Los Angeles Is a Fantastic Walking City. No, Really.

When my wife and I first arrived in Los Angeles, I found it alien. The geography alone resisted my sense of what a metropolis should be. Los Angeles is one of 88 separate but overlapping municipalities in L.A. County. Places we think of as towns (Hollywood) are actually just neighborhoods, while places that sound like neighborhoods are cities (West Hollywood). This is not to be confused with Greater Los Angeles, often called the Southland, five far-flung counties in Southern California jury-rigged into a single cultural unit. Here, the very idea of “place” feels abstract. It may explain why L.A. attracts so many clichés: In a place so immeasurable, so mega, stereotypes are an easy way for people to get a grasp on it, especially if they live somewhere else.

One of those zombie tropes is that Los Angeles isn’t a walking city. Actually, Los Angeles is a fantastic walking city. Exploring it on foot is how I started to make sense of things. Of course, L.A. isn’t concentrated like Manhattan, or pedestrian-friendly like Tokyo. It’s not aesthetically breathtaking like Rome. The built environment is often rough and grainy, almost deliberately antipretty, with gantlets of warehouses, parking lots and industrial parks unprotected from the sun. Crosswalks are infrequent, and drivers often ignore them; the city only recently stopped ticketing residents for jaywalking. Probably most of Greater L.A. is awful to experience on foot. Yet there’s so much of it, radiating from multiple cores, that the amount worth walking is colossal.

Probably most of Greater L.A. is awful to experience on foot. Yet there’s so much of it, radiating from multiple cores, that the amount worth walking is colossal.

Rosecrans Avenue is one of those awful walks, but I am fond of it. Both the street and I are named after one of my ancestors, William Starke Rosecrans, a Union general in the Civil War who moved to Greater L.A. and became a congressman. He and I both arrived as outsiders with big Roman noses. I wonder what he thought when he saw the Pacific Ocean. I wonder if he also felt the outsize response I experience when I see the sunsets and bougainvillea. Even with all the state’s problems, it still strikes me that to wind up in California is a stroke of luck.

At first glance, Rosecrans is not awe-inspiring. Rosecrans Avenue is just over 27 miles long, running east from the beach through South Los Angeles to the Orange County town of Fullerton. As one of the city’s major avenues, it’s among the few manufactured things here big enough to span the region’s disparate parts. I’ll take a walk or drive on Rosecrans — or Vermont, or Pico — and loop in and out of side streets, watching one neighborhood morph into another, not necessarily for the pleasure of it but to absorb all there is to see. Hand-painted business signs change from Spanish to Korean. For a block or two, restaurants suddenly advertise Creole specialties, reflecting Cajun roots, only to revert the next block to ubiquitous fast-food joints. I’ll walk past squashed-together homes, families hosting driveway parties, a BBQ business tucked halfway down a nondescript alley. Amid all this a sense of low-key peace prevails, along with a shared notion of tolerance — minding your business in clear sight of your neighbor’s. Honestly, the only other way I know how to encounter so much of Los Angeles, to see so many of its diverse communities coexisting, is to go to the beach.

In 2018, after reporting on the sentencing trial of the rap mogul Suge Knight, I spent an afternoon walking the stretch of Rosecrans that passes through Compton. Often, when people from outside California know of Rosecrans Avenue, it’s because of the street’s storied place in West Coast rap history. DJ Quik and Problem named an album for it. The Game and Kendrick Lamar invoke it in multiple songs. (From Lamar’s song “Compton”: “Come and visit the tire-screeching, ambulance, policeman/Won’t you spend a weekend on Rosecrans.”) On “Bompton,” YG talks about buying guns at the Rosecrans location of Tam’s, a local burger chain — the same place where Knight struck and killed Terry Carter with his truck in 2015. But Compton also teems with house-proud residents and their tidy lawns, women chatting outside a florist’s shop, construction workers grabbing lunch at a packed taqueria. In Greater Los Angeles, the concept of “place” is always complicated. It’s similar to our weather: It may seem blandly constant, but if you think that’s all there is to it, you’re not looking close enough. Populations relocate. Businesses disappear. Gentrification is unrelenting, revising the city every day. L.A. has a stupefying number of histories, each with its own claim on the land.

In January, I walked a portion of Rosecrans in Fullerton that I hadn’t seen before. Previously, for thousands of years, this was the homeland of the Indigenous Tongva people. The yellow cliffs of the Coyote Hills were on view in the distance, but my eye was on nearer details. A 90-minute ramble revealed L.A.’s familiar extremes: big houses alongside dingbats, the shock of the unexpected coinciding with numbing dullness. But I also saw small green parks, southern views of the basin and an older-women’s jogging group all wearing sun hats that looked like huge black shells. I finished at Rosecrans’s eastern terminus and got a burrito. There was a feeling I’ve experienced only in Los Angeles: I was in the middle of nowhere and at the center of everything, all at once.

Rosecrans Baldwin is the author most recently of “Everything Now,” the winner of a 2022 California Book Award.

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