It’s no secret that most Angelinos are conflicted about our city — often in the same breath, we come off as both proud and ashamed of it (“_____ isn’t that bad”). It’s true, L.A. lacks the majesty of San Francisco, the familial comfort of Boston and the frenetic energy of New York. But as with any sprawling industrial city, you’ll always benefit from a closer look.
Case in point: my favorite little-known run along Ballona Creek, L.A.’s concrete canal that trickles from Culver City to Marina del Rey. Its unmarked entrance is a steep ramp down from the intersection of La Cienega and Washington boulevards that runs parallel to a local baseball diamond. The water sports an oily sheen here, what the locals might affectionately call “urban runoff.” On the opposite bank under an overpass an old man holds court over a fortress of tarps and blankets, his grand entrance an American flag. The sloping walls on both sides are graffitied in faded yellows, oranges and blues. Sometimes a guardrail separates you from the steep drop into the creek, sometimes not.
I strike out for the beach, feeling my hamstrings pull taut and snap back with each footfall. The dust shakes; my stride elongates. Every once in a while a cyclist whizzes by, breaking the rhythmic echo of my breathing. At a gap in the rail, a kid in a floral snapback gawks at the drop-in, holding his skateboard and chittering nervously to friends angling a camera below. Farther along a girl sits on a large rock in the water, reading a book.
The billboards drop away as I move west, the water’s trickle filling out the creek bed and growing lush with reeds and grassy mud. A heron stalks through the clear water, hopeful for fish. Where it’s a little deeper, a rhythmic chug breaks the quiet — two rowing shells race from one bridge to another in a preseason scrimmage. Suddenly the Marina appears on my right, full of sailboats, catamarans and stand-up paddleboarders. I slow and take in the panorama. To the south, the sleepy surfer beaches of Manhattan and Rancho Palos Verdes. To the north, the weird glamour and glitz of Venice Beach Boardwalk. On the beach straight ahead, a boy drags a kite across the sky, then stops to gape as a Boeing 747 descends toward LAX. The sun descends with it, over a blue-green ocean specked with surfers. I hear that familiar squeaky caw and remember that L.A.does have seagulls, lots of them. If it’s a clear day, I might turn around and see that it also has snow-capped mountains, just beyond the valley.
Say what you will about the urban sprawl of the City of Angels — I can make it from the heaviest traffic to the brine of Pacific in an hour, without ever having to stop for a red light. Now look at that: I’m getting all defensive about it.