I’m so glad I don’t live in 1990s Los Angeles. This is my immediate reaction after reading the first two pages of the 1996 Lonely Planet tourist guide to LA.
Frankly, just reading about it made me anxious: “Los Angeles has always existed ‘on the edge,’...Like no city before it and perhaps none like it again, LA is a survivor. It seems to always be at the mercy of nature’s whims (from devastating earthquakes and drought to almost annual mudslides and brushfires) and society’s vagaries (from race riots to crimes of passion that make soap operas look maudlin).”
But nothing seems to be more unpredictable than the extent of the excessive hedonism carried out by its residents, those who either are movie stars or executives or are those hoping to be them. The guide elaborates, “To some, the big houses, fast cars, fancy clothes, elegant restaurants, and, yes, designer drugs, of which LA has more than its share may be the aggrandizement of ‘the American dream’: to many others, they are a statement that Los Angeles may be gone tomorrow, so we’re going to live our lives as fully as possible today.” Luckily, that chaotic city, a city I assume was pretty wild in the 1930s as well, has given us some of the best and most widely enjoyed art of all time.
Sure, 2015 Los Angeles is still subject to the same natural disasters, disasters that we talk about hypothetically in concerned looks and resigned shrugs, hoping for the best as if we are actually fully aware of the possibilities. But otherwise I do not feel, ever, that I or more than a select handful of the people that I have met were living particularly “on the edge” lives that seemed so mindless and yet steadfast towards recklessness and riches be it out of dysphoria or simply for sport as the guide seems to suggest.
Basically, the reckless lifestyle seems to have deteriorated since the 90s. At some point, hiking and juice bars overshadowed LA’s reputation for drugs and air pollution, and its annoyingly healthy lifestyle comes with an overwhelming amount of Priuses (and, of course, Teslas) and militant smog checks. Hollywood has changed, too, now making more room for grassroots filmmaking and LA’s other industries in general, like its burgeoning tech industry, expanding subway system, blossoming downtown, and “booming creative class,” as the New York Times recently called it. Not that Hollywood still isn’t the dominant industry here, it’s just maybe more subtle.
But then again, maybe I only notice these things because I don’t work in the entertainment industry and because I very purposefully don’t live life “on the edge.” On a rare, gloomy June Friday, I went to find out how much my city of seven years has actually changed since 1996.
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“Drink your latte coffees, you fucks.” This is the first thing I hear upon arriving in Venice Beach. The man shouting it is scruffy and homeless, pacing around the sidewalk trying to make eye contact with someone. This isn’t exactly what the guide told me I would find.
LA’s homelessness problem is pervasive everywhere, particularly downtown, but it is also an undeniable issue in Venice Beach, likely because Venice is a neighborhood known for its history of tolerance. In 1996, the beach neighborhood was known for welcoming the bizarre, people seeking some sort of alternative, artistic lifestyle, for those who want to enjoy the sunshine, surf, and probably smoke weed or do drugs. “No combination of words can do this crazy scene justice,” the guide reads. I’m told I will see street performers like jugglers, acrobats, and tarot card readers as I walk by shops offering things like Asian imports and “the kinkiest leather fashions imaginable.”
Some of this is still true today — street performers, potheads, and surfers still seem to congregate near the boardwalk area, as the guide suggests. But now Venice is less synonymous with an artsy lifestyle and more with its expensive real estate, techy neighbors, and the aforementioned large homeless population. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Venice, according to LAist, is $2,450, while companies like Google, Dollar Shave Club, and Snapchat have taken up residence in the area, pushing out some of the gangs such as the Shoreline Crips and Venice 13 that used to inhabit the area.
Lonely planet Venice recommendations
Sidewalk Cafe — "stages acoustic musicians in a boardwalk coffeehouse" — Still there
St. Mark's — "presents jazz, blues, and salsa in an old church" — Gone
Venice Beach Hostel — Still there
The Airport (Interclub) Hostel -- Gone
Venice Renaissance Building — Still there
LA Louver Galleries — Still there
James Corcoran Gallery — Gone
4/7 — Still there
I get to the ocean at about 9 am, parking my car at a meter which costs $2 per hour. The homeless man continues to yell: “I’m a Marine corp veteran. You killed my brother. Drink your latte coffees you fucks.” A couple of tourists walk around holding hands, blonde guys wearing wetsuits carry surfboards, and a few trendy guys in their 20s walk hurriedly with cameras. Very few people turn to look.
The man's screaming fades as I make my way onto the OCEAN FRONT WALK, where I’m told I will find the most action. Aside from a few tourists and blonde guys wearing wetsuits carrying surfboards, most of the action is performed by street cleaners and shop owners pulling up their gates and arranging clothing racks. It’s similarly quiet over at MUSCLE BEACH, where the manual said I would find “bikini-clad” women watching muscular men watch themselves work out. Instead, a couple of buff guys wander around the outdoor gym warming up and peeling off layers while a homeless man sleeps in the bleachers section.
I continue walking and soon enough notice that a few street performers and other artists are getting set up. A man in a rainbow outfit takes his inline skates on the first spin of the day, moving one foot in front of the other in a sort of mindless way that makes the Venice spectacle, or “human circus” as the guidebook calls it, seem contrived, patronizing, like some rehearsed, theatrical production blatantly capitalizing on our gullibility in the same way Mickey and Minnie Mouse perform for awestruck children at Disneyland.
Significant Earthquakes Centered in
Los Angeles County
Sierra Madre, 5.8
2 deaths; $40 million
61 deaths; $20 billion
South East of West Hollywood, 4.2
No deaths; moderate damage
Pico Rivera, 4.4
No deaths; moderate damage
No deaths; moderate damage
I end up at the SIDEWALK CAFE, a Venice Beach staple which has been there for, as the host told me, 37 years. I order an iced coffee and an egg sandwich from the bartender, Hugo, who has been working there since 2000. When I ask, he says that things were much crazier back in 2000, the boardwalk flooded with all walks of life, from tourists to dazed locals. “When I would leave at 6 pm, you couldn’t even get out,” he said, gesturing outside where things are calm and quiet.
“You would see dead bodies sometimes,” he adds, nodding his head with raised eyebrows a trace of a relaxed smile. Overall, he seemed pleased that things have calmed down. Dead bodies seem a little extreme, but he's busy, so I don’t push it. I take my coffee and breakfast to go. On the way out, I pass a homeless man holding a sign that reads, “NEED MORE STORAGE.”
I get back in my car and drive over to the VENICE CANALS, a sightseeing destination I realize I’ve never actually visited. The canals are quiet, serene, and surrounded by an eclectic mix of multi-million dollar homes that range from simple cottages to minimalist structures. I see moms pushing strollers and a few people walking their dogs, as well as a cop on a bike who kept circling the neighborhood. The guide said that the city was considering doing away with the canals, due to threats of disease from the contaminated water, but here they are, albeit incredibly shallow, dirty, and void of any wildlife except a couple of stray ducks.
It takes about 40 minutes to travel side streets to Fairfax, a mid-city region which, unlike Venice, was seemingly more quiet and calm back in the 90s. Fairfax, home to the CBS lot and just a few miles from Paramount Pictures, was known as LA’s principal Jewish neighborhood, where you would mostly find traditional Judaica stores, the celebrity magnet Jewish deli Canter’s Delicatessen and a long-standing farmer’s market.
But now Fairfax is known as mostly a young, trendy destination where you can buy streetwear and go bar-hopping. It’s also the home of one of the biggest tourist destinations in the city — a high-end outdoor shopping center called The Grove, which didn’t open until 2002. (The Huffington Post recently dubbed Fairfax “The Coolest Street in Los Angeles”).
Lonely Planet tells me first to check out the FARMER’S MARKET, a large, airy bazaar of sorts that has been open since 1934. I arrive there at about 11 am and spend some time wandering around, checking out the stalls, which offer a wide range of foods, from crepes to curry to full-sized birthday cakes and cupcakes for your dog. I read that in 1996, there were about 120 different vendors here, which seems high, but there might be a reason for that.
The Farmer’s Market is now attached to the aforementioned tourist-magnet/shopping center for the affluent, THE GROVE. Attracting mostly tourists who want to take Instagram photos in the picturesque walkways or to see celebrities shopping, the Grove seems cheesy next to the Farmer’s Market. On cobblestone streets, the fountain bizarrely pulses along with techno music. A few tourists and children ride the trolley, quietly scanning the faces in the crowd.
It’s now around 1 PM, and on my way to lunch, I look for some of the more traditional Jewish shops referenced in the guide, but instead, I see “urban streetwear” stores like Supreme and DOPE, as well as a couple of bars and restaurants — some divey, some more upscale.
I followed a few stray middle-aged men and women in business attire into CANTER’S, a low-key deli which has been open since 1932, and is known for its historic celebrity clientele like Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. The vibe is relaxed compared to the “cool” environment on the street outside, and the crowd is noticeably older. I strike up a conversation with a server named Greg, who, while he doesn’t look a day older than 40, has evidently been working at Canter’s since 1985, or, as he jokes, “since 1890.”
I ask him if there are more or less tourists now than there were back in the 90s. “I’m not sure if the volume of tourists has changed,” he says, “but the type of tourist,” alluding to the new, younger, hipper tourist. He takes the time to detail all of the shops and restaurants that have closed down, a list that seems to go on forever: Damiano’s Pizza, Arnold’s Bookstore, John’s Place, Black Sea, and a slew of other smaller stores. He doesn’t seem fazed by the influx of millennials and silly drop-crotch pants, seemingly happy that Canter’s is still around, even if the backdrop has changed. “We’ve been the anchor in the neighborhood forever,” he says with pride. It’s obvious that things have changed in the neighborhood, but how I could fit these changes within the larger picture of LA’s evolution, I wasn’t sure.
I take a walk up Fairfax, passing by the SILENT THEATER, which is showing a Jim Henson legacy film, and on the way back I see someone who I recognize — a tall, handsome guy in a well-fitted white shirt and black jeans. I stare at him behind my sunglasses trying to place him — did I meet him at a bar or something? in a class at UCLA? — until I realize that it’s rapper G-Eazy. I feel my face reddening and pick up my pace back to the car.
Lonely planet Fairfax district recommendations
Canter's Kibitz Room — Still there
Largo Pub — "whose rock and folk has a European appeal" — Closed
Genghis Cohen Cantina — Still there
Molly Malone's Irish Pub — Still there
Tom Bergin's — Still there
4/5 — Still there
“In Southern California, where cinema is the ultimate art form, and ‘The Industry’ willingly shields its public from the real world, it’s sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction,” the 1996 guidebook reads. And in the 90s, no other place was best known for representing the industry that blurred the lines between fact and fiction than Hollywood, so I head there next.
By this point, it’s about 3 pm, the traffic is getting worse. It takes me about 25 minutes to get from Fairfax to Hollywood, a distance of only three miles or so. The sun is also now out in full force. It feels about 20 degrees warmer than it was this morning.
I pull into a monstrous parking structure near the corner of HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and Highland Avenue and walk towards the attractions. I pass a generic mix of chain stores like Sephora, Victoria’s Secret, and Starbucks in the Hollywood and Highland Center on my way to the HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME, the famed star-paved sidewalk which acknowledges achievement in the entertainment industry, ranging from Audrey Hepburn to make-up artists, and famed movie houses, like EL CAPITAN THEATER, where Citizen Kane premiered.
Lonely planet HOLLYWOOD recommendations
Musso & Frank Grill — Still there
Yamashiro — Still there
CC Brown's Ice Cream — Gone
Sun Palace — Closed
Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles — Still there
El Floridita — Still there
The Diamond Club (70s disco) — Gone
Cinegrill (old time cabaret) — Gone
Bar Deluxe (blues and rockabilly) — Gone
Club Lingerie (alternative rockers) — Gone
Hollywood Entertainment Museum — Gone
Roosevelt Hotel — Still there
5/12 — Still there
Hollywood in 1996 seems rather similar to Hollywood in 2015. Contrary to popular belief, taking a trip to Hollywood isn’t a glamorous excursion, something that the guide acknowledges. But what the guide fails to mention (unless I simply missed this page in my frantic hour in the UCLA library trying to photograph the entire 1996 Lonely Planet book before the library closed) is that Hollywood was a mess in the 90s, ridden with crime and a bad reputation. A 2013 article from the LA Times reads, “The once-glamorous district had fallen into steep decline for decades, bottoming out in the 1990s when crime reached new highs and many of the old theaters that once dominated the boulevard closed down.”
And, while things have gotten better as Hollywood Boulevard is now home to more modern additions like the W Hotel Hollywood and the shiny Hollywood and Highland shopping center, visiting Hollywood is still a bit “meh.” During the day, strolling around the famed street is more like visiting a kind of grungy museum where a variety of different people either try to rip you off or beg you for money. Locals dressed up in Spiderman or Edward Scissorhands costumes ask $5 for a photo, aspiring singers and rappers hand out their CDs, as if asking for exposure only to charge a fee if you walk off with it; homeless people and various transients mostly just want money for food.
As I walk down the Boulevard, I see tourists stop to take photos with the pink stars on the sidewalk and admire the street performers, while kids pose with the costumed locals, unaware that their parents will soon be asked for cash. Quite a few cops mill about, more than I remember being here when I first moved here in 2008. This is likely due to the fact that a tourist was stabbed here not too long ago after she refused to pay a transient $1 for taking a photo of his cardboard sign.
I backtrack a little bit west towards the CHATEAU MARMONT, a classic, Hollywood hotel modeled after a royal French retreat, to see if anything has changed since 1996. Unlike Hollywood Boulevard and much of Hollywood, the Chateau Marmont is actually a place where celebrities go and has been a popular place for the rich and famous for over half of a century. For a point of reference, a google search for “Chateau Marmont news” pulls up names like Kanye West, Jennifer Lawrence, and Anna Kendrick. The 1996 Lonely Planet cites the Chateau as the place where John Belushi overdosed, as well as a stop for famous guests like Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes.
The bar, Bar Marmont, is predictably quiet, as it’s only just after 6 pm. I sit down a few stools away from a woman drinking champagne and reading a book. I order a Manhattan. Four tourists sit down next to me. They are in town from Pennsylvania and ask about how the hotel has changed, saving me the trouble.
I gather bits and pieces from their conversation. The bartender, originally from Wichita, Kansas, has been working at the hotel for years. He recants the time Slash carved “Slash loves Perla,” into one of the leather walls, something the Chateau has left intact, explaining that overall the hotel itself hasn’t changed all that drastically. The way he talks about the past carries an air of nostalgia and contentment, as if suggesting that, while Los Angeles is still in some ways bizarre and glamorous and chaotic, things have changed, for better or for worse.
An old boss of mine once told me that when he first got to Los Angeles a few decades ago, “you needed a passport to go downtown” because downtown LA was practically abandoned. The Lonely Planet guide devotes quite a few pages to downtown Los Angeles, at one point calling it “underappreciated” and a location to discover the city’s “multi-ethnic character,” but little is said in terms of an overarching culture. Once the home of the famous, vibrant BROADWAY theater district (the movie capital of the world, according to the Los Angeles Times), emphasis later shifted to Hollywood, leaving downtown in ruins, where it would become known for high crime and homelessness.
But downtown LA is currently experiencing a revitalization. The population has almost tripled, a slew of young companies, from Whole Foods to Stumptown Coffee to Nasty Gal have either moved in or are setting up shop, and you can’t go a few feet without seeing the restoration of a classic 1920s building or the construction of a glossy high rise.
In the nineties, the guidebook mentions that Broadway housed mostly Hispanic shops and theaters that either showed Spanish-language films or nothing at all. Today, the Hispanic shopping district seems to be thinning as new stores move in, and at least a few of the famous theaters have even been repurposed; the United Artists Theater has been converted into the popular Ace Hotel, and the Rialto now houses an Urban Outfitters.
Broadway can still be a little rough around the edges — downtown LA’s homeless population is still quite high, and Broadway specifically tends to have a large amount of litter strewn about — but the famed area features some of the most inspiring architecture in the city: tall, ornate 1910s and 1920s buildings in styles from Art Deco to Spanish Rococo to Beaux Arts. One of the busier streets in downtown LA, Broadway is notably diverse, featuring all walks of life rather than just the modelesque that the rest of the world has come to associate with LA. At 9 am, I mostly just see people walking to work.
Lonely Planet Downtown recommendations
Clifton's Cafeteria -- "a huge cafeteria (no booze, cash only) nearby that has been around for decades" -- Closed, reportedly re-opening
The Original Pantry -- "It's open 24 hours, seven days a week, with home-cooked American meals for $5 to $10 served by aging tuxedoed waiters" -- This is still accurate
Engine Company No 28 -- "for steak and seafood grills" -- Still there
Pacific Dining Car -- "a traditional favorite of legal eagles" -- Still there
The Water Grill -- "may be LA's best seafood eatery" -- Still there
San Antonio Winery & Restaurant -- "last producing winery in LA" -- Still there
Mayan Theater -- Latin nightclub -- Still there
4/7 — Still there
I start with GRAND CENTRAL MARKET, an open-air marketplace and the oldest market in Los Angeles, which Lonely Planet says houses many of the same vendors that inhabited the space in the 1930s, although this seems less likely now. It’s not as clean and polished as the Farmer’s Market in the Fairfax District, but Grand Central features stall after stall of modern, hip craft coffee shops, a breakfast bar called Eggslut, and a gourmet German sausage place.
I interrupt a man chopping onions to ask him about how Grand Central has changed since the 90s, to which he says with an off-guard smile, “It’s good, very good. There’s much more people.” He doesn’t elaborate further, only to insist that he’s happy with the changes and with the boom in business.
I stop by another shop that has been there since the 90s and ask two men the same question. The older of the two, who has witnessed the recent transformation, agrees with the last man. I ask, in broken Spanish, a somewhat leading question to try to see if there’s anyone out there who isn’t mostly pleased with downtown’s revitalization — gentrification isn’t usually something that is celebrated across the board. But he doesn’t waver. “Hay Europeos, Asiáticos, Y Latinos, todo juntos.” I shrug, satisfied for now with an explanation of increased diversity, and let it go.
I walk across the street to ANGELS FLIGHT, supposedly the World’s Shortest Railway, which is temporarily out of service for, according to their website, “a regulatory issue.” There have been two accidents here since 1996, one of which ended in a death. “This funicular dates back to 1901, when Bunker Hill was one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Los Angeles,” the Angels Flight website reads, “and the cars, Olivet and Sinai, ferried prominent citizens up and down the steep slope between Hill and Olive streets.” When in service, it costs 50 cents to ride one of the little orange cars with black iron accents.
A couple of men in pale button down shirts take the stairs alongside the littered tracks, passing a homeless man who puts his hand up his shirt and watches everyone with an anxious boredom.
I cross back through Grand Central Market and walk across Broadway to the BRADBURY BUILDING, famous for its unique Victorian court interior as well as for being the city’s oldest commercial building. The shiny, overwhelmingly detailed indoor area, where Blade Runner was shot, is flushed with light from the roof, which is comprised of only windows. It now houses mostly LAPD Internal Affairs, according to the security guard, but will have a Blue Bottle Coffee arriving next year.
From there, I jump back in my car and cruise down Broadway towards home.
One sentence from the guidebook has been whirling around in my head for hours: “No other city on Earth is so talked about, yet so misunderstood, as Los Angeles.” A part of me wants to dismiss this quote as cliché and outdated, but then again, I’m not sure if I even understand LA, a place that seems to have traded one form of chaos — scandal, self-indulgence, and fantasies — for another form of disorder, an uncertain, albeit definitely gentrified, future and a lack of a unifying thread. I’m not sure if I really want to understand LA. Isn’t the mystery — from past to present to future — what keeps this city interesting?