Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Walking LA - Downtown LA

Yes Los Angeles is a city based on driving, but there are pockets that are very walkable. One of those pockets is the Downtown area, I spent a few days there during our grand adventure. Downtown LA stretches from Olvera Street and Union Station at its north end, to the Convention Center and LA Live at its south end. I explored several places within that boundary, and I walked the whole length.

This is not the first time that I have found neighborhoods in Los Angeles that easily walkable. In fact I was really impressed that even though we were in LA for 4 days and during that time made a trip out to North Hollywood, at no time during our stay did we need a car. Downtown LA is well served by mass transit. There are many bus affordable bus lines that crisscross the area, and there is a service called LA DASH that for 50 cents will take you as far north as Chinatown and the art district and as far south as Exposition Center and USC Campus. It was also fairly easy and affordable to use the busses and subway to get to places like Hollywood, LACMA and The Farmers Market. It made my heart warm to see this change, especially in a city that is known for being car centered.   

Olvera Street and Union Station

At the northern end of Downtown LA is Olvera Street. This is the heart of old LA, where the city was founded in 1781. There were 1 founding families given charter by the Spanish Government. One thing that I found fascinating was that of the 11 families, that is 22 husbands and wives, only 2 people were of European descent. The other 20 were black, indian or biracial. This is one of those fact that seems to have been buried in history. Today Olvera Street is a place to come for Mexican food and souvenirs. There are a couple of historical museums, one is the Avila Adobe, built in 1818, it is one of the oldest houses in Los Angeles.

The Avila Adobe

Another is a museum dedicated to the restoration of the mural America Tropical, which was painted in 1932 by David Alfaro Siquieros a contemporary of Diego Rivera. The mural represents U.S. imperialism in Central America and was considered to be communist propaganda. It was partially white washed in 1934 and completely covered in 1938. Restoration was financed by the Getty foundation (irony?) and the mural was available for viewing on its 80th birthday in 2012.

Unions Station is a grand old train station that still serves over 100,000 passengers each day. Built in 1938, it is an art-deco beauty. The waiting rooms are high vaulted with polished wood, and its old ticketing area amazing. Outside are several plazas that tie in traditional California with the art-deco movement.

Bunker Hill

Bunker Hill sits on the west side of Downtown LA and it is home to both Los Angeles’ financial district and several important cultural institutions. One thing that really impressed me is that as Bunker Hill was built up during the 1980’s was that there was a lot of thought to including open spaces and public art. Everywhere I went, buildings had both indoor and outdoor courtyards which were filled with people during the day. The main street through Bunker Hill is Grand Avenue. This street is built on 2 levels. Most people are familiar with Lower Grand. It is the street that is used whenever a movie needs a place in downtown that looks especially closed in and dangerous. However Upper Grand Avenue is home to many cultural institutions. There are two museums dedicated to contemporary art – LA Museum of Contemporary Art and The Broad Museum, which recently opened. Also here is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Philharmonic.  At the south end of Bunker Hill is the central branch of the Los Angeles Library. Built in 1926, this is another beautiful building with a wonderful mosaic on its roof. 

"The Handstand" by Milton Hebald - outside the Downtown YMCA

"Alchemy of the Human Spirit" by Michael Zapponi

"Olympiad '84" by Martin Hebald

"Intermittent Constancy" by Paul Chilkov 

The Broad Museum

The Occulus at the Broad Museum

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Looking for lunch while walking around Downtown, stop in at Grand Central Market,  a collection of food vendors with a wide variety of choices:

So the next time that someone says that you have to rent a car if you are going to visit LA, look at where you are going to stay. You might not need one after all. Get out and walk around, there is a lot to see on the ground.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Southwest Chief - Taking Amtrak from Chicage to LA

The Southwest Chief in La Junta Colorado

Taking the Southwest Chief out of Chicago means spending a good 15 minutes traveling through one train yard after another, followed by a seemingly endless stretch of suburbs. But once you get past Naperville you are in farm country and the vista opens up. Flat fields off to the horizon. The trees are wind breaks, or provide shade for houses. On a grey day like the day we traveled the sky and ground just kind of blend into each other like an impressionist painting, losing distinction in the distance.

Mendota IL

Mendota Water Tower

Coming into the town of Mendota IL, past the Del Monte Factory and the silos, we are met with a very quiet Easter Sunday afternoon. A few square blocks of downtown, then it is back to the farms. Truthfully, I can’t imagine living in a town like Mendota. As a city kid it would drive me nuts, but I know that there are people here who feel the same way about living in New York City. 

But here I am, passing the brown fields of late March. To my untrained eye it looks like they are not planted yet. I can see the dead stalks of last year’s growth laying over the soil, light brown over dark. There is no other evidence of work on the fields. They are not plowed, and there is no one out in the rainy Sunday gloom working on them. Just a whole lot of empty roads and crossings. We pass through one farm town after another, through the width of Illinois and across the Mississippi River into Iowa. This is the 5th time in my life I have crossed it at ground level. I always forget how wide it is, even this far from its mouth.

The Fort Madison Bridge - a double decker - cars on top and the trains underneath. photo by Ommnomnomgulp at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16200697

Crossing the Misissippi

Fort Madison MO

At about 10:30pm we pulled in to Kansas City MO. which has maintained its old terminal – Union Station. Like Chicago, this is a grand old station, and even at night is worth the time to go inside to get a few pictures.

Southwest Chief in KC

Kansas City

KC Union Station

KC Union Station

The first night out I hit a real road block. The upper berth in the skyliner trains is a coffin. It has maybe 15 inches of height from the bed to the roof. It is extremely difficult to in to or out of, or even to move around once you are in it. I woke up at 12:30 in the morning in the middle of a major claustrophobic panic attack. I had to get our RIGHT AWAY! It was not a good feeling, and it was one I had never had before. So now I know – travel coach west of Chicago.

One advantage of taking the train instead of driving is that the train keeps moving while you sleep, and so I got to sleep through all of Kansas. I woke up the next morning on the plains of Colorado. No more farming. The industry here is cattle. Huge dusty brown fields, speckled with black dots. The soil is sandy, desert like, and with nicer weather on the horizon is a sharp line. You can follow where the land is lower by looking for the lines of trees. Though not yet green, you can how life clings to water, the difference between the dry and wet areas. I wonder what this land would look like after a May rain. It must bloom with green grass and flowers.

First sighting of the Rockies as we enter Trinidad CO

Then out of the plains and into the town of Trinidad CO, gateway to the Rockies. From here it is up and over Raton Pass and down into New Mexico. Once we came through the pass, New Mexico seemed like a blur, or at least a somewhat monotonous trip. The train bypasses almost all civilization, except for Las Vegas NM until we reached the pueblos north of Albuquerque.

Snow in the Rockies

Going west from Albuquerque, the train follows old Route 66. It was dark by the time we go to Gallup and time for bed before we got to Flagstaff. We woke up the next morning near Victorville CA and then down into San Bernardino by 7AM. We reached Los Angeles a little after 8 in the morning.

One thing in concluding this piece, and this goes for both my trips on the Lake Shore Limited and The Southwest Chief. The staff on the trains were, without exception friendly, helpful and thoughtful. They really helped make this three day journey fun and interesting. Even in a sleeper, they made sure that no one was truly alone, and that we all had a great trip.