Archive for February, 2018

Paris of the Pacific tour

February 26th, 2018


Photo of ships in San Francisco’s harbor circa 1850 from Wikipedia. Used under public domain.
 

Yesterday afternoon I took a San Francisco City Guides tour I’d never heard of before titled 1850′s San Francisco: Paris of the Pacific. This relatively new tour meets at the same place as the Gold Rush City tour, and compliments it in an unexpected way. Like all City Guides tours it’s 100% free and led by volunteer guides.

Whereas the Gold Rush City tour largely focuses on the crowd of Americans coming west in search of gold, the Paris of the Pacific tour highlights a parallel story. When a French spy in Monterey got wind of the discovery of gold in California he tipped off folks in his home country.

Why was there a French spy in Monterey? Turns out New Spain/Mexico’s weak grip on California was an open secret, and France had an interest in colonizing the territory. While French troops never invaded, French citizens invaded with the most American pastime of them all: business.

Thanks to the tenuous political situation in France at the time with Napoleon III as well as food shortages all over Europe, a number of wealthy French aristocrats and savvy business types chartered a ship and sailed to San Francisco. Unlike their peers from the US, the French immigrants to California weren’t interested in seeking out gold directly. Instead they operated businesses catering to gold seekers including bars, casinos, and brothels.

If you’d arrived via ship in San Francisco in the 1850′s you probably would have disembarked at or near the Commercial Street pier, which led directly to San Francisco’s French Quarter, meeting French-speaking people and their businesses in the area.

While little remains of the French Quarter, the direct French influence in San Francisco continues to this day. Isidore Boudin started his Boudin Bakery during the Gold Rush. The Notre Dame Des Victoires church near Chinatown began shortly after the Gold Rush as well.

But the influence of those early French settlers in San Francisco goes deeper. Importers bought in goods from France including clothing and alcohol, and the first restaurants in the area were operated by French chefs. To this day if you want to dine out lavishly in San Francisco there’s a good chance you’ll visit a French restaurant, if not a French-inspired one.

Department stores selling imported French goods lasted from the mid 19th century up until the mid to late 20th century in San Francisco. Some relics of these stores still exist if you know where to look. And where would those be? You’ll have to take the tour yourself to find out.

What we’ll all miss about Virgin America

February 22nd, 2018

On my flight home from LAX on Virgin America, one passenger seemed to panic when an aircraft sporting Alaska Airlines livery pulled up to the gate. I’m sure he knew the deal — Virgin America was acquired by Alaska Airlines and the former’s brand will be retired this April.

The woman working the gate overcame the passenger’s objection (and repeated this almost verbatim to several other passengers a few minutes later) by saying “don’t worry, the outside of the plane has been repainted but everything inside is still the same with the mood lighting and we’ll still play the video.” You know something’s wrong when a company’s own employees are effectively saying “no, it doesn’t suck — yet” to temporarily reassure their customers.

The video she referred to is the pre-flight safety video Virgin America has been showing for many years, which you can watch here:


 

It’s an effective video because it serves two purposes — to educate passengers about what they’re required to know in a memorable way, and to project Virgin America’s fun image. To think passengers may complain if they don’t show the video tells you something about the strength of Virgin America’s brand.

What do people even think about Alaska Airlines, aside from the Eskimo guy on the tail? Apparently not much. On the other hand, everyone seems to know that Virgin America safety video. When it first premiered Ellen had the original dancers perform a short version on her show. The employees seem to like it, especially this flight attendant working himself into a sweat dancing along.

Video game streamers know it too, just watch this clip of a couple guys playing Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time while singing it. One viewer of their channel went so far as to take their vocals and re-dub them over the original video to hilarious effect.

Virgin America doesn’t fly outside the US and Mexico, but that didn’t stop a group of students in Taiwan from making their own version of the video. Or a dance school in Australia from making theirs as well.

None of which is to say the video was the sole reason Virgin America is a great brand, it’s just an easy example of fandom that would otherwise be difficult to measure. When you take Virgin America’s mood lighting, friendly service, reasonable prices, timeliness, cleanliness, excellent entertainment options, surprisingly decent food, and add that all together… well it’s clearly greater than the sum of its parts. Their impeccable safety record doesn’t hurt either.

I guess my point is I don’t see why Virgin America’s fans would stick around — and there seem to be many of us — unless Alaska Airlines learns to “live it all up in the sky.”

View from Griffith Observatory

February 21st, 2018

Griffith Observatory
 

Before leaving Los Angeles last night I figured I had to take one last look at the city. Although Griffith Observatory was technically closed, the area around it was as open as ever.

According to everyone I spoke with the main attraction is not the observatory itself, but rather the view from the area on the hill around it. So it didn’t bother me that the observatory was closed, but the DASH bus service up to it was concerning. Not only did it run infrequently but I’d barely heard of DASH before. As it turns out my concerns were unwarranted — DASH service runs in weird spots, costs very little, and they accept LA Metro’s TAP card as payment. Not knowing this I paid far more for a Lyft ride up to the top of the hill.

Griffith Observatory
 

From the hill on Griffith Observatory one can easily spot many landmarks. The Hollywood sign is in the distance, as is downtown Los Angeles. On the way up the hill I began to worry about the views — the city had become engulfed in clouds. Yet from such a high vantage point, those clouds only served to frame the city down below as an contrast to the weather patterns above.

As a T-Mobile subscriber I’m used to the occasional odd spot where there’s no coverage. Griffith Observatory proved to be one of such spots; at first I wondered if it would be best to wait for the DASH bus down the hill, but eventually I discovered that even while closed, Griffith Observatory provides a free wifi hotspot. Using this I requested a Lyft from there to LAX. It’s a long ride but my driver was cool about it. Better for him than those short, cheap rides anyway.

LA’s Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown

February 21st, 2018

Los Angeles has three Asian neighborhoods you’ll find on the map, and I decided to give them all a visit. For starters I booked a tour of Chinatown and Little Tokyo from Downtown LA Walking Tours (same company that runs the Haunted Tales tour.)

New Chinatown, LA
New Chinatown, LA New Chinatown, LA
 

The tour started in Chinatown, where the central plaza was covered in confetti from the previous night’s celebration of Chinese New Year. A group of janitors were out trying to clean it up and fish it out of the fountains, but the wind wasn’t being terribly cooperative. It was pretty dead in the area as it was not only Monday morning but also President’s Day.

This is technically New Chinatown, as the original Chinatown was located where Union Station is today. For a variety of reasons it had fallen into decline, and was moved to the previous site of Little Italy after most of the Italian community had migrated away to the suburbs. To say ethnic minorities weren’t treated well in America back in the day would be a huge understatement. Although significantly smaller than San Francisco’s Chinatown, both were given a stereotypical Chinese-ish theme that looks like something you’d find at Epcot in Disney World.

Various movies have been filmed there including Chinatown (well, duh) and more recently Rush Hour.

Going back to the theme, a new modern looking housing development nearby had some elements of theming including hanging lanterns and a color scheme dominated by the color red. Sure it’s whimsical but it felt like a tasteful departure from the older parts of Chinatown.

New Chinatown, LA
 

One last thing before moving on — Bruce Lee fans will appreciate the statue in his honor located in Chinatown.

The tour then boarded a Gold Line train on LA’s Metro. We only went two stops so you could probably do this on foot without much trouble. Then again, Metro tickets are relatively cheap.

Little Tokyo
Little Tokyo Little Tokyo
 

Little Tokyo seemed more varied than Chinatown, with a museum, a Buddhist temple, a couple of shopping centers, and various public art including the “Friendship Knot” of two metal poles tied together. That said my tour guide’s wife was Japanese and he clearly knew more about Japan’s culture as a result — perhaps we skipped some obscure but interesting parts of Chinatown.

One interesting takeaway from the tour is Los Angeles is the birthplace of mochi ice cream. These balls of ice cream wrapped in a rice-based dough are now sold in grocery stores across the country, but were once an unusual fusion cuisine you’d only find in LA.

Little Tokyo
 

A model of a Space Shuttle isn’t something I would have expected to see in Little Tokyo, but it’s not just any Space Shuttle — it’s the Challenger, which exploded seconds after launching, killing everyone on board. Among the seven dead was Ellison Onizuka, an Air Force test pilot who became the very first Japanese-American astronaut.

I realize that’s a depressing note to end the tour on, but I can’t go into detail on the final stop because it’s a secret location. Sorry about that — you’ll have to go on the tour yourself to find out, but trust me it’s a tranquil and unexpected place you’re extraordinarily unlikely to find on your own.

Koreatown
Koreatown Koreatown
 

I asked the tour guide about Koreatown. He suggested taking a bus or car ride as it’s pretty far from Little Tokyo. His advice was completely on the mark; I took the Metro’s Red Line subway and it still involved a fair amount of walking to get to the heart of Koreatown.

Unlike Chinatown and Little Tokyo there’s virtual no theming to Koreatown. It’s a typical LA neighborhood near downtown with a weird mix of large and small buildings. You know you’re in the right place when you find people speaking Korean, see Korean writing on various buildings, the occasional Korean flag, and of course many Korean restaurants. Unfortunately being a holiday and a Monday not much of this was open.

Koreatown’s architectural styles vary wildly and large churches/temples fill the area more than anywhere else I found in Los Angeles. It was early in the afternoon by this point and I needed a coffee — which wasn’t hard to come by at all. There was also a lot of construction going on.

As I wandered eastward out of Koreatown I wound up in MacArthur Park. The west half of the park seemed fine with kids playing soccer and such. But heading to the east side there were some sketchy dealings going down. I requested a Lyft out of there and it couldn’t have come soon enough.

Barnsdall Art Park and a curious encounter with the legacy of L. Ron Hubbard

February 19th, 2018

View from Barnsdall Art Park
 

Once I’d finished sipping my little cup of espresso at Blue Bottle, I hopped on another bus; this time to Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood. It’s a unusual park on the top of a hill, featuring a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright.

There’s a not particularly large patch of lawn outside the fence around the house though it seems to be a hot spot for young couples to sunbathe and picnic. The best feature of the park is the view. On one side you can see Griffith Observatory and the iconic Hollywood sign in the distance.

On the other side of the park you can make out the top of the big blue Scientology building with the gold cross thing on the top. It’s a little hard to see as there are a few trees in the way, but it’s unmistakably the back of their Fountain Avenue building.

After leaving Barnsdall Art Park I had to make a choice — soldier on to Griffith Park, or head back downtown. Ultimately my legs were getting tired so I went with the latter and headed to the Metro’s nearby Red Line station. As I took the second escalator I noticed something out of the corner of my eye — a small book or pamphlet with an oddly cult-like design on the front. Thinking quickly as the escalator descended downward I reached back and grabbed it.

The little book turned out to be The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living by (who else?) L. Ron Hubbard. In that spontaneous moment I felt the universe winking at me, as though someone had left this artifact for me and me alone to discover.

"The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living" by L. Ron Hubbard
 

The cover features what appears to be an oil painting of a path through greenery leading to a sunrise in a relatively clear sky, with the ridiculous long title floating among the clouds. It’s truly the stuff of nightmares for any competent graphic designer.

On the back cover is a sort of reverse warning, a claim that the book presents a completely secular moral code, presumably there to disavow any connection with Scientology, and claims to be “based wholly on common sense.” Do people need common sense explained to them? Apparently L. Ron Hubbard thought so.

Whereas the Ten Commandments managed to sum up a moral code with only ten bullet points (well, sort of) Hubbard needed twenty one items in his list with detailed short essays for each and often multiple subheadings. Say what you will about the man, brevity wasn’t his strong suit.

Hubbard goes so far as to provide definitions of many words he uses in footnotes, even rather simple words such as “example” and “practice” where it’s unclear how someone would be able to understand the definitions but not the words themselves. This concept comes directly from Scientology’s Study Tech which places an emphasis on readers understanding words correctly. While building your vocabulary is a pursuit most of us agree upon, Hubbard’s insistence that it’s always the reader’s fault for not understanding written text is awfully convenient for authors such as himself; it provides a form of inerrancy where authors cannot be wrong, only readers for misunderstanding written text.

As for the advice in the book, most of it seems pretty reasonable. Don’t harm others, brush your teeth, follow the golden rule, set a good example for others, etc. That said much of the advice is weirdly specific and seems purely reactionary to events Hubbard himself despised such as the rise of Communism and the American hippie counterculture movement.

For a book about common sense it contains two sections that are absolutely shocking. First, in section eighteen titled “Respect the religious beliefs of others” it starts out preaching tolerance, but by the end swings in the opposite direction instructing readers not to respect atheists and agnostics. To call this section self-serving for a man who started his own cult (with the express purpose of profiteering) self-serving would be a massive understatement.

Second, the book’s first full page titled “How to use this book” instructs the reader not only to give the book to a friend who needs the advice, but to order additional copies and give them to that friend so they can distribute them to others. This is a classic pyramid scheme.

But in the end, you know what the best part is? Scientology’s lawyers cannot threaten to sue me for any of these criticisms. After all, this book is completely secular and therefore unrelated to Scientology in any way.

The Echo Park Time Travel Mart

February 19th, 2018

The Echo Park Time Travel Mart
The Echo Park Time Travel Mart The Echo Park Time Travel Mart The Echo Park Time Travel Mart The Echo Park Time Travel Mart
 

After spending the morning gorging myself on a food tour, I plopped my bloated ass down on a bus seat for a ride to the Echo Park neighborhood so I could visit a store aimed at time travelers.

The Echo Park Time Travel Mart sells items for a variety of time traveling use cases, such as a Viking odorant (the opposite of deodorant), a device for disabling evil robots (a magnet), soap from the Soviet Union, a gel that prevents cloning (the shopkeeper explained it must work because he uses it and there’s only one of him), as well as robot milk which is inexplicably some type of powder.

Now, obviously there’s an ulterior motive at work here. The store is a front for a local branch of children’s writing workshop 826, also known as the people who run the pirate store in San Francisco at 826 Valencia Street.

In exchange for a purchase and small donation, I was allowed to spin The Wheel of Fortunes. Apparently a lot of candy will be coming my way tomorrow!

Before leaving for the Blue Bottle next door, I was encouraged to step into the garden in the storefront, which was built for its photogenic properties.

The Last Bookstore

February 18th, 2018

The Last Bookstore
 

Late this evening I stumbled into The Last Bookstore, a large downtown LA store selling books as well as music, DVDs, and various other items. Much of the store was somewhat inaccessible due to author Rowan Blanchard speaking about her new book. This took up most of the main floor thanks to a sizable audience — a good thing for the store but it also meant I couldn’t explore all the shelves.

Their selection goes all over the map; including classics, books on LA and California (several books on Oakland caught my eye) and even photography coffee table books which had their own separate room.

The place is immaculate and mostly well organized, though some mischievous acts led me to discover unexpected books. For example on a shelf of new books about entertainment I found a used copy of Max Headroom’s Guide to Life from 1986. It’s a silly book and doesn’t attempt to reproduce Max’s digital stutter (how could you in book form, really?) but does a decent job of replicating his arrogant ignorance.

Mostly I was glad to find a late night reprieve of the insanity on the streets from the NBA All Stars game. What kind of bookstore is open late? The Last Bookstore is your answer. I was glad to stumble in and find this quirky LA landmark. It served as a welcome reprieve from the chaos on the streets outside.

Haunted Tales tour from Downtown LA Walking Tours

February 18th, 2018

Pico House, Los Angeles
 

This evening I took the Haunted Tales tour from Downtown LA Walking Tours. Their website kind of spoils many of the locations — but it also undersells the tour.

First problem: all the photos of buildings and locations were taking during the day, yet this is a night tour. Everything looks creepier at night so why show the daylight photos? Second, while it mentions “parental guidance” regarding “graphics…” that’s not exactly accurate. Let’s just say this tour probably shouldn’t be offered for kids.

Of all the haunted tours I’ve been on this one really kicks things up a notch and there’s a pretty simple reason for that; California has had some horrific acts over the past 50 years or so and downtown LA was ground zero for many of them. Unlike events from way back when, modern forensics leaves much less room for doubt even when someone isn’t found guilty (spoiler alert: OJ Simpson is mentioned a few times.)

I don’t want to spoil this last bit because the tour’s website doesn’t mention it, and I don’t mean to make light of sad and tragic events, but a certain hotel on the tour was the base of operations for two serial killers and also a relatively recent case where a woman disappeared only to be found dead in the hotel under mysterious circumstances. You’ve probably heard of these cases but had no idea they occurred in the same building — which by the way is currently closed. Turns out that sometimes bad publicity is still bad publicity.
 

My recommendation: This tour ratchets up the concept of a haunted tour by including terrifying events in recent history as well as in the past. I found it fascinating but would not recommend bringing young children as newspaper photos of dismembered bodies and faces are shown.

Historic downtown LA walking tour

February 18th, 2018

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

I spent the morning on a long walk through downtown Los Angeles on LA Conservancy’s Historic Downtown Walking Tour. I won’t go over everything on the tour, but I’ll cover a few stops I found interesting.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

The Central Library is actually two buildings glued together, and aside from books and such it’s also home to a variety of permanent and rotating art. The LA Conservancy helped prevent the stately old library from being torn down, although it was too late to save the interior due to a fire. See also the photo at the top of the post.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

One Bunker Hill, aka the Southern California Edison Company Building, is an art deco masterpiece that was also the first building in LA to feature air conditioning. Thankfully, it still does. The building’s land was owned by Henry Huntington who was involved with SoCal Edison among other businesses. And where did he get the money for financing these projects? From one of San Francisco’s railway robber barons, his uncle Collis P. Huntington.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

Angel’s Flight is known as the world’s shortest railway, intended to get lazy people up and down Bunker Hill. It raises some interesting questions, or rather one question really — why didn’t they just build an elevator? I suspect the answer is people will pay for train rides but would balk at paying for a very short elevator trip.

Confession: since it’s cash only and I don’t like bothering with paper (their claim to accept TAP cards is a bold faced lie) I skipped the ride and took the stairs instead.
 

I didn’t get any photos but the Grand Central Market is your typical foodie mecca selling everything from raw ingredients to freshly made cuisine. It’s pretty similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike’s Place in Seattle, etc. Bringing the tour through here at lunch time was a poor choice as we lost a couple hungry tourists. I came back after the tour for lunch myself. Finding good food was easy, finding a table was not. Finding a chair was even harder — I eventually gave up and ate while standing.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

Last but definitely not least is the Bradbury Building. Also known as “hey it’s that building from Blade Runner!” The iron work in the building was reclaimed from a World’s Fair exhibition. Today tourists are only allowed on the first two floors and not in the elevators as the offices are still actively used. Many of them appeared to be empty, presumably because workers got sick of answering questions about Replicants.

There’s a patio on one side of the building with a wall detailing the life of Biddy Mason, a slave who’s owners moved to California. Mason realized being a slave in a free state made no sense and successfully freed herself through the court system, then took up work as a midwife. Her former home was located nearby on the site of what is now (to the surprise of no one who’s ever spent time in Los Angeles) a parking garage.
 

My recommendation: If you like architecture and public art and don’t know downtown LA (that’s me!) this tour’s a good fit. Be forewarned it’s more strenuous than your average walking tour. A few older folks in the crowd were having trouble keeping up at times.

Museum of Jurassic Technology

February 17th, 2018

Museum of Jurassic Technology
 

Over the past few years I’ve told pretty much anyone who’ll listen about my fascination with the type of real life interactive adventures from the likes of Nonchanance, including their Jejune Institute, Elsewhere Public Works, The Latitude, etc. [citation NOT needed] and every now and then someone responds by telling me about this oddball thing in LA County called the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

From Venice I took a reasonably fast 30 minute bus ride (good thing I’d ordered and pre-loaded my TAP Card in advance) down Venice Boulevard to this strange museum in Culver City.

After buying your ticket — technically it’s a donation — there’s no prescribed order to the museum, but if you enter the exhibit area and make an immediate left there’s a TV screen which shows a video at the press of a button explaining what you’re about to see… sort of. It starts off in a long-winded explanation of the history of museums, then finally hones in on the (fictional) history of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

It’s worth noting here the word “Jurassic” is intentionally nonsensical; once you get past this the meanings of the exhibits start to fall into place. Nothing here is at it seems, and furthermore it’s all a series of stories that parody the very concept of a museum.

I don’t want to spoil too much because it’s sort of against the rules (no photos are allowed) but I’ll describe some of my favorite exhibits in my own words.

  • A pair of western scientists explore a “savage” people’s demonic experiences only to find the phenomenon is the result of a species of unusual bats.
  • A room full of paintings of dogs pays tribute to each dog in the Soviet space program.
  • An exhibit of early 20th century motor homes inexplicably compares them to Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Eden.
  • An ordinary stairway features dioramas of staircases.
  • A series of “cat’s cradle” string manipulations is treated as a major exhibit across two rooms with interactive exhibits.

This “museum” originally opened in the late 1980′s and has expanded since then according to one repeat visitor I spoke with. Some of the exhibits were not operational during my visit, though despite spending over an hour and a half I didn’t see or hear everything before it closed for the night. While I usually ignore museum gift shops, I wound up buying a book detailing the museum’s exhibits because it was just that good.
 

My recommendation: If you’ve ever read this blog you’re probably the target audience for people who enjoy subtly bizarre humor. This is the museum for people like us — by all means pay it a visit.