By Nita Lelyveld, Times Staff Writer
Neil Hopper had only a ghost of a game plan when he set out walking one Saturday. He wanted to cross the Los Angeles River on 6th Street. He thought he'd take in a stretch of Whittier Boulevard. He figured he'd then head to the industrial city of Vernon and wind up at its last wigwag, an old-time railroad signal.
Between river and wigwag, what he'd encounter would be mostly a mystery, which suited this urban adventurer just fine. The point of his walks, he said, is not to get somewhere:
"I like the spaces in between."
By 10 a.m., Hopper stood at the corner of Mateo and East 6th, waiting patiently for the traffic light to turn green. Then he stepped onto the bridge, arms gently swinging, feet slightly splayed - a small, efficient-looking figure in crisp jeans, a long-sleeve button-down shirt and sensible brown leather walking shoes.
He bore sole witness to the shadows of blank-faced factories and warehouses, alone in a corner of downtown.
Hopper used to live like other people, in his own small slice of city. Safely sealed behind the wheel of his car, he traveled daily between his apartment and his job, traversing just one square mile of Hollywood.
Then, in 1999, the Red Line rolled into his neighborhood. Hopper hopped on and became an explorer.
Sure, he'd gone downtown before, when he had to, for jury duty. He associated it with white-knuckle driving, headachy parking, crowded courthouse waiting rooms.
Whisked to the city center sidewalks by subway, freed from staring at the car bumper in front of him, he noticed other things. He saw paint peeling on the facades of majestic old movie houses, formerly ritzy hotels housing bargain stores. He loved the crumble of it.
Soon he wondered what else he'd been missing.
"I asked myself, 'Is it possible for a normal, sedentary human being to walk 10 miles in the city?' "
To find out, he walked from Hollywood to downtown. He walked to Burbank and to Pasadena. He bought walking shoes and anti-blister socks and spent his weekends taking on El Monte, Alhambra, Hermosa Beach and Cypress Park. Drawn to the big streets that cut through the city, he checked out Slauson Avenue, Eagle Rock Boulevard, Imperial Highway, San Fernando Road. Commercial strips that drivers register as blurs became distinct to him. He noticed their details.
The 6th Street bridge is elegant, even where paint flakes away and parched brown vines choke its Art Deco obelisks. In 1932, when it was built, it was a sight to see, the longest concrete span in California. On this day, Hopper paused partway across. Below him stretched the flat gray roofs of large industrial buildings. To his right, railroad tracks, a concrete river, a cat's cradle of freeways.
"Oh, I've got to get a picture of those ducts," he said as he pulled his camera from a case on his belt and trained it on a rooftop tangle of fat gray coils.
Across the bridge, a bearded man appeared, clanking along a shopping cart of cans. The man waved before crouching to scoop up a cigarette butt, and then he was gone.
Hopper works at a post-production house, maintaining equipment on the night shift. He's an engineer with an engineer's methodical mind. He appreciates order.
A few months into his walking spree, he felt the need to record his travels. He set up a website. After a while, he bought a camera. In the last few years, he has taken maybe 3,000 pictures while walking.
On the home page he has written a brief statement of purpose:
"This is my contribution to all the useless information on the Internet - some maps and photographic byproducts of my obsession with experiencing the greater Los Angeles area up close and personal."
His name and e-mail address don't appear. Hopper isn't looking for feedback or companionship.
On http://www.walkinginla.com, he catalogs each walk by date - as in "February 29, 2004 Eastern Avenue." A click on a walk brings up a map, with a bold black line marking his path. Underneath each map are photos - of parking lots, motels, mini-malls, power lines and train tracks. One photo shows a dumpster full of overripe tomatoes. Another, a pink-and-white Victoria's Secret bag lying on a dirty sidewalk.
One of Hopper's photos shows the L.A. River on a gray day. What water there is looks brown. Graffiti color the concrete banks. Above the banks are railroad tracks, with high-voltage towers looming over them. The caption reads: "The picturesque Los Angeles River meanders its way toward the Pacific Ocean on a beautiful Southern California day."
"Even the ugly things, I find beauty in. A lot of them make me laugh, and that's a form of beauty," he said.
Over the bridge, on Whittier Boulevard, Hopper stopped at a liquor store to buy cold water and Gatorade. He gulped it quickly, as he stepped in and out of slivers of shade. There were shops here - little brightly painted ones like the yellow Lupita Mini Market, with its painted beer mug plugging cervezas. Restaurants offered menudo and carnitas Michoacan. Interspersed were homes - one with a statue garden featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and swans. With all of this life came sidewalk trash cans, which is why Hopper drank fast. He's learned his lesson, stuck clutching an empty bottle for block after block, with nowhere to chuck it. In many places, the city doesn't seem to expect walkers, he said. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy, this notion that people don't walk here.
In Boyle Heights, Hopper passed people waiting at bus stops. They walked in and out of stores and climbed out of cars. Here and there, someone strained to lug the shopping home. One man wheeled a 5-gallon bottle of water in a baby stroller. An old woman in a flowered violet housedress tried, on unsteady legs, to maneuver a purple umbrella and two grocery bags.
No one but Hopper seemed to be walking just to walk.
"Sometimes I think I'm the only person who walks in L.A. voluntarily," he said.
Walking in Los Angeles can be lonely.
Luckily, Hopper is a loner.
He has always been a little out of step. It got him kicked out of kindergarten. In that classroom of more than half a century ago, each morning the children gathered cross-legged for circle time. There they sat, in one tidy group - except for Hopper, who lay on the floor all by himself. The teacher handed out beads. The kids were supposed to slide them on and off a string. But Hopper liked to knot, so he knotted his beads in place.
Hopper's marriage of more than two decades produced two grown kids he loves. But when it ended, he understood: He wasn't made to be part of a pair.
"I like the freedom of being alone. If I decide to turn down a street, I don't have to ask, 'Do you want to turn here?' "
A private man, Hopper maintains a strict code of personal space. It keeps him from photographing people. It keeps him from approaching strangers. It keeps him off residential streets. It will keep him in the future out of skid row, although he has walked there before.
"A lot of these people, they're called homeless, but skid row, that's really their home. I don't want to seem like I'm gawking," he said.
It's a question of respect.
"It has occurred to me that except for the hygiene aspect, I wouldn't mind being homeless, as much as I love the streets of Los Angeles," he said.
On Lorena Street, heading toward Vernon, Hopper passed worn Craftsman homes, banana leaves and bougainvillea stretching out of small gardens toward the sun. He strolled by sidewalk fruit stands selling mango dusted with chili powder, past the Oscar De La Hoya Youth Center, the Divino Salvador Pupuseria.
On Estrada, just off Lorena, a man lay passed out on the ground. Hopper barely saw him. His eyes were glued to the irregular splotches on the sidewalk. Some were black, some pink, some a grit-flecked pale gray.
"I like these dirty sidewalks with all the gum on them," he said. "The gum makes such interesting patterns."
Occasionally Hopper repeats walks. It's a form of civic guardianship. A while ago, one Boyle Heights bar caught his eye. He loved its rainbow mural. The second time he passed by, the mural was gone. The bar was gray. Hopper keeps track.
He would never go inside, not even just to use the bathroom. He doesn't think that would be right. Hopper rarely makes a pit stop except if he's eating lunch, which is usually at his favorite chain, King Taco. He'll also use the bathroom at Target, because he regularly shops at one. He spends. The store provides. He sees that as a fair exchange.
Still, he usually doesn't plan pit stops. He prefers not to know where he's going.
One day, setting off on foot from his apartment, Hopper came to a decision: He couldn't start every walk by walking. If he did, he figured, the beginning would too often be the same.
So now he walks from home straight to the Red Line, gets off at Pershing Square or Union Station and takes a bus.
He doesn't care which bus. He wants to go everywhere. He rides to the end of the line and walks from there - wherever there turns out to be.
On Vernon Avenue, the sun scorched. Flat factory facades offered no shade. Hopper kept his shirt sleeves buttoned at the wrists. He hasn't bought a short-sleeved shirt since 1968, when his wife told him his arms were wimpy. His legs aren't, though, and even in the heat he kept them moving.
Huge chrome hoods shone in a carwash for semis. Plump pigs and country folk in overalls frolicked in the mural on the Farmer John meatpacking plant. On the sides of a boxy warehouse, someone had painted jewelry, batteries and ladies' briefs to lure customers inside. In a tidy row at curbside, spindly, freshly planted trees stood tentatively, tethered in place. Farther along, ones just like them, planted earlier, had withered and died, still tied up.
At Vernon and Santa Fe Avenue, kitschy statuettes of French maidens and dolphins paraded in a wholesale store window. On Santa Fe, a fence outside a factory had been transformed into a gallery wall for garish paintings of horses and glistening roses in vases.
It was well after lunchtime when Hopper at last spotted the wigwag - a simple red light at the center of a black disk. It sat alongside nine railroad tracks, high on a pole on 49th Street. He stood below its long arm, examining the mechanism that makes the signal swing back and forth like a pendulum to warn that a train is approaching.
Hopper didn't dawdle. It was just one sight of many.
"I guess this was my destination. But then, I don't really like to have destinations on my walks," he said.
Hopper's world keeps getting bigger, but somehow, he says, it's smaller too. As he charts the city on foot, the black lines on his maps spider out over ever more terrain. With each foray, there's more that's familiar, more city he can claim.
He already has nearly met one of his two longtime goals: to eat at all 16 King Tacos in the chain. All he lacks is Baldwin Park, El Monte and the new one that just opened in Pico Rivera. And of course he plans to backtrack.
His other big goal may take a lifetime or longer. "By the time I die, I would like to have walked every major street in Los Angeles at least once," he said. He isn't worried. He is only 59.
His long Saturday trek to Vernon ended as his walks often do, on the Red Line heading out of downtown, bound for Hollywood. He found a seat and glanced around at the other passengers.
"When I'm out here, I get to see other human beings that I have nothing in common with other than we're all people," he said. "And even though I never talk to them, it makes me feel that I'm part of humanity."
Hopper had another 10-minute walk ahead of him once he reached Hollywood and Vine. The station escalator moved slowly, pushing passengers out into the heat. It was at least 90 degrees and humid. Hollywood Boulevard smelled sweaty. Hopper stepped onto it and smiled.
"It's the best I ever feel, when I'm out walking," he said. "You just get that euphoria and think, why doesn't everyone want to live here?"