In Defense of Los Angeles: A Walk Through the City’s Culturally Rich Boroughs

Natalie Chagollan

Culture encompasses the arts, language, history and the general vibe of the people who create it. Perhaps this last facet is why Los Angeles is widely regarded as a city with no culture.  Los Angeles is indisputably the mecca of the film industry and perhaps the requirements associated with being involved in it have created some off-putting characteristics (perceived shallowness, superficiality, spiritual vacancy) in some residents that tourists use to deride the great city. Others label this city “La La land” and other well-known derogatory terms.


However, these dismissive remarks do not come close to characterizing this sprawling metropolis. Los Angeles is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States and it is home to more museums and theaters than any other city in the country. It is the home of Hollywood, beachfront ghettos, inner-city turmoil, a diverse music scene, billboards, career creatives, aspiring writers, actors and ordinary residents and countless food trucks to feed them.


For those who stay, L.A. is more than the guy dressed in a Spiderman suit on Hollywood Blvd or the Midwestern transplant waiting tables and hoping for a chance to hand his screenplay over to someone in the “industry.” Los Angeles is the good and the bad, the city where anything is possible for all who have a dream to “make it.” To top it off, L.A. has the Pacific Ocean on its doorstep and endless sunshine to make it all better when those dreams don’t pan out. There is always something worthwhile and culturally enlightening to see and never a shortage of things to do no matter what you’re seeking in the City of Angels.


The presence of an arts scene is always an indicator of great culture and L.A. boasts a thriving one. A stroll through downtown and its surrounding districts reveals a vast offering of art exhibits, ethnocentric festivals, and architectural gems. Not to mention all of those countless food trucks that churn out anything from Korean-Mexican fusion dishes by the Kogi truck to whiskey and Lucky Charms-flavored ice cream sandwiches by COOLHAUS, a philosophy of ice cream architecture inspired by the Bauhaus movement and Rem Koolhaas.

The dynamic city is home to more museums and theaters than any other city in the United States and, according to a 2009 study conducted by Otis College of Art and Design, one in every six L.A. residents works in a creative career. The imagination, talent and skills required to support the film industry alone is enough to make that statistic believable, but L.A. is also home to digital artists, dancers, designers, painters, photographers, writers and others who aren’t involved in the business of receiving a start on the Walk of Fame.


Los Angeles has a plethora of events to commemorate its art scene and working artists. A must for any tourist hoping to get a taste of high art in the city is the monthly Downtown Art Walk. Galleries stay open later than usual on the second Tuesday of every month and the self- guided art walk offers access to more prominent exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as showings at smaller venues like The Smell, a fully volunteer-run venue that offers low cost musical performances and a more intimate gallery space for visual artists. Ironically, some of L.A.’s most prominent cultural attractions reside in an intrinsically commercial area of Los Angeles: Miracle Mile.


Conceived in the 1920s, this section of Wilshire Boulevard offers a drive-by shopping experience that created LA’s reputation as a car-centric city. Larger, plain text on signage, Boulevard-oriented storefronts, and mandatory parking lots for customers highlight the then-visionary layout. Left-hand turn and timed traffic signals were also widely utilized here in order to accommodate this often traffic-ridden stretch between Fairfax and Sycamore. Developer A.W. Ross’ design of the “linear downtown” model spread throughout other cities in the country. Historic Art Deco buildings, various restaurants and vendors, billboards, neon sings and top-tier shopping can all be found on the Miracle Mile today. In “Annie Hall” Woody Allen described Los Angeles as a place where “the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.” While that is a small victory as any Angelinos would agree, even Miracle Mile is rich with cultural offerings like the famous Museum Row.


This section of Miracle Mile includes Peterson’s Automotive Museum, The Architecture and Design Museum, as well as the Page Museum, which is dedicated to displaying fossils, artifacts and other archeological treasures that have been recovered from L.A.’s own La Brea tar pits. The small Craft and Folk Art Museum offers intimate concerts, community craft nights, knitting and printmaking workshops. Currently, “Sonia Clark: Material Reflex” is on exhibit, marking the multimedia artist’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles.

Just a short walk away is the largest art museum in the West Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The LACMA’s current exhibitions include “Hans Richter: Encounters” featuring original pieces and never-before seen film reels playing simultaneously throughout the exhibit. Free admission days at most larger museums in L.A .(usually on weekdays) make it easier for those on a budget to enjoy culture in the city.


Several times a year, CicLAvia clears the streets of vehicles and gets Angelinos to step out from behind the driver’s seat and discover the city through massive walking and biking tours that highlight the architecture, coast lines and history of Los Angeles. The upcoming Heart of LA event takes participants through downtown, where just a few miles encompass parks, museums and historical landmarks. Participants can also receive admission discounts at certain museums.


L.A. has several ethnic enclaves such as Little Armenia, Historic Filipinotown and Thai Town, and a significant Hispanic population in the eastern region, the largest minority group in Los Angeles. In fact, Hispanics comprise almost 50 percent of the city’s population and Mexicans make up most of that. Tourists can catch an enchanting glimpse into the Mexican roots of the city at Olvera Street, just a few minutes from Chinatown. While definitely commercial in some aspects, the bustling homage to Mexican culture includes several restaurants, an art gallery, a church, vendors and regular live musical performances The Avila Adobe, LA’s oldest standing residence, is open to public viewing here. Events like the Dia de Los Muertos celebration, which combines aspects of Catholic worship and indigenous Mexican philosophy, are celebrated annually at Placita Olvera. Celebrations like the Los Angeles City Birthday Celebration and Las Posadas bring residents together to learn about and celebrate the myriad ways in which the Mexican-American population has contributed to this great city.


Neighboring Chinatown has an array of plazas and parks to commemorate Chinese culture. “Chinatown Summer Nights” is a series of annual events that feature cultural workshops, artist markets, culinary shows and live music presented by frequent event collaborator LA Weekly. In February, tourists can experience the Golden Dragon Parade and Chinese New Year festival (now in its in its 114th year). Chinatown also hosts the Lantern Festival, the annual Mid-Autumn Moon festival and the closing party of event of the LA Design Festival, Chinatown DESIGN Night. Known for its assortment of fantastic dim sum restaurants, this hip enclave offers foodies the Dim Sum Crawl. where they can pair local brews with Chinatown’s best dim sum dishes.

A pedestrian adventure through downtown’s boroughs is a recommended option. True, many opt to drive in L.A. but if this Angelino could offer any visiting skeptic some native wisdom, it would be to start at the open-air Grand Central Market, grab any of various scrumptious dishes available and head out to discover L.A.’s cultural gems on foot.


Impossible to ignore, downtown L.A.’s rich cultural hotspots are all within a couple miles of each other. From Grand Central Market, a quick but visually stunning ride on the Angel’s Flight Railway will take one from the market’s Hill Street exit to the California Waterfront Plaza, an urban oasis and site of the Arthur Erickson designed Wells Fargo towers. The historic Bunker Hill area also houses the Museum of Contemporary Art’s main branch and The Colburn School. Across the school is the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall - the fourth Hall of the L.A. Music center and home of the highly innovative and internationally acclaimed L.A. Philharmonic. A short northeast-bound walk on Grand Avenue towards Cesar Chaves Boulevard will lead to the first inklings of Chinatown. Exiting Chinatown from Alameda, tourists can easily walk to Olvera Street on their way to the Arts District. If one is visiting LA in the summer, Grand Park offers free summer concerts with fountains and light installations against LA’s famously gorgeous sunsets.


As one of the top-10 most diverse metro areas in the nation, Los Angeles has much to offer the world by way of culture that non-believers have willfully dismissed. Visitors are recommended to look beyond the sheen of Hollywood, step away from their preconceived notions, and take a walk through L.A.’s rich cultural boroughs.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photos: J_arred (Flickr); Finite Improbability (Flickr); Yumi U (Flickr); Sean Yoda Rouse (Flickr).

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