Kate Woodman of Newburyport, Mass., is surprised to see a live chicken strutting around a Boyle Heights back yard. "That's the last thing I imagined I'd see in L.A.," she says. "It feels like I'm in another country."
Dennis Chen of Honolulu is fascinated by the peaceful and well-maintained side streets in some neighborhoods hit by the 1992 riots. "It doesn't look like the Bronx or South Chicago," he says. "Just by the reputation in the past, one would think it would look more depressing."
And the sheer enormity of the Los Angeles flatlands is making a deep impression on Reagan Reep of Jacksonville, Fla. "It's so vast. I've never seen so much of the same kind of run-down, overpopulated area. It just goes on and on and on," she says.
Woodman, Chen and Reep and 27 other out-of-towners are on a bus, taking in sights in Downtown, on the Eastside, in Watts and South-Central that most tourists never glimpse and that some Angelenos avoid.
"The Real L.A." tour was offered Friday and Saturday as part of the American Institute of Architects' national convention, the first in Los Angeles since 1956.
To be sure, the convention also sponsored tours of glitzy Beverly Hills shopping streets and Malibu mansions by the sea. But "The Real L.A." guide, local architect Carlton Davis, wanted to show a more diverse city, one of lively ethnic markets, graffiti-marked gang turf, endless railroad spurs and cozy bungalows with rose gardens out front.
"I want to get beyond the myth of glamour and the more recent images of total destruction," said Davis, whose design work includes the Los Angeles Mission, a large homeless shelter on Skid Row.
"Many people who think they know Los Angeles, they know images of L.A. from Downtown to the beach, nothing to the east and nothing to the south. My philosophy is to make the rest of the city more well known," he said.
Architects and their relatives, he assumed, might be more receptive to exploring urban life than a gathering of, say, dentists.
Everyone boards the sightseeing bus at the new Convention Center in Downtown. Soon they are cruising past the historic movie palaces on Broadway. Then the bus hooks through Skid Row. Some homeless men on San Julian Street glare angrily at the tourist invasion while other flash peace signs.
The bus then drives through the Civic Center and Chinatown, past Union Station and the new high-rise County Jail and over the Brooklyn Avenue Bridge to Boyle Heights.
"That's the river?" several passengers ask in unison upon seeing the concrete ditch that carried a murky trickle. Yes, indeed, Davis answers, helpfully adding that a band of homeless South American transvestites is living under a nearby bridge.
(Parts of this four-hour itinerary would never meet traditional Chamber of Commerce standards.)
Through Boyle Heights, Davis explains how a once-largely Jewish neighborhood had become a Latino community. To emphasize the point, the bus stops at the El Mercado shopping complex for some churros, then later pauses in the evocative Home of Peace Memorial Park, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles and final resting place of Hollywood moguls Jack Warner and Samuel Goldwyn. Japanese temples and community centers are also on the Eastside route.
For Lynn George, Los Angeles' ethnic mix of Latino, Anglo, African American and Asian seems much more varied than back home in Pittsburgh. "Here you really have a feeling of a melting pot, as if it's very fluid," she said. "This city really does turn over."
And, Davis stresses, it is a city that changes block to block. Just off the bustling shopping district of Whittier Boulevard--where he salutes the blue-and-yellow-tiled Pedorrero muffler shop--he points out quiet side streets and homes with astonishingly lush gardens. Suddenly the peace ends and an industrial zone begins. Through the gritty Alameda corridor of factories and railroads, the bus aims for the Watts Towers, then up Central Avenue to one of the 1992 riot zones.
The many empty lots remaining from the arson fires around Florence and Normandie and along Vermont Avenue fit into the ever-mutating urban landscape, Davis tells the bus riders: "It's sort of like everyday L.A. One day you pass a building on a street in L.A. and the next it's gone. Something else has replaced it. This city is constantly changing."
New mini-malls, supermarkets and fast-food joints are sprouting on lots left empty from the civil disturbance, but not enough to soften the shock for some visiting architects and their families.
Earlier Friday, Arkansan Sue Gaskin--a first-time visitor to Southern California--had toured multimillion-dollar homes in Bel-Air with fellow conventioneers. Now, as the "Real L.A." bus passes Pico-Union streets with traffic barricades to discourage drug dealing, she is finding it hard to comprehend that she is in the same city.
"It's just from one end to the other, as far as extremes go," the Little Rock, Ark., resident remarked as the bus neared the Convention Center again. "You have everything and anything here."