L.A. isn’t often described as a “beautiful city,” which is to say that no writer would rank it among towns such as San Francisco or Paris. OK, sure, there’s the Riviera of Malibu, the exquisite beaches of the South Bay, the golden oak-laden hills of the Verdugos and the lush residential canyons that make up so much of the city from Pacific Palisades to Silver Lake. But these neighborhoods hang onto the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains for dear life, until finally acquiescing to the urban sprawl that is much of Los Angeles County. And L.A. still struggles to shake off its image as a vast, smoggy strip mall where culture came to die (ironically, in one of the culture capitals of the world).
If you ask a lifelong Angeleno when L.A. is at its most beautiful, I guess about 95 percent would say it’s on that first clear, sunny day after a storm. Those days – usually in winter, when the air is cleared of all smog and particulate matter, when bands of snow cap the local mountains and the view is crystal clear for miles – are special. The most impressive place to spend such a day is in the San Gabriel Valley, near Pasadena. As you drive into the area, the San Gabriel Mountains suddenly appear right in your face, shredding the shroud of haze that usually obscures them.
There was one such day this January when my family and I ventured through the Arroyo Seco. This canyon provides a lifeline of ocean air from the basin, and sometimes virulent shots of hot Santa Ana winds. It’s also L.A.’s pathway to history – to its initial suburbs, such as South Pasadena and Highland Park, to orange groves and to, at last, the eastward sprawl. On its journey from Red Box Saddle near Mount Wilson to its meeting with the L.A. River near Elysian Park, the Arroyo Seco passes the Rose Bowl.
Just south of the Rose Bowl, nestled on an Arroyo hillside in Pasadena, is my son Hank’s “favorite place in California:” Kidspace Children’s Museum. For the millennial parent, it remains a flawless destination that is becoming one of SoCal’s richest parenting experiences. My fellow parents love it for its blend of education and play, and it also tends to have a hipster food truck with good eats nearby. You can get a Japanese-fusion poutine or a bulgogi taco. [Editor’s note: The hip and healthy Bean Sprouts café opened at Kidspace Feb. 3.]
During our recent visit, Hank, toddled after by his brother Leo, opted for the outdoor trike track and roamed the Arroyo Adventure area. Later, Hank traveled up the webbed vertical jungle gyms where kids get lost for two hours and parents lounge and check their Instagram feeds. But parents were also busy taking photos of their kids popping out of ant holes. Or they were outside, engaging in some science experiments – with bottle rockets and wind turbines. Hank and my wife Kate spent 30 minutes designing a roller coaster while Leo and I built a model city out of foam blocks. This outside section of Kidspace is neatly landscaped and comfortable. But it is Pasadena, after all, and it can get extremely hot in the summer. When shade and shelter are a must, then parents venture inside, where kids get to engage in story time.
After Leo’s story time, I took him to the Nature Exchange, where he found amphibians, reptiles and, yes, roaches in the terrariums. Kate can’t enter this space. Instead, she prefers The Dig, where she and Leo dig for fossils. I had been to Kidspace a few times prior to this January day, but hadn’t slowed down to take in all of its simple pleasures. Here, the controlled chaos imbues parents with a youthful glow, and in turn their children are offered an almost mature educational freedom to explore and engage. I’m trying to think of a healthier space in all of the L.A. region, but can’t … especially now that the smog has blown in from the Valley.
Isaac Parfrey is a writer, composer and L.A. native who enjoys roaming Southern California with his wife, Kate, and sons, Hank and Leo. Follow him on Twitter @IsaacParfrey.