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A Los Angeles Primer: Fourth Street

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I conducted my daily exploration of the city on a bicycle, which remains, as a result, my primary mode of transportation. (The trains rank second, then, when it comes down to it, the buses.) Many an Angeleno, so I've gathered since first setting out on two wheels, would have expected me to say that I still insist on riding a bike despite having tried it, or that, after one harrowing attempt, I locked the thing up at home, never to free it again. Even when I tell someone outside the city that I get around by bike, they express disbelief at the very notion. Somewhere along the line, whether due its size, the varying quality of its roads, its high-profile car culture — they may imagine me pedaling desperately on the thin shoulder of a raging freeway — or some combination thereof, Los Angeles gained a reputation as a uniquely un-bikeable place. This may explain the harsh, defensive posture of certain local cyclists I encounter — "Hey man, I just happen to prefer getting around Los Angeles on a bicycle, okay?" — and it can, at times, make cycling here feel like an inherently contrarian act.

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Even on Slate, with its own penchant for contrarianism, Andy Bowers calls Los Angeles, where he lives and rides, "an almost pathologically bike-unfriendly city." Then again, he does so in the context of a piece on the joys of cycling after he began commuting that way. "I cycled quiet back streets — the kind that infuriate me in a car because of all the stop signs and the impossibility of crossing major streets without a signal," he writes. "I soon started looking for other short trips I could make on the bike — picking up a few groceries, going to the gym, returning library books — then longer ones. I plotted new stealth routes no driver would ever take." The daily Los Angeles cyclist gains a command of these quiet back streets, and a host of quiet-enough medium-sized streets as well, which together constitute a parallel road network, shadowing the wide arterials — Wilshire, La Brea, Olympic, Western — that form the grid in every driver's geographical mind. When getting into or out of downtown, for instance, use the more lightly commercialized Seventh Street; riding through Beverly Hills, go with Charleville Boulevard, and just glide past all the cars that stack up on it; through Hollywood, take Yucca, the city's first politically official "Bicycle Friendly Street."

I ride on humble Fourth Street, the backbone of so many of my trips, at least a half-dozen times per week. About a mile north of my home in Koreatown, it offers an alternative to both the busy, often bumpily paved boulevards Beverly and Wilshire above and below. It comes in especially handy for reasonably short westward journeys — to Fairfax, to West Hollywood — although I do notice that, the farther west you ride, the less humble the street gets. From the Second World War until quite recently, the wealth in Los Angeles tended to concentrate toward the ocean, and this still shows in the way that the street's large apartment blocks and predominantly non-English-using mini-malls give way way to wide, neatly landscaped lawns surrounding what their owners would surely rather I didn't call mansions. You sense that overall gradient even if you take Fourth in a car, of course — assuming all its stop signs don't enrage you to the point of turning off — but I find I notice many other things sitting at the height, traveling at the speed, and feeling the exposure that I do on a bicycle.

Things about architecture, for instance. Not long after passing the traffic light at Wilton Place (which stays red so agonizingly long that even the meekest cyclists commit civil disobedience and simply cross), you roll into the evidently moneyed neighborhood of Hancock Park. The residents of this almost entirely residential zone can summon the resources to build houses exactly suited to their aesthetic preferences, and on large scales indeed, or at least they can summon the resources to buy such houses. The preferences themselves almost all tend toward the distant past, making me think of an observation I once heard from the writer Alain de Botton: "The most striking feature of the houses we're building today is that most of them don't look very modern. They seem passionately interested in reviving old styles: neo-Georgian, neo-Tudor, neo-Rocky Mountain style — anything but the style of our own era. We want to re-create the feel of life about 250 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, in a simpler, more agricultural age." He says that on his television documentary "The Perfect Home", and he said it about Britain, but it describes Hancock Park just as well.

Los Angeles' riot of "clashing" architectural styles has impressed visitors, favorably or unfavorably, for about a century now. Sixty years ago, modern buildings — that is, buildings intended to fit the immediate future of the era in which they went up — made for an especially noticeable element of that riot. The city's legacy of residential modernism, most famously in the form of the Case Study Houses by architects like Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, and Charles and Ray Eames, remains one of its most discussed features, but I underscore the word "legacy." Examine Neutra's VDL Research House, say, or the still-beloved Eames House, alongside the big-ticket pre-industrial pastiche of Hancock Park and you start to wonder when Los Angeles, once known as the most compulsively forward-looking city in the United States, stopped looking quite so boldly down the road. Such questions and their potential answers form more easily in my mind at a bicycle's pace and rhythm, where, as former Talking Heads frontman and avid urban cyclist David Byrne writes in his book "Bicycle Diaries," "your unconscious is free to kind of mull over what it is you've got to deal with that day. Sometimes the problems get a little closer to being solved by the time you get to where you're going."

For these reasons, I prefer to explore any world city I visit on a bicycle, though some of them make it more convenient than others. The surprising ease with which I can do it in Los Angeles makes me realize that, in other ways, the city does still keep an eye on the future, but that this means something different in our era than it did in the twentieth century. Perhaps our present future, if you will, has less to do with strikingly nontraditional houses than it does with accommodating a variety of forms of transportation — cycling, for instance. Though Los Angeles' relevant infrastructure puts itself up near the front of the pack by the standards of American cities, it lags distantly behind many others in the world; I think, with envy, of Danish driving students all learning to open car doors with their right hands, so as to see and thus not harm any oncoming cyclists. Getting "doored," though it hasn't happened yet, remains a constant fear for me on the streets of Los Angeles, consuming whatever mental bandwidth I don't devote to watching the pavement ahead for deep potholes and inexplicable jagged spots. I worry less about that sort of thing on a bike route like Fourth, though my closest scrapes all, ironically, happen there and on quiet back streets like it, where the passing cars, though only occasional, have far less attentive drivers. This makes the likes of Wilshire feel more hospitable, especially given the golden advantage of cycling in Los Angeles, one no bike-rider from any other city believes when I tell them: you can, legally, do it on the sidewalk.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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