Let’s take a long drive — virtually, of course — from SF to LA

Everything is virtual these coronavirus shutdown days. The virtual prom season has passed, and now it’s time for virtual graduation. We’ve dialed into the virtual opening of the yacht season, went to a couple of virtual cocktail parties, joined a virtual trivia contest and offered virtual good birthday wishes to a charming young relative. It’s been eight weeks since we went anywhere in real time, and that was only a one-day round trip for a party in Santa Rosa.

So now is the perfect time for a virtual road trip. And why not? It’s springtime, the flowers are blooming and the hills are still green. So let’s go to Los Angeles. It’s far enough away to be a real road trip instead of a backyard jaunt. And you have to admit that L.A. is different.

I think we should drive. Flying is a pain in the neck. And we are going to need a car in L.A. anyway. We took I-5 down the San Joaquin Valley a couple of months ago and hated it. Not enough scenery and too many trucks.

Our virtual trip begins by heading south on I-280, through the rolling hills of the Peninsula, joining U.S. 101 south of San Jose. The trip is an hour longer, but Highway 101 is quintessential California. Think of the names along the way: Prunedale, Salinas, King City, San Miguel, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, the ocean on your right. You head inland at Ventura, and now 101 is the Ventura Freeway — fast, often jammed, part of the Southern California freeway way of life.

And now we are in Los Angeles. Now what?

A lot of San Franciscans have a problem with L.A. It’s fake, it’s crude, it’s La La Land. But I have come to like L.A., its style, its vibrancy. Here are some places I’d go on this virtual road trip.

I’d start on Olvera Street, where Los Angeles began as a pueblo in 1781. Olvera Street is a bit hokey, but the Mexican food is good and it is well to remember that despite the infusion of millions of people from all over the world, Southern California has a Latino overlay. Just turn on your car radio and listen.

 

The L.A. City Hall is not far from Olvera Street, and here you can see for yourself the difference between San Francisco and Los Angeles. San Francisco’s City Hall is built in the Beaux Arts style, like a European domed palace. L.A. has a 32-story tower — it is big, bold and American.

A bit north on North Alameda Street is Philippe the Original, one of those only-in-L.A. places that would melt the heart of a San Francisco snob. It’s a kind of a deli and sandwich joint, with sawdust on the floor, long communal benches and hearty eats. The house specialty is a French dip sandwich, supposedly invented a century ago when a server dropped a sandwich roll into a pan full of meat juice, creating a local classic. The customers are construction workers, cops and people from the neighborhood.

There is another slice of old Los Angeles on South Broadway, downtown. There is the five-story Bradbury Building, which has a red stone exterior and an amazing interior, all ornate ironwork balconies like some Victorian fantasy.

Across the street are two more L.A. treasures. One is the Million Dollar Theater, a movie palace built in 1917, when a million dollars was big money. Next to that is the Grand Central Market, a food court to end all food courts. It’s a bustling public market, maybe the biggest in the West, certainly one of the liveliest.

 

Just across the street from the Grand Central Market is the Angels Flight, a peculiar operation that may be the world’s shortest railway. It is a Los Angeles version of San Francisco’s cable car system, except that the Angels Flight is only 298 feet long from Hill Street to the top of Bunker Hill and has only two cars, one named Sinai and the other Olivet.

Angels Flight is another of those unique L.A. stories. When it was built back in 1901, Bunker Hill was a fashionable neighborhood of Victorian houses. But over time the neighborhood went to seed; it was a bit spooky, a shadow of its former glory, L.A. noir. Los Angeles is a city that does not admire the past, so the old houses were torn down, and the Angels Flight was dismantled and the two cars stored for 27 years.

But L.A. has a sentimental side, too, and the Angels Flight was rebuilt in 1996. It has been rebuilt twice since. But it’s a different Bunker Hill now — the top gleams with tall glass towers.

But enough of the old. Let’s get in the car and drive from central Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard west toward the ocean. This is the real modern L.A. all in one 15-mile-long boulevard.

It runs through Koreatown, a city within a city, 120,000 people with a distinct culture in the middle of America’s second-largest city. Going west again, Wilshire is lined with the tall glass towers that seem to be the symbols of the new California. Going west again through Beverly Hills, past Westwood, a bit like a Southern California Berkeley, toward the setting sun to Santa Monica to end the trip on the famous Santa Monica Pier.

The ocean and the beaches are Southern California’s crowning glory, miles and miles from Mexico north to where cliffs and rocks meet the ocean.

Of course, we may not be able to take this road trip just now. The state may be shut down for a while yet. Olvera Street’s restaurants may be closed. Philippe the Original may offer only curb service. The Angels Flight cars are too small to provide social distance. So close your eyes. Click on your imagination. It’s all virtual.

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