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Walking in L.A.: Los Angeles Plays Itself


Part three 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.

The culvert ends by a beat-up old RV festooned with old water jugs, three spare tires, a Dutch-style bicycle, and several Colorado license plates. On the back of the rig, in what looks like Sharpie, someone has written "Honey." I rejoin Sepulveda Boulevard until I reach Westfield Fox Hills Mall, where it merges into Jefferson. I take it. Chop shop, pawn shop, liquor shop, cruiser bike shop; Jefferson to Overland to Culver, past the Sony Studios and into downtown Culver City, which was not very nice but now is. Later someone tells me that this is because after Sony signed Will Smith in 1997, he complained about having to spend so much time here, so Sony started pouring money into developing Culver's downtown. That's not so far from the truth.

When Sony relocated to Culver in 1996 the influx of jobs and cash worked wonders. A new police station was built the following year, the historic Culver Hotel re-opened, and a new transportation facility broke ground. Today, Culver's transportation system is gloriously enlightened—there's a comprehensive local bus system and it works in concert with some of the larger citywide lines. In fact, the only place in Los Angeles where you can purchase a card that works on all transit throughout Los Angeles County is the Culver City Hall. I met a few east-siders who trek all the way out here just for that.

Culver City is a part of Los Angeles while being apart, because Culver, like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, is its own incorporated city. But try taking the transit around Los Angeles and you will soon experience what one seasoned rider described to me as "urban moats": cities within Los Angeles County that aren't as progressive as Culver and fight large-scale public transit tooth-and-nail. Transferring from rail to bus to bus to rail is often the only way to get from here to there. And it's a bitch.

Culver City is a company town, like Universal City or Century City (though unlike Culver, Universal City and Century City aren't incorporated—they're part of the City of Los Angeles) and the films they've been producing have often reflected the fraught role of mobility in people's lives here.

"The best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation," Encke King says. King is narrating Thom Andersen's film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Made up of more than 200 film clips, many of the movies Anderson highlights deal with the frustrations of transit in Los Angeles. If not for that hellish traffic jam that begins Falling Down, would Michael Douglas's character have gone postal and marched across the city with an uzi? If Joe Gillis' car hadn't busted a flat, would he ever have ended up in Norma Desmond's driveway in Sunset Boulevard? Perhaps the best example Anderson uses is Chinatown:
What gives Chinatown its special significance is its subsidiary theme: the struggle to get around Los Angeles without a car. Jack Giddes [played by Jack Nicholson] loses his wheels halfway through the film... and for the second half of the movie, he's dependent on others. His sense of mastery disappears. He's always one or two steps behind and he never catches up...The loss of the car is a form of symbolic castration, both in the movies, and in life.

Two ironies here: The first is that this great film about the city, Los Angeles Plays Itself, can only be seen in festivals (or illegally on the internet) because it's impossible to clear all the rights for those 200-plus movies. The second is that the film industry, like the city itself, has recently turned a significant corner on its portrayal of walking in Los Angeles.

In Greenberg, the title character (Ben Stiller) doesn't have a car and doesn't drive—he walks. Greenberg is notable for being a movie that's true to Los Angeles without showing any of its notable features. Not Downtown, not the Hollywood sign, not even the beach makes an appearance. Though Greenberg isn't a very likable character, the film is about him, and we have to deal with the fact that he's walking almost everywhere. Even though he's so easily aggravated, walking never seems all that bad. Except for when a car nearly runs him over, walking in Los Angeles actually looks pretty nice. When the film played at the storied Arclight theater in Hollywood, there was a large printed map of the city showing where it had been filmed: a bus stop on La Cienega Boulevard, the Highland Gardens Hotel, the Silver Lake Lounge. It seemed, in part, a challenge to the public to go out and find these pieces of the city. This may seem trivial, but Greenberg marks an important cultural shift in how audiences look at walking in Los Angeles. It's normalizing the idea.

In Culver's case, the Sony studio's presence has had a tangible effect on city planning. Up on the other side of the hill that separates Hollywood and the rest of Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley, Universal City's Evolution development is upping the ante. Universal City is 391 acres of Los Angeles owned by NBC Universal. "Evolution" is NBC Universal's gargantuan, $3 billion dollar, 20-year long development project for their "city." Along with 2,900 new apartments and 35-acres of open space, NBC Universal plans to pour in $100 million to improve traffic flow, which will, according to a company spokesperson, "serve as a catalyst to accelerate local ... improvements in the Valley."

Things are changing in American cities today. Ten years ago, people wanted to live in large-lot suburbs. Now, walkable urban neighborhoods typically have the highest property values, and keep them. High-density homes and apartments with access to good public transit have proven themselves recession-proof, while many of the McMansions in America's suburban sprawl are now worth less than their raw materials. So NBC Universal isn't putting a lot of money into urban renewal because it's the right thing to do. NBC Universal is putting a lot of money down because, through walking-friendly redevelopment, it stands to make even more. On the blog LAist, a commenter with the handle "LABornAndRaised" explains what a high-density, walking friendly urban center like Evolution might mean: " will be a huge plus for my property values."

Out of Culver City Jefferson Boulevard zig-zags before it heads east off of National Boulevard and Exposition Boulevard. I hang on a chain link fence on Exposition and stare down two lines of railroad tracks, east to west, heading from downtown Culver City all the way into downtown Los Angeles.

I've lingered here too long, but the promise of this railway's completion hangs heavy in the afternoon air. This new Expo-line will only improve Culver's booming downtown, and much of the city's plans for 2010 center around its completion. Culver must know by now, as well as anyplace in Los Angeles, that transportation drives development.

Next up: Downtown is a petri dish.

Photos by Ryan Bradley.

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