It’s a cliché, but still true, Los Angeles is diverse; it has many interrelated parts. Understanding its parts means a better understanding of the whole. Local guides can further your understanding of the parts. They are not difficult to find.
The City of Angels teems with nonprofit organizations whose unpaid members are curious about the history of a particular locale or subject – their enthusiasm and activity reflecting one aspect of the volunteerism that Alexis de Tocqueville considered to be uniquely American.
These people and their organizations are delighted to share their knowledge. Many offer affordable public tours. Their volunteer tour guides are invariably enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Here are a few such organizations.
Los Angeles Conservancy
To use their own words, “The Los Angeles Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization that works through education and advocacy to recognize, preserve, and revitalize the historic architectural and cultural resources of Los Angeles County.” It is the pre-eminent Los Angeles preservationist organization.
As part of the Conservancy’s education program members conduct tours of many significant and interesting areas of Los Angeles including:
a. Angelino Heights (1st Saturday)
I sometimes forget that Los Angeles was also part of the Victorian era. Located in Echo Park just south of Sunset Boulevard, Angelino Heights was Los Angeles’s first historic preservation zone. The area contains ornately restored 1880s and 1890s Victorian houses with Queen Anne turrets and towers. Subject to availability, the tour includes an interior view of one or two of the houses.
b. Art Deco (Every Saturday)
Downtown Los Angeles has what may be the best collection of Art Deco buildings in America. The Conservancy’s tours provide both an architectural and historic introduction to these buildings, some of which have their own unique histories.
c. Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District (Every Saturday)
At one time Broadway was the entertainment and retail center of Los Angeles. Many of the buildings are still there, old theater marquees now advertising everything from church services to discount retail sales. The Conservancy’s tours cover primarily the exteriors of these well-preserved buildings but subject to availability may also take you inside some of the theaters.
d. Historic Downtown (Every Saturday)
Here is the Conservancy’s description: “Some of the most beloved Los Angeles landmarks are in the area around Pershing Square, such as the Central Library, Angels Flight, and the Bradbury Building. The history of the area goes back to the founding of the city in 1781, and its architecture tells the story of the growth of the city from the 1890s to the present, including the current trend of conversions of vintage office buildings into loft-style apartments and condos.”
e. Downtown Renaissance (2nd and 4th Saturdays)
This tour covers the architecture and history of downtown’s Main and Spring Streets. Here is what the Conservancy says: “Main Street downtown was the city’s major business district in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1880s, the hub of commerce was shifting west to Spring Street, and Main Street emerged as an entertainment district with theatres, restaurants, and hotels, several of which remain. Spring Street was the business center of Los Angeles throughout most of the twentieth century. Its concentration of banks and other financial institutions inspired its nickname, “Wall Street of the West.””
f. Millennium Biltmore Hotel (Every Sunday)
Its interior is an art deco masterpiece that has been the setting for numerous movies. The Biltmore Bowl, an auditorium within the hotel, hosted the Academy Awards during the 30s and 40s. John Kennedy headquartered at The Biltmore during the 1960 Democratic National Convention. In 1964 the Beatles, seeking to avoid a horde of fans waiting to greet them, arrived by helicopter on the Biltmore’s roof. The Conservancy tour acquaints you with the Biltmore’s colorful history.
g. Union Station (3rd Saturday)
Perhaps counter intuitively Los Angeles is home to one of America’s great rail stations. Younger than its siblings in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Denver, I would argue that L.A.’s Union Station has greater eye appeal. Opened in 1939 the main terminal has a vast marble floor, tall arched windows and comfortable, individualized seating. The Conservancy’s tour will introduce you to the publicly visible and invisible Union Station as well as its less well-known history.
h. Modern Skyline (1st and 3rd Saturdays)
The Conservancy’s succinct description: “Hear fascinating stories of downtown’s transformation, visit public plazas hidden in plain sight, and see how the old and the new blend into a unique urban landscape.”
The Conservancy is celebrating the 35th anniversary of its walking tour programs. As part of the celebration additional events and programs are being offered. Check their website. I especially recommend their upcoming “Last Remaining Seats” series of film showings that take place in a number of the old, classic Los Angeles theaters.
West Adams Heritage Association
If the West Adams District of Los Angeles were located in virtually any other city, commercial tour busses would traverse its boundaries, taking tourists from site to site. It is home to Los Angeles’s largest collection of designated landmarks and historic districts. Unfortunately, even most Angelenos are unaware of its existence.
Within the district are a number of neighborhoods that contain buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s and reflect a wealth of diverse architectural styles. It is also an area where a number of artists and craftspeople have congregated.
Perhaps most significantly, the West Adams District gave rise to the American Supreme Court case that outlawed racially based restrictive covenants in housing – covenants that prevented non Caucasians from buying houses in the District.
The West Adams Heritage Association conducts a changing variety of tours each year. Occasionally they are guided; usually they are self-guided with the Association arranging access to certain sites and supplying guidance materials.
Chinatown Los Angeles
In 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, Los Angeles’s original Chinatown was razed to make way for Union Station. A number of the displaced Chinese families created a new Chinatown, located several blocks to the northwest. Opened in June 1938, the new neighborhood immediately thrived. While it is no longer the primary focal point of the Los Angeles Chinese community it continues to be a vibrant area and has its own unique history.
On the first Saturday of each month the Chinatown Business Improvement District offers a walking tour of the “Undiscovered Chinatown.” The tour includes off the beaten path sites and shares little heard stories about the past. When I took the tour the guide also offered “inside” stories about Chinatown’s current political scene.
Hollywood Heritage Museum
Located in the barn where Cecil B. DeMille made one of Hollywood’s first films, the museum occasionally offers walking tours of Hollywood. The tours are on an irregular basis depending on the availability of what appears to be a very small number of docents. However, if you can catch one of their tours, they are much more interesting (and accurate) than the commercial Starline tours of Hollywood.
I have mentioned only a few of the available guided tours of Los Angeles. For example, the Santa Monica Conservancy offers downtown Santa Monica walking tours every Saturday and there are regular tours of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. A more complete listing of available local tours is found at the Los Angeles Conservancy website https://www.laconservancy.org/events-tours/tour-partners.
Finally, for those insistent on self-guided tours or for those who want to see many additional downtown sites not referenced anywhere else, the University of Southern California website http://dornsife.usc.edu/la-walking-tour/la-tour/offers walk-friendly maps and pictures of various sites of interest in the downtown area.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.