Take a Walk with L.A. Times critic David L. Ulin

David L. Ulin, author and L.A. Times book critic shares his essay about walking. He is currently writing a book about neighborhood walking in his original home, NYC and his current one, Los Angeles.

Share with us where you walk in L.A.(and other places!) and where you would like to see more public walking paths in the city?


Pathways to an Epiphany

A transplant finds community in L.A. through walking

October 03, 2004|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is the author of “The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault
Line Between Reason and Faith,” recently published by Viking.

One afternoon not long ago, my wife Rae and I had a classic urban moment, the kind people say can’t happen in Los Angeles. We were taking a walk on Pico Boulevard when, as we crossed Robertson, I noticed a man–young, bearded, sipping a cup of coffee–half a dozen or so feet behind us, his pace in lock step with ours. He didn’t appear to be a threat, but he did seem interested in our conversation, which involved a trip we’d be taking to Chicago, in part to visit the grave of Rae’s father’s in a cemetery near O’Hare. Then, as Rae and I began to discuss transportation options–car? taxi?–we heard a voice call out, suggesting that we should think about the El. It was the young man, who had recently moved here from Chicago; he had been eavesdropping, but only, he said, because our talk had reminded him of home.

You can take this story a few different ways: as a symbol of intrusion, or a good Samaritan moment played out in a minor key. To me, though, it illustrates the serendipity of urban living, the way we find connection in the oddest places–places it would never occur to us to look. This is why we live in cities–or why I live in a city, even one as amorphous as L.A.

Los Angeles is often described as a 35-mile-per-hour city built for movement; it has no center, no overarching focus, which means that walking itself may seem unlikely or bizarre. Yet L.A. also is a city of neighborhoods, a pastiche that’s only comprehensible in pieces, when it’s comprehensible at all. In the neighborhood, the city is accessible; walking can become an associative act. In the neighborhood, in other words, you experience the city at ground level–which is the only way you ever know that you belong.

Belonging, of course, was the last thing I expected when I moved here from Manhattan in 1991. Then I considered L.A. a land of exile, a faceless sprawl of boulevards and mini-malls, with neither personality nor soul. The city made no sense to me, with its palm trees and its stillness, its single-family houses and postage-stamp lawns. I couldn’t see the neighborhoods; every street and sidewalk looked the same. My first summer here, I felt like I was in the country, waking each morning to the smells of grass and sunlight, to the chattering of birds. It seems absurd now to think of Los Angeles as anything but an urban environment, although I remain aware of how different it is from the tumult of New York. Still, throughout my early years in Southern California, I couldn’t get a handle, as if the very landscape–the cars, the space, the glittering distances–had been constructed to keep me, to keep all of us, at a remove.

And yet, from the beginning, I walked. Partly, I suppose, this had to do with my lingering identity as a New Yorker, my sense that the only way to know a city was by foot. At the same time, Rae and I were sharing a car, which more often than not was at her disposal because I worked at home. If I had to run an errand, I would walk into the gleaming sunlight, squinting at the glare of bone-white sidewalks, past birds of paradise and bougainvillea, often the only overt signs of life.

I wish I could say that the experience was grounding, but for me, these walks were disorienting, endless, a slow slog through an elusive city. This was never more obvious than the evening when, after watching a show at the Troubadour, I walked home from West Hollywood: east on Santa Monica to Robertson, south to Alden Drive, through Cedars-Sinai to San Vicente, and down to 3rd and Crescent Heights. I was living in the Fairfax district then, and I never thought that this was ill-considered, that on an empty street in darkness, I might appear a target or a fool. On Friday nights in that neighborhood, the Orthodox walk in clusters, but this was not a Friday, it was a Sunday, and I did not feel like part of any community I could name.

Community, however, can creep up when you least expect it. For me, it grew, in no small measure out of walking, out of feeling the rhythms of Los Angeles seep up through the soles of my feet. Even after we bought a second car and moved to a small house in Pico-Robertson, walking remained a key part of the vocabulary I use to read the city. It’s not that L.A. is “walking-friendly,” not exactly–in our neighborhood there are long stretches of empty sidewalk, passages where the only people I see are staring out from inside their cars. Still, in my 13 years here I’ve learned to recognize community from its surface traces, to see the density beneath the everyday.

Some afternoons, Rae and I meander to the bank or to the post office, to the newsstand or the sushi bar for lunch. We walk to the pharmacy, to the video store or simply wander the sedate side streets, feeling the comfort of familiarity, the way that, with our footsteps, we are literally tracing and retracing the pattern of our lives. These are not ambitious walks; they’re bounded mostly by the edges of our neighborhood, the streets imprinted on our psyches like genetic code. Yet in the end, I think, this is only as it should be, for walking has become a mechanism by which, like the Orthodox, we mark the borders of our territory, by which we understand our place here, not as part of a faceless megalopolis, but on a far more human scale.

In his monologue “Monster in a Box,” Spalding Gray recalled an L.A. experience he had in the 1980s. “The only time I ever saw anyone in my neighborhood while walking,” Gray noted, “was when I rounded the corner of the street one day and I saw some schoolbooks thrown down in the gutter with a belt around them. And then I saw the owners of the books … high school kids, making passionate love on the side of the road…. They paid me no heed. I thought, ‘What better place if you want to be alone in Los Angeles?’ ”

It’s a funny moment, utterly believable, yet I can’t help thinking that, in his zeal for the easy joke, Gray missed the more complex reality. Sure, L.A. is diffuse, a city of dissonance and private space. But it is also a city that reveals itself in the most unforeseen situations–while walking on Pico Boulevard, say, when, all of a sudden, a man tells you something about Chicago, and you realize you are home.

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