides he's got other things to worry about, like a crowded class of Spanish speaking children born of working class immigrant parents to teach in a post-proposition-227 and -187 world. The suburbanites love to pass reactionary legislation, but they never have to deal with the consequences.

Soon I'm back on the road, taking a brief downhill detour through an alleyway rocking a vivid depiction of Superman amidst an urban disaster with the words, "Only the strong survive" printed at the bottom. Some of the truest art that the world will never see begins and dies here. But this isn't a place you'd stop to take a picture from the safe confines of a car, let alone a bike, and besides, I've got a day to fill and only so much mojo in my veins.

East LA MuralsMy initial plan is to catch the brand new Gold Line's Lincoln Heights stop of the North East Los Angeles Metrorail heading into downtown, but I'm seduced by the sight of a classic 1970s mural on the corner of North Broadway and Daily, and decide to head downtown directly. Making a right onto Main St I ride towards the industrial section, passing by the San Antonio Winery. This is my first mistake.

The first rule anyone should know about urban bike riding is this: Beware large streets near commercial areas with few stops lights or intersections. The reason being, cars have time to pick up speed on straight-aways, and they're not interested in slowing down for you. The second rule when riding in an industrial area is sunglasses are good, goggles are better--I happened to bring neither and had the misfortune of having to pull onto the sidewalk and wash grit out of my eyes.

Downtown LA

Soon I've crossed the L.A. River and the railroad tracks, rolled past the world famous Phillipes diner, and entered downtown Los Angeles. I briefly consider photographing city hall (you know, the one featured in Dragnet), but recall the superior architecture of some of downtown San Francisco's civic buildings and decide not to bother.

LA RiverMy second pit stop today will be one of the more endearing cultural landmarks and tourist spots of Los Angeles, Olvera Street. For those who've never been, Olvera Street (L.A.'s first) is something like a Mexican version of Chinatown. The major difference between the two being that whereas L.A.'s Chinatown serves the dual purpose of legitimate center for the Chinese-speaking community and tourist trap, Olvera Street is all tourist trap. To put it another way, few Spanish-speaking locals bother to spend much time here; you're more likely to bump into Sven from Scandinavia, tasting a churro for the first time, and 3rd generation Mexican-Americans like me taking notes. And yet, for all its silly "Take a picture wearing a sombrero on a stuffed donkey" gimmickry, Olvera Street's greasy spoon Mexican eateries, gorgeous European styled placita (little plaza), and surrounding buildings retain loads of charm.

After making a couple of loops around the plaza, I take a deep breath, give a nod to the church across the street, and head down North Main Street toward the bowels of downtown. Considering that much of this area is intimidating enough to explore in a car, I temporarily abandon riding on the streets for the sidewalk. Ironically, it's almost completely free of pedestrians. Soon I've passed the massive L.A. Times building (home to one of the best dailies this country has to offer) and have entered the belly of the beast, the Jewelry District. Compared to L.A.'s notoriously clogged freeways, the traffic here isn't that bad, though the sidewalks are thick with people. I'm quickly forced back onto the streets with the cars and buses. This turns out to be a mixed bag, as the cars can't go very fast though the buses are an entirely different matter.

Urban Bike Riding Rule # 3: It is better to be in front of a bus than stuck behind one. There's no upside to getting stuck behind a bus slowing down to pick up passengers-- you either stop with it and get a mouthful of global-warming gasses, or risk death by swerving to the left and getting caught between a rock and hard place when the bus starts to merge back into traffic.

Back on the sidewalk, I search for a bike rack to lock up and find lunch. The second task is simple, the first impossible. Perhaps it was the lack of space for such luxuries on crowded sidewalks, or perhaps the downtown improvement district here thought the homeless might try to make beds out of them; either way, I didn't find a single place designated for bike parking and had to settle for a street sign.

At this time of day, this section of downtown Los Angeles is more John Carpenter's "They Live" than Ridley Scott's "Bladerunner." That is to say, if there are any dangerous faux-humans bent on enslaving our entire species around here, they're most likely the ones wearing the badges and suits, not the ones running from them. Strolling by newsstands featuring pornography in three different languages (but all selling the universal one); past flashing strobe lights from hundreds of tiny shoe, stereo, and jewelry shops; past restaurants featuring "Comida China y Mexicano"--I can see downtown L.A.'s future from its more sustainable past. If you stop and look closely, you'll notice that many of the open-air wholesale clothing stores are actually 1930s giant-screen movie theatre lobbies with the fantastic marquees still intact. Look closer, and on the ground are hints of light rail tracks--remnants of L.A.'s original public transportation system, before the oil and car companies bought it out to eliminate competition for the freeways.

Lunch ends up being a gyro from a small Greek hole in the wall eatery--I was hoping for Vietnamese or Persian food but at least this place has an A rating. The next hour I spend sweating up the steep Bunker Hill streets (the ones that inspired the film noir genre) where you find L.A.'s signature skyscrapers, stopping to photograph the new Disney Music Hall and sneak into the Museum of Contemporary Art. From the top of these streets, the view is stunning. Glass and steel giants rise thousands of feet into the sky while rivers of cars and people move below. It's a sight that makes the burning in my lungs all worth it.

My next stop is Pershing Square--another crucial centerpiece of downtown Los Angeles' financial juggernaut. Flanked by major corporate powerhouses on all sides, Pershing Square is possibly the most uninviting public "plaza" I've ever seen, period. I head underground into the subway to get away.

The Other Side

About 10 minutes later I find myself approximately 4 miles west of downtown at MacArthur Park. Surrounded by Central American convenience stores, evangelist churches, indoor swap meets, and a few scattered 1930s art deco buildings on the periphery, MacArthur Park is one huge square featuring a lake, rolling grassy slopes, public art, and play gym areas. As in most of L.A.'s public parks, MacArthur Park's occupants are 95% working class--the other 5% being a mix of homeless folk, working poor, and lost tourists. There isn't a single Starbucks, Blockbusters, or AMC Theatre to be found here, though vendors selling fruit on a stick, ice cream, and other random goods seem to be in abundance. In other words, to the average middle class and well-to-do Angelino, MacArthur is the last place you'd want to spend a weekend at.

East LA MuralsAfter carefully maneuvering across the street, I dive right in to the thick of it, swerving past homeless people having in depth discussions with themselves, kids ditching school, Salvadorian men preaching the gospel; down the slopes of the park's walkways past day laborers sleeping on the grass; past the man-made lake--all the way up to the end of the park and back again. There's no question that after years of wear and tear, this isn't the most scenic place L.A. has to offer, and yet it remains one of the most honest. Los Angeles parks are a hundred times more alive on the weekends than any shopping mall or City Walk could ever hope to be--where else can you find families of five having picnics, playing volleyball, and just enjoying the day together after a 50-plus hour work week?

The last leg of my trip consists of me coasting westward down the sidewalks of Wilshire Blvd towards Koreatown. I have no idea where I'm going and don't really care. The sidewalks are empty but the streets are full, and it's close to rush hour, so I should be heading back soon. I make it all the way out to the Wiltern Theatre, turn around, and head into an underground Korean food court. I'm exhausted. If I hadn't spent my food money on the gyro a couple of hours earlier, I'd be having Korea fast food…but I end up settling for a tapioca fruit smoothee and curious looks from the strictly Korean crowd.

The ride back home is uneventful save for a car honking at me (the only car of the day to do that) as I head east on 3rd St back towards McArthur Park to catch the subway for Union Station and eventually Lincoln Heights. I know there are a million more things to see here in Los Angeles via bike or subway, but I'm due back in Santa Cruz in a couple of hours, and I'm really tired. If I've learned anything today, it's that there are many different ways to experience L.A. Riding a bike through its streets is definitely a challenge for now, but who knows what the future holds?

David Espinoza