Interstate to the Underbelly: Digging Around Underground LA

 

Not my photo

 

Freeways are the subways of LA.

I had that realization as I ached red-brake-light through the afternoon traffic, slugging from Orange County to my sister’s apartment in North Hollywood. The New York City subway system seemed to me, on my first trip there, like a whole nuther underground world—its own city, separate from the other city, living and breathing and pulsing passengers just beneath the surface of the streets. And the freeways in LA are kind of the same thing, choked and crawling and lined with furry-necked palm trees—a world within a world, a sub-city. And it seems you could live your whole life within its concrete confines, going back and forth and never arriving, not needing to arrive, having come to a place beyond arriving. (And you may not be able to buy a hot dog in the middle of the LA freeways, but you could always pull off and grab some oranges alongside the exit ramp.)

It’s been a busy four days in Los Angeles, poking, prodding and trespassing into the underbelly of the biggest un-city of the US. I’ve got about 100 stories to tell, and even more poorly shot photos—marginal neighborhoods and abandoned places and esoteric cults, street art and Santeria markets and a female-run strip club. I’m debating how I want to organize and present it all and, as usual,chronologically seems the least linear, in terms of telling the story of it. The lines curve and arch and connect like the freeways, tangentially, seeming to move independently and with their own direction.

Most of my best finds and coolest adventures came as the result of totally serendipity and randomness. I dug for hours on the internet and then, three days before I left, I happened upon a not-quite guidebook in a bookstore: LA Bizarro (whose blog component can be found here). Cheesy in parts, genius in others and snarky throughout, the book brought me to some seriously hidden gems. And one that had fallen off the edge of the continent.

Sunken City was one of the coolest places I went to. A piece of San Pedro that had crumbled into the ocean during a mud/rockslide, Sunken City is the name given to the concrete, graffitied remains. Quardened off by a barrier wall and a couple of easily shimmied-under fences at the end of Point Fermin Park, Sunken City is technically off limits, but we found it full of about a dozen people—including a bunch of ballsy teenagers skateboarding the broken surfaces. Palm trees, grass and wild chard (from someone’s old vegetable garden?) punctuated the wind-swept rubble. It’s a wet dream for anyone who loves abandoned ruins, low-level trespassing, oceanside vistas—or anyone dreaming of the day California falls into the Pacific and floats away. Expect a photo essay soon.

I got word of another killer abandoned place from an old friend via Facebook. I drove into the green hill of Griffith Park, and poked around the rusty abandoned cages of the Old LA Zoo. Parts are a proper picnic/park area, while others lie behind a well-bent fence. The further into the hillside you go, the weirder and more graffitied the remains become. The zoo closed as a result of poor funding and animal deaths, and looking at the archaic cages, it’s easy to feel the suffering of the long-deceased captives. Especially since you can climb inside the cages.

Again, it was me and the teenagers—digging around behind broken fences is a fairly juvenile activity. We smiled and exchanged sunny day pleasantries, them choking on blunt smoke and remarking on all their friends’ tags, “Damn, blood, everybody been up here.”

I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon the MAK Center’s How Many Billboards project, but it totally intrigued me: artists taking over billboards in one of the most heavily advertised/commercialized/image-obsessed cities on the planet. I missed the bus tours and I’d feared the whole exhibition, but a bunch of the billboards’ leases got extended beyond the show’s original run. I hunted around town and found a couple really cool ones:

I also somehow stumbled upon the New Image Gallery, and found out legendary LA artist RETNA was having a solo show. I missed the opening reception on Friday, but stopped by today. Combining fashion photography with layered scrawlings, advertising with graffiti, glamour with grit seemed like the perfect collision of LA cultures. And it looked bad-ass.

Another thing I’m totally mystified as to how I found was Jetset Graffiti, my new favorite nerdy obsession. The site recently featured the latest Saber mural, part of the LA Freewalls project; I scurried down amid the warehouses and day laborers of 7th and Mateo to snap some photos. Expect a lengthy photo and word essay on LA street art I stumbled across, including stencils, wheatpastes and works by DFace and the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey.

Saber mural, "Pepper's World"

 

 

I discovered Esotouric by Googling “Charles Bukowski landmarks” (I said I was nerdy). Offbeat, indie and utterly obsessed with LA’s underbelly, Esotouric has an entire “Haunts of a Dirty Old Man” Charles Bukowski tour—plus John Fante, Black Dahlia and Tom Waits tours, among others. They only run tours once a week or so; I wasn’t super stoked on the one they were running while I was in town, but figured entrusting myself to people so dedicated to the strangeness of LA would be a damn good way to spend an afternoon, regardless of the subject matter.

“Maja’s Mysteries” focused on spiritual sites—the truly marginal and counterculture ones. Some might call them cults, some might call them New Agey nonsense, but all had found a home in the City of Angels. Maja, the White Witch of LA—tall and blond and subtly doused in glitter—grabbed the bus microphone and instructed us on karma and grace as we toddled up the hills and along the highways. We stopped at historic spiritual centers, founded by estatics searching for Utopia. They were all evangelists and mystics and soothsayers that prayed into crystals, channeled the cosmos, allowed the voice of Jesus to speak through their voicebox, clogged the old streetcars with thousands of revelers on a weekly basis, and generally used the power of prayer to create oodles of good mojo.

Though I didn’t connect to the spiritual eccentricity, and was downright spooked by the haunting recordings of George King’s contact with cosmic voices, I realized something on the Esotouric tour: all these people had come to Los Angeles from somewhere else. All of them seekers, searching for something, looking to fill a void or answer a question amid the swaying palm trees and quivering fault lines. Long before Scientology, long before Hollywood, long before reality shows about struggling actors and wannabe models, the magnetic currents of LA had drawn these misfits into the sunshine, the skin-piercing, cancer-blooming sunshine. They found followers, built philosophies, perfected their teachings, erected buildings—and fell off, eventually, into obscurity, settling into the dust between the hills, just under the surface of all that pavement.

Seen in that way, Hollywood isn’t some departure from the true, wild spirit of LA—it’s a continuation of the soul-hungry-ness, the seeking lonely and the elusive mirage that almost, but never quit fills the void—that circles and circumvents, glittering hoods and gleaming break lights—touches on a tangent, an overpass, for a moment, then glides off along the concrete arteries, the highways of LA, never arriving.

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8 Responses to “Interstate to the Underbelly: Digging Around Underground LA”


  1. 1 Hal Amen March 24, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    You’ve got an eye for the overlooked story, Lauren. I know some of these angles would be great fits for Matador.

  2. 2 TheJetpacker March 24, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    The great thing about visitors coming to my hometown (or thereabouts) is that I get to discover new things from them. Ya know, I never thought to open up a Frommer’s about LA until a few weeks ago, and now I’m learning about places I never heard of. I found out about the Sunken City in SP a few months ago, but I was too chicken to trespass since I had just seen a cop car leave the area.

    By the way, the weirdest thing about LA traffic is that I’ve seen the exact same cars on the drive from OC to LA months later. How bizarre to sit next to someone in traffic, then see them again months later.

  3. 3 Aly March 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Love the street art! I almost always end up snapping pics of cool graffiti when ever I have a camera handy, even if I’m standing next to a historic site! I do take the pic of the statue as well though 🙂 Great gritty look at LA.

  4. 4 Pablo Perez April 8, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Thanks for these..love your blog. Amazing pictures….where did you find these?

  5. 6 laurenquinn April 8, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    The photos are mine (aside from the first), and taken from all over town. Most of the billboards were on West Pico. Glad you liked it!

  6. 7 Betty Liao March 21, 2012 at 6:05 am

    I found this when I was looking around the web for info for my research project, incidentally on the LA freeway. The project is spurred by this wonderful book called by Karen Tei Yamashita. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the book, but by your blog, you might be interested in reading it. Just a recommendation. ^^

    And your blog is quite well-written. When I get done with my project, I might read the rest of it. Great work. =)


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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