Another Angle on L.A. →

Aimee Bender · AFAR Magazine ·

I spent much of my childhood looking at Los Angeles through car windows. I grew up at the suburban edge of Santa Monica, and as one parent or the other toted me from ballet classes to piano lessons, I stared out at the gnarled coral trees, the serious drivers in other cars, the lit-up storefronts, and the endless traffic lights. It was a view of the city at a remove, not unlike the way most tourists encounter it when they first arrive, driving the web of freeways unsure where to go, enduring the legendary traffic as they gravitate toward the standard attractions featured in brochures, such as the Sunset Strip, Muscle Beach, and Disneyland. What they often see is the L.A. they know from TV and films–a city decked out in a spangly dress, serving drinks with tiny neon umbrellas to the throngs. Fun, playful, shallow.

I now live in the Hollywood area, and have for more than 12 years. After I finished grad school and returned to L.A., I wanted to live closer to the central part of the city (though L.A. notoriously has no center). But even here, in a neighborhood suited to walking, I still have to drive a lot. There are many pleasures to be derived from driving–cultivating the contemplative internal space that you experience while staring out those windows, listening to great NPR shows, and having total flexibility in your daily comings and goings. It is a form of freedom, a built-in four-wheeled escape, available at any moment.

But it also insulates you from the urban community. To really know L.A., you have to get out of your car. Stepping away from the wheel isn’t a natural impulse in a place so dominated by automobiles; more than 1,000 miles of electric streetcar railway crisscrossed Southern California for half a century, but it was all ripped up by the early ’60s. Now we have freeways. I had to be taught to appreciate L.A. sans car…