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"Bicycle Times", January 1, 2013

CYCLING THE CITY OF Angels

WORDS BY JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN

PHOTO BY JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN

Midnight, and as I pedal with steely determination through the elegant glass-and-metal chasms of downtown Los Angeles, the city around me sparkles like a strip club. It is surreal, seductive, and slightly dangerous, like a transvestite prostitute.

But is Los Angeles bicycle-friendly?

The night air is cool and dry. I turn down Wilshire Boulevard and begin the long westward weave to my week-long sublet in a Buddhist commune just outside of Venice Beach. If I don’t get lost, the fifteen-mile ride should take an hour, giving me plenty of time to contemplate what brought me here in the first place: a strange mission to explore the popular notion that automobiles rule the City of Angels.

FLASHBACK: ORIGINS OF THE MISSION

Bicycling was not on the agenda during the 2009 USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism fellowship, when I was one of twelve journalists carted around the city in a specially designed minibus. Wined and dined between museums and galleries from Pasadena to Santa Monica, our vehicle was dubbed the “Mobile Art Lab.” It had large windows and circular seating to facilitate discussion, which was a good thing, as many hours stuck in traffic gave us time for chatting. Every now and then we’d leave the freeway and hit the streets, where I’d see cyclists whizzing past the minibus like sailfish going around a whale. I vowed that if I ever came back to L.A., it would be as a cyclist.

Fast forward. It’s 2011, and throughout the year, seismic fissures have appeared in the city’s automobile über alles veneer. July’s Carmageddon — the weekend closing of a major stretch of freeway — did not, as widely predicted, bring the city to its knees. Instead, it brought cyclists out in droves, and the L.A. cycling community used the shutdown as an opportunity to show what a more cycle-friendly city might look like.

A publicity stunt by airline Jet Blue that weekend (four bucks for a 36-mile flight from Burbank to Long Beach) was hijacked by a group of cyclists who raced one flight’s passengers door-to-door and won with a cool 90 minutes to spare. Later that year, the L.A. City Council voted 12-0 in favor of the first local anti-harassment ordinance in the nation, allowing L.A. cyclists to file civil suits and claim damages when injured or otherwise harassed by motorists.

In short, 2011 was a good year for Los Angeles’ cyclists. When USC/Getty invited me to pitch a project for an end-of-year alumni fellowship, the wheels were already in motion.

A MOVING EXPERIENCE

That was what we called ourselves — three journalists with a four-day assignment to film, photograph, and otherwise document the art, culture, and cuisine of L.A. Burning nothing more than bicycle tire and sneaker rubber, we explored the city and merrily created content for a website called www.engine29.org.

On the first day, we joined a bicycle tour organized by the Craft and Folk Art Museum, during which we explored the art, history, and unique community gathering spots of South L.A. Together with a pack of Lycra-clad cyclists, we visited the Jazz District, passed as a multicolored blur through the even-more-colorful-than-us Piñata District, and rode through miles of small, single-story houses on streets with impossibly tall palm trees only found in L.A. For lunch: shrimp ceviche on a tortilla shell — cheap, delicious, and served from a truck.

South L.A. is a part of town that normally doesn’t even register as a blip on the radar screen of the average tourist, and riding through, I was surprised by how much I liked it. Even more surprising — and perhaps more indicative of the changing landscape of cyclist/motorist relations in the City of Angels — was the reception our group received, even from the motorists whose road we were briefly impeding. Instead of expected honks came verbal encouragement, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a certain level of playful envy from people stuck in traffic towards those seeming to transcend it.

I spent the following days of the project exploring the city solo, snapping still photos from the fish-eye lens of my Contour helmet camera from Downtown to Hollywood to the marijuana-haze sunset of Venice Beach. Clocking around 40 miles a day, I found art everywhere, from stenciled graffiti on the cyclist underpass of Macarthur Park (where, legend has it, “someone left a cake out in the rain,” so very long ago) to paint cans hanging from traffic signals in Hollywood.

The riding was mostly excellent, but at times I was keenly aware of being part of a less-than-beloved minority on the road. Los Angeles is a city whose citizens are famously (some say pathologically) narcissistic about their cars, and many drivers seemed blissfully unaware of the presence of bicyclists on avenues built, to their minds, strictly for their enjoyment alone. Vibrations, to contradict the Beach Boys, were not always good.

Still, my curiosity had not been sated. When the project ended, I felt as if I’d only scratched the surface. Spending a few days cycling the city on someone else’s dime seemed too easy. With two weeks to kill before heading to Asia for another writing assignment, I decided to stick around a bit longer.

L.A. IN A DAY

Los Angeles is a transitory town. People arrive seeking their dreams only to leave a few months later with said dreams crushed. The upside to this is that finding a short-term sublet is relatively easy. After finding mine, I contacted a fellow New York transplant who had been drawn to Los Angeles through love of film and had stayed through love of cycling.

Danny Roman’s work in film production had made him keenly aware of L.A.’s notorious traffic. A cyclist himself, he began taking colleagues around the city by bicycle during breaks in production. Eventually, he made the leap from film to cycling full-time, turning his passion for bicycling into a company that would become Bikes and Hikes L.A.

“The longer I live here, the more I love L.A.,” Danny told me in the West Hollywood office of his touring company, where I’d come to take the signature “L.A. in a Day” tour. Danny feels that L.A. is catching up to New York City pretty fast in terms of bike friendliness and accessibility. “There’s a huge misconception that L.A. is nothing but gigantic freeways. Of course those exist, but there are plenty of beautiful areas of the city that are incredible for biking. From West Hollywood to Santa Monica, new bike lanes are being created.”

My tour guide for the 32-mile loop around the city is Alex Phillips, a cyclist and aspiring stand-up comedian. The tour winds through the Hollywood Hills, where we stop at the Greystone Mansion (seen in myriad films from The Big Lebowski to The Witches of Eastwick), pass Tim Burton’s house (the quirky director has some excellent lawn art), and pause respectfully before the Holmby Hills Estate, the house where Michael Jackson sometimes lived and eventually died.

From the Hollywood Hills, the group cruised out to the boardwalk at Santa Monica and the beach and canals of Venice. I return with them to West Hollywood along the nearly dry L.A. River before heading back to Venice to rest up for the next day’s solo ride.

MORNING IN METROPOLIS, DINNER IN CHINATOWN

Some claim the city lacks anything approaching an actual center. This, of course, is nonsense. I’d woken up that morning with the sun and rode from Venice to Downtown to spend a few hours racing alongside the small but die-hard group of L.A. bike messengers, professional cyclists doing roughly the same job I’d done for three years a pre-internet lifetime ago in New York City.

If New York is Batman’s cloying Gotham City, then Downtown L.A. is Superman’s bright and brave Metropolis, a mostly flat grid of wide avenues with modern skyscrapers to the west and older historic buildings — many of them dating back to the days of vaudeville — to the east. I made a late lunch of tacos from a food court on Broadway before heading over to the Bradbury Building. Built in the 1890s, the Bradbury’s ornate art-deco interior was used to shoot key scenes of the film Blade Runner. In the afternoon sunshine, downtown L.A. is a great place to ride, and Ridley Scott’s rainy, dystopic future seemed light-years away.

From Downtown I rode west on Sunset Boulevard through the Echo Park neighborhood, home of several locations used in the filming of Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown, recognizing the apartment complex where Jack Nicholson found Diane Ladd’s body (at 848 1/2 East Kensington, if you’re interested) so long ago. The film’s uncompromisingly bleak climax took place in Chinatown proper, so I backtracked on Sunset to that neighborhood for dinner.

In the setting sun, the bleached reds and blues of the neighborhood seemed especially faded, its central plaza nearly empty save for a small group of Cantonese men playing xiangqi with a mismatched Chinese-chess set, their board hand-drawn on a piece of cardboard. I dined on roast duck in a lonely restaurant before heading back downtown to ride the now-quiet streets to catch a stand-up comedy show. When the show ended at around 11 p.m., Downtown L.A. was nearly deserted.

WESTWARD THROUGH THE NIGHT

Although I’ve clocked a lifetime total of only a month and change in the city, I feel as if I’ve known L.A. all my life. Neighborhood and street names bounce around my synapses, attached to snippets of film dialogue and song lyrics. Places I’ve never seen before seem somehow familiar, taking on the strange dream-like quality of a David Lynch film.

Koreatown is dark as the lights of Downtown recede behind me. Traffic is light this time of night, and except for the occasional late-night noodle shop or jimjilbang (a spa of sorts, where one goes for a soak, massage, and sometimes “extra services”). Most businesses are closed. The signs around me are almost exclusively in blocky Korean script, and I can almost imagine that I’ve taken a wrong turn and wound up in some suburb of Seoul.

Like Seoul, another city I’ve visited but never quite understood, L.A. seems to go on forever. The first thing a bicyclist here needs to do is accept the vastness and sprawling nature of the city. There is no shame in hopping a bus or subway. L.A.’s public transportation system, like the rest of the city, seems to get more bike-friendly with each passing year.

The air grows chillier as I ride west on Venice Boulevard. Closing in on my temporary neighborhood and smelling the salt Pacific air grow close, I reflect on my time in this place.

David Byrne once sang about the importance of “finding one’s self a city to live in.” The progress that Los Angeles has made in transforming itself from a town in which only the craziest would dare to ride into one of America’s more bicycle-friendly cities has been nothing short of Herculean.

But could I actually live here, given my nearly fanatical anti-automobile leanings? Could I join the endless parade of freaks and dreamers who call the City of Angels home?

Perhaps. In a few years, maybe, when rising gas prices have convinced a few (million) more Angelenos to trade their cars for bicycles. But for now, the city still seems too vast for me, and the speed at which the streets move too intimidating. In a few days I’ll leave for Asia, and when I return to America, I’ll again have to follow Mr. Byrne’s advice and find myself a city to live in.

I’m thinking Portland. City of Angels, don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s me.

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