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L.A. confidentially

A samlpler of what this West Coast legend has to offer

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The city we refer to as Los Angeles is the sum of many parts. Hermosa Beach, Inglewood, Burbank, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica. Like pieces in a puzzle, they fit snugly together to form the big picture, a vast melting pot of cultures and classes threaded together by a network of freeways.

The area might seem overwhelming to Utahns who grew up where streets are laid out in a grid and where finding an address is no more difficult than counting.

Think of L.A. as a lavish meal. The way to digest it is to bite off one piece at a time.

I recently visited Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. I visualized my long weekend there as a sampler, starting downtown, where I walked through the Fashion District keeping an eye open for bargains, and ending in Santa Monica, where I shared a two-hour sunset walk on the bicycle path that runs along the beach with bicyclers and in-line skaters. In between I took in a couple of museums.

Here are a few observations:

By foot: Pedestrians are an endangered species. They're almost an afterthought as far as drivers are concerned.

Standing in front of the Wyndham Checkers Hotel in the heart of the downtown business district waiting for the doorman to pull up in my little rental car, I watched the driver of a big black sedan back into a crowded crosswalk, nearly taking out a pedestrian.

I had a near-miss of my own. On my way to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which fronts Wilshire Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, I stepped into the crosswalk (the light was in my favor) just as an SUV that had stopped at the intersection lurched forward to make a right turn. The driver's head was pivoted hard left, scanning the horizon for cars that might be coming. I wasn't even on his radar.

My advice to pedestrians: Walk defensively.

By car: The magic number is 30 minutes. The locals say you can get from Point A to Point B almost anywhere in the Greater Los Angeles area in a half hour. From downtown to Disneyland? Thirty minutes. From downtown to Santa Monica beach? Thirty minutes. From Beverly Hills to LAX? Thirty minutes.

Some restrictions apply: Rush hours don't count, and you need to take the freeways. If the word "freeway" precipitates a migraine, you aren't alone. Even some natives avoid them. A clerk at the gift shop at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example, didn't know the directions to I-10. "I only go on surface roads," she said.

I, on the other hand, was surprised at how easy it was to to get around on the freeways. I scheduled my driving time for mid-morning, mid-afternoon or early evening. Rarely were the traffic arteries clogged.

The worst situation I encountered was in the downtown business district where I found myself imprisoned in gridlock. Getting around the block seemed like it took, yes, 30 minutes. But a certain civility prevailed. One driver after another gave a polite tap on the horn to let me know he'd let me into a crowded lane.

The Fashion District: It's Saturday morning and central L.A. is packed with people. Many stores in the district, which covers 82 blocks between Main and San Pedro and the Santa Monica Freeway and 5th Street, sell merchandise at up to 50 percent off suggested retail prices. There's women's evening wear, underwear, outerwear, belts, purses and accessories, menswear and children's wear. They're everywhere.

I skipped the ready-made stuff and headed to Wall Street, where I thought I might invest in a few things. Textiles, to be exact. Wholesalers there sell decorative fabrics for drapery and upholstery at discounted prices. Some dabble in area rugs, too. I also noticed a few outlets that specialize in fabric for clothing.

The area's a haven for creative people who upholster their own furniture, make their own throw pillows or sew their own clothes. Hollywood set designers are frequent customers.

Judy Atia is the owner of X-Trim, a small shop that sells imported ribbon, lace and other trims.

She said some of her customers buy trim to sew around the bottom of their jeans instead of purchasing them ready made. Young mothers buy an inexpensive christening dress for their babies and come to her shop for exquisite lace to trim it. Mothers of young ice skaters stop by looking for trim for their daughters' costumes.

Tracey Rave, a resident of nearby Korean Town, was fingering beaded fringe, thinking about using it to finish the edges of a scarf she was making for a friend.

"For what I want, I could pay 30 times as much" at a retail store in some other part of town, she said. "Prices don't get any better."

The Flower District: Speaking of prices, if you follow Wall Street toward 7th Street, you'll bump into the Flower District, where you'll save up to 75 percent on what you'd pay on the west side of town.

You'll be amazed at how much you get for your money. There are independent shops as well as the Southern California Flower Market, a warehouse filled with wholesalers. (There's a small admission fee into the flower market.)

L.A. resident Asmik Soibatian was walking out of the Southern California Flower Market with a colorful mixed bouquet she purchased for $15. She was bound for a cemetery to decorate the grave of a relative. I estimate that a similar bouquet from a Salt Lake florist would retail for $30 to $40. If only I'd had a way to get them home . . .

Freebies: To landlocked Utahns, life in L.A. is a beach. The best way to see the beach is to walk a segment of the 23-mile bicycle path that runs with only a few interruptions from Hermosa Beach to Santa Monica Beach. Walkers share the path with bicyclers, in-line skaters and boarders.

Gal Paz, a native Israeli who now lives in the San Fernando Valley, is an in-line skating instructor with Action Sports Rental, a mom-and-pop pizza parlor and a bicycle/in-line skate/umbrella/beach-chair rental shop on Santa Monica Beach. His clients are as diverse as Los Angeles itself, he said.

We have "kids 3 or 4 years old coming with their parents and people up to 75 or 80," he said. "The older people rent more bikes. The younger people, more blades."

If you envision a bicycle path as busy as a freeway during rush hour and the beach a sea of umbrellas, you're wrong.

Santa Monica Beach is less crowded than it used to be, said Paz. "People just aren't coming . . . any more. Even on weekends. People think it's too crowded so they don't come."

Working on the beach is a front-row seat in an open air theater. The actors represent all walks of life. Weekends, "when all the chicks come out," are his favorite time. "They're skating, and all the guys are drooling behind them."

Star gazing: I was practically guaranteed I would lay eyes on a celebrity if I had breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. I stopped by on a rainy Sunday morning, pulling my little rental onto the premises behind a Jaguar and in front of a Mercedes. It was Sunday brunch, and the place was packed. I ended up sitting at the bar next to some businessmen from Spain. The waitress set me a place and handed me a New York Times (why not an L.A. Times? I asked myself). The buffet took up three rooms. One had hot items — made-to-order omelettes, waffles, roast lamb. Another had salads, cheese, chicken and fish. The third was full of desserts. I overdosed, scanning the rooms for celebrities between mouthfuls. There were none.

I double checked with the maitre'd as I left.

"Are there any celebrities here?" I asked.

"It's too crowded," he said. "They might come for dinner, but they'd be secluded in the back."

I had bet $55 ($50 for the brunch and $5 for parking) and lost. So much for guarantees.

Museums: The Los Angeles County Museum is a find. The complex of buildings on Wilshire near the corner of Fairfax houses a gold mine of art. I poked my head into the Anderson Building, a repository of contemporary and modern art. There were works by Chagall, Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, Pollock, DeKooning, Miro, Picasso, Mondrian, Modigliani and Matisse, to name a few. To do the museum justice, you need the better part of a day.

The museum is closed on Wednesdays. Admission is free the second Tuesday of every month.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is downtown (250 S. Grand Avenue) within sight of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. You have to be more forward-looking than I am to appreciate most of its works. The gift shop, however, had wonderful stuff. Couple a stop at the museum with a walk around the Bunker Hill business district. Names on the buildings read like a "Who's Who" of corporate America. There's the ARCO world headquarters, the Mellon Bank Building and the Times-Mirror building. Many of the buildings have beautiful grounds with garden plazas and fountains. They are ideal for walking.

E-mail: kclayton@desnews.com