Walking in L.A.: The End of the Road?
The ninth and final post in Walking in L.A., a GOOD miniseries by Ryan Bradley on transportation in Los Angeles and what it's like to get across the entire city on foot.
My grandparents bought their house in Brentwood from the widowed wife of an engineer at Douglas Aircraft, in Long Beach, who died on the job. My grandfather knew the widow's brother from law school, so they didn't have to pay a realtor's fee. They were young, and couldn't have afforded the place otherwise. "It was almost rural out here," my grandfather says. "There were mostly avocado orchards, and not more than two blocks were developed north of Sunset. But the bus did run out this far, and I took the bus to work downtown."
"At 7:05 a.m.," my grandmother says. She is cutting carrots.
"There was a guy I rode the bus with," my grandfather says, "he was a superior court judge."
Then I say something like: "So a superior court judge and a young downtown lawyer rode the bus to work together?"
And my grandfather leans back in his stool and smiles. "Ah yes, those were more democratic times."
My grandparents are old and sensible enough to have given up driving. Even though my grandmother is a dynamo and treks to the grocery store and back regularly—a mile and a half round trip—she’s nearing 90 and my grandfather just got there. When I leave the next morning, they walk with me for a while, but the pace is slow. They know their neighborhood well, having lived here for six decades. We go as far as a small koi pond in a yard around the corner, separated from the sidewalk by a picket fence with bougainvillea growing over it. The fence is low and white and easy to peer over, so we stop and watch the fish, waiting for them to chance a swim into the sunlight. My grandparents visit these fish on their walks, they tell me. They point down the road to a construction site, then across the street to where some of the old neighborhood used to be but has since been rebuilt. The more recently constructed houses have short driveways and are so large they consume entire properties. They don't have gardens or fish ponds or dogs to visit. It's getting late already, and I hug my grandparents goodbye and walk on.
I zig-zag southwest from 26th Street and San Vicente, to Ocean Avenue and the sea. There are coral trees lining San Vicente and figs along La Mesa Drive. On Santa Monica Boulevard, where the street is lined with car dealerships and no one walks, something amazing happens: I run into a friend. Her car is in the shop, so she's walking. There is a particularly “L.A.” detail about this encounter and that is the fact that my friend is a famous musician. We chat about what she is up to, and what I am up to; she tells me about recording her second album and the photo shoot for it, and I tell her about walking across Los Angeles; and then we kind of look at each other and consider how funny and fortunate and strange our lives are before we say goodbye.
Not long after that, I reach Santa Monica and the end of the continent.
Yesterday I hiked into the hills above Will Rogers State Park and I looked out over the Pacific and the basin I walked across. Will Rogers loved flying, and once famously said, "If you can't fly, you might as well walk." The old cowboy wasn't wrong—flight may get you there faster, but walking you really get a feel for a place. I never understood Los Angeles until I spent some time slowly moving through it.
When I set out, I wanted to understand whether Los Angeles was becoming a better city. It has wisely set aside millions to address its transportation issues, but is it addressing the right ones? It’s developing, but is it developing the right way? I don't have a simple answer, or even a definitive one. All I can say is that the most wonderful parts of Los Angeles are the product of concerned, civic-minded, extraordinary Angelinos who know, viscerally, what this place is and what is best for it. Rodia built his towers; Koeppel maps staircases; and though Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska, his wife willed to the public the 186 acres for the state park. Los Angeles, like any city, is only as good as its citizens, the ones who really live in this place and plant roots here—metaphoric and literal roots.