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Bruin Guide to Secret Sights

By Michael Stone, Patty Park '91 and Maureen Brogan

Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Los Angeles tourist attractions are famous around the world: Universal Studios, the Chinese Theater, the Santa Monica Pier. But there are hidden treasures that offer a view of authentic city life, as well as a window into old L.A. Here are three of these lesser-known gems.


Mike the PoeT leads a group on a tour of Atwater Village, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, which includes the L.A. River. Photo by Angie Smith.

Beyond Boundaries

“Atwater village is an excellent but underrated community,” says Mike Sonksen ’97, a.k.a. Mike the PoeT, who leads urban hikes in both known and lesser-known parts of Los Angeles. The village, in northeast Los Angeles, borders the Los Angeles River flood plain and is surrounded by Los Feliz, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Glassell Park and Glendale.

Sonksen explains that it was the hip-hop band the Beastie Boys who put Atwater Village on the map in the early ’90s, when they had a studio on Glendale Boulevard. Named for its proximity to the river, Atwater is thriving now, with all the hustle and bustle of a city.

“These days, hipsters move to Atwater from Echo Park and Silver Lake after they have kids,” says Sonksen, a third-generation Angeleno and a journalist, author and spoken-word artist.


Mike the PoeT. Photo by Angie Smith.

On a recent Saturday morning, Sonksen starts the tour outside Kaldi Coffee & Tea and leads the group down Glendale Boulevard. First stop is Alias Books East, one of the last quality independent booksellers in L.A. Next, he points out a Wells Fargo parking lot where one of the city’s best farmers’ markets pops up every Sunday. Then he provides an outline of the growth and demise of the Pacific Electric Railway’s route down Glendale Boulevard.

At the Atwater Village Farm building, home to the Beastie Boys’ G-Son Studios, Sonksen stops beneath “RIP MCA,” a mural paying homage to the band’s late co-founder Adam Yauch. Sonksen talks about the band’s rise, key lyrics and status as one of the best-known and longest-surviving hip-hop acts worldwide.

As the group loops back toward the river, the environment changes to an ecological retreat, with water flowing gently and wild flora and fauna populating the river’s edge. Hikers note the juxtaposition of traffic on the nearby I-5 freeway. Sonksen speaks about the major revitalization effort under way for the river, seeking to turn 51 contiguous miles into greenway and a bike path by 2020.

Next stop: A large mural of the Big Red Car in one of several pocket parks along the river. Sonksen remarks that the Pacific Electric Red Car ran between Silver Lake and Glendale before operations ceased in the 1950s. Today, all that remains are six support pillars over the river and the mural. At the dead-end of Sunnynook Street is a footbridge across the river to another pocket park, named for Lewis MacAdams, founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River. Atwater Village is just one of the tours Sonksen conducts for the A+D Museum. “I want to tear down boundaries,” he says. “It’s all L.A.”

To join Sonksen on one of his Urban Hikes, visit

By: Michael Stone

See why he's called Mike the PoeT:


Tours by author Charles Fleming include classic houses and even ocean vistas. Photo by Angie Smith.

Stairways to Old L.A.

It’s hard to believe that streetcars and trolleys used to run throughout L.A., a place now renowned for its zealous car culture. But scattered throughout the city are more than 400 hidden public stairways, many built before the 1920s, that once helped people walk quickly between hillside homes and schools or transit lines.

“These staircases are walkways into old Los Angeles, into neighborhoods that people don’t even know are there,” says Charles Fleming ’78, author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. “They’re kind of tucked away and don’t show up on most city maps.”


Author Charles Fleming. Photo by Angie Smith.

Fleming recently introduced a group of urban explorers to portions of the Music Box Loop — a 2.5-mile walk totaling 705 steps, beginning at a hip Cuban bakery in Silver Lake. With café con leche in hand, the group ascends the Music Box Steps, where Laurel and Hardy comically pushed up a piano in their 1932 Academy Award-winning short film, The Music Box. This is just one of 42 stairway hikes that Fleming has stitched together in his book, using 250 stairways. Each walk is rated on a difficulty level from 1 to 5. The peaceful Pasadena–La Loma Road hike offers elegant staircases and shaded oak trees. The monster Pacific Palisades–Giant Steps walk goes by an abandoned compound built by an American Nazi sympathizer and ends with a whopping 512-step staircase. One of Fleming’s favorites, the Castellammare walk, includes scenic ocean vistas. Others offer a glimpse of restored Victorian and Queen Anne homes, Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces and old Hollywood intrigue.

“Each walk is peppered with groovy nuggets of history,” says Fleming, who works as an editor at the Los Angeles Times. “Who designed that house? What famous person lived here? What was writer William Faulkner working on when he had an apartment in that building?”

The staircases also connect to a sense of community. “I didn’t really fall in love with L.A. until I started walking and moving at a pedestrian pace,” Fleming says. “It’s hard to have a relationship with a set of freeway off-ramps and from your car going 60 miles an hour. It’s much easier to have a relationship with stairways and sidewalks, and the people you meet there as you walk.”

To join Fleming on his monthly Secret Stairs walks, find Secret Stairs on Facebook or visit

By: Patty Park '91

Hear Charles talk about the "Music Box Stairs" on one of his tours:


Michael Goldstein leads tourists and locals alike on a fascinating tour of downtown L.A. Photo by Angie Smith.

Downtown Treasures

In the nearly 470 square miles that is the city of Los Angeles, an abundance of architectural and historic treasures stand waiting to be explored. The Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and revitalize historic buildings, places and neighborhoods throughout the city, offers walking tours that highlight different aspects of the city’s history. The Historic Downtown Walking Tour, for example, explores the area’s shifting architectural styles from the 1890s to the present.

Michael Goldstein, UCLA associate vice provost in charge of the Healthy Campus Initiative and a professor at the Fielding School of Public Health, is a volunteer docent who leads the Historic Downtown tour and other tours at least once a month.


Michael Goldstein. Photo by Angie Smith.

“Over the years, downtown Los Angeles has become more and more of a tourist destination, especially among foreign tourists,” says Goldstein, “though the majority of people taking the [conservancy] tours are locals who want to become better acquainted with their city.”

Goldstein’s tour covers a range of beloved Los Angeles landmarks, including Pershing Square, the Biltmore Hotel, the Pacific Mutual Life Building, the Central Library, the Edison Building, Angels Flight, Grand Central Market, the Million Dollar Theater and the always impressive Bradbury Building, a notable backdrop for films from the noir 1950s masterpieces as well as Blade Runner, (500) Days of Summer and The Artist. Tour enthusiasts can see Beaux Artsstyle architecture and Art Deco buildings, as well as skyscrapers from the late 20th century.

“Los Angeles is a young city. The buildings the conservancy works hard to preserve are relatively new and the laws currently protecting them are pretty weak,” confides Goldstein. That alone may be reason enough to see the city with fresh eyes, as a living museum with architectural gems that provide tangible evidence of our history and a connection to those who came before.

To join a Los Angeles Conservancy walking tour or to find resources for self-guided tours, visit

By: Maureen Brogan