What defines Los Angeles is that it refuses to be defined — not concisely, anyway. Its very sprawl (498.3 square miles) renders the city confounding, if not overwhelming, to those who want simply to test the waters for the weekend.
The Los Angeles that most outsiders know (or think they know) is its widescreen establishing shot: L.A. as entertainment hub, a celebrity playground with flawless beaches, atrocious air and worse traffic. Los Angeles exists in people's minds as a series of television shows, movies or gangsta rap lyrics. Somewhere in the middle is a semblance of what people navigate daily.
So how to find the soul of Los Angeles? According to the most recent U.S. Census numbers, Los Angeles County is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world, but depending on what hamlet in which you end up, you might never know it. Los Angeles' size, coupled with a history of restrictive housing covenants and the more recent (and lingering) effects of insurance-company redlining, has made the city of Los Angeles feel as if it operates as a collection of separate municipalities. And consequently, it's that legacy that has made the city difficult to know, even for those who live here.
Once you understand this, part of L.A.'s allure is that so many difference experiences can be had, sometimes in the space of one day. Will it be flashy — clubbing, barhopping, music? Are you more on a cultural journey — museums, galleries, bookstores, lectures? Are you in search of a more boho, off-the-grid Los Angeles in the shadows? Your itinerary should be based on precisely which L.A. you'd like to map.
Los Angeles isn't a traditional city in that it doesn't radiate from a centrally located downtown; while everything you might need is all here, it could take some planning to access it. With more than 3 million people calling L.A. home, sometimes it feels like all of them are on the same road — at once. Getting around the city is tough during prime time — Thursday through Sunday night — so be prepared to sit staring at a chain of ruby taillights. And if you're having a yen for a high-gloss night and want to walk a mile in A-list Angelenos' shoes, be sure to rent a car or be prepared to cab it. Though the L.A. Metro is up-and-coming, the city still can only be fully accessed via car.
Consequently, most Angelenos only want to "park once": meaning, if dinner, show and after-dinner drinks are all in one place, a destination such as L.A. Live — anchored by the Staples Center but near upscale nightspots like the Conga Room — moves up the list. Developers are dreaming up more of these complexes around town and each of them — Hollywood & Highland, the Grove, Universal CityWalk — mixes high-end shopping with entertainment and has their own particular vibe.
If you'd prefer an evening that allows for a more close-up version of storied L.A. nightlife, you'd best not pass up Hollywood itself for the full-effect glamour vibe. Hot clubs at the moment are Bardot, The Green Door and Dragonfly — all scene-y, with 20- to 30-something clientele and a spinner-rack of DJs and theme nights, so be sure to research the night you plan go.
A number of local hotels offer music, bottle service and rooftops with glittering L.A. basin views, as well. Poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel feels like stepping into an episode of Entourage. So, too, at Drai's at the W, which is decked out in standard-issue décor of the moment — precious metals, reptile skin, gilt — so you should be, too. (Dress code is firmly enforced.) For those who want a more retro-Hollywood experience, there is nothing like popping in to Musso and Frank and sidling up to the bar for a classic martini, served old-school style in small glasses.
But perhaps you're in town hoping to see how the other 95 percent of Angelenos really live. That's always been a bit more difficult here. L.A. is dotted with ethnic diminutives: Little Tokyo, Little Saigon, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Little India. If you want to take it all in at once, tours such asTrekking L.A., operated by L.A. Commons and open to both residents and tourists, connect these small enclaves by highlighting migrant and immigrant communities that often get lost in the larger narrative of the city.
Black L.A. is a little trickier.
The closest thing to a one-stop oasis for the black community that exists today is Leimert Park Village, located on the southwest flank of the city, just east of the Crenshaw strip. During the late 1980s and early '90s, the village was ground zero for a neo-soul, black arts renaissance, where culture bloomed and thrived along the cozy streets off Degnan Avenue. It wasn't unusual to see patrons sitting at tables on the sidewalk drinking coffee and listening to late-night jazz at Fifth Street Dicks, one of Leimert Park's pioneering draws. But the little village took a big hit after the 1992 riots, and the city's struggling economy hasn't helped. However, some of the old guards remain. Filmmaker Ben Caldwell still runs a version of his KAOS Network out of a storefront on Leimert Boulevard; the World Stage Performance Space, founded by the late jazz drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daaood, still holds concerts, readings and writing workshops; and Lucy Florence Café and Cultural Center provides a spot for sustenance.
Recently, the neighborhood seems to be in phoenix mode. Los Angeles' venerable Eso Won Books set up shop two years ago. Radio and television talk-show host Tavis Smiley moved his headquarters nearby on Crenshaw Boulevard. And just last month, jazz singer Barbara Morrison announced she would be opening a performing arts complex at West 43rd and Degnan. She follows Eileen Norton, longtime patron of the arts, who just set up a gallery space a few doors down. And the big news for the old heads is that the historic black music club Maverick's Flat, which is known as the Apollo Theater of the West Coast and once featured the Temptations; Earth, Wind & Fire; and other classic R&B acts, has officially reopened (offering music, supper and a full bar) in its original spot on Crenshaw, just a few blocks away.
This is just it. Part of the challenge of navigating L.A. isn't just traffic, but its fungible nature: Businesses open and shutter (and open again), and in a blink, city blocks are remade. In a wave of change that seems to be both referencing the past and embracing the present, L.A.'s historic core downtown is being rejuvenated by the energy of late-end Gen-Xers and Millennials of all stripes who are shrugging off old rules. The scene is multicultural and multiracial, and draws from all over the city — Venice, Montebello, La Crescenta, Silver Lake and View Park — which has been unheard of in a city where people say that they seldom leave the borders of their block.
Nightlife blooms downtown, a place that for decades was at sundown as abandoned as a ghost town. The Edison, a power plant-turned-speakeasy, is a stunningly appointed after-work and weekend watering hole for the adult set; the Golden Gopher offers a more low-key, but still retro, tap-room vibe; and if live music is your thing, the Blue Whale, a sleek, 21st-century interpretation of an intimate jazz club, sits in Little Tokyo on the bones of what used to be one of the vibrant side streets (Weller Court, née Street) for black music.
It's here in this reanimated downtown, where old borders come down and the past meets the present, that L.A. may finally define itself — but now on its own terms.
Lynell George is an L.A.-based journalist and an assistant professor of English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University.