Friday, 30 January 2015

Los Angeles: City of Angels? ©

Rising up on the California coast, the metropolis of LA stretches for miles. Concrete and glass unfurl into the hazy distance, interspersed with pockets of mesmerising beauty and glamour. Epicentre of all things showbiz, LA’s reputation precedes it: home of Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Malibu; location of endless film and TV productions; magnet for the beautiful, the famous and the very rich.  Less a city than one big movie set, less a population than a posse of aspiring actors and singers, there’s nothing quite like LA. But far from being a living embodiment of the American Dream, the dark side of the city is never far from view—and the gulf between those that have made it and those that have not seems wider than ever.

Hovering above LA, my first glimpse of the legendary city was row after row of houses and the aquamarine of the ubiquitous southern California swimming pool. The landscape was a dull yellow, the sky overcast. As we pulled into the city proper, we saw dusty side streets and cracked paving slabs. Scrawny palm trees soared upwards to greet high-rise flats. A stroll to Hollywood boulevard revealed a strip of neon lights, retro diners and street vendors selling their wares. The Walk of Fame stretched the length of the road with Marilyn Monroe plonked unceremoniously outside the local McDonald’s. Homeless people roamed aimlessly. There was a seedy undercurrent; a flip side; a harsh reality.

A trip to Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive promised to reveal glitzy LA so we hopped onto a tour bus and off we went. Up a few shady side streets and across a few intersections and we were suddenly looking up at the current abode of Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes. Nestled in the rocky mountainside, their futuristic home was all glass and curving roofs, just high enough to frustrate prying eyes. We circled the hairpin bends of the mythical road with Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ blasting through my head as we passed surprisingly normal homes belonging to the LA glitterati.

Up ahead we pulled into Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive. Gone were the cracked pavements, gone were the withered palm trees. This is the flip side of the coin. Glittering cars sat in the shadow of palatial homes, each more stunning than the last. They lined the roadside in every colour of the rainbow with no apparent security and seemingly normal inhabitants. Except that their neighbours were Hugh Hefner and his bunnies reclining beyond the high-rise walls of the mythical mansion, and the address read Rodeo Drive. How’s that for street cred’?

Further along the road, we trundled into the Rodeo Drive made famous in Pretty Woman. Shiny boutiques lined the roadside and tourists took pictures as a handful of white-clad women marched out of Gucci bearing bags. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel reared up ahead. Flags the size of football fields hung above the opening and striped canopies decorated the windows. Doormen stood to attention. Ferraris and Aston Martins rolled past. But the surrounding streets and boutiques were strangely quiet, absent the frenetic buzz of Hollywood.

Anxious to enjoy the ‘complete’ LA experience, we made our way to the famous Sprinkles Cupcakes shop, ducking in and out of boutiques and keeping our eyes peeled for A-listers. Sure enough, no sooner had we parked ourselves outside Sprinkles than Kendall Jenner of Kardashian fame stepped out of a blacked-out 4x4 and a posse of photographers lunged towards her—and us as it eventually turned out. After much chasing, ducking and diving, Jenner was papped in her white-denim ensemble with myself and my friend sitting proud in the background. An appearance in the Daily Mail sidebar of shame—you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Our next stop was Santa Monica and it couldn’t come fast enough. As we pulled onto the quaint-sounding Ocean Drive, I was instantly smitten. Our hotel was a charming Art-Deco building facing a line of palm trees and the Pacific. Clutching our cameras, we excitedly made our way down to the beach. I’m not a swimmer or a sunbather but I love the sea. There’s nothing like the rhythmic sound of the waves and the water stretching out into nothingness. As it happened, the sunset that night was spectacular. Our time in Santa Monica moved at a slow pace as we adapted to the small-town feel of the place. Days were spent strolling the palm-lined streets and the boardwalk, checking out the shops, and eating and drinking—the food here is great.

We had pencilled in Venice for our penultimate day. I don’t know what I was expecting but the name put me in mind of the elegance and style of its Italian counterpart. Not so. LA Venice is edgy and grungy. Colourful—and often beautiful—graffiti decorates the walls, the smell of marijuana laces the air and skateboarders fly past. At Muscle Beach, body-conscious LA rears its head once more as the city’s men and women exercise in the open-air. You can’t help but wonder if they’re auditioning in their heads, hopeful of getting their big break from a passing movie producer. The sense that you’re on a live movie set never quite leaves you in LA, but that’s the beauty of it. The rest of the day was spent enjoying a glorious brunch at Joe’s on Abbot Kinney and the subsequent purchase of an insanely overpriced Swedish cuddly toy in my mimosa-fuelled haze.

The sunset on Venice Beach that night was pink-, purple- and orange-streaked magic and the highlight of a fascinating trip.

My impression of LA before this trip was glamour, money, fame, luxury and a healthy dose of plastic surgery. And LA is all of those things. But from my (limited) perspective, LA did not appear a cohesive whole, but rather, a collection of jagged pieces that didn’t quite fit together. There was a sense of empty spaces between parts, symbolic of the huge divide in the city.

It is, however, a fascinating glimpse into a fading era and the beginnings of Hollywood, before fame-hungry cast its shadow. It’s an envy-inducing idea of the way the other half live. And it is, essentially, a very beautiful place that averages 329 days of sun per year. And if I had US citizenship, I’d move to Santa Monica tomorrow.

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