DTLA Arts District

Downtown Los Angeles is not what is used to be – in a good way. The first time I visited DTLA was during a business trip nearly 15 years ago and I thought the place looked post-apocalyptic. As soon as business was done for the day and the banks closed their doors, it was all crickets and tumbleweeds. You could strut down the centerline of just about any side street and barely see another soul. Nothing was happening downtown other than whatever concert or sporting event was taking place at Staples Centre, now part of the LA Live monster-plex.

Hipsters had not migrated into the gritty area yet, igniting a demand for locally brewed coffee and craft beer. Very few people lived there, and even today the population of actual residents is said to be 50,000. Aside from some grand old theatres, downtown didn’t seem to offer much to tourists with dreams of Hollywood and stars in their eyes. What a difference a decade makes.

Strolling, eating and drinking your way along downtown’s eclectic streets today is mandatory when spending time in LA. But if you only have one day or afternoon to do it, head straight to the Arts District.

First, let me preface this with a safety precaution. Don’t walk there. Depending on which direction you’re traveling from, you could encounter some unpleasant streets. I thought it might be “fun” to walk from the 7th Street Metro Station across town, through the Fashion District. What I didn’t plan for was walking straight through Skid Row. I’ve gotten myself into some sticky situations while traveling over the years, but the dire situation in this part of town is not to be underestimated. My husband was actually prepared to smash his iPhone to use a weapon (in manner of Jason Bourne) if someone tried to mug the silly Canadians traipsing right through tent city. After many eerie empty lots, we finally turned a corner and spotted a bearded man spray-painting an art installation and thank fuck, we knew we had made it.

We rested our weary – and sweaty – souls in a shady alley alongside the Daily Dose café. From one block to another we were transported into a different world, suddenly surrounded by artists and creatives. I’ve never wanted to hug a hipster so hard in my life. The locally sourced food and fresh pressed juices were phenomenal and the vibe is super chill. Ivy has completely taken over the beautiful old brick walls and the garden-like setting is adorned with crystal chandeliers.

With our bearings intact we set out to explore this emerging community sprouting up from what was once mostly abandoned warehouses and industrial factories. Newly converted lofts, movie lots and bougainvillea-lined streets give the feeling of a new era, while still maintaining some street cred.

Stumptown Coffee has a café on Santa Fe and 7th and patrons can peer right into their roasting room to see their beans being churned up close. We grabbed a couple of iced Americanos and traveled east down 7th across the bridge over the Los Angeles River for a stark reminder of California’s never-ending drought. Then we spent the afternoon searching for street art and murals we had seen spattered across Instagram.

Unexpectedly, we spotted a massive wine shop so I had to take a peek. Silver Lake Wine carries an impressive selection of wines from California and all over the world. They had recently opened when we visited and were still getting set up, but weekly tastings and private parties are now available.

Plenty of shops and quality boutiques are popping up in this neighorhood as well. If you’re in the market for some handcrafted pieces for your home or wardrobe – and have a bit of cash to burn – check out Guerilla Atelier or Poketo for something truly unique.

If you linger long enough into the dinner hour, snag a table at Bestia, one of LA’s most talked about eateries, for an Italian feast you won’t soon forget. The husband and wife team behind the award-winning menu have created something really special in this part of town.

There’s so much more to explore in the Arts District, heading north towards Little Tokyo and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). But it’s easy to get stuck on a charming side street and people watch the afternoon away.

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Vancouver to Venice

At what point does home not really feel like home anymore? I remember when home was a place I longed for during extended trips abroad or something I marvelled at when I returned, a little more worldly and a lot more appreciative of the city I was declaring as my place of residence on my immigration slip.

Vancouver, BC was that place for more than 12 years. I moved there following 3 months of beach huts and guesthouses in South East Asia. Broke but ready to live on my own for the first time at the ripe old age of 23.

For the next 8 years I would live on the corner of Harwood and Nicola in Vancouver’s whimsical West End. My neighbors ranged from folks who had lived there since the very first pride parade marched down Thurlow Ave to independent filmmakers, punks and pensioners. A block from the beach, I thought I’d live there forever.

Eventually I migrated to the other side of town to shack up with my now husband, still basking in my city’s reputation as the most liveable place on earth. And it was. It still is, in a lot of ways. But like all good things, that chapter was coming to a very natural and amicable conclusion. I had hiked its trails, skied its mountains, and soaked up its ocean shores. There was nothing left to look forward to as life became kind of cyclical. As the late B.B. King would croon, the thrill was gone.

It was the 4th of July weekend in 2012 and I was finishing up at a conference in San Diego. Having not spent time in Los Angeles in a while, I was eager to reacquaint myself with Vancouver’s cinematic sister city. So I convinced my husband (then fiancé) to meet me in Venice for a few days. I can’t really describe it, but as I was sitting on a patio waiting for my husband to arrive, observing all the sun-kissed surfers and nouveau bohemians blow by me, I distinctly remember feeling like I was home.

Fast forward to May of last year, floating listlessly in a West Hollywood pool praying time would stand still, as my husband monitored his phone to make sure we wouldn’t miss our flight home to Vancouver. Again, that feeling. Like we shouldn’t be leaving at all. I declared right then, perched on a pink pool floatie, hazy from the unnecessary Pimm’s cup at breakfast, that one day we would miss our flight home. One year later, we did.

It’s been exactly 3 months since we missed that flight. And we’ve settled in Venice, precisely where I silently predicted we would 3 years ago. I’ve lived outside of Canada before, but this time it doesn’t feel like I’ve left something behind, aside from friends and family of course. With every hidden mural, underground tavern or new walk street to discover, everything about being here feels natural and familiar. Maybe it’s because there are so many similarities, at this stage of Venice’s evolution.

Like Vancouver, cars aren’t necessary in Venice. Neither are heavy winter coats, fashion-forward clothes or having to look far for the nearest community garden. Venice is undergoing considerable gentrification, much to the chagrin of some of its long time residents. The man who runs our local plant shop tries to warn me about the dangers of living here, every time I pop by to replace another succulent I’ve killed. What he doesn’t know is the city I came from has the same income inequalities and clashing of cultures Venice is experiencing now.

One of the most impoverished streets in North America sits a short 10-minute walk from my former high-rise address in Vancouver; a neighbourhood where tiny condos quickly sell for a cool million, sometimes thousands of dollars over asking price. In Vancouver, displaced people struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues live in and among some of the cities most touted hot spots and eateries. The same thing is happening in Venice.

Similar to Vancouver, Venice is far from perfect, despite having one of our main thoroughfares being named the coolest block in America. There are often LAPD choppers buzzing above our little mid-century mod apartment in the middle of the night. Gang tags can suddenly appear everywhere, but are quickly painted over by storeowners. Power lines obscure the otherwise perfect palm-lined skyline as I look towards the beach from our kitchen window. But Venice has soul and character and a history that has inspired some of the most prolific artists and musicians of the last 100 years. The creative fervor in the air is so intoxicating it’s hard to resist. So for now, she is home. And I grow to love her more each day.

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Sex in America

Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s 1950. I’m in a floral housedress, bosom prominently pointed due to the unnatural architecture of women’s undergarments of that era. My husband is relaxing in the lounge, catching up on the news of the day as I present him with a happy hour snifter of scotch. A ham or some other animal protein sits roasting in the next room.

After dinner, and a martini or two, the moment strikes where lovemaking is probable. The sultry sounds of Sinatra play as we climb into one of the twin beds placed parallel in our bedroom, for a brief conjugal encounter – in the dark, in silence, ever so discreetly.

Snapping back to 2015, I’d like to think people were properly getting it on in those days. But the residual effects of North America pre-sexual revolution seem to have lingered well past the dawn of free love.

When my husband and I recently decided to live in Los Angeles for a while, I was prepared for a few cultural and social discrepancies compared to Canada. However, having landed in a state made famous for it’s entertainment industry and liberal thought leaders, a few things have surprised me.

Let’s start with something as simple as purchasing contraceptives. The first time my husband popped into our local pharmacy to pick up some condoms, he set off an alarm system. Not the kind of alarm system that prompts an employee to check your bags, nor did a staff member or security guard approach him. It was more of a public shaming of sorts. Attention shoppers: the gentleman wearing the Dodgers hat in aisle three is about to get laid!

Obviously, I had to see this for myself. So we went back to the store, prepared to be cast as Canadian sexual deviants. Sure enough, while extracting a box of condoms from a conspicuous plastic bin, a loud alarm began to sound, alerting everyone in the store as to what we were up to. And, as my husband reported, nothing happened. No one checks on you or asks what your intentions are with the 12-pack of Trojans you just tossed into your basket. People simply stare as you slink towards the toothpaste aisle like nothing happened.

A lot of people we encounter in the U.S. assume that the Canadian healthcare system is something to aspire to. And it’s true; we have much to be grateful for. Until a fellow expat of mine pointed out that the local women’s clinic will give you condoms and birth control for free, no questions asked. Items that are most certainly not free at home. I know this isn’t the case nationwide, but I thought it was surprising considering an alarm comparable to an air horn goes off when trying to purchase prophylactics.

Without getting into the many sexualized starlets that hail from the Golden State, it amazes me what’s considered acceptable and what’s considered taboo as it relates to women. Let’s take the Free the Nipple movement, for example. I’ve written about this before, after Instagram removed an image I posted of a Vancouver-based burlesque dancer, nipples perfectly concealed by a pair of pasties. Nipples on the beach are a no go in California, if you’re a woman. Even where I live in Venice, which has always been the bohemian epicentre of SoCal. Meanwhile, bare bottoms are all the rage, on the beach, by the pool or even walking down the street.

While not particularly common, outside of designated nude beaches, going topless in Canada isn’t considered a criminal offense. Nothing makes me more patriotic than having the freedom to bare my breasts in public, even though I rarely exercised the right to do so.

While we’re on the topic of nipples, I frequently encounter a hot pink van promoting topless maids in my neighborhood, which confuses the subject even more. Nipples out while sun bathing on the beach? No way. Nipples out while tidying someone’s apartment? No problem.

We’ve definitely made sexual strides on both sides of the border, but the line between what’s considered appropriate and what’s considered pervy remains a little bit blurry.

Originally published in The Province.

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Make Love, Not Haight

Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era, or am somehow channelling a past life, because the 70s feel familiar and almost nostalgic to me. Which is why I love spending time in San Francisco.

There’s something about that city that makes me want to string flowers in between the strands of my long, unwashed hair and dance barefoot in a field. Okay, maybe not, but there is something mystical that happens the moment San Fran’s intrinsic energy begins to soak into my pores. It’s freeing. Almost as liberating as burning ones bra, I would imagine. Bay City – 1. Brassiere – 0.

Every time I’m in town, I have my usual stops. A stroll through Chinatown. A show in the Castro. Drinks in the Mission. And some time spent wandering around Haight Street. Haight Ashbury, of course, being the epicentre of hippie heyday and still crawling with delightfully questionable characters. It’s the source, people. Mecca for free love and finding your inner voice…whatever that means.

I followed my inner voice to Haight on a Sunday while in town during the Bay to Breakers race – the oldest consecutively run annual footrace in the world – where about 10% of the competitors are serious runners and 90% dress in outlandish costumes and drink their way to the finish line. My kind of marathon.

After the race is complete, Haight and the surrounding area transforms into party central, which is pretty full on at 10am. I found myself navigating through a sea of everything from fairy princesses and priests to folks meandering about in the buff. How one runs a race with their wobbly bits unleashed like that is a sight to behold.

I ducked into Amoeba Music for a bit of respite from the revellers, and found an original poster promoting a gig at the Whiskey a Go Go in LA – headliners The Byrds, opening act The Doors. Thank you inner voice and 20-somethings puking on the sidewalk for forcing guiding me there.

Bars and cafes were packed, so there was no chance of brunch but the party spilled out into the street so it didn’t really matter. I made a mandatory stop at my favorite boutique in lieu of breakfast (sometimes shopping is sustenance) and walked a few more blocks in search of a psychic I found on yelp (super reliable). I accidentally turned down instead of up (that actually makes sense in San Fran) and by the time I realized it, there was no way I was going to huff my way back. So I decided to meander down Ashbury onto Hayes, making my way slowly back to Union Square where I was staying.

Parties raged on, with kids climbing lampposts and DJs spinning on patios. Invites from complete strangers poured in as I strolled by, marvelling at my luck. What a day to be there. But I pressed on, dying for something to soak up the wine remnants from the night before.

I set my sights on the perfect sidewalk cafe just as this woman emerged form her storefront to interrupt my stride. She held out a flyer promoting palm readings and tarot. Normally, in such a hangry* state, I would blow off such a solicitation, but something made me turn around and engage her. I agreed to a $20 “intro reading” and followed her into the back room of her crystal shop.

She carefully inspected the creases in my dehydrated hands, noting things I’ve heard from other psychics before. You’ll live a long life. I don’t see any real health issues. I don’t see you ever struggling financially. Nice. But then she dug a little deeper into my marriage and recent move the US, things I didn’t divulge.

She said my husband and I had been bickering lately, which stung because we rarely argue but the complexities of moving to California had definitely taken its toll. She said it was the right move for us and we’d settle in the right spot, which we have. She also predicted we’d have two children, which was alarming because a) she had been pretty accurate up until this point and b) my husband and I have no plans to start a family. I asked if dogs count. She said yes. Bless her. Then she asked if either my husband or I had twins in our family, which we do, on both sides. To which she recommended we be extra careful with contraception in the coming months. Gah!

Afterwards, I parked my weary self street-side at Chez Maman for lunch and rosé, while the psychic’s words set in. Health, financial stability, California…and dogs. Twin dogs, maybe.

* When you are so hungry that your lack of food causes you to become angry, frustrated or, in extreme cases, murderous.

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72 Hours in San Diego

San Diego is lovely this time of year. A sentence easily uttered on any day, as the weather in SD is basically perfect. Except for an unexpected rain shower that lasted only a morning while I was in town. It’s good for California’s never-ending drought, yet amusing given the city only really sees 10 days of rain per year. I guess I brought my soggy Pacific Northwest roots with me.

I’ve been to San Diego for various reasons over the years. Conferences, family vacations, but now that I hang my hat in LA I foresee SD and I becoming more closely acquainted. It’s spread out, which for a carless Uber super user like me isn’t ideal, but each neighbourhood has it’s own charm and backstory, which makes the community pretty special as a whole. Microbreweries your jam? Look no further. Live music? In abundance. Scuba diving from the beach? You’re on.

It would be easy to stay and hang in San Diego for several days, weeks even. But if you’re tight on time, there are a few spots that shouldn’t be missed.

Gaslamp Quarter

The best place to call home base, if you’re looking for easy access to other neighborhoods by day, and lively merriment by night, is the Gaslamp. It’s also home to hundreds of conference bunnies looking to let loose and stag/stagette parties puking their way around the clubs, but if you can somehow see through all that, there’s a lot of good bits too. Live music is off the hook in this hood, with so much local talent to speak of. Union Kitchen & Tap has an insanely good guitar player who roams the resto, serenading the patrons on Friday nights. The Casbah is arguably the best live music venue in town, with a mix of big names and up-and-comers on the bill. If you fancy a boogie, and something a little trippy, follow the psychedelic stairway adorned with original art by Denisse Wolf to Vin De Syrah. You’ll swear Alice is just around the corner…or maybe it was the “drink me” potion (read, boozy dark and stormy) you just drank. End your evening with a nightcap at the slightly-hipster-but-not Tipsy Crow. It may be the only speakeasy left with street cred on 5th Ave. Hunga bunga the next morning? Stop by Café 21 – it just might save your life.

Coronado Beach

If soft, white sand that sparkles with shiny gold flex as far as the eye can see appeals – um, of course it does – then you cannot come to SD without spending a day in Coronado. Its vastness and pristine shoreline make for a dreamy afternoon, especially when pods of dolphins decide to dot the surf, jumping playfully through the waves, just 10 feet offshore (we may have lucked out). With warships in the distance and one of the biggest naval bases in the U.S. only a few miles away, you can’t help but call on the ghost of Goose or hope that an impromptu beach volleyball game – tapered jeans and all – will unfold before your eyes. Permission to buzz the tower. If you’ve really lost that lovin’ feeling, swing by Kansas City BBQ – where some of the most memorable scenes from Top Gun were filmed – for some brisket and a cold brew.

La Jolla

A quick 15-minute drive north of the Gaslamp sits the picture-perfect town of La Jolla, complete with monstrous Spanish-style villas and mansions that seemingly sit vacant until their wealthy owners are in town on hols. It’s touristy, but not to a fault. Start off with brunch at Crab Catcher, and request to be seated on the patio overlooking the cliffs that melt into the brilliant blue bay below. Being a good Canadian girl, I’m partial to caesars, but their bloody mary comes close, garnished with a giant crab claw. Walk off your mimosa buzz by heading straight to La Jolla Cove Beach to take a selfie with one of the resident sea lions. It’s also an epic spot to scuba dive off the beach. My husband – an avid diver – jumped in and had a swim alongside sea lions and harbour seals while I stayed beachside and snapped pics. Follow the sea wall south for several more hidden coves and beaches, to avoid the turistas.

Oceanside

You always need to leave a little something for next time. An excuse to make your way back to places you love. During our train ride home, which tickles the seaside until you’re far north of San Diego, we passed by Oceanside, a quintessential beachside village complete with a good surf break off the Oceanside Pier. As we finished our wine, watching the surfers fade into the pink horizon, we plotted our next trip south.

Stay classy, San Diego (sorry, couldn’t help it).

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Restless in WeHo

A lot of people come to California for sun, surf and sandy beaches. For those of us visiting from cooler climates, it’s a quick escape to dryer days and warmer nights. Palm trees, paparazzi and celebrity sightings aside, Los Angeles has many layers beyond the tourist trail and well-beaten path. It’s hard to visit this town without viewing it through a completely different lens each time. She’s not a generic city, but rather an ever-evolving mess of culture, conspiracy and color. All hail the cities of the world with some element of grit and imperfection.

Having just spent 3 weeks in West Hollywood, I can report to you first hand that there’s no sleeping there. Not really, anyway. Sure, the street I was camped out on was lovely and quiet and lined with blooming trees and songbirds. More peaceful than the home I came from, situated in a much quieter city in comparison to buzzing LA. But the energy wouldn’t allow me to slumber. There was no drifting off in this otherwise quiet corner south of the Sunset Strip. There’s too much to do. Too much to soak in.

First off, there are fruit trees flourishing everywhere. I’m not sure if these mile-high godsends of shade are meant to be harvested by the general public, but there were no signs stating otherwise. Why let a perfectly ripe lemon or banana go to waste? And the mansions that line these streets aren’t what you would imagine in this overzealous zip code. Sure, they’re grand in stature and design, but most have been sub-divided from the luxurious castles they once were and turned into multiple rental suites.

I can’t seem to visit WeHo without being drawn to the intrigue and glitterati underbelly that exists at the famed Chateau Marmont. Can’t do it. Call me seduced by celebrity if you must, but it’s the history of the joint that I find irresistible. If only the tormented spirits who haunt the hotels dark and twisting corridors could talk. Maybe they can, depending on which psychic you talk to (and there are plenty). This time we spotted the gorgeous Rose McGowan donning a pixie cut and a cute Prada shift.

Pool parties are part and parcel when staying in West Hollywood. Not just for the people watching or sipping cocktails among social climbers, but because it’s so damn hot. Hollywood can get sticky, even in the dead of winter, so take my advice and seek out a pool situation. SkyBar at the Mondrian and The Standard both allow non-guests to hang by the pool and use the towels and loungers, if you’re spending a bit of cash on booze and food. The Standard has a $30 USD minimum per person, which is easy to burn after a few poolside Pimm’s cups.

Live music is probably what lured me to the Hollywood Hills in the first place, and it’s certainly my reason to return. The House of Blues on the Sunset Strip books everything from A-list rockers to up-and-coming musicians and tribute bands. The Viper Room seems to have an otherworldly list of talent each night, as every time I go, I’m floored by some band I’ve never heard of. Whiskey a Go Go is not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle the crowds and are looking to channel the ghost of Jim Morrison, by all means – walk on through to the other side.

Once you’ve recovered from WeHo’s nightlife, head straight to Melrose. Not because the broad who inspired the schwing at one time fictionally resided here, but because it’s the perfect mix of high-end designers, mom-and-pop shops and savory eats to cure your hangover anxiety.

Start with a stripped down – literally – rock shirt purchase from Joseph at Yonada. Not only does he carry every concert T you could dream of, his regular clientele range from Kirk Hammett of Metallica to Zayne, formally of One Direction. For the gals, he’ll snip, tear and shred your T to perfection, creating a custom fit not found at your run-of-the-mill chain store, all for $25 a pop. After Joseph has transformed you from weary tourist to a sycophant with street cred, turn the corner and follow the Where the Wild Things Are street art towards Maison Richard for the best French fare in the neighbourhood. Cap off any Sunday on Melrose sifting through endless tables of kitsch and one-of-a-kind décor at the Melrose Trading Post.

If stargazing – of the celestial variety – is your jam, join the legions of tourists and locals alike to the Griffith Observatory. The night we ventured to this iconic white dome that darts out over the Hollywood Hills, the moon was obstructed by clouds. So the operators of the giant Carl Zeiss telescope were forced to turn the massive apparatus slightly west to catch a crystal clear glimpse of Jupiter and the three moons that surround it. It was one of those pinch me moments.

Speaking of the Hills, hiking is where WeHo gains points, when comparing it to the coast. The Cahuenga Peak trail to the Wisdom Tree was my favorite, but for an easier trek, try Runyon Canyon but don’t drive there. Take an Uber from your hotel, as you’ll never find a place to park.

Finally, back to where WeHo was born, the gay district is fun and fabulous and crawling with fit, young people living it up. Where else can you get male go-go dancers during happy hour?

The coast is what tugs at my heartstrings, but WeHo has definitely caught hold of my soul.

All I wanna do, is have some fun.
Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.

– All I Wanna Do, Sheryl Crow

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Hiking to Hollywood’s Wisdom Tree

I’m always drawn to cities that have easy access to nature. Having lived in Vancouver for the past 13 years, steps away from the ocean, I don’t think I could exist in a proper concrete jungle, despite my urbanite tendencies.

Los Angeles is a lot like that, although I’m sure some people might disagree. As I type this, I’m sitting on our rooftop deck surrounded by humming birds – literally, little rapid-fire wings buzzing in my ear – with a view of our quiet street, lined with purple jacaranda trees in full blossom. Nature, only a few blocks south of the Sunset Strip.

The first thing I wanted to do once we made our way back to West Hollywood was to seek out the Wisdom Tree. It sounds like something you’d be more likely to stumble upon in San Francisco rather than L.A., but I was fascinated by the story that has transformed this lone tree into a budding tourist attraction.

As legend would have it, the beautiful old pine was originally someone’s Christmas tree, which they planted at the peak of the Cahuenga trail. In 2007, a devastating 160-acre fire ripped through the Hollywood Hills and the Wisdom Tree was the only tree left standing.

There didn’t used to be a hiking trail to Cahuenga Peak. The land was privately owned by Howard Hughes’ estate until 2002, when it was purchased by a group of investors. Apparently, Hughes purchased the picturesque mountaintop to build a home for he and Ginger Rogers to shack up in, but she was having none of it. So the land was left undeveloped.

The investor group had plans to subdivide the property to build mega-mansions – only a short walk from L.A.’s sacred Hollywood sign – but when the public caught wind of this, activists got to work.

The non-profit organization Trust for Public Land raised $12.5M with the final $900K coming from none other than Hugh Hefner. This was enough to purchase the land from the investor group and convert it into a public park.

At some point, someone left a tin box full of blank journals and pens for people to write their thoughts and leave with the tree. It’s been there for several years now and hasn’t been bolted down in fear of someone stealing it. There’s no one there to monitor it. It’s just a wonderful box overflowing with people’s poetry, thoughts and dreams.

If you visit the Wisdom Tree, be kind to it. Don’t climb it or pull on its branches. Just savor the much-needed shade it provides and soak in the energy of everyone who discovered it before you. And leave something in the journal box. Who knows, maybe there really is something mystic about it? I like to think so.

“It’s like saying let’s build a house in the middle of Yellowstone Park. There are some things that are more important. The Hollywood Sign represents the dreams of millions. It’s a symbol. It is as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It represents the movies.” – Hugh Hefner

Also published in the Huffington Post.

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Keep Venice Weird

For decades, Venice has been known as a place where the wonderfully weird and way-out converge. A community of nonconformists trying to preserve a piece of Los Angeles that’s still pure in origin and protected from over-gentrification.

Despite the influx of newly renovated mid century mod palaces, pretty faces and tech companies migrating to the neighbourhood en masse, Venice is still weird.

The Venice Boardwalk is where the more colorful locals tend to congregate, although anywhere between Washington and Ocean Park, and east towards Lincoln is a people-watching paradise. Middle-aged men whizzing by on skateboards with the same temerity of a teenager, because no one gives a fuck how old you are. It’s irrelevant. No one is judging anyone. Everyone simply observes.

Even on upscale Abbot Kinney people don’t take themselves too seriously. One night, after too many craft cocktails, we found ourselves at Abbot’s Pizza for a slice on the way home. While in line, a popular 90s dance track came on and my husband started to boogie a little. Then the woman in front of him, dreadlocks piled high on her head with a toddler in tow, began to dance uncontrollably until the whole line-up was going for it.

During lunch one day, we overheard the table next to us chatting with some older gentlemen who declared they were long-time Venice residents. When asked what they did for a living, they said they used to play with a band called The Mamas & the Papas.

We’ve become addicted to what I call affirmation shakes at Café Gratitude on Rose Ave. When ordering, you ask for your smoothie beginning with ‘I am’ followed by whatever concoction you’ve chosen, like ‘Grace’ for example (my favorite). I am grace. And then you suck it back through a paper, recyclable straw while listening in on the tarot reading going on at the next table.

Staying on Victoria Ave, a sleepy, palm-lined street about 10 minutes by bike from the beach, characters still emerged daily. The Barry Gibb lookalike who walks his little dog every morning – same time – always rocking an ankle length fringed vest and flowing scarf to match. The mysterious tube TV that was left on our sidewalk and remained there for 10 days. The artists, established and aspiring. Folks who never left the 70s…or the 70s never left them.

But if it’s madness you crave, the Boardwalk is your jam. You’ll encounter iconic buskers that work the strip every day like Harry Perry, who rocks out on guitar while twirling circles around the tourists on his jacked-up rollerblades. Being recognized by him is kind of like a Venice rite of passage. There’s the Venice Beach Freakshow luring lookie loos in with America’s smallest man and the bearded lady – the best 5 bucks you’ll spend at the beach. There’s the transient travelers with signs that say ‘will strip for cash’ or ‘field goal my nuts for 20 bucks’. Or the more creative offerings like the First Organic Television, which is basically a guy with a TV screen wrapped round his face shouting nonsense at you as you scurry past him.

One of the things I love most is the non-stop party vibe of Venice. Men on roller skates dancing to disco in the basketball courts before the b-ballers arrive. While cruising the bike path, every few minutes someone breezes by with a ghetto blaster blaring everything from Marvin Gaye to the new Kendrick Lamar album. And what better way to end a day in Venice than jumping into the centre of the Drum Circle – a weekend ritual that goes from late afternoon until sunset – and dancing like hundreds of eyes aren’t watching your every move.

The woman we stayed with – Jenny, a designer and long time Venice resident – told us a story of how she had to leave for a while to appreciate how special her neighborhood is. Right around the recession she needed to, as she described, restore her faith in Americans. So she kitted out a VW van and embarked on a road trip that followed along the outer edges of the continental US. North along the west coast, east through the mid west, south along the eastern seaboard until her beloved van blew up in middle-of-nowhere Florida. Literally, flames a mile high.

Not wanting to quit before her journey was complete, she bought a miniature school bus and converted it to a road-trip-ready vessel that would carry her through the final leg of her tour.

These are the people who built Venice. The weird and the wonderful.

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Viva Venice

Three years ago, I was in San Diego on business and decided to extend my stay in SoCal to meet my husband for the weekend in Los Angeles. We settled on Venice, having never spent much time there before. I remember very distinctly sitting on the patio of a Mexican restaurant on Washington Boulevard, waiting for my husband and fantasizing about what it would be like to live there.

The breeze was constant, the temperature was perfect and the vibe was friendly. Neighbourly. And peaceful. Like stumbling upon a tropical oasis in the middle of an arid desert, Venice seemed like a tight-knit community tucked away in the chaos of LA County.

After a few more subsequent trips south, we find ourselves back in Venice to soak up the warmth and the weirdoes. The nouveau bohemians and the Jim Morrison tribute bands. Aspiring artists and American-made treasures ­– vintage, reworked or made new. Musicians seeking a new scene or experience to draw inspiration from. Writers, like me, in sidewalk cafés lingering long after their americanos are finished.

After surviving another long, wet winter on the west coast of Canada, every time I step outside here I breathe a sigh of relief. No socks, no umbrella, no bra. My suitcase was stuffed with only sandals, flowing dresses and kimonos, things I seem to accumulate like crazy despite the cooler climate of home.

We bike everywhere. Big rusty cruisers and no helmets, right alongside the bustling traffic heading to the beach. Something I’d never attempt at home, but all the locals do it, so somehow that makes it feel safe. You hear so many horror stories of traffic in LA, but not in Venice. Not if you do it right.

We’ve holed up in a quaint B’n’B hidden amidst sprawling bougainvillea and lemon trees. Our host has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years and tells us how much the area has changed. Shortly after she took possession of the house, a teenager was shot and killed down the street. Venice 13 gang tags kept popping up on her fence and well-known hipster haven Abbot Kinney was nothing more than a few shops and dive bars. Balancing gentrification and the history and character that makes Venice so special is delicate business.

While some of Venice’s more iconic sights like Muscle Beach and the longstanding Freak Show will always draw a crowd, it’s the allure of the unexpected that pulls me in. The tropical flowers that grow in every nook and cranny of every side street. Designer pop-up shops in parking lots (I scored a dress and kimono by Mumu yesterday). Masterful murals adorning doorways and alleyways while skaters fly by on their longboards. The charm never seems to fade.

Maybe it’s just a honeymoon phase. Maybe there are dangers and nuisances the locals are concealing. But from where I sit on this breezy backyard patio just off of Abbot Kinney, the fantasy continues.

Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,
Telling myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.

– Going to California, Led Zepplin

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