Freshmen get an intensive one-week education on USC and the surrounding community as a part of their orientation to campus. But unfortunately for students, there’s no Welcome Week for Los Angeles. Many of us only know Los Angeles as it is portrayed in pop culture, and even within that realm there is such a diversity of representations. Some of us might see Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre as symbols of Los Angeles. Others might think of Paris and Perez Hilton, while others might think of Kobe Bryant or Gustavo Dudamel. The city has a knack for producing world-famous cultural figures, but it can be difficult to get an unadulterated view of the city’s authentic culture.
The culture of the stage and the culture of the streets are quite different things. Luckily, there is another, far less publicized and free USC service that may bring one even closer to the city’s elusive cultural identity: the Union Station-UPC bus service. Here’s a breakdown of its stops and some awesome places that you can get to:
The brief ride departs from the corner of West 34th Street and Trousdale Parkway and also picks up at 34th Street and McClintock, and goes straight to the Union Station Bus depot, which is an oasis of flowers and Jerusalem stone amid the harsh industrial blocks east of the tracks. Two curving staircases lead into a long tunnel that accesses the Metro Rail, Metrolink and Amtrak platforms. A fast-paced walk through the tunnel offers an overwhelming tableau of city’s diversity: rich, poor, commuters, families and people of all races and ages hurrying to get somewhere by a means that is decidedly un-L.A.
The tunnel ends at Union Station itself, the famous art deco structure with Spanish-style detailing. It is a very small structure, indicative of L.A.’s historic relationship with public transit. Homeless people are everywhere, inside and outside of the station, and some might even offer to sell you a beer after commenting on your USC T-shirt.
Across the street from the station is the micro-neighborhood known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Essentially Los Angeles’ oldest neighborhood, it is currently a kitschy tourist attraction. El Pueblo, however, and its main thoroughfare, Olvera Street, represent a side of the city that is often overlooked in popular culture: The side that existed before the Warner Brothers. It was a sleepier Los Angeles, a center of agriculture and commerce, where being at the forefront of contemporary aesthetics was not a major concern. That old-fashioned spirit still exists on Olvera Street, where the charming old buildings make no airs about being hip. Families stroll down Olvera Street, eating churros and examining the plastic wares of the street vendors. This little neighborhood, so utterly lacking in the glitz and irony of twenty-first century life, is unsurprisingly surrounded by large parking lots and pedestrian-unfriendly streets. In such areas, certain L.A. stereotypes may come to mind, like the city’s drab strip mall architecture or its dehumanizing car culture. But these streets quickly give way to the pitched roofs and bronze lions of Chinatown.
Like El Pueblo, Chinatown is a sort of civic symbol, a reminder that the real Los Angeles is about so much more than TMZ glamour. The neighborhood feels gritty and mysterious, perhaps because its community is underrepresented in media that depicts Los Angeles. Many of the ornate buildings house restaurants, apothecaries and markets. The streets, however, are relatively quiet, given the recent exodus of the Chinatown community to Alhambra and other points east.
In both neighborhoods, Metro buses are a surprisingly frequent sight. Eventually, “America’s largest clean-air fleet” becomes a believable slogan. Most Metro lines originate and terminate at the farther reaches of the metropolis, but they cross Downtown along the way and will take you just about anywhere. Rides are very slow and cost $1.50, but there may be no better place to immerse oneself in such an authentic facet of L.A. culture.
One ride from Chinatown to Glendale revealed that there is a special camaraderie when Angelenos get out of their cars and interact with one another. During the course of a one-hour ride, two people lent bus fare to complete strangers, a number of riders had lengthy conversations with the driver and a young woman with a baby held court, allowing other riders to play with her child. The bus’ two small screens broadcast Transit TV — part advertising network, part Metro propaganda — which added another interesting layer to the scene.
What do these somewhat unconventional L.A. locales and experiences tell us about the city’s culture? Perhaps that places which may seem ugly, old or impoverished are, in fact, full of a vivacity and authenticity that a neighborhood such as, say, Westwood, could never muster. There seems to be a special kind of togetherness that develops in a place of such dramatic scale and reputation. The slowness of the bus and the drabness of the streetscape create a unique dynamic in which people and their behavior can become the primary focus of the cityscape. Perhaps this emphasis on human interaction has helped to make Los Angeles the center of popular culture as it strives to represent human interaction in an entertaining way. There is far more to see and experience here than MTV would lead one to believe. The best thing about it? It’s all only a free shuttle ride away.