The Bhutan Connection
How Downtown Los Angeles Is Like the Tiny Himalayan Nation
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – It hit me the other day, in the strangest of places, as I made the turn from Glendale Boulevard under the overpass and then drove up onto First Street: The reason I love Downtown Los Angeles so much is because it reminds me of the kingdom of Bhutan.
If you’ve ever heard of Bhutan (and if you haven’t, hopefully you will soon, since I just wrote a book about the place), you’d think that’s crazy. The tiny, landlocked Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China bears absolutely no physical resemblance to Downtown. Fewer people live in all of Bhutan (650,000) than attend school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (about 700,000). The main national highway is so narrow it would hardly accommodate two passing Escalades, much less a Metro Rapid bus. Once I hosted a Bhutanese visitor who flipped when she saw the Westin Bonaventure — she’d never seen a black building before, much less one that tall. In Bhutan, they’re all white, with colorful roofs.
Not even the busiest part of the fast-growing capital city of Thimphu looks one iota like this place. There aren’t any traffic lights, and the main intersection is attended by a cop who directs the growing number of cars the old-fashioned way: with his arms. From a distance it looks like he’s doing tai chi. Imagine the purple-clad BID patrol officers bending that way on their bikes.
The similarity I’m talking about is more a feeling, a state of mind. A sense of small-town interconnectedness and navigability that makes a place not just livable, but charming. It’s what’s kept me living on Bunker Hill since 2004.
When I moved to Los Angeles from my native New York City seven years ago, I chose to live Downtown for one simple reason: I didn’t want to commute. I had a job at “Marketplace,” the public radio show, and literally across the street from the studios were two tall residential buildings connected by a pedestrian walkway. Once I learned of the gigantic swimming pool in the back, I rushed to the leasing office.
I soon found that living in Downtown was a lot like living in the small town of my dreams, except that the small town happened to be landscaped with ginormous buildings and a symphony hall that looked like a spaceship. I reveled in the feel of day-to-day life here in the BR and BBL era (Before Ralphs and Before Bottega Louie). I rushed to the Golden Gopher when it opened to celebrate a new bar in Downtown as if it were a major event. Actually, it was. We Downtown dwellers had access to services, sure, but not with a maddening abundance of choices. We had people, and yet on the weekends it emptied out, but for the parade of camera-wielding tourists.
I bonded with like-minded Downtown residents who’d also opted for free time over commuting time. I walked to the library each day and used it the way some people use the local bookstore. I gleefully rode the DASH bus and the Metro and took photographs to prove to other Angelenos that mass transit really does exist here. My daily route included waving to security guards in the World Trade Center and assisting confused map-wielding tourists as I made my way to the Y each evening. My Los Angeles wasn’t some big, intimidating place. It was a little hamlet.
Life happened, time ticked by. In 2007, fate took me to Bhutan for six weeks to help with a start-up radio station. I had no idea that the trip would change my life. But almost from the minute I arrived, I deduced the same qualities I loved from Downtown in the capital of the so-called last Shangri-La. Like my neighborhood back home, Thimphu was experiencing a boom, one I’ve enjoyed just as I’ve enjoyed seeing Downtown sizzle these last few years.
Back then, there were exactly two restaurants where you could get a real cup of coffee. (Now there are too many to count.) The roads around town had steep inclines and flowed in directions that didn’t always make sense. Just like before the reopening of Angels Flight, I had to plan my shopping and attendant haul accordingly. Just like in Downtown, I always ran into someone I knew.
After each of my six stints in Bhutan, I’ve experienced shock when I’ve returned, at the grandness, the madness, of Los Angeles. But Downtown always offers the calm I need. I wrote the bulk of my book here on Bunker Hill, in glorious, self-imposed isolation. I still miss Thimphu, and some days I wake up and wish I could run to Karma Coffee for a macchiato. But as comfortable as I feel in the kingdom I have been lucky to get to know, I know my home is right here.