After more than two years of relying almost exclusively on my car for transportation, I find myself bussing it daily from Los Feliz to UCLA for an intensive Japanese class. My bus is the number 2, which travels along Sunset Boulevard from downtown all the way to the Pacific Coast Highway. The trip takes about an hour and moves through such a wide variety of neighborhoods that it seems to encapsulate the whole L.A. experience (well, the whole experience of people who rarely, if ever, venture into Compton, South Central or East L.A.). I spend a lot of time studying or listening to podcasts on the bus, but I never get tired of staring out the window.
I get on the bus at Sunset and Virgil, adjacent to Los Feliz Village, the hipster neighborhood that won me over with its little cafes and odd t-shirt shops when I first arrived in L.A. three years ago. People might sneer at Los Feliz’s overpriced coffee and the occasional hordes of paparazzi that descend when a quasi-celebrity decides to have a sandwich at Figaro, but there’s something to be said for a neighborhood where you feel safe, where almost everything is within walking distance, and where people actually smile at you on the street.
From Los Feliz the bus moves through the southern edge of Thai Town and the heart of Little Armenia, with their storefront signs written in flowing Armenian and Thai script that seem remarkably similar to someone not fluent in either Thai or Armenian. The area is grittier than Los Feliz–developers would probably describe it as “urban.” Faded strip malls and vacant lots mix with the occasional concrete block apartment complex.
Beyond Little Armenia the bus enters the Sunset and Vine shopping/entertainment district, home of Amoeba Music, Arclight Cinemas, and the very touristy Hollywood & Highland complex just to the north. This is where you’ll find Grauman’s Chinese and the Kodak Theatre, along with huge numbers of misguided tourists who seem to think that this is the place to spot celebrities. Not likely, but if you fork over a few bucks you can get your picture taken with one of the many movie character impersonators that hang out in front of Grauman’s (Batman, Iron Man, Jack Sparrow, and Marilyn Monroe were there the last time I drove through), or pick up any number of cheap Hollywood souvenirs from the dozens of shops lining the street. It’s a good place to catch a movie or a live performance, but the atmosphere always feels a bit sleazy–which I guess is kind of the point.
Beyond Highland and La Brea the bus enters the edge of West Hollywood, a neighborhood just as hipster as Los Feliz but with a very different feel. Rent is higher, shops try for edgy but are mostly commercial, parking is hard to come by. From the window I can see famous clubs like the Whiskey A Go Go, the Laugh Factory, and the Comedy Store. I actually know very little about the area because I’ve spent so little time there–all I know is that it feels a world away from Los Feliz. It’s popular with people in the film industry. Its restaurants are famous and some are quite good. All in all, though, it feels plastic and snooty, and I’m usually happy to get out on the rare occasions when I’ve ventured in.
The western edge of West Hollywood is decidedly more upscale, with whitewashed storefronts and chichi restaurants. Enormous billboards showing beautiful people in very little clothing advertise Guess, Louis Vuitton, and Remy Martin (which apparently has the magical ability to turn women bisexual). This is where you can rent a Rolls Royce for a day, where bleached blonds with suspiciously large breasts can be seen walking tiny dogs down the street, and where every third car seems to be a convertible with the top down.
It’s at Doheny Drive where the most dramatic transformation takes place, where a bus that has crossed between different demographics and food options seems to cross into another universe. The most noticeable difference is that a street which for close to ten miles has been all commercial storefronts now becomes 100% residential. The white, black, and multicolored facades of crammed-together businesses are replaced by walls of green. For the next twenty minutes no one will get on the bus, because anyone living in or near this neighborhood would never deign to use it. This is Beverly Hills, imagined in a dozen movies and books that somehow fail to capture its forbidding presence. It’s not so much a playground for the rich and famous as it is an impenetrable fortress, a beautiful green oasis that might as well have “Keep Out” signs posted at every corner.
The trees and hedges that line this stretch of sunset are impossibly tall and thick. They climb almost as high as the mammoth houses they hide, though some homeowners are bold enough to place their mansions in full view of the bus. This is a world with a level of wealth that is incomprehensible. Houses have three or four separate driveway entrances, all of them barred by gates. Where they’re not surrounded by massive hedges they’re surrounded by fencing covered in green tarp. I’m always curious as to whether the people selling star maps–camped out every other block in this neighborhood–actually manage to sell any. You might know exactly where a celebrity home is located, but you won’t be able to get within a hundred feet of it.
The bus passes by the house where Michael Jackson died, which has become a small shrine. Small groups of paparazzi–their massive telephoto lens cameras slung over their backs like weapons–patrol this area constantly.
One house in particular, one not entirely hidden by trees and hedges, seems to have been spirited directly out of Sunset Boulevard. Or Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. Its vine-covered marble facade stretches out endlessly, the plot of land it sits on surrounded by fountains and well-manicured trees. It’s impressive, but every time I see it I think only of decay. That’s what Beverly Hills really calls to mind, if you ask me. A dying world, surrounded by shockingly bright greenery, where the ridiculously wealthy try desperately to keep the rest of the world out.
Heading back home through the huge mansions, flashy billboards, Armenian bakeries, and finally into the familiar coffee shops and grocery stores that make up my own neighborhood, I always end up feeling grateful that I live where I do. Los Feliz might not have the concentration of happening nightlife that characterizes West Hollywood, or the spectacular gardens and fountains of Beverly Hills, but it’s home. And even though my complex is gated, at least it doesn’t feel like a fortress.