Coming to the US for college was my first time entering this country, and my eager mind was filled with preconceived notions and images of this place, notions created through a childhood diet of Sesame Street and American Idol. Los Angeles was a fantastical place for me, a glamorous city filled with celebrities in sweatshirts walking down sidewalks drinking Starbucks (or, as the tabloid magazines will tell us: “Jake Gyllenhaal casually walking his dog on a Sunday – looks fabulous!”).
So you can imagine my surprise when I visited Hollywood Boulevard shortly after starting college, and saw that it was not what I had thought it would be. This did not seem like the place that eager American Idol contestants would shed tears of joy to come to, and where were the CELEBRITIES? Why do I need to pay $47 (yes that IS the actual price) to peer at their homes behind tall walls? Why is Captain America harassing me to take a photo with him? Why did a group of old men just tell me to repent in the name of the Lord?
This surprise slowly turned into a sense of disappointment, a feeling often shared by my friends from home or from other countries when I bring them to Hollywood Boulevard. Prior notions of Hollywood gets shattered as they realized Hollywood Boulevard is pretty much a tourist spot.
For a while during freshmen year, I came to dislike Los Angeles. I felt unsafe in some parts of the city, the public transportation system was a mess, streets were dirty, and traffic on the freeway is always so aggravating. Compared to the comforts of spruced-up Claremont, Los Angeles didn’t hold much appeal.
However, in the fall semester of my Freshmen Year, the lovely Professor Jill Grigsby brought my Introduction to Sociology class on a fieldtrip to Downtown Los Angeles. After taking the Metrolink there, she enthusiastically talked about the history of LA Union Station, led us through Olvera Street, took us on a walk amidst the tall buildings of Downtown LA, showed us around Grand Central Market, and ended the trip with a ride up to Bunker Hill on Angel’s Flight (before it closed for good!). This trip gave me a hint on how much history and culture there was in this city seemingly devoid of heritage.
The advantage of being near Los Angeles soon became more evident as I found myself going regularly to the city for concerts and musicals. I sang along with thousands of others to Mumford & Sons at Hollywood Bowl, caught a few Korean and Japanese pop acts that I would never have been able to afford back home, and attended musicals like the Book of Mormon and Jersey Boys, courtesy of ASPC.
Los Angeles is also a foodie wonderland, with the diverse population contributing their own unique gastronomical traditions to the culinary landscape. Local Angelinos introduced me to their favorite hole-in-the-wall eateries, and today I still firmly believe some of the best Korean and Thai food in SoCal is found in LA.
But aside from that, I realized that Los Angeles is an excellent classroom, and Pomona College professors love taking advantage of that.
In Introduction to Geology with Professor Jade Star Lackey, we hiked the hills of Rancho Palos Verdes to observe the winding roads near the Portuguese Bend Slide, a result of ongoing geological activities.
As part of our Community Mapping class with Visiting Professor Anna Joo Kim, we used GIS to map out inequalities in Koreatown before using our information to help the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance in their advocacy work. We paid a visit to their headquarters, and the people at KIWA led us on a walking tour around Koreatown, pointing out signs of gentrification and underdevelopment in this racially segregated neighborhood.
For Green Urbanism, lecturer Walker Wells brought us around Santa Monica, where he lives and works, pointing out the various water-efficient features and green developments that might be hard to identify without a trained eye.
In my Urban Ethnography class taken at Scripps College, Professor Seo Young Park arranged a visit for the class to Grand Park in LA, where we got to observe the a Filipino festival happening that day and interviewed the Programming Director of Grand Park.
Proximity to Los Angeles was definitely a factor when I chose to come to Pomona College, but I had not foreseen what an important part of my learning experience it would eventually become. Underneath the glamor of Hollywood was a city bustling with culture, history, and its very own quirks and idiosyncrasies. Amidst the sprawl and urban decay, Angelinos are still proud of this city they call home, and I was beginning to see why.
With Metrolink connecting Claremont to Los Angeles, and the $10 Weekend Pass that gives you unlimited ride on any public transport in the city on Saturday or Sunday, students really don’t require a car to explore the nooks and crannies of the city.
And while Universal Studios and Santa Monica Beach are worth visiting, I urge you to wander off the tourist path and ponder what you see.
Walk through neighborhoods like Chinatown, Little Armenia, Tehrangeles, Thai Town, Sawtelle, and notice the racial segregation and the phenomenon of White Flight in what is supposedly the most ethnically diverse city in the nation.
Look at Watts, then compare it with Malibu and Beverly Hills, and think about inequalities in resource allocation, and how they are often drawn across class and racial lines.
Notice the red shopping carts lined along Downtown Los Angeles filled with people’s belongings, or the occupied restroom cubicles of LA Union Station in the evenings used by the homeless to shower, and contemplate the policies hostile to the homeless in a city where the homeless population ranks highest in the nation.
Visit the Historic Center and Little Tokyo to realize the key role immigrants played in building this port city.
Trek the hills of Malibu and the San Gabriel Mountains, and appreciate how beside this bustling city still lies areas where nature pervades. One of the best websites for hiking is SoCal is The Weekend Sherpa.
Take a walk along the Rancho Palos Verdes coastline, look in amazement at the geological forces still molding the landscape of the city, and realize why Los Angeles is long due for the next big earthquake.
Gasp at the view of Los Angeles from the Hollywood Sign or Griffith Park, but as you peer through the smog, consider the reliance on automobiles and freeways that has become LA’s biggest characteristic.
Take advantage of the various museums in the city that will ensure a quiet afternoon well spent – from the opulent Getty Museum to often overlooked gems like the Natural History Museum.
But most of all, talk to the people you meet and understand why this city continues to be a source of pride for many Angelenos.
At the same time, be aware that communities vastly different from Claremont exists just minutes away from campus, in cities like Pomona, Upland and Ontario.
We are lucky as Pomona College students to be studying so close to such a diverse and lively city as Los Angeles – a living classroom for us to experience and learn. I once asked an Angeleno why he loved his city, and he replied, “Because it has grit.” I have spent 4 years trying to understand what he meant, but I think I am beginning to see it. But at the same time, there’s so much more to like about Los Angeles, and I am still continually discovering that every time I head to the city.
You really should too.