Lost Angeles - Exploring LA During the COVID-19 Pandemic
It’s Saturday, April 18, 2020, and I’m lying awake at two in the morning. I suppose it’s technically April 19 then. With over six weeks of sheltering-at-home in Los Angeles, my sleep cycle is broken, and time has become meaningless. I haven’t seen anyone I know in well over a month. My career in film post production had just begun to take off after two years of working an assortment of odd jobs before the COVID-19 outbreak. This momentum had come to a grinding halt, however, when Hollywood shut down. With no family in the city, roommates or work, I'm left alone with only my thoughts. Yikes. Before the pandemic, the mundane tasks associated with the “real” world kept me distracted from my own mind’s bombardments. There are no distractions now, and I find it hard to fall asleep.
I’m lying in bed listening to a story through the Calm app on my phone. The story is about a man exploring Paris during the rain. It was a wonderful, relaxing tale that inspired my already aching desire to travel. I’ve been lucky enough to explore the world a fair bit in my time, but I want more. Unfortunately, traveling to other countries right now isn’t the brightest idea, so I continue to lie in bed, aimlessly wandering in my mind, wishing for sleep to take me to the next empty day. I imagine the adventures I will take after a coronavirus vaccine is found and the economy returns to some form of normalcy. Then it hits me: I’m living in one of the most densely-populated cities in America, and almost everyone is indoors. What does that look like? As I finally start to fall asleep, I feel the slightest sense of excitement.
Here is where I welcome you, reader. For one week, I explored and photographed an isolated Los Angeles. It was exciting, unbelievable, heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. For those of you who have not visited Los Angeles before, the most important thing I can stress is the absolute lack of humans. The streets and sidewalks are almost aways packed with people and vehicles. The fact I was able to capture most of these images without vehicles passing or any humans in sight continues to leave me stunned. There are 317 images split among various galleries below for you to explore. You can click through the slides with the arrows, or click the images for a full-screen experience. This journey became an exploration of the City of Angels as well as my own existence in the loneliest metropolis in the United States. Almost 4 million people live in Los Angeles, and, for the first time since its founding, the city streets were empty.
Glendale has been my home for the past 18 months. It’s a quiet and peaceful area that remains close to Hollywood, but without all the noise. A delightfully walkable area, Glendale has never appeared too crowded, at least not when compared to the rest of Los Angeles. Walking the neighborhood during the pandemic, however, revealed just how quiet it could be. There were many times I gazed down the middle of a street without a single person in sight. No one driving. No one walking. Most of this part of the journey was left experienced between myself and the city.
There was one moment, however, walking down Brand (the boulevard where most of the restaurants and bars are) that was particularly revealing. I was photographing an empty shopping center entrance. As I turned to leave, I noticed an elderly woman standing about ten feet away from me. She wanted to continue down the sidewalk, but was waiting for me to leave. I waved, muttered an apology through my face mask and quickly moved out of her way. Though the coronavirus is manageable for me, it is far less likely for someone like her.
The Americana at Brand outdoor shopping center was disturbingly empty. Typically packed with people shopping, eating, relaxing or riding the trolley, the Americana appeared ghostly. Only a handful of people lie in the grass. The majority of shops and restaurants were shut down other than a couple take-out locations. Oddly enough, the Frank Sinatra-esque music continued to play throughout the plaza, creating an eerie disconnect in this now-desolate spot. This would prove to be a foreshadowing of what was to come for the rest of my journey.
The rookiest mistake I have ever made in my life was moving to Hollywood when I first moved to Los Angeles. My twelve months’ worth of nights in Hollywood were filled with the shouts of homeless men and women accompanied by the endless sirens of police vehicles and fire trucks. I’d be remiss not to include the drunken banter and exclamations of hundreds of tourists night and day. Now, during this outbreak, those same streets were silent and still.
Hollywood was where the gravity of this pandemic set in for me. Walking the streets where hundreds, if not thousands, of natives, tourists, homeless, security, police, merchants, street performers, businesspeople, transplants and more walked, now void of life, left just one word repeating in my mind: Wow. The first observation I made was that I never really saw much of the sidewalks before as they were always covered by hoards of feet. The stars along the Walk of Fame seemed to stretch forever downward along Hollywood Boulevard.
The streets were not completely empty, though it certainly was not crowded. A fair amount of cars passed by as did the occasional runner. The majority of those on the street were homeless, but even so, there were far fewer than usual. One man in a blue jacket asked me what time it was. It was 2:33 p.m., but, for some reason, I told him 2:30. He thanked me and carried on. Another man was walking towards me. A fellow photographer. As we passed, we made eye contact (our eyes being the only part of our faces revealed), nodded and carried on. A silent understanding. As I reached my destination, the TCL Chinese Theatre, I found myself awestruck. One man was playing guitar in front of the empty theatre. I had to get closer. As I crossed the street, I was, once more, awestruck because heading towards me from the other side of the street was a Postmates delivery robot with the name “Keanu” printed on the side. There I was, standing in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theatre with just a single street performer and a food delivery robot named Keanu. At times, reality can be more fantastical than fiction, and this was one of those moments.
Now in front of the Chinese Theatre, I looked upon the design of the building’s exterior. The plaza was roped off, but I could see the many handprints of celebrities in the cement without distraction. To see this rather cheesy attraction devoid of all the typical sightseers made the whole area feel divine and important. A true monument to the history of film. This was always a part of Hollywood I avoided. I have found the tourism and merchants along Hollywood Boulevard to be frustrating and something to see once and never again. To be fair, I am from Louisiana, and this is in no way “my” city, but to see what I have always regarded as the birthplace of my dreams so disrespected by such relentless tourism leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The man playing the guitar continued to sing and perform. I asked him if I could take his photo. He laughed and said, “I should probably put my mask up now that someone’s here!” He rolled a black mask over the lower half of his face, and even with the mask covering his mouth, I could tell he was smiling as I took his photo.
Next, I walked south along N. Highland Ave. The streets leading into the many hidden Hollywood neighborhoods were almost completely empty aside from the flocks of parked cars in front of houses. I came across a Fat Sal’s where employees of food delivery services waited to pick up their customers’ orders; customers who were safe at home. With so many people stuck inside, food delivery has exploded, but what of the safety of these workers? As I carried on through various neighborhoods, I couldn’t help but notice how many beautiful plants there were. Some households continued to keep their lawns trimmed while others let nature run its course. Hollywood proved itself to be a beautiful place in its isolation: a far cry from its typical reputation.
Meanwhile, Melrose continued this trend of wavering between peaceful and eerie emptiness. Along the hip street, shops and restaurants remained closed, albeit except for a few take-out joints. I stopped by the offices of New Republic Pictures, one of the production companies behind hits like 1917 and Rocketman, and one of the first companies I had the pleasure of interning for when I moved to this city. Bittersweet memories led to a sadness within me to see it shut down for the outbreak. Though a few walkers were occasionally spotted, the majority of people I noticed, like at Fat Sal’s before, were food delivery workers. Further east along Melrose, I came across Paramount Pictures: a studio I know all too well from my combined 19 months of working on the lot. It was sad to see its gates closed-shut. A place where hundreds are workers moved about like bees in a hive was now completely empty aside from a few security guards. Across the street, Raleigh Studios, where I had the pleasure of working in one of their sound stages, also proved to be completely closed. The film industry, like most industries, has taken a major hit from this pandemic that could take years to recover from. Hollywood is a vicious and cunning beast, but for the majority of this outbreak, that beast will hibernate until it wakes once more in a frenzy. What that will look like, I honestly do not know.
When I was working for Variety Insight, my commute between Glendale and the offices in Santa Monica would take anywhere from 75-115 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The offices are only 21 miles from my apartment. With the LA interstates almost empty, however, this drive took just 23 minutes, and I wasn't even speeding! If only that were the case during non-pandemic times. Upon arriving in Santa Monica, I noticed how many bike lanes there were. Thin lanes of green seemed to stretch across this entire section of the city, uncovered by feet and rubber.
I walked towards the Santa Monica Pier. Most of the walkways in front of the beach were fenced off. The many restaurants along the path were closed to the public except for takeout. Chairs were stacked and tables were empty. I even came across a few police officers riding horses near Tongva Park. As I approached the entrance to the pier, I discovered a lone policeman guarding the entrance. No one was allowed to enter the pier. I vowed to find an entrance to the beach, but first, I would make a stop at the Santa Monica Place outdoor mall. I took a path through a network of shops and restaurants, each closed up as well. There were but a few people walking around this part of Santa Monica. Some were homeless and some were simply going for walks, but I have never seen these streets so quiet and so empty.
I had arrived at Santa Monica Place, and it was a sight to behold. Entering the mall, I realized I was completely alone. Never in my life did I think I would stand in the center of a massive shopping complex in Santa Monica with not a soul around. The coffeeshop pop music that typically played throughout the mall came in short bursts, as if someone was repeatedly plugging and unplugging the speakers. I thought Hollywood was eerie, but this was straight out of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I explored the mall’s three levels using the still escalators. Tables sat empty outside the food court as advertisements continued to shuffle through the digital billboards. It was like everyone simply vanished. As I continued my exploration, I couldn’t help but remember the time I saw Howie Mandel here just one year ago. I hope he’s doing okay. After exploring the mall for some time, I headed back to my car to find a way into the beach.
Two miles south, I was able to find an entryway. While the beaches themselves are closed off, there was a large parking lot where a surprising amount of people aimlessly walked about. On a nearby grassy field, groups of sunbathers, readers and other quiet folk sat, albeit a solid distance apart from each other. The beach itself was devoid of people completely. A stunning sight, indeed. At one point, I noticed what seemed to be two college-aged men walking onto the beach, only to be followed shortly after by a police buggy telling them leave. Onlookers laughed to themselves as the two men walked back towards the lot. Santa Monica Beach proved to be beautiful in its isolation. The smell of the sea’s salt hung in the air as the waves peacefully pulled in and out, undisturbed by humanity.
Venice, home to artists, stoners, merchants and other free-spirited individuals, had me worried. There were many, many people along the beach and its walkways. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as normal, but it was enough to have me concerned. My personal belief in how this pandemic should be handled is everyone staying home as much as possible until a vaccine is created or the virus passes on with the weather. I was not proud of leaving my home for this journey, but it was something I felt moved to do, and I never stayed out for more than three hours each day - usually less. I was sure to stay as far away from others as I could, but Venice proved to be a challenge in that regard. Either way, I was surprised at how open it was. Though most of the shops, playgrounds and workout equipment of Muscle Beach were shut down, Venice Beach itself remained open. I’m not sure if it was legally open, but people enjoyed the sand and the sun regardless without interference.
Walking along the graffiti-filled merchant stands, one man in green stood in front of an open CBD shop. I asked him how he was doing. He replied, “Great!” As I walked on, I couldn’t help but wonder how many customers he was getting. Further down, I noticed two men playing racquetball with their hands. Handball? Next to them were empty tennis courts, closed off to the public. I stopped to take a photo of the courts when I heard a loud voice shouting, “Hey photo-guy! Take my picture!” A large man on a bike zoomed by. As he passed me, he noticed I was wearing a TCU shirt, and shouted, “Go Frogs,” but he held up a Longhorns hand sign. I was perplexed and amazed all at once. Even amidst this pandemic, Venice remained weird. I took comfort in that, even with so many people around.
My next stop would be one I have never been to before: the Venice Canals. Upon arrival, I noticed signs at the entryways asking people not to enter. Looking onwards, however, I saw a few scattered folk walking around. I had come this far and wouldn’t be stopped by a sign. The canals were peaceful. Boats sat unused and docked in their piers. I could hear and see the laughter of families in their homes and outdoor patios. Walking along the bridges was calming. I have seen these bridges in so many films and television shows before, and it was great to experience this area for the first time almost completely to myself. It was like being in an episode of Californication. I enjoyed that show, and not just because David Duchovny played a writer named Hank. Okay, maybe so, but either way, experiencing the secluded canals after the stressful beach excursion was a wonderful cap to my exploration of Venice.
(Disclaimer: some graphic content and visuals below)
Driving through Downtown Los Angeles during this pandemic was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life. Many streets were filled with tents and makeshift shelters created by the homeless. There were so many homeless here, aimlessly walking down the middle of various streets, unconcerned by the passing cars. As I drove carefully down sixth street, my car was approached multiple times. I was never spoken to, however. Instead, many of these people just walked around my car to the other side of the street, turning around to do it once more. Los Angeles already has a major homeless crisis, but here, during this pandemic, it is only getting worse. Most of these people had no face protection whatsoever. One woman stood moaning in the middle of the street as she took her dress off. There was not much I could do to help these people while I was there, but volunteering at local shelters or even sending donations can save lives. I’m not here to sell you anything, but what I witnessed in Downtown Los Angeles moved me greatly, and it would do us all good to help out our fellow humans however we can.
Los Feliz / Echo Park
Further east, I ventured through Los Feliz and Echo Park. I’m a big fan of Los Feliz. It features two of my favorite places in Los Angeles: The Vista Theatre, where many wonderful films are projected on various-sized film reels, and Tiki Ti’s, one of the smallest bars in towns with some of the greatest cocktails on the planet. To be fair, these spots are just south of Los Feliz, but I’m no stickler. Los Feliz is typically a quieter area stuck between Hollywood proper and Atwater Village, so it was no surprise to see very few people. There were a few window-shoppers, though the windows were attached to closed stores. The neighborhood appeared to be almost completely empty. I came across one man blowing leaves off of his walkway. He stopped to let me pass. We each waved. Further down, I came across a beautiful wall of flowers as well some strange front lawns. Otherwise, Los Feliz proved to be a nice area to walk, and I very much look forward to making it back to my two favorite spots once this pandemic reaches an end.
Meanwhile, Echo Park, usually a wonderful area for live music and dive bars, turned out to be another pedestrian-filled area. Though there weren’t as many people as Venice Beach or Downtown, it featured more than a handful of families gathered in the park. It was also home to many tents belonging to homeless in the area. I came across one woman who was even fishing in the lake. That day, however, no swan boats paddled along the water.
This adventure turned out to be far more enlightening than I expected. What started as a fun idea, became an eye-opening experience into the reality we face during the COVID-19 spread. Personally, I cannot stress enough the importance of just staying home as much as you can. Summer feels like its arrived early here in Los Angeles, and while the weather is incredible, it will be back year-after-year. If you made it this far into my story, thank you for reading and following me through this journey. Wherever you are right now, and whatever your situation is, I want to challenge you to use this time to find what interests you. If it’s a solo activity, wonderful! If it’s something that requires travel or other people, take this time to plan. These past three years, I’ve been so focused on work and making my way through a terribly vicious industry, that I’ve almost forgotten my passion. I’ve forgotten what inspires me. As difficult as it’s been being physically alone through all of this, I have re-discovered many things about my life that I enjoy. I hope you can do the same with this time. I’ve felt this before the pandemic, and I feel it so much more now, but this emphasis we have on our work culture is far-too consuming. When we sacrifice what makes us human, all the money in the world can’t buy it back. Help those who need it if you are able to, and also be sure to help yourself by just taking a step back. You’ll be surprised what you can find.