Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chinatown form the DASH-eye view

I continue on my quest to get around with less car and more public transportation. While in downtown Los Angeles one Thursday, I had three hours free between the training sessions I was presenting and decided to take the local DASH bus and discover more of downtown Los Angeles.

Outside the Hall of Justice on Temple Street near Spring, I boarded the downtown DASH bus B line, Chinatown route and paid the .25cent fare. With the freedom of having no specific destination or parking spot to look for, I was giddy to be a tourist in my own town.

Most of the riders were L.A. city and county employees with dangling I.D. badges, who seemed to be headed for lunch destinations. Across from me sat an older tourist couple who repeatedly checked a map so they’d not miss the stop at the Chinese Cultural Center.

We trundled by the historic Union Station and Olvera Street and continued north on Spring Street and by Philippe’s, L.A.’s famous “Home of the French Dip Sandwich.”

In my lifetime, this area has been dingy with remnants of an era when this was the center of Los Angeles business activity. A pile of old tires sat in a vacant lot and next to it is the grimy L.A. Recycling center with a huge black contraption that looks like it’s been there since the industrial revolution and requires the shoveling of huge quantities of coal to make it operate.

Yet now there are definite signs of gentrification. The Home Boy Bakery and the Home Girl Café in its gleaming orange, yellow and chrome building at the corners of Alameda and Bruno Streets. I’ve known of Homeboy Industries, a commendable organization that assists at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth through training and job placement, but I didn’t know about their restaurant. I jumped off the bus to go there for lunch.

The atmosphere of this well-designed restaurant/bakery is slick as any eatery in L.A. The walls, painted alternately in turquoise, blue and yellow, featured Chicano art worthy of Cheech Marin’s collection.

The staff, all polite young men and women some wore black t-shirts proclaiming “jobs not jails” or “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

The menu features “Latina flavors with contemporary twist.” I enjoyed my meal while gazing at the view of Mt. Wilson in the distance and the activity of Chinatown Metro station across the street.

After lunch, I crossed the street and wandered into some Chinese shopping arcades. The sheer quantity of merchandise in these funny little mom and pop shops is amazing – household items such colored plastic tubs by the thousands; ceramic and plastic dishes and tea cups in Chinese motifs; vases, lanterns and leafy bamboo stalks; piles of knock-off purses and racks of women’s shoes in the teeniest sizes. There are also more exotic shops that sell Chinese weaponry, beads and joss paper used in Chinese New Year celebration.

I observed that Chinese ladies often carry glum-colored plain or plaid umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. I decided that if I were empress of Chinatown, I’d pronounce that all female residents would fend off vitamin D with those painted Chinese parasols that are available in every local souvenir shop. Surely this edict would help to cheer-up some of the rough spots in these neighborhoods.

Again I boarded the B DASH to circle back to my beginning. We passed the Grand Union Stone Company where huge garden statues lined the sidewalk. There stood mirthful Buddhas, fierce Chinese lions and dragons with bulging eyes. The stone four-foot tall “lucky kitty” waving its paw and grinning stunned me. Never would I have thought that this cat, which sits in the window of most Asian businesses for good luck, could reach the same dramatic statuary proportions as its majestic lion and dragon compatriots.

As we passed by the Old Chinatown Plaza with the carved sign “Chinatown” on its overhead arch, I noted that this area has changed little since it was built in 1938. I was now surrounded by more traditional Chinese architecture than when I visited the now über modern Shanghai and Beijing last year.

The bus wove its way back to the Civic Center, and I got off across the street from where I had started and went back to work.

It’s a big world out there and you can see an interesting chunk of it in downtown L.A. in just a couple of hours… and you can get there by the bus.

(Note: There are seven DASH lines that reach most corners of downtown Los Angeles, three of the lines run on weekends. To learn more, go to:

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