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Walking in L.A.

Where freeways reign, professor Robert Herman chose to ride the train.

Robert Herman wants to make L.A. friendlier pedestrians.

Then he did something really strange. He actually walked in L.A.

Exploring downtown on foot, the shoe-leather sociologist kept discovering more attractions. So he decided to share the city's secrets with suburbia.

After skeptical publishers turned him down, Herman published Downtown Los Angeles: A Walking Guide on his own in 1996, shortly before retiring. It filled a niche (Gem Guides took over publication after the first edition), and Herman has since given hundreds of tours of the Civic Center, Bunker Hill and other downtown districts.

Today, more and more people are following in Herman's footsteps, and not just for a one-time urban adventure.

A housing boom is bringing thousands of new residents to downtown as long-vacant buildings are converted into swanky loft apartments and condominiums. More than 3,500 housing units have been added since 1999, another 2,800 are under construction and thousands more are on the drawing boards, according to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

“It’s finally happening,” says Herman. “We’re getting a lot of people moving downtown. I’ve been waiting for it all my life.”

Herman is one of the few people outside of downtown who understood the city center’s future, says Sue Laris, editor and publisher of Los Angeles Downtown News, a free publication that is benefiting from the residential boom.

“He was the cutting edge,” says Laris. “People in the suburbs like to say ‘I haven’t been downtown in 20 years.’ Bob wasn’t buying it. He was saying there is a downtown and it’s vibrant.” Adding to the vibrancy are two major cultural attractions that have opened in the last few years: Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. They have drawn attention and visitors to downtown, and added new stops to Herman’s tour.

Herman’s love for cities goes back to his boyhood growing up in a small town in southern Michigan. Going to see his grandmother in Dundee, IL., required a trip through Chicago, with its skyscrapers and elevated trains. That sparked his interest in all things urban. In the '40s he moved to California and graduated in 1951 from Pomona College, where a decade later he became a sociology professor focusing on urban issues.

For a time, Herman and other Pomona professors such as art historian George Gorse and sociologist Jill Grisby would take students on bus tours of Southern California attractions. Then the Metrolink regional train system arrived in Claremont in 1992, with a station just blocks from the College and double-decker trains that whisk passengers to downtown’s Union Station in 50 minutes.

Bye-bye, bus. Good riddance, gridlock. From then on, students on his tours would take the train downtown and then walk the city. Herman found this allowed students to see far more sites than a bus tour and helped keep them engaged.

As the meeting point for Herman’s two great fascinations – cities and trains -- Union Station provides the perfect starting place for his tours. He waxes over the station's optimistic architecture, full of arches and color, a mix of art deco and Spanish colonial revival. “It just tells you you’re in a different place,’’ he says of the station built in 1939. “This is California. Your life is going to be transformed here.”

Step outside the station, and you can’t miss the signs that the city is being transformed: a multi-story housing development is under construction right next to the station. But after crossing through the El Pueblo Historic District, touted as the city’s birthplace, Herman quickly encounters a foe: the freeway.

“The freeway cuts up the city into little chunks,” he says. “I hate that.”

Strolling through this surprisingly hilly city on his tour means climbing and descending countless sets of steps that lead to plazas and fountains, bustling markets and stony monuments. Along the way, walkers also get Herman’s take on the ups and downs of urban development.

He is enthralled by the unconventional image of Our Lady of the Angels atop the entrance to the new cathedral. He marvels at the skylight that roofs the Bradbury Building: “There’s something magical about this place.” His favorite landmark, however, is the Los Angeles Central Library, with its famous mixture of architectural styles ranging from Egyptian to Spanish. “This is an institution that serves the whole city,” he says.

But architectural sin also abounds downtown. Case in point: The grid-like criminal courts building, which “ought to be on trial itself,” says Herman.

He may be a visionary, but Herman looks at Los Angeles from the street-level, concerned with pedestrians – with people. He finds too many buildings are conceived as isolated projects, with little connection to the street and neighboring structures. Walking L.A.’s long blocks, people encounter so many blank walls or darkened windows. Why not let them see in, give them something to look at?, he asks.

Several ambitious proposals are on the boards for downtown Los Angeles, including the recently announced $1.8 billion plan for Grand Avenue. It would bring new skyscrapers, shopping, condominiums and a 16-acre park in the area that includes Disney Concert Hall.

Herman, however, sees some more basic needs: namely, supermarkets. For all its high-rises, downtown doesn’t have a single chain grocery store (though a Ralphs is slated to open near Staples Center later this year.) Herman says that the more services that become available for residents, the more people will want to move here.

Increasing the downtown population has a practical purpose. Herman believes more people on the street will reduce crime. But he also sees a greater social good in the shift away from suburban isolation and individualism.

“As a sociologist, I want to see people linking up with society,’’ he says. “And the suburbs don’t do that for you.”

Herman points out building after building that are undergoing conversion to loft condos and apartments. What really surprises him that the housing trend is reaching beyond the most charming historic structures to include outdated high-rises from the '60s and '70s. “These things I thought were just lost causes,” he says.

If you're wondering why Herman hasn't moved downtown, he still has strong ties to Claremont, where he has been involved in historic preservation efforts over the years.

In retirement, Herman, 77,  works in his on-campus office every day – including weekends – and spends three days a week doing volunteer work at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, where he is cataloguing a large collection of material about the streamline trains he loved as a boy.

Besides, L.A. is never far away, not with Claremont’s train depot in easy walking distance of his home. “I can go to the city any time I want to,’’ says Herman.

But today's urban adventure is coming to an end. After five hours of walking and talking, it’s time to board the red line subway for a quick trip to Union Station, then home to Claremont. Herman is quick to note that he only covered a thin slice of downtown, skipping the treasures of Little Tokyo, Chinatown and the Garment District.

On the ride home, he strikes up a conversation with a young couple that boards the train in El Monte. This illustrates his notion that mass transit and vibrant cities can foster “a civil society where people can be comfortable with other people.”

“That’s my ulterior motive,” he says.


Related links:

47 Things Every Sagehen Should Do Before Graduating.

Explore Southern California

Downtown LA Visitors Guide

Metrolink train guide