If navigating the greater Los Angeles freeway system isn't your idea of a relaxing vacation, there is finally an alternative. More than 10 years in the making, the Los Angeles Metro's five-station Red Line subway extension opened its doors this summer, offering a long-overdue alternative to L.A.'s terminally congested arteries. Though designed for locals, it's especially useful for visitors.
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority is banking on the recent Red Line addition to restore civic glory to the tarnished reputations of both Hollywood and downtown L.A. With this new leg, the line now runs from historic Union Station, through downtown's bustling financial district, past the swingin' hipster village of Los Feliz and on to the landmark intersection of Hollywood and Vine, smack in the sclerotic, failing heart of Tinseltown. The 11 stops on the "Downtown to Tinseltown" line cover a mere 11.1 miles, but in a city as fragmented as Los Angeles that's a heck of a lot of ground. If nothing else, L.A.'s "other" monorail, as it's known, certainly helps make the sprawling metropolis feel more like a small world after all. For $1.35, you get an L.A. cultural smorgasbord--Thai Town (Vermont/Beverly), the Latino-flavored East L.A. (MacArthur Park) and Chinatown (Union Station)--in a matter of minutes.
Another lure is in the stations themselves, which constitute a kind of cheapo "accessible art." Each of the five new stations was teamed with a different artist and architectural design firm, with universally, um, interesting results. It's nearly impossible to miss the newest station, the Hollywood/Vine stop. The decor on the street-level plaza plays homage to the golden age of Hollywood, long before the riots and earthquakes of the early '90s left the area a crumbling wasteland. The bus shelters are replicas of the legendary Brown Derby Restaurant, Grauman's Chinese Theater and white stretch limos. Inside, the vaulted ceilings are lined with blue 35mm film reels, while Art Deco palm trees offer a kitschy dose of charm. To get there, simply follow Hollywood Boulevard's star-studded pavement eastward till you hit the terminal's freshly painted--ack!--yellow brick road.
City officials are hoping the Metro will be the first in a string of successful resuscitation projects in Hollywood. In a town obsessed with physical appearances, it's surprising that old Hollywood is such a lackluster dump. When city officials discovered the alarming fact that more tourists visit the Hollywood Boulevard attraction at Universal Studios in Florida than the real deal in Los Angeles, they decided it was time to give Hollywood something many of its residents already have--a face lift. Plans for the sequel include a renovated shopping district anchored by a lavish new venue for the Academy Awards.
Until the reconstruction bears fruit, some old standbys are still worth checking out. For heaven's sake, stay away from the Ripley's Believe It or Not! and the Hollywood Wax museums. But the vintage movie halls nearby are worth a visit. There's no harm in passing by Sid Grauman's (now Mann's) legendary Chinese Theater. But few tourists and probably even fewer locals ever take the time to explore eastward beyond the iron curtain of Vine Street. Just down the road stands the lesser-known but equally sumptuous movie palace, the Egyptian Theater (6712 Hollywood Blvd.). With its recently restored facade, the Egyptian musters all the retro flair of its Chinese counterpart. But it's the daily screenings of rare, classic, foreign and independent features that make this movie house an anomaly in a town crazy-blind for the Next Big Hit.
When done with Hollywood, head two stops east to the Vermont/Sunset stop, where young and frisky Hollywood now resides. Walk up Vermont Avenue just north of Sunset and you'll find yourself in the heart of Los Feliz Village, a friendly, left-leaning neighborhood whose low rents and trendy haunts are home to L.A.'s alterna-hipsters. Casual chic restaurants, alternative bookstores and mellow vibes replace the jangling dissonance of nearby Hollywood. Gucci and Prada give way to thrift stores, pan-facial studdery and white-boy dreads.
Although the tree-lined streets and surrounding Hollywood Hills give Los Feliz an inimitable small-town charm, it happens to be one of the few L.A. neighborhoods experiencing a big boom. Madonna moved there, and then so did everyone else. One block east of Vermont, on Hillhurst Avenue, at least nine new restaurants have opened in the past year, offering everything from organic pappardelle at Puran's (2064 Hillhurst Ave.) to cute little dishes like "Mo, Larry, Cheese" (smoked pork loin) at eccentrically swank Vida (1930 Hillhurst Ave.).
Los Feliz is also the place if you're looking for a taste of L.A. nightlife without the up-market greaseballs mentioned in the Die Yuppie Scum T-shirt. It's an area that prides itself on being the Anti-West Side. Of course, it's a ruse, because Los Feliz has a 'tude all its own. Hollywood development execs and aspiring actors on a style slum hang out at the Good Luck Bar (1514 Hillhurst Ave.), a scruffy opium-den-looking place with comfy overstuffed couches and chairs. But East Side cool means you must pretend to be unbothered by the trivial pursuits of the entertainment industry, at least for the evening. It's a scam, but it's more interesting than the scene at the terrifically trendy Sky Bar--and you won't have to wait in line.
Down the street at the Tiki Ti (4427 Sunset Blvd.), you'll find a more eclectic mix. From the outside, the watering hole looks like a Polynesian outhouse, but inside, blowfish lanterns and Christmas lights liven up the place. Baseball-capped, goateed skaters mingle with over-the-hill surfers and nose-ringed skinheads. Even a few of the lordly Westsiders are willing to drive across town to nurse one of the lethal fruit concoctions--a Zombie, Princess Pupuli or Dr. Funk.
After visiting Los Feliz, get back on the train and plan to stay underground for a few stops. From here the Metro turns southward down seedy Vermont Avenue. There are three stops on Vermont, but unless dingy liquor stores and L.A.'s rich collection of 7-Elevens are on your agenda, you can skip this section altogether. If you want to sample one stop, make it the Vermont/Beverly station, where George Stone's giant boulder installation looms ominously over the entrance, a tongue-in-cheek reminder of L.A.'s seismic destiny.
After that, it's probably best to resurface at the Westlake/MacArthur Park stop. In L.A., you'll find that the farther east you go, the further South you feel. In fact, getting off at MacArthur Park is like stepping directly into another city altogether--more precisely, one on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border. In MacArthur Park, the Latino influence is colorful and pervasive. Signs are exclusively in Spanish and salsa music emanates from the expansive Ritmo Latino record store. On the sidewalks, women peddle cups of flan for a buck, while street vendors sell salchichas wrapped in bacon. Of course, the hottest commodity remains the bootleg videos of Hollywood's latest action pics dubbed in Spanish.
Next stop, Pershing Square--L.A.'s cultural and historic center of preserved architectural relics, looming skyscrapers, esteemed theater and contemporary art--is possibly the most underappreciated area in L.A. It's that enriching. The former nerve center of the city, the Pershing Square area bustles during the week as white collars jam the nearby financial district. But the weekends are a different story: Few venture into what quickly becomes an urban ghost town. Even the natives, it seems, are generally oblivious to downtown's rich history.
Among its treasures is the largest historic theater district in the world. Amazingly, many of the original downtown movie palaces --the same theaters originally built in the early 1900s as vaudeville houses and later converted for films--are still open, showing first-run movies, albeit with Spanish subtitles. Nearby architectural landmarks include the 1923 Regal Biltmore Hotel in the heart of Pershing Square itself, and the visionary architect George Wyman's striking 1893 Bradbury Building (304 S. Broadway), now home to, God help us, the LAPD.
If you're looking for some international flavor, head directly to the Grand Central Market (317 S. Broadway). Built in 1917, it's a vibrant old-style mart, mercifully devoid of corporate gloss, reminiscent of the days when food was sustenance, not entertainment. The crowded stalls and aisles overflow with exotic foods, from pig tongue to passion fruit, all at incredibly low prices.
From the market's back entrance, catch the Angel's Flight, a quaint two-car funicular once touted as "The Shortest Railway in the World," for 25 cents. It connects downtown's historic core with the modern financial district atop Bunker Hill, ending at the California Plaza Watercourt, with its spouting masterpieces. Save some time for browsing the impressive collections of abstract expressionism to pop art at the Museum of Contemporary Art (250 S. Grand Ave.), or catch a concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (135 N. Grand Ave.), current home of the acclaimed L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra.
The last stop is Union Station. Built in 1939 atop the city's original red light district, this was the city's transportation hub long before there was an LAX. Today it retains its original Spanish Colonial facade, although it has been streamlined with modern touches. Landscaped with enormous fig trees, Mexican fan palms, birds of paradise, ginger and orchid trumpet vines, the station provides a fragrant, if characteristically misleading, haven for weary travelers.
Across the way on Olvera Street is the historic Pueblo district, the site of the first Los Angeles settlement, dating to 1781. It is now home to El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, and on weekends it's transformed into a vibrant outdoor market brimming with leather goods, pinatas, jewelry and other trinkets. Pass right through it--it's mainly junk--and go a few blocks down the road. Local lore has it that Phillipe's Original (1001 N. Alameda St.), a sawdust-carpeted diner, actually invented the French dip sandwich. Fact or fiction, it doesn't matter: It has certainly perfected it. And with its admirable old-school sensibility somehow intact (cup of coffee, 9 cents), you at least won't be dickering over the bill.
Just up the street from Phillipe's is L.A.'s Chinatown. It's not San Francisco or New York, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are fewer crowds, less tourist garbage and yet all the staples: supermarkets, bakeries, herb shops and fine dim sum. At the bustling Ocean Seafood (750 N. Hill St.), carts are loaded every day of the week. They're famous for making the best dumplings in Chinatown. In the off-dumpling hours, Ocean also serves a variety of traditional Mandarin specialties. Also try the clean, quiet and popular Yang Chaos (819 Broadway) for high-quality and affordable Mandarin/Szechuan cuisine.
While the new Metro doesn't go as many places as it should, there's always room for more. Come next summer, you'll be able to take it all the way to the grand dame of tourist traps--Universal Studios, in the heart of the sweltering nether region Angelenos simply call "the Valley."
So that ends your Red Line tour. Cheap, interesting, and a heck of a lot more real than those bus tours that wheel you around the Homes of the Stars and feed you at the Hard Rock Cafe. Meantime, whether the prospect of a 15-minute ride from downtown to Tinseltown will ever draw enough riders to justify the $1.3 billion over-budget expansion remains to be seen.
But remember, this is Hollywood, where people--even politicians, transportation planners and urban developers--are due their dreams.
L.A.'s Metro runs from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. The Red Line branches in two directions; make sure you get on the train headed toward Tinseltown (marked Hollywood and Vine). The basic fare is $1.35 each way; tokens are 10 for $9. Docent- or self-guided art tours of the stations are available; call 213-922-4278 for details. Maps, schedules and brochures are available from the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 213-922-2000.
Audrey Davidow is a writer living in Los Angeles.