Much of the Los Angeles that Randy Newman sings about in his 1983 hit I Love LA remains the same: the hot Santa Ana winds, the sun beating down in splendid warmth and light, the homeless, the extravagantly beautiful women (and men)... they’re all there. And the freeways, chockablock with cars: the Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10) moving east-west; Route 101 and the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405) travelling north-south. Not to mention the Boulevards, the wide streets that spread a network of asphalt across the 503 square miles of this Southern-California city.

View of Downtown LA from Hollywood © CC BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia Commons
View of Downtown LA from Hollywood
© CC BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia Commons

Some 30 years later though, Los Angeles is not quite the fun drive in a convertible with the top down that it was. The people remain the same – optimistic, beautiful, full of ideas and talents, perhaps a little bit mad, as those from the East Coast and snobby San Franciscans would have it – but the freeways are slower, the transit across town more fraught, making those would-be captains of the entertainment world forced to slow down. Reducing the city to freeways, though, is to miss the many cultural plusses that LA now offers. But if you are going to savor many of the delights of the Greater Los Angeles Area, you are going to have to drive.

Once the free-wheeling inhabitants of a sprawling beach town with large open spaces ideal for film sets, Angelenos have worked hard over the past 30 years to diversify their arts and develop a cultural world outside the film industry to as high a level as their energy and money allow. As might be expected, the city’s cultural strong points are in performance and the visual arts. Downtown offers the most sophisticated in performance. The long established Performing Arts Center now comprises 11 venues, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion which houses the LA Opera, the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theater, presenting theater acted and produced by some of the best actors the area can provide. And that’s a lot of actors.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion © Visitor 7 | Wikimedia Commons
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
© Visitor 7 | Wikimedia Commons

LA Opera has been under the artistic direction of Plácido Domingo since 2003 and, with impeccable taste, he and Music Director James Conlon have presented adventurous opera programming, lifting the company to international stature. Their program has them mounting new operas, such as the lovely Il Postino, composed by Mexican-born Daniel Catán, retrieving lost works, like those presented in the ongoing “Recovered Voices” series which presents operas by composers lost in the Holocaust, and developing educational and community programs. Domingo has done much to promote Spanish-speaking singers and music professionals, a logical choice for this city, where a whopping 47% of the population is Hispanic or Latino.

The theater in the Performing Center is professional and high profile. But excellent theater can be found outside this bastion of theatrical success. Much of the LA area, from Downtown to the Westside, is laced with black box theaters, where professional actors can practice their chops while waiting for the next high-paying film gig. These under-100-seat houses can waive the strictures of the actors’ union and present some dynamite theater. Much of what is happening in the LA arts scene is listed in the ever-present LA Weekly, the free newspaper that lists events and noses around for the radical and rambunctious.

Disney Concert Hall © Carol Highsmith | Wikimedia Commons
Disney Concert Hall
© Carol Highsmith | Wikimedia Commons

Sitting next door and part of the Center is the stainless steel–surfaced Walt Disney Concert Hall and the REDCAT Theater, initially financed by Lillian Disney and designed by architect Frank Gehry in ultra-modern reflective glory. Impressive from the outside, its acoustics were designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and have been lauded by everyone from audience members to critics to musicians. The hall has a concert organ, also lavishly designed by Gehry in consultation with organ and tonal designer Manuel Rosales. The Concert Hall is now home to the LA Phil, currently led by Gustavo Dudamel. Composer John Adams is the Creative Chair of the Symphony, and Esa-Pekka Salonen is Conductor Laureate. More crème de la crème.

LACMA © Fiona Karlin
© Fiona Karlin

Visual arts are spread far and wide throughout the many museums of Los Angeles. From LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) on the Miracle Mile to the MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), in its three locations across the city. Los Angeles has oodles of museums from the arcane to the obvious. Overlooking them all is the Getty Center, which is home to the Getty Trust as well its Museum, perched in the hills on North Sepulveda Boulevard, amid the Central Garden, created by artist Robert Irwin. The noted artist’s 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and walkway, but the entire garden complex is in constant flux, offering over 500 plant species in changing designs and redesigns. The Center provides not only exhibitions, both permanent and changing, but public art programs and events. It is also a major arts and conservation research center, and wields an enviable budget to purchase just about anything its directors see fit to acquire. Medieval illuminated manuscripts form one of its most desirable collections.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology © Jennifer Bastian | Wikimedia Commons
The Museum of Jurassic Technology
© Jennifer Bastian | Wikimedia Commons

As grand and fabulous as the Center and the larger museums of LA are, my personal LA favorite is a tiny museum located along a long disheartening strip of Venice Boulevard in Culver City. In a tiny hole-in-the-wall venue, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, founded by David and Diana Wilson in 1988, offers its eccentric and amusing exhibitions. The exhibitions detail and exquisitely devise histories of mostly spurious eccentric individuals, arts and events. Among them: “Fruit Stone Carving” and “Lives of Perfect Creatures: Dogs of the Soviet Space Program.” Its website opens with the following quotation: “... guided along as it were a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.” Of course, the museum is a piece of art, a dream museum to celebrate and to mock our predilections to acquire and exalt human expression; to squint ironically at the museum tradition and to valorize the eccentric, placing everything wild and unfathomable onto a spectrum of delight. 

Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo © Nandaro | Wikimedia Commons
Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo
© Nandaro | Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to the changing cultural centers of LA, the ethnic neighborhoods hold their own, providing a mix of activities and cuisines that is distinctly Californian. With its large Asian communities and its larger Hispanic communities, LA offers a blend of ideas and beliefs stretching far beyond most of the US. It’s still possible to order great dim sum in Chinatown and stroll among the antique shops, where merchants weigh their gold jewelry to determine the price of a ring or earrings. Little Tokyo offers the Japanese American National Museum, beautiful gardens and divine sushi. Olvera Street, the block-long Mexican marketplace, has its annual Day of the Dead celebration and locals are encouraged to build their own altar and children to take workshops in mask-making and flower painting. Piñatas are broken and processions held, all celebrating memories of the dead and beloved.

Finally, culture in LA means its beach culture. The long wide stretches of white sands that stretch along the Pacific coast, where everyone gathers on a sunny weekend to see and be seen, to rollerskate and play volleyball, to board surf and body surf in the sea, which is almost always benign and warm. The boardwalk from Santa Monica to Marina del Rey is a happening place. Buskers juggle chainsaws and tell outrageously politically incorrect jokes. Guys in thongs flex their muscles at Muscle Beach. It’s all a show. It’s all LA. I love it.