Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2003

By James Verini

Los ANGELES is a car city, the car city, so let’s begin with the honest truth, shall we? The honest truth: For many of us, the idea of riding the Metro Rail subway in Los Angeles ranks up there with an afternoon at the Natural History Museum or a night of Kabuki theater. An experience we know would be conscientiously edifying — enjoyable, even — if we could only overcome that innate reluctance. It just seems so puny and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. But that’s because we’re looking at it all wrong.

Look at the Metro instead as a winter boardwalk, your new recreational vehicle, as a whiz-bang trolley to those parts of the city you’ve always wanted to investigate but where you were afraid you wouldn’t find adequate parking.

For once, cherish real public-ness, so rare in this city. (Aside from the variety of odd costumes on Hollywood’s Red Line, the Metro doesn’t call to mind “Blade Runner” at all. Nor is it cramped and humid like New York’s subways. It’s clean and fast and airy and punctual, like San Francisco’s BART or Boston’s T — but unlike those systems, you can always, but always, find a seat along with the other roughly 230,000 weekday riders.)

First, check out the accompanying map or pick one up at a station. Study it. Look at all those neighborhoods you’ve only heard of. Huge, no?

The place to begin is on the Red Line, which makes a turned-over-chair shape across North Hollywood, Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. Buy a round-trip ticket for $2.75 at any of the stations — Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue is most convenient for West Hollywood and Hollywood residents, Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue for Wilshire Corridor types — and head north. (No signs in the stations say that one must buy a new ticket when transferring between lines. However, the tickets are marked R, G or B and, in the interests of civic responsibility, we recommend the purchase of multiple tickets at either of the two hubs — the 7th Street and the Imperial-Wilmington-Rosa Parks Metro stations.)

Don’t be concerned about where you’re going just yet. First, get a feel for the conveyance. Feel that cool rush of air as the train approaches. The carpeted seats, the trapezoidal cars, the smooth hum of the rails. Say good day to your seatmate, should you have one. Look out and watch the dark tunnel stream by. Splendid, eh? There’s no way you’d be moving like this on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

North Hollywood

We arrive at the North Hollywood station (see map, No. 1). Ride up through the cavernous escalator passageway — L.A.’s Metro Rail has numerous awe-inspiring escalator passageways like this; New York has maybe one or two, and they’re usually mobbed with stockbrokers — and onto street level.

Turn around. Good lord, look at the San Gabriel Mountains. Look at how the band shell entranceway is set against those peaks. Feel the thrill of raw California. When was the last time you saw the earth this looming and clear?

For an excursion, walk down Lankershim Boulevard into the mini arts district of NoHo to the Lankershim Art Gallery (5108 Lankershim Blvd., off Magnolia Boulevard), where we recommend you pay special attention to the very trippy Chagall-like paintings on the back wall by artist Lana Lisitsa. On your way back to the station, grab an iced gingerbread latte at Starbucks — your day has just begun.

Hollywood and Vine

Heading back south on the Red Line, lean out the doors — or exit the train (there will be another real soon) — at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street (No. 2 on map) and look up at the ceiling. Are those … ? Yes, those are. Film reels. The ceiling is made of metal film reels, thousands of film reels. Imagine the labor involved. The extravagant attention to detail at the expense of boring practicality.

Also, take a peek at the groin-vaulted plate-metal palm trees on the first level. Very machine aesthetic. Get back on the train, go past Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue (but keep it in mind; you’ll end up here tonight), and get out at Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard (No. 3).

Vermont and Sunset

If you’ve been thinking about John Travolta’s career arc, walk east on Sunset Boulevard to the faux-cobblestone L. Ron Hubbard Way and contemplate the mysteries within that baby-blue factory-like pile that is the Church of Scientology’s main outpost.

If not, turn north and take Vermont Avenue into Los Feliz village, L.A.’s very own Left Bank. Go buy the new French Kicks record at Vinyl Fetish, sit outside at Palermo and have a cappuccino, look across the street and relish the fact that someone had the temerity to name a restaurant “House of Pies.” Don’t eat any pie — just enjoy the name.

Vermont and Beverly

Heading south again, quickly hop out at Vermont Avenue and Beverly Boulevard (No. 4) to take a gander at the odd desert tableau the MTA has made of this station’s exterior: boulders jutting from the stairwell, a “Westworld” cactus arrangement. Then transfer at the next station to the westbound Red Line extension and get out at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue (No. 5).

Wilshire and Western

Did you bring your Pumas? You’re going to hit some golf balls in a most unlikely and picturesque setting. On the third floor of a nondescript office building at 3680 Wilshire Blvd. is a driving range, open to the public: $6 gets you 100 balls, views of Koreatown to the south and a huge bull’s-eye hanging in a vista of netted sky — just call it Philip K. Dick lite.

Is it time to drink yet? It’s always time to drink yet at H.M.S. Bounty (3357 Wilshire Blvd.), the nautically themed souse house that, though it’s perpetually claiming it’s been discovered by the hip, still seems to host more ex-longshoremen.

But keep your Pumas laced tight — it’s time to get your Noir Deco on with a walking tour of the Los Angeles 1920s and ’30s. Hyperbole aside, Wilshire Boulevard from Western Avenue to MacArthur Park is among the most marvelous stretches in urban America, a sprawling Jazz Age outburst, a neo-Gothic dream. Start with the newly refurbished Wiltern (3790 Wilshire Blvd., built in 1931), directly across from the station. Look at that dripping Transylvanian facade. Can’t you smell the trench coats and fedoras?

Moving east, note the hulking Wilshire Boulevard Temple (3663 Wilshire Blvd., 1929), and the compound of the Chapman Market (6th Street, between Kenmore and Alexandria avenues, 1929), northeast of the Wiltern. Finally, and most magnificently, there is the Bullocks Wilshire building, now home to Southwestern Law School (3050 Wilshire Blvd., 1929 — aside from the Depression, what a year 1929 was), and the mammoth Park Plaza Hotel (602 Park View St., 1925). Is that Raymond Chandler walking by?

After boarding at the MacArthur Park station, transfer to the Blue Line at 7th Street-Metro Center and experience an incomparable transition as the train emerges from darkness into the open air.

103rd Street

Enjoy the passing scenery until 103rd Street (No. 6), where, a few minutes’ walk down Willowbrook Avenue, loom the stupendous Watts Towers. Like much that is great in Los Angeles, they were the product of one insanely driven man, who built them, alone, over the course of 30 years. His name was Sabato Rodia, and he was a Neapolitan immigrant laborer who began the tortuous sculpture of found objects, garbage and cement as a weekend project in his backyard in 1924. When it got too tall for ladders, Rodia, who had no engineering training and stood 5 feet tall, would hang from his unmapped creation in a window-washer’s belt, adding pieces.

One hundred feet high, sublimely foolish, the towers are a microcosm of the city — a monument to the power of refuse over time. With all that verticality in mind, get back on the Metro and transfer to the Green Line, going west, at Imperial-Wilmington-Rosa Parks. No, you’re not going to LAX. You’re not going anywhere, in fact. You’re here just to sit and look — from Crenshaw to Aviation boulevards– at the most stunning views of Los Angeles this side of Chinatown.

At Aviation Boulevard, turn around and head back east. Sit behind any of the scientists leaving Northrop Grumman Corp. or Hughes Electronics Corp. and listen to them talk about jet propulsion. It makes for quite stimulating eavesdropping.

Union Station

Take the Blue Line back to 7th Street-Metro Center and transfer to the Red Line going east. Take it to its terminus and surface from the dank catacombs into the light of Union Station (No. 7). More cinematic than any landmark theater, Union Station (built in 1939 for $11 million) is the apotheosis of Los Angeles’ own mongrel Mission style. Take special note of the 3,000-pound Art Deco chandeliers in this temple to modernity.

If you can stand some more history, leave the station and cross the street to El Pueblo de Los Angeles historic monument. Ignore the cheap leather belts and bus exhaust and take in the quaint Old West facades.

Civic Center

Heading west again, get off at Civic Center (No. 8), observing the whimsical flying figures suspended from the ceiling (a work called “I Dreamed I Could Fly” by Jonathan Borofsky), and get prepared to be inspired. On leaving the station, look around. The Roman splendor of City Hall to the south, the adamantine County Hall of Records and federal and criminal courts and the mountains behind them to the east, the Los Angeles Times building to the west.

Stand in just the right spot, and the rumble of bus wheels on Spring Street and subterranean rails below well up beneath your feet. Now this is a city. Take a turn around City Hall and brush up on your Cicero: “He who violates his oath profanes the divinity of faith itself,” reads the west entrance.

Walk north along Temple Street to the brand-spanking-new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, perhaps the only one in the world with its own multi-level parking structure. Meander along in the Le Corbusier-like interior — doesn’t it seem like Philip Glass should be playing? — and, if the spirit moves you, dip a finger in the Jacuzzi-size holy water font. Try to get there between 3:30 and 6 p.m. on weekdays, or between 1 and 3 p.m. on the weekend; that’s when the cathedral’s dapper organ master, Samuel Soria, plies his Bach on the 6,019-pipe organ.

Pershing Square

Take the Red Line southwest one stop to Pershing Square (No. 9), and get out, if possible from the west exit. From here it’s a quick walk to the MOCAs (the first one, at 250 S. Grand Ave., or the better one, which will take you through Little Tokyo, at the Geffen Contemporary Complex, at 152 N. Central Ave.). But why not skip those and really get your Warhols at the Museum of Neon Art (501 W. Olympic Blvd.)? It’s much cooler.

On the way back, kill that pain in your fallen arches at the Standard Downtown (550 S. Flower St.). A Jameson’s on the rocks while looking out from the roof bar of the Andre Balazs’ hotel will counter the effects of any number of jabbering agents. If $3 cervezas are more your style, however, duck into La Cita, directly next to the station. In fact, even if you like paying too much for drinks, duck into this red-vinyl gem just to see it.

Then take a stroll around the Latin-pan-Asian Central Square Market. Soak in the plantains and guavas and salted charales (roughly translated: smellfish) and pigs’ noses. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more startling array of meats outside of Shanghai — or Van Nuys, anyway. Before getting back on the Metro, get a glimpse of Bunker Hill, with its glass towers sprouting atop weeds like something out of “The Omega Man.” You half-expect to see Charlton Heston running down the slope, beating his chest.

Hollywood and Western

It’s undeniably dinnertime by this point, and we have just one more stop. Get back on the Red Line going north, relax for seven stops and get out at Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue (No. 10). Do you like Thai food? Do you like the King? Palms Thai (5273 Hollywood Blvd., at Hobart) has both. It’s time to discuss everything you’ve seen today over a bottle of Singha and a plate of deep-fried trout, while Kevin the Thai Elvis impersonator sings “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”