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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Los Angeles

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Friday, November 8, 2002
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Pictures from Los Angeles

Morning traffic gathers on the Interstate 10 freeway near the Crenshaw Boulevard overpass in Los Angeles, Nov. 16, 1999. Americans rack up an average of 14,000 miles a year behind the wheel.
Photo: AP/Nick Ut

Morning traffic on Highway 110 northbound moves towards downtown Los Angeles, Monday, March 1, 1999. According to a government report released Monday, many residents of Los Angeles may be exposed to levels of air pollutants hundreds of times higher than called for in the Clean Air Act.
Photo: AP /E.J. Flynn

The swimming pool at L.A.'s Westin Bonaventure Hotel beckons in the September heat. It's not yet noon and the temperature has crept to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But there isn't a soul in the pool's still waters. Seems strange. This is L.A., there isn't a cloud in the autumn sky. Shouldn't this spot be ringed by beautiful people in little bathing suits?

But this is downtown L.A. -- not Beverley Hills or Hollywood -- and this hotel, though respectable, is not where the `in' crowd hangs. It's not where anyone appears to hang, except under worked hotel staff.

From the freeways, L.A.'s central cityscape looks impressive. There's the Staple Center and towering glass buildings and the newly restored, art deco City Hall.

From the sidewalk, though, the view is bleak. Like the pool in the Westin, the streets of downtown L.A. are empty, even in the middle of a weekday.

I was in L.A. to write an article about city politics, specifically a bid by the San Fernando Valley to form a separate city and split from Los Angeles. Many of the people I needed to talk to were city employees so I booked a hotel near city hall. Judging from my map, it was about a 15-minute walk, max. I called councilman Alex Padilla's office to confirm an 11.30 a.m. interview, and check directions.

“We'll arrange parking for you,” his assistant told me on the phone. I told her I thought I'd walk.

Long pause.

“Really? Well, okay.”

I got the same response from the hotel doorman when I checked directions again. He wanted to get me a cab. When I declined, he steered me in the direction of city hall and said: “Good Luck.”

I never believed the L.A. maxim that no one walks anywhere. At some point, you have to get out of the car, even if it's to grab a sandwich from around the corner.

Not in downtown L.A. Cars and buses whizzed by on my trek to City Hall. The noon crowd was either at their desks brown-bagging it, or in one of the underground malls geared to office workers. The streets were my own and they weren't user friendly.

Barely two blocks from my hotel the sidewalk narrowed to a sliver, then disappeared altogether. The sidewalk had become an entrance to an off-ramp. I turned back and tried another route.

I eventually made it to City Hall in one piece. But the experience was sobering. As a downtown dweller from Vancouver, accustomed to the negotiating the 24-hour crowds on Robson Street, the view from the street-level downtown L.A. is depressing, even menacing.

Instead of shops and restaurants, there are multi-level car parks, an array of ramps leading to these car parks and seedy discount stores.

I rented a car as soon as I got back to the hotel.

Once behind a steering wheel, the L.A. experience instantly improved.

L.A. residents drive fast and well, like they've been doing it since they were kids. And when traffic on the freeways is moving well, the weave of speeding cars on the 10-lane freeways is a marvel to behold, like a well-choreographed ballet.

And they take you anywhere -- fast. In L.A., you're never far from an off-ramp. From my downtown hotel, it took about 45 seconds to get onto the north-south 101, another 10 or 15 seconds to the east-west 10. In a car, I could be at the beach to the west or the Santa Monica Mountains to the north in 10 minutes -- faster than my walk to City Hall.

And once in your car, you're discouraged from getting out. Drive-thrus cater to most consumer needs -- from coffee and fast food to banking.

You do nearly everything from your car, except use the loo.

But I'm sure drive-thru bathrooms can't be too far down the road.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.