"I didn't know that," I whispered to the guy standing next to me.
I was born in L.A., went to school here and lived most of my adult life here. I thought I knew every inch of this place. But I didn't know that L.A. in the 1920s was a scandal-ridden oil boom town ruled by organized crime, crooked cops, politicians on the take and wiseguys like Albert Marco, an Italian-immigrant pimp and con man who made a fortune smuggling Canadian whiskey into town during Prohibition.
"His trial and his jail were both in this building," said our guide, "the same jail cells that would later hold gangster Bugsy Siegel, RFK-killer Sirhan Sirhan, and cult leader Charles Manson." (It was a building I'd never seen before, even though I'd once worked downtown.) With that, 150 of us turned to snap photos of the magnificent Hall of Justice, built in 1925.
Then we mounted our bikes and pedaled for Bunker Hill, the next stop in our rolling rendezvous with L.A.'s past.
This was the L.A. Noir Ride, one of the two-wheel tours hosted by from the Los Angeles Explorers Club, offering a way to get in a workout and burn calories while exploring L.A.'s history.
Founded by Aimee Gilchrist and Brantlea Newbery, friends who loved exploring Los Angeles by bike, the club has staged differently themed "bicycle journeys into forgotten times" over the last two years. One ride connected L.A.'s various lakes. Another went from downtown to Pasadena, describing Spanish expeditions, the original Busch Gardens, and black magic rituals along the way.
"We like to tell stories," says Newbery, who runs a photo agency. She and Gilchrist, a field marketing rep for New Belgium Brewing Co. (which helps sponsor the rides) got the idea for an L.A. noir theme from period movies like "Chinatown" and Raymond Chandler novels such as "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, My Lovely," which focus on the crime and intrigue of L.A. in the 1920s and 30s. Getting their facts from the Richard Rayner's book "A Bright and Guilty Place – Murder, Corruption and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age," they festooned our 12-mile ride with six different stops, including iconic restaurants and a back-and-forth crossing of the Los Angeles River.
A unique-looking group of cyclists had assembled for the 2 p.m. check-in on Alameda Street next to Philippe the Original French dip sandwich deli, the oldest operating restaurant in L.A. No one was wearing a skin-tight lycra jersey or riding a $10,000 carbon-fiber racing bike. Most wore normal street clothes and rode bikes with practical racks and fenders. A couple of women, keeping with the noir theme, wore 1920s-style flapper dresses. With sightseeing the goal, Explorer Club rides aren't terribly difficult or long. I brought my comfy, one-speed Dahon fold-up bike, wore sandals, and fit right in.
The "I didn't know that" moments continued after. We made a steep climb up Bunker Hill to a stunning overlook of downtown and the Angels Flight funicular. We learned how the neighborhood changed from lavish Victorian mansions to slums and finally to the glamorous arts and high-rise center it is today. Then, we headed east over the river for a last look at the 6th Street Bridge (this was shortly before demolition began).
Back in downtown, we stopped on Skid Row at 5th Street. Bullhorn in hand, Gilchist pointed out the King Edward Hotel and King Eddy Saloon, once the epicenter of L.A.s vast underworld of speakeasies and bordellos -- an era that ebbed in the 1930s with the rise of moral crusader Clifford Clinton, owner of Clifton's restaurants, and William Randolph Hearst's now-defunct Herald Examiner. The muckraking newspaper was located on Broadway, in a stunning Spanish Colonial Revival style building now registered as an L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument. Clinton was so successful at uncovering corruption all the way to the mayor's office that his house was bombed, reportedly by his enemies, although some suspected Clinton of planting it himself. The Examiner, printing as many as 8 editions a day, ran exposés of Marco and the government coverups that protected the mob. Slowly, as the Depression continued, L.A. cleaned up its act.
"I didn't know that," I said again as we stood at the gated campus of Mount Saint Mary's University near USC. Once an enclave of the wealthy fleeing the declining neighborhoods of Bunker Hill, the property came under the control of the oil-rich — and staunchly Catholic — Doheny family, who donated it to the college.
By then, it was getting dark. The talks had turned a short ride into a four-hour tour. We rode a couple miles back to the Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway in downtown. Cashing in my beer tokens, I marveled at the cavernous cafe's wondrous faux-wilderness motif, with its life-size stuffed elk and a massive drive-through tree behind a glass-window display. And I couldn't stop myself from saying it one more time.
"Wow – I didn't know that."