Los Angeles Tours: As Much Rubble As Tinsel

Sightseeing in city of stars now includes the unglamorous - homes destroyed by natural disasters

The drive through the loping Santa Monica Mountains is breathtaking. The sky is silky and cloudless, the view round the curves cut into the rock is of scruffy pines anchored in loose soil.

Around the bend, signs of civilization reemerge. Shops and homes cluster near the Pacific Coastal Highway. But those worth noting lie in the distance. "That," points our guide, "is where Johnny Carson and Barbara Streisand live." All eyes in the Toyota Land Cruiser crane to the right to see the shapes and sizes, heights and colors, degrees of grandiose and gaudy.

This is, after all, L.A.

But to our left is where the Hollywood rich and famous used to live. There, on the top of a slope, easily missed while speeding down the highway, stand naked brick chimneys, with no roofs or walls to clutter the gaping distances between them. They are what's left of the homes burned in a blaze in the spring of 1994.

Los Angeles has long been a city of dreams. It's still a place where pools are as common as garages, guacamole is a staple at McDonald's, and waiters and waitresses are one-call away from see their name on a marquee.

But the fires that followed the mudslides that followed the earthquake last year have left grimy fingerprints on the easy-living lifestyle of Southern California. And that, in turn, has produced a new map of must-sees for visitors.

Disaster-viewing has become as much a part of the unofficial Los Angeles tour as star gazing. Along with trips to Rodeo Drive, Melrose, Bel-Air, and Sunset Boulevard, locals take tourists to see the scenes where man and nature have tussled, and often, nature has won.

Just up the PCH, as locals affectionately call this freeway, mangled steel and broken chunks of concrete still perch on the mountainsides. They are the skeletons of homes washed away in the mudslides

One Los Angeles native remembers sunning at the beach, when she heard a 'boom.' She looked up and saw the mountain - and everything on it - washed into the street.

This is not just a Santa Monica or Malibu phenomenon, though. In Beverly Hills, it's Jack Benny's old home, Debbie Reynolds's former mansion, and Aaron Spelling's compound that are highlights on the trail. Drive slowly to sneak a peek at the restored Beverly Hills Hotel and the private bungalows where famous guests used to pass the time in coveted private.

But no tour today is complete without a stop in the San Fernando Valley, where the landmarks change daily. Here streets are strewn with the contents of a life shaken loose by shifts in the earth's plates.

Here mattresses, pulverized furniture, tattered clothes, and crumbled walls are dumped in small piles by the road for the city to haul away, though it doesn't have the money to. Residents worry that rats will breed in the rubble.

The Land Cruiser climbs a canyon road. High above the Valley are blank spots in the hillsides, empty lots where expensive houses once stood. The gaps only hint at the lives changed and the Byzantine practices - now a daily rite - that Angelenos have to go through in collecting insurance on destroyed homes or emergency aid from FEMA.

The view across the Valley, though, is stirring - a reminder of the perspective that Angelenos must keep if they are to live in this land of dreams and natural disasters.

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