The Special Bus

When it comes to sightseeing, I’ve always believed there’s no better way to do it than the old-fashioned bus tour. Dissed by hip travelers as bourgeois and déclassé (not to mention ecologically unsound), for many, bus trips have unhappy associations with loud Germans or frail grave-dodgers. To me, however, such trips make tourism bearable, especially if the vehicle is comfortable and air-conditioned, the stops are lazily paced, and the guide doesn’t take things all that seriously.

All these are true of the splendid outings offered by Esotouric. Established on the premise that not every visitor to Los Angeles wants a grand tour of movie studios and celebrity homes, Esotouric offers the connoisseur of crime a selection of tours round the infamous hot-spots of L.A’s darkest neighborhoods.

The concept was born from a blog launched by Esotouric’s co-founder Kim Cooper in 2005 called 1947project. This site featured an obscure (or occasionally celebrated) 1947 crime on the anniversary of the day it happened, then explored how the particular crime scene had changed over the following 60 years. According to Cooper, the blog quickly found readers, so she rented a bus to take some of them out for an afternoon’s tour around various grim locations.

When the passengers wanted more, Kim and her husband Richard Schave decided to approach the notion of giving true crime bus tours more seriously. After exploring the possibilities and limitations for conveying information in a coach class bus, they launched Esotouric in Spring 2007, and developed a fascinating slate of tours.

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There are trips devoted to the literary, architectural, musical and spiritual history of Los Angeles, but most of them are crime-themed, including “The Real Black Dahlia Tour”, “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles”, “Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice”, “Blood and Dumplings”, and “Pasadena Confidential”. Bypassing the usual destinations, these tours lead morbid voyeurs to places far from the beaten path, like the Lincoln Heights Jail, Forest Lawn Cemetery, Bukowski’s Postal Annex, murder houses, crime scenes, and other unsavory places.

“I am a complete and utter ghoul,” confesses Cooper, a quirkily stylish historian with a deep interest in the cultural and social life of the West. “Crime fascinates me because it provides an opportunity for otherwise ordinary, unrecorded lives to be suddenly captured in the bright glare of police investigation and journalism. Long before Esotouric or 1947project, I was studying the criminal histories of my favorite cities to provide a backdrop to more mainstream historic narratives, and cocktail conversation to horrify my equally twisted pals.”

As might be expected from the 1947project connection, most of Esotouric’s crime tours focus on the 1940s, which Cooper considers the pivotal era from which Los Angeles took its modern form. “The combination of urban sprawl, freeway development, the influx of wartime workers who decided to stay, aerospace development, traumatized veterans, unsupervised youths and independent females resulted in a city that was unrecognizable from the L.A. of 1939,” she explains, “but which contained nearly all the elements that would make up the contemporary city. Other towns have been most fascinating in different decades, but for me, L.A. in the 1940s is where it’s at.”

Especially adventurous are the bizarre snack stops on each tour. “Blood and Dumplings” includes a Chinese dumpling picnic in a garden of concrete sea monsters; “Visionary Hollywood” features homemade mint lemonade and cake at the site of the first UFO sighting in the Southland.

“The Real Black Dahlia Tour” originally featured a choice of gelato flavors dreamed up by Tai Kim, the avant-garde gelato master from Scoops in East Hollywood, but guests considered the crime-themed ices inappropriate. “We believed it was an honor for the victim, Beth Short, to have something delicious named after her,” Kim Cooper explained, regretfully. If only all memorials could be so tasteful.