This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 3).
Welcome to Los Angeles! Drum corps fans visiting Pasadena will discover downtown Los Angeles is only a few miles away, easy to visit, compact and spectacularly entertaining (yet again, for free). Here, you will find the heart of the city. And yes, it does have a heart — after all, this is the City of the Angeles.
Experience LA’s history and scope by leaving your car in Pasadena and enjoying the short and scenic Metro Gold Line train ride to Union Station. From here you can take an easy walk in the north part of downtown.
Right across the street from Union Station you will find the heart and historic center of the city, including the oldest remaining home, a bustling Mexican market, tiny museums and great food. And for contrast, a short walk will bring you to two of the most contemporary — ok, wild — buildings in the United States, both completed in the past five years. And music is everywhere. This is the real city, not a fantasy version.
Here is a quick historic overview for a better understanding of what you’ll see and hear.
While other countries have cities that are thousands of years old, Los Angeles is a baby by world standards, at only 226 years young. In this short time it has been ruled by three different countries and is now the second largest city in the U.S., hosting the largest container shipping port in the nation.
Historical accounts of the U.S. often focus on New England, but remember, New France included the Mississippi, St. Lawrence and much of the Great Lakes regions. California was part of New Spain.
Before the Mayflower Pilgrims were born, Spanish explorers in 1542 arrived and claimed California for nearly 280 years. Los Angeles was born under Spanish rule more than a century before Pasadena was a city. LA’s 11 founding families came from Mexico and were of African, Indigenous and Spanish ancestry, reflecting three continents — truly a Colony of the World. No English was spoken here.
California became part of Mexico when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1822. About 26 years later, after the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded California to the United States. California became the 31st state in 1850.
With more than 300 years of Spanish and Mexican rule, compared to only 160 years as part of the U.S., Spanish is the second language of the city and state, and the Spanish and Mexican cultures are strong throughout.
Los Angeles remains a world microcosm, with an ethnically diverse population. The Los Angeles Unified School District reports that at least 92 different languages are spoken in the homes of its students.
Let’s explore this culturally diverse city by starting at the Spanish-inspired Union Station, where you’ve arrived in style on the Metro Gold Line train. This is the last of the great railway stations built in the United States. Completed in 1939, it is a masterpiece of Spanish Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne, designed like a temple to the people.
It was beautifully restored when locals refused to allow this grand dame to be torn down. Stroll through the waiting room and admire its elegant and majestic interior, its secluded side gardens and its birds of paradise (Los Angeles’ official flower). Imagine the many movie stars who strolled this same path. Exit the front door to Alameda Street and the exterior gardens.
Directly across the street is the true heart and historic birthplace of Los Angeles, El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Monument. This is the oldest part of the city and is beautifully restored. You will immediately see the center of the original town, the Old Plaza, with its ornate kiosk and a statue of Spain’s King Carlos III, the ruling monarch under whom the town was founded in 1781. The founding name was El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles sobre El Rio Porciuncula — The Town of the Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River.
Historic buildings surround the central plaza, including the oldest church in the city, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles (The Church of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels) (1822), the first firehouse (1884) and the Pico [boarding] House (1870). Free 45-minute tours depart from the front of the building next to the Old Plaza Firehouse, Tuesday through Saturday at 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM and noon.
On the south side of the plaza is the Chinese American Museum, in the last surviving building from the original Chinatown. This museum tells the story of the Chinese in America who, among other contributions, built much of the most treacherous mountain portions of the transcontinental railroad, an essential component in the country’s development.
On the north side of the plaza is the Instituto Cultural Mexicano and Olvera Street, one of the oldest streets in the city. It hosts an authentic Mexican marketplace, delicious eateries, the oldest remaining residence (Avila Adobe, 1818) and a boarding house that is now a visitor’s gallery (the Sepulveda House, 1887). Both residences are free museums, open every day.
Olvera Street remains a favorite cozy lunch and dinner place for office workers escaping the nearby highrises. We could spend all day at El Pueblo Monument, but there is more to see.
Walk south on Main Street, over the freeway to Temple Street, turn right and only a few blocks west is The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. This is the first cathedral built in the Western United States in 30 years. It has been controversial, in part because it does not remotely resemble a traditional cathedral and has no stained glass windows.
Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo designed the cathedral with a color reminiscent of the early California adobe missions and used thin, translucent alabaster stone in the windows to create an angelic light effect. His design also took advantage of modern technology, allowing an enormous, unobstructed area with no columns blocking views. There are few right angles in this building, which results in a more flowing interior.
Suspend judgment and experience the stunning architectural impact, the spine tingling organ and the spiritual vibrations. Visit on a Wednesday at 12:45 PM and enjoy a free organ concert demonstrating the magnificent Dobson Pipe Organ (from Lake City, IA). The six-story- high pipes must be seen, heard and felt.
Diagonally across the street is the Music Center. The Academy Awards were held here at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until 2000 and it is now home to the Los Angeles Opera, with Placido Domingo as general director. This center also includes two live theatres. In the center plaza, from the Peace on Earth sculpture and refreshing center fountain, look east to the white, majestic City Hall. It played a starring role in the movie “LA Confidential” and the TV show “Superman,” as the Daily Planet newspaper building.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is right across the street to the south. Is it a splashing wave or a tangled can that lost a fight with a can opener, or does it defy description? Decide for yourself. Take a self-guided tour of Frank O. Gehry’s moving structure (or is it a sculpture?) with an audio guide, available in the lobby.
Return to the Music Center fountain and cross the street heading toward City Hall. You will go down some steps to the Civic Center mall, a quiet pedestrian plaza between the Los Angeles Superior Court and the Hall of Administration. If you are visiting on a weekday, go into the Superior Court at Hill Street and up to the top floor cafeteria for a city view from the outside roof patio. To the south you can see the steel and glass canyons, but we won’t have time to explore them in this article.
Continue on the pedestrian mall to City Hall and then follow Main Street back to Olvera Street for lunch, complete with wandering musicians. You’ll have plenty of time to return to Pasadena for the start of an afternoon of drum corps competition.
Or, if you have more time, duck into the cool subway across the street from the courthouse and take the Red Line to Hollywood, where we’ll meet you next issue.
And next time you hear a pundit proclaim that Los Angeles has no “downtown,” just smile to yourself. You’ll know better.
Next time, Hollywood and beautiful Beverly Hills.