5 Criminally Underrated Things About LA

“I’ll tell you one wonderful thing about LA, Phil…it’s not Buffalo.”
– Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger

LA has many problems. And you hear about them constantly from people who live there and from people who don’t. It’s too spread out, it has too much traffic, the weather is too good.

Ugh. It’s insufferable…even when I’ve caught myself thinking it.

That stuff might even be true, but the deeper truth is this: if LA fixed all those things, no one could afford to live there. Besides, they’re missing a few things. All that criticism is true, but the retort is clear: LA has a handful of things that no other city in the world has. I won’t even call those things hidden gems–because they aren’t. They’re right there. You’re just missing them.

Here are the most blatantly overlooked and criminally underrated parts of LA (if you want anymore, try reading a book) based on almost a decade of living there on and off).

1. Los Angeles Athletic Club

Los Angeles Athletic Club
Los Angeles Athletic Club

I would live in this building if I could (Charlie Chaplin used to anyway). In fact, over the last few years I have on extended occasion. It is, in my view, the single greatest gym and private club in America…and it costs like $100 a month (and for another $30 you get free parking downtown). Built in the early 1900s, founded in 1888, it’s a vision of LA when downtown was an actual city. As a gym, it’s got an amazing lap pool–12 feet deep with a viewing window below. Most of the members are quite old so there are no ‘roided out dudes. The basketball court and raised track are awesome. The food is good. The bar upstairs is great and has free food for Monday Night Football. And honestly, if you don’t feel like going home, their Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas brunches are basically just as good or better than what your family would cook.

And I’m leaving a bunch of other stuff out. It’s the home of the Wooden Award (which I saw an old man knock over one time). It’s got a beautiful roof with sweeping views of downtown. The hotel costs like $140 a night for members and is better than The Standard. The staff is super cool. I would go on and on about how amazing this place is but you would start to question my sanity and not listen to my other thoughts. Just trust me, it’s great. Seriously, if you haven’t been here, you don’t get to complain about LA not having history or culture.

2. The Original Pantry

Sam Howzit
Sam Howzit

God, the Pantry is good. So good that it’s never closed…since 1923. Literally, the doors do not have locks on them. How cool is that? I’ll give you one complaint–every single time the waiters try to caution me that two sides of bacon is ten pieces. Like that wasn’t why I ordered it in the first place. But most of them have worked there like 50 years so maybe I’m the one guy who doesn’t have a problem with this. And if you don’t feel like the Pantry, well there is Langer’s (which is better than Katz’s) and Musso and Franks.

3. Stairs

Mt. Rubidoux/ image by JAMES MARQUEZ
Mt. Rubidoux/ image by JAMES MARQUEZ

This seems like a weird thing to love about a city but if you ever like to run stairs, LA is your city. You can run the Music Box Steps (from the Laurel and Hardy movie), there’s the Santa Monica Stairs, the Edendale Stairs (my favorite), Mt. Rubidoux in Riverside (I know it’s an hour away but it’s great). Huffington Post has a really good list of them. And if you don’t want to actually run the stairs, there are plenty of hills–windy, straight, steep, gradual–that offer the same benefits. You probably think LA is flat, but it’s got better hills and stairs for running than San Francisco and that is a fucking fact. I’ve run all over the world and there is not another place that gives you this kind of variety or views–ocean (sometimes all the way to Catalina Island), downtown, the mountains, the desert, everything. The only place I’ve been as blown away by the stairs is at the Schlossberg Castle steps, which a young Arnold Schwarzenegger used to train on. But they’ve had a couple hundred-year head start.

4. Lakes (well, water, generally)

Echo Park / Cynthinee
Echo Park / image by Cynthinee

LA is the city without a river, but for some reason it has great lakes. Like lakes right in the middle of a goddamn city. And nobody appreciates them. Silverlake, Echo Park Lake (now re-done), MacArthur Park Lake, Franklin Canyon Reservoir. Where this water is stolen from, I have no idea, but it’s nice. Sure, you could say these aren’t lakes, that they are more like ponds, but nobody cares what you think. These are accessible, walkable bodies of water that despite being beautiful enough to warrant casting in countless movies, you can grab an apartment nearby for like $1,000 a month. Running around the Silver Lake Reservoir at night is amazing–completed by the haunting effect of the glowing coyote eyes just behind the fence. Echo Park Lake with its lotus flowers and boathouse feels like it has existed for nearly a hundred years (though the beautifully framed view of Downtown’s skyscrapers is slightly newer). I was once just a half second away from jumping into MacArthur Park Lake to save a scared dog that had just been hit by a car and honestly, even though it would have been disgusting, I almost regret I didn’t get to. Plus if you ever need a fake ID, there are plenty of people there to help you.

And now with a billion dollar plan to rebuild the LA River, the city is going to have even nicer waterfronts. Though a long-time secret for residents has been that the LA River has already begun to reclaim the concrete and turn it back into actual nature. Like, you can actually kayak in that thing now (a smart man would buy property over there because it’s going to go through the roof). Oh yeah, there is ocean too.

5. Fiction

John Fante/  image by Afag Azizova
John Fante/ image by Afag Azizova

LA doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its greatness as a home of fiction. There was John Fante, LA’s F. Scott Fitzgerald. Despite writing multiple classics on the city, all he gets is a lame “square” named after him downtown. There was Raymond Chandler, who not only wrote about LA, but lived in essentially every inch of it (some 24 different homes). You can’t pick up one of his Philip Marlowe novels and not see a different side or different piece of the history of this city. There was Upton Sinclair, who lived in LA in a house that is now a historical monument while writing some of his later books. One of his most famous books, Oil!–which inspired There Will Be Blood–was set in Southern California and fictionalized LA’s most notorious robber baron: Edward Doheny. And of course I am not giving nearly enough credits to a bunch of other greats: James Ellroy, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Bukowski. He’s not a fiction writer but Carey McWilliams, former Echo Park resident, deserves a mention here too because he is that goddamn good and important. One city inspired and cultivated all these greats…and you wanted to move to the East Coast to be a writer…Are you an idiot?

I know this list is probably missing a bunch of other stuff. LA has totally unique architecture. Griffith Park is a delight. Surprisingly good food. But this is a five item list–and choices had to be made.

The point is this: I would live in LA again in a heartbeat before I moved back to New York. And the most amazing things about the things above? For some reason, they taste all the sweeter when you’re visiting instead of residing.

So whether you’re on vacation, in town for pilot’s season or moving there from some exciting, youthful but misguided reason, go experience these parts of LA. They’ll make up for the bad stuff. I promise.

And if you are a resident and you’re mad that I just gave away some of the secrets? Well, you’re part of the problem. You should be shouting the praises of these places. They deserve it.

Enjoy! TC mark

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Image Credit: John Fante/ image by Afag Azizova

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