Down and Out at the Beverly Center

(You know who updates her blog even less frequently than I do? Petty Officer Dualla, that’s who.)

My sister was in town from New York last month for a good, long visit. As is our habit, we picked one morning to take a leisurely walk to the beach. It’s about nine miles from my apartment to Santa Monica, which is a nice distance for stretching the legs and having a good chat.

Upon reaching Santa Monica, we strolled the length of the Third Street Promenade to the mall on Broadway, just as we always do. After a nine-mile walk, finding a bathroom is generally a good first move.

Imagine our surprise to find a gigantic construction site where the mall used to be.

It wasn’t a panic situation. We just used the sketchy bathrooms on the pier instead (the ones right by the trapeze school. Trapeze school! Is there anything more glorious than a trapeze school?). But it got me thinking: for someone who professes to hate malls, I sure have become dependent upon them.

Two reasons for this. The first and most important is the bathroom issue. I walk a tremendous amount, and it’s crucial to plan long walks around guaranteed bathrooms (around here, it’s not a given that fast food places or gas stations or, hell, even Starbucks will have restrooms for public use). The other is a matter of exposure: when you’re a chronic pedestrian, you discover that Los Angeles is both hotter and brighter than most people think it is. After spending several hours wandering under that bright, hazy, dirty sky, it’s a good idea to take cover for a while and quietly refuel. Hence the subtle allure of the food court.

From the perspective of a habitual walker, here’s a quick overview of the major malls in Greater Los Angeles. There are notable omissions: both Crenshaw and Fox Hills have significant shopping centers, but I don’t walk much to either place, so I’m not in a position to judge the bathrooms. Universal CityWalk should probably rate a mention, but I prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist.

The Grove
Location: West Hollywood/Fairfax District

Overview: I spend too much of my life at The Grove and at the adjoining Farmers Market. Since opening in 2002, The Grove has established itself as a central part of the Los Angeles landscape. An open-air sprawl of shops and restaurants, the Grove is designed to look like a European village by way of Las Vegas. Still, it’s nice. It’s pretty. It’s clean. There’s a dancing fountain. There’s a green-and-brass trolley that runs the length of the mall. During the holiday season, The Grove goes all out: there’s an enormous Christmas tree, a Santa’s Village, and fake chemical snow that billows down from the top of shops every night.

The Good: $2.50 for sixteen ounces of fresh-squeezed orange juice at the Nordstrom café. The shirtless eye candy flanking the doors at the flagship Abercrombie & Fitch. The clean, spacious movie theater, where the seats don’t smell like urine.

The Bad: There are a cluster of sit-down restaurants (the Whisper Lounge is a nice place to grab a pre-movie cocktail), but nothing in the way of fast food, probably because the quick-eats options at the Farmers Market are so vast and varied. Still, more than once I’ve provided frustrated visitors with directions to the KFC down the street. The nonstop piped-in Frank Sinatra music gets old very fast. I like Frank as much as the next girl, but variety is the spice of life.

The Grove is popular stop for many tour buses. I like tourists, as a rule – it’s nice to see people who actually want to be in Los Angeles – but the space isn’t big enough to support the huge influx of people. That doesn’t stop The Grove, which is perpetually hosting events (concerts, car shows) that overwhelm the small area. If you have claustrophobic tendencies, it’s a good idea to get the hell out of The Grove whenever you see the platform stage set up in front of the theater. Enormous crowds are sure to follow.

The Bizarre: Celebrities are inexplicably drawn to The Grove. The hobbits purportedly lurk at the Apple store. I’ve spotted David Spade at The Cheesecake Factory twice. In the Barnes & Noble alone, I’ve run into Colin Farrell, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Michael Chiklis; a friend stood in line behind Orlando Bloom as he ordered his soy chai latte at the café there. I have yet to figure out why celebrities spend so much time there, but then again, I have yet to figure out why I spend so much time there.

The Bathrooms: Very nice (and attended!), but not nearly large enough to support the droves of visitors. There’s often lines at the ones in Nordstrom and Barnes & Noble, too. Save yourself some hassle and use the ones at the Farmers Market.

The Beverly Center
Location: Beverly Hills/West Hollywood

Overview: The Beverly Center is housed in the ugliest building in Los Angeles. A monolithic concrete structure, it gets repainted and redecorated every few years in a sad, futile attempt to make it look something other than hideous. The mall itself takes up the top three floors; the lower levels are all parking, which means, if you enter the Beverly Center from the street, you have to go up eight billion escalators to reach the shops. The décor inside is better – it still looks a little aggressively eighties (the mall opened in 1982), what with the white marble floors and chrome railings – but it’s roomy and well-lit by skylights. Its popularity has taken a hit in recent years, thanks to the nearby Grove, though it still packs in crowds on weekends and during the holiday season.

The Good: Cute doggies and bunnies at the pet store. Also, perhaps suspecting that the Beverly Center would be easier to tolerate after a martini, some smart person opened a bar right smack in the courtyard on the first level of shops.

The Bad: On a hot day, avoid the east-facing escalators in the early afternoon: the floor-to-ceiling windows, which provide a gorgeous panoramic view of the city, will fry you like an ant under a magnifying glass.

There is no bookstore anywhere in the Beverly Center.

The Bizarre: You know the entire west end of the mall, the end bordered by San Vicente, where there are no windows and no escalators and no shops, and which looks weird and industrial and scary, like the Jawa headquarters on Tatooine in Star Wars? Yeah. It’s an oil well. They built the mall around an active oil well.

The Bathrooms: There are two – one on the second level of shops and one on the top floor. Both are sizeable and well-maintained.

Westfield Century City Shopping Center
Location: Century City

Overview: Right out of college, I had a Very Bad Job in Century City, answering phones for $6.25 an hour, and it’s kind of soured me on the area ever since. I’d bring my bag lunch and sit in the mall and sing Air Supply songs softly to myself. In my experience, Century City is a pretty good place to go if you want to feel desperately unhappy about your life.

The Good: The mall has been recently and extensively redesigned, with improvements for the better. There’s a brand-new second floor, which houses the new food court. The food court is aggressively tasteful, designed in hammered metal, glass, and natural wood. I’m not sure why, but it makes me giggle.

The Bad: It’s a spacious, open-air mall made of white concrete with low buildings, very little landscaping, and no shade. On a hot, sunny day, prepare to be blinded.

The Bizarre: Vending machines that sell ProActiv, for your on-the-go acne-fighting needs.

The Bathrooms: They used to be pretty terrible – small and hard to locate. The new upstairs bathrooms are now as aggressively tasteful and giggle-worthy as the food court.

Westside Pavilion
Location: West L.A.

Overview: When I was working at America’s Funniest Home Videos, which had their production offices out on Olympic at the border between West L.A. and Santa Monica, I used to stop at the Westside Pavilion for a quick layover on the seven-mile walk to work every morning. The Westside Pavilion is located on an odd stretch of Pico: to the east, there’s the Fox lot; to the west, there’s nothing in particular, until you hit the ocean. If you’re walking along Pico to the beach, the Westside Pavilion is your last, best chance for coffee and a bathroom. (Actually, if you’re walking to the beach, don’t take Pico. Take Wilshire. It’s more scenic.)

The Good: There’s a great view from the skywalk over Westwood Boulevard connecting the main building to the new Landmark Theaters.

The Bad: A fairly traditional mall (three levels, anchored by a Nordstrom on one end and a Macy’s on the other), the Westside Pavilion is geared towards the hordes of young, upwardly-mobile parents in West L.A., which explains all the strange child-development shops. This is probably awesome if you are a parent of small children. It’s less awesome if you don’t want your path constantly blocked by strollers.

The Bizarre: Talking garbage cans in the food court. Why???

The Bathrooms: On the top floor in the food court. Serviceable.

Hollywood & Highland
Location: Hollywood

Overview: Hollywood is not an ideal destination for a pedestrian. It seems like every scary and quasi-dangerous encounter I’ve ever had has taken place in Hollywood. Even with the extensive recent rehabilitation of the area (the Hollywood & Highland complex being a key example), it’s still run-down and teeming with the mentally unstable. There’s something inherently melancholy about Hollywood Boulevard, what with the run-down storefronts selling movie memorabilia, the various Scientology buildings, the costumed characters (Superman, Chewbacca et al) hustling tourists for money, the handprints of celebrities immortalized in cement outside the Chinese Theater, the pink stars on the sidewalk. It all telegraphs this message: Famous people once liked it here.

The Good: The layout is kind of neat – half open-air, half indoor – with some pretty architectural flourishes. Hollywood & Highland connects to the Kodak Theater, new home of the Academy Awards.

The Bad: It’s in Hollywood. You don’t really want to be in Hollywood, do you? Hollywood is a layover, not a destination: use the bathrooms, grab an excellent cream puff at Beard Papa, then hop on the subway to somewhere that isn’t Hollywood. Or go to Famima!! to load up on sushi and steamed dumplings, then walk up to the Hollywood Bowl to take in a cheap open-air summer concert.

The Bizarre: The kiosk selling flavored oxygen.

The Bathrooms: The one on the first floor is tiny and crowded. Use the hidden one by the pretzel shop on the second level, which nobody ever uses, probably because they can’t find it.

Glendale Galleria
Location: Glendale

Overview: Midway between the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and my parents’ home in southern Minnesota, there’s a town called Burnsville, which features a good-sized shopping mall. The Glendale Galleria is indistinguishable from the Burnsville Center, down to the Gloria Jean’s coffee shop. Not much of Los Angeles bears any resemblance to southern Minnesota.

For being so close to the heart of the city, Glendale never really seems much like a part of Los Angeles. Glendale is where people live when they don’t want to live in L.A. (Compare Glendale to Century City: in Century City, there’s the Fox building, which blew up in Die Hard, and the towering MGM building, and the brand-new gorgeous CAA headquarters… You can probably sense a trend here. Take a look at the businesses in downtown Glendale: banks and title insurance). The Glendale Galleria is the perfect mall for the area.

The Good: Hopelessly uncool, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The Bad: Windowless and dark and strangely claustrophobic.

The Bizarre: The floor plan makes no sense. The layout of the Galleria, with its strange, random corridors and half-levels, flummoxes me.

The Bathrooms: Hidden. I had to consult the directory to find them, and even then it seemed like I was heading in the wrong direction.

The Americana at Brand
Location: Glendale

Overview: Located right across the street from the Galleria, the brand-new Americana exists just to thumb its nose at the older, less hip mall. The Americana is designed by the same folks who brought us The Grove. You can tell: it’s a clone of The Grove, albeit on a much larger scale.

The Good: The Beard Papa kiosk. Cream puffs make the world a better place.

The Bad: Refer to my below notes on the bathroom situation.

The Bizarre: It’s hard to shake the impression that The Americana is the evil parallel universe version of The Grove. It looks like The Grove. It’s got the same shops as The Grove. It’s got the same trolley. It’s got the same Pacific Theatres multiplex. It’s just bigger, and just different enough to provide an odd feeling of déjà vu and displacement: every time I’m at The Americana, it feels like I’m dreaming about The Grove, only my subconscious keeps distorting the particulars.

The Bathrooms: I’m relatively certain The Americana has bathrooms, and the fact that I couldn’t find them is probably more a reflection of my own personal failings. The bathrooms are supposedly located in the concierge office, which doubles as the lobby for the luxury apartments surrounding the mall. I reconnoitered the lobby several times and found no sign of a bathroom. What I did find were a couple of official-looking large men with jackets and ties and thick necks who were there to offer directions and assistance. I’m quite sure they could have steered me the right way (up the escalator? down the escalator?). Here’s the thing, though: I don’t like needing to ask large men for help when I need to pee. I used the bathrooms in Barnes & Noble instead. So while I’m pretty sure the bathrooms are located somewhere in or around the concierge office, I really don’t think it would kill The Americana to make them easier to find.


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