Sorting through Los Angeles’ Kitsch

August 30 – 31, 2008
Photo set on Flickr

No place sensationalizes its kitsch better than Los Angeles and I took pride in avoiding its tackiness each and every time. I came for three things only – friends, sunshine and In-N-Out Burger. I thought my streak would continue forever but abruptly it came to a halt. My friend had some out-of-town company staying at his place at the same time we were in town, and they eagerly invited us to join them on their sightseeing. We reluctantly tagged along, out of courtesy. I knew it was unwise, but I guess finally seeing the Hollywood Sign means I can say I have been to L.A.?

Hollywood

Ripping Los Angeles’ superficiality is basically a national pastime for the rest of the country. Given the popularity of shows like the Entourage, it is almost natural to assume everyone in town is a wannabe actor or model. That’s not exactly an exaggeration – allegedly all the waitresses at the cafe we had lunch in Hollywood were modeling in some capacity.

Hollywood, unless you work in the entertainment industry or have insider access, is simply a tourist trap. The worst kind in fact – one that is unrepentantly tacky but demands your adulation. Look, there is Jack Nicholson’s hand and foot prints! See the more than 2,000 stars on the pavement with names you mostly likely have never heard of? Congratulations, you are now among the stars of stars as decided by a committee of mostly old white men.

Those interested in the Academy Awards Ceremony can take a tour of its venue the Kodak Theater, but clearly most people are tired of this self-congratulating show as indicated by its continuous drop in TV rating.

If you must, drive 20 minutes north to Hollywood Hill for a closer look of the Hollywood Sign.

Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills

Driving around Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive in search of movie filming locations and celebrities’ homes… this was as dumb as it sounds. What savaged this afternoon from a total lost cause was the quintessential L.A. setting of wide boulevards and towering palm trees.

Disney Concert Hall

After suffering the worst of L.A.’s camp, today began more promisingly with a taco brunch in Studio City. Downtown was up next, an neglected area for decades until the recently opened entertainment complex L.A. Live. Empty at night when the Staple Center, part of the complex and home to the L.A. sport teams, was opened in 1999, the neighborhood is now one of the fastest developing in town.

Couple blocks north is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a Frank Gehry designed metal cladding behemoth that lends some sorely lacking highbrow cachet to downtown the moment it opened in 2013. The stainless steel exterior whirls and turns at angles that defies customary norms. Photos taken from different angles and light yield markedly distinct results. For those who live in North America and might never get to see the Guggenheim Bilbao, the building that put both Gehry and its namesake city to the mainstream, the Walt Disney Concert Hall could be a more accessible facsimile.

Downtown deserved more of our time but we needed to get going to our next stop.

Getty Center

L.A.’s most visited museum is the Getty Center, opened in 1997 to house J.Paul Getty’s collections of pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, sculpture and decorative arts. Managed by the Getty Trust, the world’s wealthiest art institution, allows the Center to charge no admission fee except for parking. Don’t let this generous gesture conceal the fact J.Paul Getty, once America’s wealthiest man, was so frugal he delayed the ransom payment for his grandson and resulted in the cutting off of John Paul Getty III’s ear.

While impressive as a private collection, the Center can’t match what’s on display at top notch public institutions such as the MET. Rather, its real trump card is its travertine and white metal-clad pavilions, aesthetic gardens, and far-reaching views overlooking Los Angeles. The hilltop Getty Center is linked to the parking by a three-car, cable-pulled hovertrain funicular.

Venice

Venice Beach, Los Angeles

From J.Paul Getty we moved on to another man who had a huge impact on L.A., a tobacco millionaire by the name of Abbot Kinney. He poured a great amount of his fortune trying to recreate Venice by the Pacific Ocean. Popular for a short while after its opening in 1905, the project soon became unmanageable and by 1929 most of the canals were filled and turned into roads. Discovery of oil further clogged the remaining waterways. By the 1950s it was known as the “Slum by the Sea”.

The arrival of writers and artists in the 50s and 60s was the first step of Venice’s revitalization. Drawn by Venice’s unique seaside setting next was the familiar waves of urban renewal and gentrification, though its crime rate remains persistently higher than surrounding neighborhoods.

The canals are now a peculiar residential area of simple cottages and luxurious homes. More interesting is the Venice Beach where it is a mini carnival at all times. People from all walks of life can be spotted here: families, hipsters, gangs, workout fanatics, youth, retirees, and of course, tourists. This place is unlike anywhere else in L.A.

Santa Monica

Ten minutes north from Venice is Santa Monica, probably third place on L.A.’s biggest tourist traps behind Hollywood and Rodeo Drive. Hundreds of movies were shot here, but there is nothing to do here except bumping shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. Nothing about shopping at chains on Third Street Promenade or ride the Santa Monica Pier Ferris Wheel excite me, though I was touched by the temporary American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq memorial.

My assumption was not entirely wrong – Los Angeles has indeed mastered the art form of promoting tourist traps as must-see attractions. But by digging slightly deeper and avoid the tired stereotypes, I have found a side of L.A. that’s innovative, diverse, unique and certainly worthy of anyone’s time.

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