American Way - April 2019

LOCAL TAKES: LOS ANGELES

Five notable locals show us how to do Los Angeles, their way.

For a first-time visitor to Los Angeles, a pre-trip to-do list might look something like this: Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood Boulevard. For the people who live in L.A., however, these famous destinations (and the La La Land conventions they embody) don’t begin to tell the story of this 500-square-mile city. From the historic districts of downtown to the looming cliffs of Malibu, the family-run eateries of Little Ethiopia to the independent galleries of the Arts District, Los Angeles is as diverse, colorful and consistently surprising as any city in America. Here, five longtime locals take us beyond the headlines.

Shirley Kurata, 48 
wardrobe stylist
The funky side of Normal

Shirley Kurata breezes into her lifestyle boutique, Virgil Normal, which occupies a small redbrick building near the corner of Normal and Virgil avenues in Virgil Village, a rapidly gentrifying area in East Hollywood. The street outside, with its apartment blocks and Craftsman-style houses, is not particularly glamorous, but Kurata makes up for that. Her thick round eyeglasses are black, like her short bob haircut. She’s wearing yellow plaid pants, a floral-patterned coat and a pair of chunky buckle shoes. An orange plastic tote swings in her hand as she walks.

Kurata may have a singular sense of style, but there has been no shortage of people eager to tap into it. She is best known for the styling work she does for magazines, movies and fashion houses. (She counts Lena Dunham, Zooey Deschanel and Beck among her celebrity clients, and has been a creative force on Rodarte’s runway shows for more than a decade.) Then there’s her quirky and eclectic shop, which sells everything from skater wear to Snoopy toys.

“There’s a lot of color here,” Kurata says, tucking a lavender hoodie into a display that also contains a turquoise knit cap, a glaring orange T-shirt and and a green fishing vest. “I was always influenced by color.” With this, she leads me out onto Virgil, promising a special treat.

We pass a street vendor pushing a cart piled with chicharrónes, duros and other Mexican snacks. Farther along, a group of young men—one wearing a suit adorned with metal forks—pops into L.A.G. Vintage, one of the area’s funky secondhand stores. “What’s great about L.A. is you’re exposed to so many different subcultures, like skate culture, surf culture, punk,” Kurata says. “I’ve always liked that mix.”



More and more, the old traditional storefronts on Virgil are being joined by trendy eateries like Sqirl, where locals line up along the block for the sorrel pesto rice, and the wine shop Vinovore, whose focus is on female winemakers. We walk past Melody, a wine bar and bistro that recently set up in an old bungalow and now hosts pop-up dinners by local chefs. While Kurata is happy to see the arrival of places like this, she also values mainstays like Lupita’s 99-Cent Store. “I don’t want it to become all new,” she says. “I definitely like the old mom-and-pop shops.”


With this, she dashes across the street to a small takeout window. This is the treat she’d promised me earlier, she explains, ordering a handful of dollar tacos wrapped in homemade tortillas. “It’s like if you went to a friend’s house and their mom cooked for you,” she says, going on to describe the food at Taqueria El Charrito as “legitimate.”

A common criticism of L.A. is that it is too spread out, impossible to navigate without a car, which somehow makes it less “real.” As Kurata points out, though, the city has plenty of places to explore on foot.

“You might have to drive around,” she says, “but there are lots of cool reasons to stop.”

Just north of Virgil, for instance, are the tranquil hills and funky bars of Los Feliz, where Kurata lives with her boyfriend and business partner, Charlie Staunton. Head south and you’re in the buzzy dining district Koreatown, and then among the specialty grocery stores of Little Bangladesh.

“I like to describe L.A. as like going to a flea market—sometimes you have to dig and hunt for the gems,” Kurata says. “But that’s what I love about this city. There’s always something new that I didn’t know about, and that makes L.A. its own special place.” With this, tacos in hand, she bounds through the traffic and back to the shop, where she and Staunton eat their lunch before the picture window, watching as a skater hops off his board and carries it past the humdrum houses of Normal.

 

Todd Boyd, 54 
professor and pundit
A study in style downtown

When Todd Boyd strolls up to G&B Coffee, the barista behind the counter looks at him quizzically. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and the bespectacled, sharp-dressed man before her doesn’t usually come in for his daily espresso until 4.

“I’m habitual. Some people would say eccentric,” says Boyd, a cultural commentator and professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, who wryly calls himself the Notorious Ph.D. “If I find something I like, I’m going to do it regularly.”

For the past five years, Boyd’s afternoon routine has included a visit to this countertop coffee shop in downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, an arcade of specialty food stands that opened in 1917. From his seat here, across the street from the intermittently operational 1901 funicular railway Angels Flight, he has watched downtown transform from dead zone to nightlife mecca. “I always say I don’t follow trends—trends follow me,” he says, his deep professorial voice and demeanor on full display.

During the 17 years he’s lived here, he’s seen bank buildings reborn as sleek apartment blocks and pricey boutiques pop up in abandoned buildings. Some of the newest hotspots offer sky-high views of the area, like Broken Shaker, the popular poolside bar atop the Freehand Hotel, which opened inside the historic Commercial Exchange building in 2017. Atop the 1,100-foot InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown is the craft cocktail bar Spire 73, which bills itself as the tallest open-air bar in the Western Hemisphere.

From Grand Central, we walk around the corner to the Bradbury Building, an 1893 landmark whose vast, open interior is all wrought iron and sunbeams, where we stop for an espresso at the recently opened Blue Bottle Coffee, another contravention of the professor’s daily routine.

Boyd has appeared in more than 40 documentaries since moving to L.A., each time in a different pair of eyeglasses. Tall and broad, he considers himself a man of style—dressing well, he says, is his “artistic statement to the world.” Not long ago, he found it difficult to get his favored clothing brands downtown, so he’d head to Beverly Hills. Today, he finds everything he needs—from limited-edition sneakers to cutting-edge jackets—right in his own neighborhood.

One of Boyd’s latest local obsessions is Visvim, the cult Japanese menswear brand that recently opened a gallery-like boutique nearby on Broadway. Another of his favorite labels, the luxury Swedish brand Acne Studios, has set up an industrial-looking, stainless-steel showroom just down the street. For athletic shoes (the ones he’s wearing today are pull-on, sock-style Vetements with “left” and “right” embroidered on them), Boyd likes specialty shops like Blends and RSVP Gallery. “For sneakerheads, you can do all that here,” he says. “I’ve got my downtown spots I can get to.”

What he loves most about his neighborhood—besides being able to see the $140 million The Broad contemporary art museum and the Pacific Ocean from the windows of his high-rise—is that it combines the traditional with the fresh. “That’s what’s cool about the Grand Central Market: They kept these old neighborhood vendors and brought in some new hipster venues, too,” he says. “So you’ve got this old-school Chinese fried rice spot across from a gourmet cheese shop next to a peanut-butter-and-jelly joint.”

In this way, L.A. fits with the happy contradictions in Boyd’s own life. Only here, perhaps, could a character like the Notorious Ph.D. flourish, and do so, as Boyd puts it, in a way that is “seamless.”

 

Amanda Chantal Bacon, 35
founder of Moon Juice
Fashion and fruit juice on Melrose

Amanda Chantal Bacon was not lured to Los Angeles by promises of stardom, sunshine or shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive. “I’m maybe the one person who moved to L.A. for the fruits and vegetables,” says the New York native, a trained chef who now runs the juice bar-turned-wellness empire Moon Juice, which she founded in Venice in 2011.

Today, Bacon is sitting outside her newest location, a chipper nook amid a stretch of designer shops and beauty boutiques on Melrose Place. When she gets a rare break, she likes to pop across the street to Rachel Comey to check out the designer’s collection of knit basics and sleek booties. “I used to go to her shop in New York, and I was so happy to see it opening here,” she says. “It made me feel like we were really opening on the right block.”

As we poke around the store, the proprietor greets her warmly: “Good to see you!” Bacon explains she won’t be buying anything today. “I’m pregnant,” she says, snapping the elastic waistband of her black slacks. “You’re making it work,” the grinning shopkeeper tells her.

Up and down Melrose, immaculately groomed shoppers flit in and out of fashion boutiques like The Row, Marc Jacobs, Isabel Marant and Mansur Gavriel (“which has a sweet little café”), along with beauty outlets like Violet Grey, Kate Somerville and Glossier. For Bacon, true beauty is a matter of what you put in your body rather than what you put on it. “You can’t just get a haircut and buy a bag,” she says.

A little farther on, entertainment-industry types make their way into the airy dining spot Fig & Olive. Bacon, however, is more likely to be found eating chickpea fritters or roasted beets at Farmshop, an artisan restaurant and food market in the posh Brentwood Country Mart. Which is not to say that she disapproves of the city’s glossier side.

“L.A. is very choose-your-own-adventure,” Bacon says. “You can have a totally urban experience, like my friends who live downtown and in the Arts District.” But Bacon has always felt more at home in the city’s peaceful enclaves—eucalyptus-lined streets, rolling hills, sun-dappled beaches. She lives in a traditional Rustic Canyon home built in the late 1950s in the Santa Monica Mountains. “I love it,” she says. “It’s so close to the ocean, but really in the woods.”

Bacon also likes Griffith Park, one of the largest urban wilderness areas in the country, with trails winding through more than six square miles of California oak, walnut, lilac and sage (some leading up to the Hollywood Sign). Then there’s Runyon Canyon, another popular hiking spot and a good place to spot celebs walking their dogs.

“I don’t know that people often associate the city with quiet, nature and trees,”

Bacon says, sipping a Goodness Greens smoothie (kale and spinach juice) back at Moon Juice. “For me, that’s the most charming part of Los Angeles. It’s the secret L.A. that wooed me. And that’s why I’m still here.”

 

Rita D’Albert, 40ish 
co-creator of Lucha Vavoom
A hideaway in Little Tokyo

With a swipe of a striped fingernail across the iPad menu mounted above her head, Rita D’Albert orders a crunchy salmon roll at one of her favorite lunch spots: Kura Revolving Sushi Bar, a slick, high-tech restaurant in Japanese Village Plaza. “When I need to clear my head and get inspired, I walk to Little Tokyo and take in the sights and the crazy people,” she says, gesticulating with her chopsticks. “This is my happy place.”

What D’Albert doesn’t say is that she’s pretty good people-watching material herself. She has platinum blonde hair, burgundy lips, a glam-punk fashion sense and a dancer’s frame honed by years of performing in Lucha VaVOOM, the distinctly Los Angeles variety show she’s been producing since 2002. A blend of comedy, dance and Mexican wrestling, the burlesque plays four times a year at downtown L.A.’s Mayan Theater, a revamped movie palace not far from the Japanese district where D’Albert goes to recharge. “It’s surrounded by tent cities and courthouses, yet somehow they’ve managed to keep Little Tokyo very orderly, and there’s this charming little square,” she says. “It’s like a teeny-tiny vacation.”

Originally settled in 1885, the area today is a concentration of Japanese markets, sushi and shabu-shabu restaurants. These range from Far Bar, which serves burgers and sushi and draws lively crowds to its fairy-lit outdoor patio, to the elegant izakaya Kinjiro, whose menu includes Asian twists on nose-to-tail (miso stew with beef tendon, tongue, sinew and tripe). Elsewhere, the area bustles with private-booth karaoke bars, designer sneaker stores and ultra-hip pop-culture shops.

Lunch over, D’Albert strides across Japanese Village Plaza for a cappuccino at Cafe Dulce. On weekends, the plaza teems with kids dressed like anime and manga figures, drawn to the area by boutiques like Japangeles and Hob Nob, beauty outlets such as Little Tokyo Cosmetics and kawaii shops like Maneki Neko and Sanrio, which cater to fans of Japanese cute-culture. “They come in full wigs, full costumes. It doesn’t matter what sex they are or what size they are—they’re just out there being a character,” she says. “My hat’s off to them for expressing themselves and having a place to do it.”

Around the corner, upstairs from Marukai Market—where you can pick up everything from bok choy to green-tea Kit Kats—is Kinokuniya bookstore. Along with Pusheen plush toys and manga books, the store carries an enormous range of stationery, which D’Albert raids every time she’s putting together a new Lucha VaVOOM show. “Being in show business, I embrace certain superstitions,” she says. “So if I buy a new notebook and pen for the next production, it imbues a sense of a new start.”

For a livelier shopping experience, D’Albert heads south to Santee Alley, a carnival-like bazaar in the L.A. Fashion District. We stroll the two-block pedestrian alley for a bit, D’Albert picking through the clutter of rainbow wigs, Dodgers jerseys, fake Ray-Bans, knockoff Gucci bags and thigh-high boots. “It’s completely bonkers and complete trash,” she says, “but it could be exactly what I need to create a character.”

For D’Albert, the manicured orderliness of Little Tokyo and the colorful chaos of Santee Alley are an expression of the city’s beguiling mishmash of cultures and sensibilities. “You have to carve out the experience you want here,” she says. “You have to do your homework—it’s not laid out for you. But if you figure out the experience you want, you will be rewarded.”

 

Kent Twitchell, 76
muralist

Peace, love and street art in Long Beach

Kent Twitchell emerges from his Long Beach studio and suggests we go for a walk.
With a white beard and a fluff of hair that seems to have styled itself into a silvery pompadour, he could be a ship’s captain (or, this being Los Angeles, someone who plays a ship’s captain in the movies), though his paint-spattered shirt points to his actual occupation. The muralist usually likes to walk the mile-long stretch of sand barefoot (“to get grounded”). Today, he’s spiffed up for a trip to the Long Beach Museum of Art by wearing shoes.

This seaside suburb 20-odd miles south of downtown L.A.—home to the decommissioned Queen Mary liner, now a luxury hotel, along with a thriving arts community—is about as far from the city as Twitchell is willing to live. “There’s just something about Los Angeles where you feel like you’re in the center of the world,” he says. “L.A. is kind of a safe place for artists.” As we walk, he recalls the hippie culture that shaped his singular approach to urban renewal: “We were trying to beautify the world.”

The profusion of street art in L.A. has kept that impulse alive, turning the city into a vast open-air gallery. Twitchell’s own work is well represented in this regard. Dotted around Los Angeles are more than a dozen of his building-sized, photo-realistic portraits of artists and everyday people. His first piece appeared in 1971: a blue-tinged image of Steve McQueen on the side of a house downtown. Twenty years after that, he created one of his more visible works: the Chamber Orchestra musicians towering over the Harbor Freeway. Right now, he’s working on a mural of his former mentor Charles White.

Twitchell’s work, along with beautifying L.A., has provided him with an unusual perspective on its street life. “I would work day and night, and it was like overseeing a forest,” he says of the years he spent atop scaffolding or dangling from ropes. “After a while, there were people who became familiar and you could almost predict when they would go by—everyone has their own rhythms.” These days, he paints on panels in his studio, which are later applied to buildings by people younger than he is. “The wall doesn’t know the difference,” he says with a shrug.

Just as Twitchell’s murals are scattered across town, so too are the galleries and museums that give him inspiration—or, as he puts it, “that extra battery boost.” He goes to the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A. and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena to see the works of masters, and keeps track of rising talent in the galleries at his alma maters, California State L.A. and Otis College of Art and Design. He also spends a lot of time at Laguna College of Art and Design, where he serves as a mentor. “Good thing my Prius gets such good mileage,” he says.

Back at his studio, Twitchell’s pre-painted panels line the walls: a giant hand here, a gargantuan nostril there. He pads across the concrete floor, takes a seat in a hydraulic chair and reflects on his career. Though he’s painted murals in other cities—Julius Erving in Philadelphia, Ruby Dee in Cleveland—he has always found himself drawn to his hometown. “I consider myself a folk artist and a regionalist,” he says. “I’m just a kid in Los Angeles and I paint people in Los Angeles.”

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