The Pleasures and Pains of Walking in L.A.

It’s a myth that nobody walks in L.A.—but we could all stand to see a little more of the city from its sidewalks

“Station closed”

I roll my eyes at the sign positioned near the entrance to Chinatown’s Gold Line station. It’s Saturday morning and I somehow dragged my ass out of bed to go to the gym only to find that my neighborhood Metro station is closed. “Maintenance,” the voice over the loudspeaker informs, has left the stops from Heritage Square to Union Station out of commission. It’s always maintenance with the Gold Line. I’m not even sure what the word maintenance means anymore.

There’s a shuttle serving in place of the light rail, but Union Station isn’t that far, so I might as well walk it—get an extra workout in there, like I often do whenever “maintenance” messes with the trains. I amble along Alameda, passing stenciled art on the sidewalk and a lone young man bobbing his head to whatever is playing through his earbuds. I think about breakfast at Philippe’s, but decide against stopping inside the local mainstay on the corner of Alameda and Ord. I do, however, pause to check out a dayglow poster for a concert that already happened and a small constellation of metal stars fixed to a utility poll underneath a face painted primarily in baby blue.

I’m a lifelong Angeleno and, in this life, I’ve come to know two versions of the city: One I’ve seen from the car and another I understand as a pedestrian. It’s that second version of the city that’s closest to me.

Los Angeles, the car city, is eye-catching signs for places you probably won’t visit and murals that you’ll never see up close. It’s twilight falling over the San Fernando Valley as you watch from hilltop gridlock on the 405. It’s the sound of your traffic neighbor’s too-loud music, a soundtrack that you can better ignore if you roll up your window and turn up the volume in your own car. It’s beautiful, frustrating, loud, and isolating. And until you stop, everything you see and hear is at a distance, often through glass.

On foot, I step closer to the walls, study the street art, and memorize the detailed facades of downtown’s vintage buildings. I keep tabs on the curbside flora, taking note of anything that provides a layer of shade as the sun prepares to beat down on the city and its inhabitants. I overhear bits of conversation that I might take completely out of context, but will make me chuckle.

I’ve always walked a lot, but, since I no longer have my own car and am heavily reliant on public transportation, the number of footsteps I take in L.A. and its environs has drastically increased. Downtown is my regular stomping ground, but I’ve made treks across neighborhoods from Pasadena to Culver City. Along the way, I’ve stumbled into pocket gardens, mom-and-pop restaurants, and tiny vintage shops—loads of places I’d never planned on visiting. Walking has become more than just a means of getting from Point A to Point B. It’s how I find stories, how I decompress, and how I stay connected when work keeps me stuck at a computer for much of the day.

The sights aren’t always pretty, though. On Sunday mornings near bars and clubs, trails of puke might cut across the sidewalk. During downtown summers, the air often grows pungent with the scent of piss and perfume. Cockroaches are perennial. You’ll probably step on a couple, not realizing it until you sense a soft crunch beneath the sole of your shoe.

Sometimes while walking the isolation of a car seems appealing, particularly as a woman. When my friends and I were teenagers, we’d flip off or shout back at dudes who catcalled. Now I just keep walking, dismayed that the world hasn’t changed, that sexual harassment persists. These days I tend to reserve my anger for drivers who don’t bother checking the crosswalks before blowing through lights. There are a lot of them.

It’s a myth that people don’t walk in L.A., but sometimes I wonder if we hit the pavement often enough. I think about that when people offer me rides to Metro stations that are totally walkable or suggest driving to a place that’s less than a mile away. From the sidewalks, the beauty of Los Angeles unfolds in its details, but so do the city’s problems. The more familiar we are with the pedestrian’s view, the more we can embrace what there is to love about the city, and address its faults.

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