Under The Bridge

While walking through Art Share’s exhibit honoring the 6th Street Bridge, I wondered how a piece of architecture could come to represent so much for a community. This Los Angeles landmark, made famous by movies, video games, and maybe the occasional music lyric, connects the burgeoning Arts District of Downtown L.A. with the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. Set for demolition this month, the iconic structure was the theme for the gallery’s “Ode to the Bridge” exhibit.

The viaduct, now on the National Register of Historic Places, leaves behind an inspired collection of diverse artwork: gelatin silver prints, canvas wrapped photographs, satin laminate on gatorboard, all capturing what will soon be remnants of LA’s history. bridgeartAfter spending a couple of hours at the exhibit, I did a little research on the bridge and the reason for its impending doom or development, depending on who you ask. Reading through old press releases and snippets from the Los Angeles Times, I came upon a quote by the architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham: “The point about this giant city, which has grown almost simultaneously all over, is that all parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once.” Access: that’s what this bridge stands for.

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“Seeking Heaven” by Asylm at The Container Yard

Prompted to learn more about the bridge and the art history of the neighborhood, I put on my tourist hat and enlisted the help of artist Steve Lopez to give me a tour of the area. Snapping some shots of this soon to be demolished structure, Lopez and I talked about what moved him to pursue a career as an artist. “Los Angeles graffiti was my outlet. It allowed me to be angry and not feel insignificant. It seeded me with courage to stand up against the fear of violence, authority, and assimilation.” Using art as an outlet for the simmering frustration of being raised in two competing worlds, both culturally and physically, Lopez got his start here on the streets of L.A. Honing his skills through formal education and exposure to other artists in the field, he now has his work represented at galleries all over the U.S., including Hive Gallery in nearby downtown L.A.

The Arts District is where every street corner is a gallery, every wall a canvas. Guided through what Lopez called a “hub where international artists converge”, we wandered past works by David Choe, Alex Kizu aka “Defer”, and Asylm while Lopez mused on the intersecting history of hip hop, art, and politics here in L.A.

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Steve Lopez in front of David Choe’s mural in L.A. Arts District

Stopping for a bite at Zinc Café, Lopez and I compared notes on how we thought the city has changed. Both LA natives, we laughed at the idea of being tourists in our own city and discovering its hidden gems. Ruminating about how the neighborhoods have evolved, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, we did agree on one thing: Los Angeles has become a destination for artists, art enthusiasts, and art historians.

With all of this renewed art appreciation comes boutiques, bars, and restaurants, or sometimes all three as is the case at Zinc. I first discovered Zinc when I came to the grand opening of Black Milk’s flagship U.S. location last year. It was by accident, which is always the best way to

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Patio dining at Zinc Café

discover a neighborhood dining gem like this. Since then, I’ve been back a few times and enjoyed the savory pizza blanco, a perfectly fluffy quiche, and their decadent dark chocolate brownie, but it wasn’t until my second visit that I realized the menu was completely vegetarian. There’s a room for every mood at Zinc: it has a front patio, an outdoor garden, a back bar, and a gift boutique that has a bevy of hostess gifts to pick up on the way to your next party. Glancing up at the wall in the back bar of Zinc, I noticed some paintings of the 6th Street Bridge and thought about how bridges not only connect neighborhoods, but cultures, communities, and generations.

The next stop on my self-imposed art walk of Los Angeles was the recently opened Broad Museum in the center of downtown. The newest addition to the family of museums that dot this urban sprawl opened in September and sits next to the equally striking Walt Disney Concert Hall. If there’s one word that describes the art at the Broad, it is “provocative”. Walking through the different rooms, I was met with a vast collection of modern art, some of which struck me as vibrant and dynamic, and others as vile and revolting. But one of the most striking pieces of art at the Broad is what architect Liz Diller labels the “veil”, or the outer façade of the structure. This veil, which Diller describes as beautiful because “it’s distorted, incomplete, ragged at the top”, has added a new dimension to Grand Avenue’s skyline.

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The “veil” of the Broad Museum

Driving along the endless stretch of freeway towards the next stop on my seamless staycation, I thought about how the freeways bridge the suburbs of this sprawling cityscape. With Santa Monica as my next stop, I was grateful for the clear freeway that was uncharacteristically absent of any traffic. The song by the Missing Persons had it right: nobody walks in LA. Unless you are walking to the valet, the nearest bus stop, or those rare metro stops, you’re in a car and you’re going to need this transportation to see all of the highlights that this city has to offer. As the antiquated GPS in BBC’s 1972 documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles narrates: “get in the lane marked ‘Santa Monica’ but watch out for traffic, and remember that flashing a signal does not constitute any right of way.”

My home for a few days of my staycation was the Ambrose Hotel. Santa Monica’s first LEED certified hotel, which artfully blends eco-friendly decor with what they call “holistic hospitality” sits right outside of the bustling shopping district of this southern California tourist destination.

The Ambrose Hotel, founded by hospitality industry veteran Deidre Wallace, is the perfect combination of luxury, culture, high design, and sustainability. Wallace, who noticed a gap in the market for “affordable luxury and healthy hotels”, said that going green was not an afterthought that she just added to certain elements of the hotel, but rather an integral part of the hotel and her business. And it definitely shows, even down to the smallest details in the bathrooms, organic refreshments in the lounge, and the helpful complimentary local transport service.

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Guest bikes at the Ambrose Hotel

I took a ride around the neighborhood on one of the bikes provided by the hotel, and marveled at the endless blue sky dotted with palm trees along the coast. Shooting photographs of the seductive sunset, I watched, listened, and eventually joined in as tourists from all over the world captured moments that would keep these memories alive long after they’d return home. And then I thought about how lucky I was to call such a picturesque place home. A place where people from all over the U.S., as well as the globe, come to catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, the sandy shore, and this coastline that they’ve seen in so many Hollywood movies.

My art tour continued at one of my favorite destinations, LACMA. Celebrating its 50th year in Los Angeles, this museum is where I’ve seen everything from King Tut’s tomb to Stanley Kubrick’s provoking manuscripts to Diane Von Furstenburg’s divine dress collection. Growing up, I spent countless Sundays here with my aunt Reenie as my guide and I fondly remember the first time I saw Diego Rivera’s work while she provided insight and perspective on the murals that I’d one day see in his native Mexico. Now I frequent the museum with friends and visitors from all over the world, passing on the knowledge I’ve learned over the years.

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Chris Burden’s Urban Light

On my most recent visit, I was lucky to catch the last days of the Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada exhibit. Purifoy, the pioneer who brought art education to the California prison system, created masterpieces from his surroundings here in Los Angeles and throughout the Mojave Desert. His art is provoking and poignant, highlighting some of the more tragic moments of L.A. history. Using debris from the Watts riots, Purifoy’s sculptures, photos, and transcripts are a timeless reminder of how much healing still needs to be done in our local urban communities.

As I drove along the freeway back to downtown, I thought about how these highways acts a bridge, connecting the streets and the people. Streets that have hosted momentous occasions like the passing of an Olympic torch or the last flight of space shuttle Endeavor, while at the same time bearing witness to riots and outraged citizens. And then I was reminded of Lopez’s statement about art and how it was a vehicle for him to channel outrage and anger, ultimately acting as a cathartic release. This is one of the primary purposes of art; to provide a platform for people to express their perspectives, their emotions, their soul. Without art, our communities lack a healthy means to express the challenges and successes in their lives.

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Phillipe’s customers waiting for a local delicacy

Hungry for a bite to eat, I stopped at Phillipe’s, home to the original French dip. While the origin of the sandwich is debatable, one thing is for certain: this deli is always packed. And rightfully so. The sandwiches are perfectly crispy on the outside and soaked in the signature au jus, making each bite a sumptuous morsel. Dining here with my father, he reminisced about how he would frequent Phillipe’s with my grandfather back in the day. Whether they were headed to a nearby Dodger game or a Rams football game, Philippe’s always made the perfect take-along sandwich. Always eager to share a good story, my dad’s eyes glistened as he recounted the good ol’ days in Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles County Public Library

Back in downtown, I had the opportunity to join a private tour of the Los Angeles Public Library. The tour, led by our animated and encyclopedic docent, Diana, was a convergence of all things that make me happy: books, art, and history. Spending childhood summers between the beach and my local library, I was instantly transported to that larger than life feeling I had as a child when I walked into the Rotunda Room. Its centerpiece is a magnificent Lee Lawrie-designed chandelier, which helps

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Statue of Civilization by Lee Lawrie

to illuminate the murals lit up by the natural light that floods the room. These murals, completed by Dean Cornwell in 1933, colorfully depict the history of California. Cornwell, who studied under Frank Brangwyn in London, used his artistic background as an illustrator to influence his renderings for this ceiling. Standing there in awe, I was delighted by Diana’s anecdotes about the artists, their style, and inspiration for the artwork in the library. My favorite piece on the tour was Lawrie’s Statue of Civilization, with her veined marble dress decorated with icons symbolizing progress and development throughout history. She glows from natural light that flank her from every angle while holding a torch, a tribute to the library’s theme: “The Light of Learning”. Crowned with angels and a bear, both nods to the city and state symbols, she looks across to the children’s room, another art-filled universe within this beautiful landmark.

My final stop of the day was to one of my favorite downtown eateries, Bottega Louie. The restaurant is always bustling no matter what time of day I dine, and the food is always delicious. My favorite dish, the trenne pasta, combines the most delectable and tender short rib pieces with seasoned kale and is set atop pan-seared pasta, with fresh parmesan as its finishing touch. Whether meeting friends or hosting out of town guests, Bottega Louie is always the perfect place to meet for a meal. Having dined here countless times since its opening in 2007, I’ve dipped in to pick up sandwiches and sweet treats from their Instagram-worthy patisserie, savored their smoked salmon benedict while brunching with friends, and enjoyed their wood-fired pizza after a night out.

Heading home, I drove east across the 6th Street Bridge for the last time. Tears welled up in my eyes with an uncertainty about what the future holds on many levels. But there’s one thing I know for sure, I’ll definitely be back, with each visit just as memorable as the last.

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Hecho en Los Angeles

Frida’s Fiestas

Frida and I share the same zodiac. The world-famous artist, and spirited water sign, has long captured my attention. Although I just learned that Frida Kahlo was also a Cancer, I’ve been enamored with her life, style, and art for many years. In high school, I scoured flea markets in my LA suburb for tchotchkes bearing her unmistakable image. During my university years, I pored over books about this incredible woman, eventually saving some money to buy a cookbook honoring her culinary skills. Now, I am lucky enough to attend museums and cultural events highlighting Frida’s art and unique style.

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Frida’s studio with photograph of Diego Rivera

It wasn’t until I visited her famed Casa Azul in Mexico City that I finally understood this woman. I planned my trip around the Vogue-sponsored exhibit that displayed Frida’s shrouded wardrobe, which had been hidden from the public since her death. As I entered the exhibit, the first piece I saw stopped me dead in my tracks: her body cast. I stood there, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I came face to face with the object that embodied Frida’s tragedy, and ultimate impetus for her art. Confined by the cast, and eventually to her bed, Frida created some of her most somber, yet glorious art because of this physical adversity. Meandering through the lush gardens in her hacienda style home, I got a glimpse into the daily life of this provocative woman. Trotsky’s guest bedroom, the art studio that Frida and Diego shared, and the decorative kitchen, were just a few of the highlights of my visit to Casa Azul. The Frida Kahlo museum is a required destination for any visit to Mexico City. Coyoacan, which hosts the museum, is a short cab ride from the city center, and accessible by the city’s metro system.

After spending the morning in Frida’s former home, I wandered down the colorful Calle Ignacio Allende toward Jardin Hidalgo, stopping at the corner coffee spot, Café El Jarocho. As I sat outside El Jarocho sipping a latte and nibbling on churros purchased streetside, I talked with a local university student who suggested that I walk through the Mercado for jewelry and handicrafts. After promising to visit the Mercado, I bought a few pounds of coffee for souvenirs and walked down to the plaza. In a carnival-like atmosphere of colors, music, and aromas, I observed families out for an afternoon, tourists sampling street food, and vendors selling their wares.

Chiles en Nogada
The seasonal dish, Chiles en Nogada

As I rushed back to the city center, my only regret was that I didn’t stay in Coyoacan longer. But I had a good excuse; I was enticed by my reservation at Azul Historico to indulge in the seasonal dish “chiles en nogada”. I first learned of this dish, which is featured on local menus in September, in my aforementioned cookbook, Frida’s Fiestas. Azul Historico is nestled in the candlelit courtyard of Centro Historico. Colorful and fragrant dishes float around tables full of locals, business travelers, and tourists seeking an outdoor patio dining experience. After perusing the menu, I sputtered my order in broken Spanish and asked my server for this featured dish: “one of each, a sweet and a savory”. He chuckled knowingly, and recommended that I order just one and demonstrated the size of the stuffed chile with his hands. Picture-perfect and tied up with a red, white, and green bow to commemorate Mexican Independence day, my chile was worth the wait. I’m glad that I took his advice and enjoyed each morsel of my savory pork-filled entrée. Relishing each bite, I thought about Frida and the endless misfortune she overcame throughout her life, all while contributing to the world with her controversial art.

After dinner, I wandered through the courtyard and upstairs through some of the shops. Luckily, I happened upon Que Bo!, a local chocolatier that produces a small, but impressive menu of truffles, drinking chocolates, and other sweets to satiate any chocoholic. Sitting on the small balcony, I sipped my dessert and watched the diners at Padrinos, making a note to return and dine under their lush vertical garden. While walking back to my hotel, I heard music coming from an upstairs venue. Weaving my way across the street in a light rain, I headed upstairs to a small bar, La Diabla y La Santa. The band, Los Hijos de Chunga, was jamming in preparation for an upcoming music fest. Their sound, a hybrid of the Doors and Jethro Tull, was the perfect soundtrack to end a Friday night.

Museo Soumaya was next on my list. Its glistening exterior is probably one of the most photographed museum entrances in Latin America, if not the world. A generous gift from business tycoon Carlos Slim, Museo Soumaya makes art accessible to local Mexican citizens, as well as the international community. Upon entering the museum’s foyer, I was greeted by Rodin’s, “The Thinker”. Having seen this statue many times as an undergrad on my college campus, I made my way up to the circular ramp to the permanent exhibits. A vast array of styles and periods can be seen at Soumaya, including works by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, commercial works by national artist Jesus Helguera, and Salvador Dali’s sculptures. With so much to see, I spent most of the day absorbing the diverse collection and made notes to revisit my art history books upon my return home.

Making my way back towards the hotel, I stopped at Limosneros Restaurante at the recommendation of hotel staff. Limosneros did not disappoint with its inventive take on Mexican gastronomy and Instagram-worthy presentation. I sampled a little bit of everything including a local mescal and some of the best ribs I’ve ever tasted, but the highlight of my meal was the “flautas de flor de jamaica”. Having used flor de jamaica, or hibiscus flowers, in tea and juice, I was surprised to see them featured in a savory dish. Pleased with my choices, I asked the server for a dessert recommendation and was more than satisfied with the molten chocolate cake infused with ground chiles and pepitas. Admiring the light fixtures, which looked like miniature goblets made of blown glass, I made my plan for the remainder of my trip. In a city that boasts loads of museums, second only to Paris worldwide, I narrowed it down to a few for the last leg of my trip.

Sunday morning found me at the obligatory mass. But in reality, I needed to stop in and say thank you for an amazing trip thus far. Upon entering the Metropolitan Cathedral at Zocalo, I realized that a young girl’s quinceañera mass had begun. I quietly wandered through this architectural masterpiece, the largest and oldest cathedral in Latin America. Counting my blessings and giving thanks for a safe journey, I ducked out of the cathedral and wandered over to the neighboring Templo Mayor. At the entrance, visitors are guided through the ruins that were left behind after conquistadors used the stone and foundation to build the adjacent Cathedral and other nearby monuments.

Sacrificial altar at Templo Mayor
Sacrificial altar at Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor has an expansive outdoor portion of the museum where visitors can wander through these anthropological discoveries and read about this important part of Mexican history.   Learning about the contributions of the Aztecs to Mexico’s foundation, both literally and figuratively, is a necessary stop for anyone visiting Mexico City.

After wandering along Calle Tacuba and some of the streets near the Zocalo, I worked up an appetite and stopped in to enjoy a bountiful brunch at El Cardenal. Waiters practically waltzed through the dining room, carrying large trays of pan dulce, clay jugs full of hot chocolate, and colorful jars of agua frescas. Tempted to order one of everything on the robust menu that featured seasonal dishes such as cuitlacoche, I opted for the Mexican classic, chilaquiles. But it was my starter that was the star of the show. The bean soup, a brothy mixture of poached eggs, spicy pintos, and fresh cheese, was accompanied by housemade tortillas. Simple and flavorful, it hit the spot for a mid-day meal. With a full belly, I walked down the streets near the Zocalo and picked up a few last minute souvenirs. My prized find was a silk scarf by Mexican designer, Pineda Covalin. Narrowing down my choices was difficult with so many vibrant designs to choose from, but my ultimate choice reflected some of the Aztec images that reminded me of my earlier trip to the Templo Mayor.

Patio café at Gran Hotel
Patio café at Gran Hotel

Back “home” at my hotel, I ended the day at the rooftop café overlooking the Zocalo. Sipping on a fresh, green juice, I reflected on all of the awe-inspiring experiences that I had while here. Eager to return, I felt grateful for the opportunity to learn a little more about my heritage and the contributions of the Mexican people and began to plan my next trip.