Hidden Los Angeles is a Facebook essential for more than a quarter-million Angelenos. Meet founder Lynn Garrett, whose labor of love inspires, informs and, lately, is attracting attention—some of it unwanted—from several mega-media institutions.
- Written byPauline Adamek
Lynn Garrett remembers the exact moment she stumbled upon her idea. It was 2006, and she was temporarily living in San Francisco and longing for her Valley Glen home.
Suddenly she was struck by one of those brilliant flashes of inspiration that, almost organically, starts crystalizing into a plan. She decided to write a book that would show off her beloved fair city—not always in a flattering light—but one that, above all, would reveal its treasures. The ultimate guidebook.
“I was passionate about Los Angeles and wanted to create a local resource that was different to what was out there,” the 46-year-old shares.
What eventuated was one of the most popular and vibrant on-line local communities in Los Angeles today. Via her popular website and Facebook page, Lynn shares insider tips on places to enjoy and explore throughout the city. There are cool shopping haunts, unusual restaurants and an active forum for Angelenos to discuss their chosen metropolis.
And the community keeps growing. According to Lynn, Hidden Los Angeles’ Facebook page gains an average of 100 new fans per day.
Lynn can actually trace her idea back even further than 2006. Some 17 years earlier, she got disenchanted with LA during the explosive riots. Watching crowds of disenfranchised city denizens destroy their own neighborhoods in violent rampages—and even turn on each other—was something this Southern Californian native could barely stomach.
Once the fires—and the hatred—died down and life in urban Los Angeles returned somewhat to normalcy, Lynn felt her passion for LA had also gone through a kind of cleansing fire.
Igniting The Flame
Lynn was born and grew up in San Diego. She recollects many idyllic childhood summers spent with her grandmother exploring important landmarks throughout Los Angeles. Those cherished early memories inspired her to move north to Los Angeles in 1986 to study art.
She juggled clerical temp jobs by day and headed to class at night, studying graphic design at several colleges. She and her friends would pool gas money so they could drive all over, looking for good, cheap food and fun things to do.
On occasion, they’d splurge on cocktails at the Polo Lounge or dress up for tea at Bullocks Wilshire’s historic penthouse Tea Room. “Los Angeles seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of places to explore,” she recalls.
Despite never completing her art degree, Lynn honed her skills as a branding expert, designing toy packaging, books and board games for major companies such as Mattel and Disney. When design work dried up during the recession, she moved to San Francisco to pursue a career designing children’s books.
While living in the Bay Area, she found she constantly had to defend her favorite city. “People would tell me all of the reasons why they hated LA.”
Laughs Lynn, “When I asked them when was the last time they visited LA, eight out of 10 times they’d say, ‘Are you kidding? I would never go there! I hate that place!’”
It was a one-sided war, she recalls. “People up there were always saying where I came from sucked. Hidden LA was my apology to the city.”
In 2008, Lynn’s father became seriously ill, and she returned to Valley Glen to help care for him. Over the next few years while working as a designer, in her spare time she zealously developed her blog idea. She acquired two domain names: HiddenLosAngeles.com and HiddenLA.com.
In June 2009, she started blogging, secretly hoping to win over those people who claimed they hated Los Angeles. Inspired by her mission statement—“Embracing the depth beneath the shallow”—she worked to prove that Los Angeles was so much more than vacuous celebrity obsession, traffic jams and urban sprawl.
“It’s ironic, but to view the heart of this place that so many people consider to be all about superficiality, you simply have to be someone who’s open enough to look below the surface,” says Lynn. She distilled her years of urban exploration into an insider’s online guide to Los Angeles, featuring handpicked events and tours, profiles of notable residents and offering fascinating historical insights.
“There wasn’t a lot of pro-LA stuff at first,” she recalls. “I didn’t want the blog to be totally bright and sunny either.” She branded her design with a distressed, earthy color palette to express a more mercurial mood.
It didn’t take long for enthusiasts to catch on. “People came organically, through word-of-mouth, because they were attracted to the content,” she marvels.
She constantly challenged herself: “How do I keep people engaged? How do I get them involved in LA?”
In February 2010, after gaining 3,000 Facebook fans, Lynn threw an inaugural meet-and-greet party at the Tonga Hut, a funky bar in North Hollywood. The turnout was modest—only about 20 enthusiastic followers showed up—but the event proved successful.
Hidden LA went viral on Facebook, shooting from 3,000 fans to 137,000 in fewer than four weeks. Lynn says that experience changed her life. She trademarked the name Hidden Los Angeles a few months later.
When the business started to take off in 2010, she quit her day job and fully devoted herself to building her brand. It hasn’t been an easy path.
Moderating a vocal community that’s close in number to the population of Irvine requires a lot of time and attention. On top of regularly submitting new posts, she is diligent about keeping discussions on-topic.
“I will ban things that sound racist and hateful or political arguments. The open-carry firearms people were especially scary. They wanted to post meetings, but that’s not what we’re here for,” says Lynn, who has been labeled “Nazi” and “bitch” for blocking off-color or self-promoting remarks.
Lynn maintains that since she kicked off full force, she hasn’t taken more than a couple of days off, despite having to put her site’s expansion on hold while her mother was dying with dementia. “I could only handle so much, as one person.”
To date, she’s shared more than 4,300 Facebook posts and hosted 65 events and tours—providing her with a scant living for the past two years. “I’ve been busy keeping the community going every day. My goals for the future are big ones but will take a lot of additional effort and money.”
The fans remain as passionate as ever—about her posts, her events, even her dog, Zoe, who often appears in photos. All it takes is a random question.
For example, Lynn posted this from a fan: “My brother-in-law is really into beer, and he will be visiting this weekend. Where should I take him? Cheers!” Hundreds of followers chimed in with their recs.
Hidden Los Angeles’ burgeoning popularity has already caught the attention of the mainstream media, some of which have made offers of collaboration deals and content buyouts. Her insider knowledge has also been sought by NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s perennial Eye On LA travelogue program.
The moment Lynn started to promote an appearance on Today, a local bakery offered her any price if she’d mention their muffins on the morning show. She politely declined.
Too Close for Comfort
Then in February 2011, Lynn got an unpleasant shock. She learned that Los Angeles magazine had just published a themed issue entitled “Hidden L.A.” She found out about it after her email inbox was bombarded by congratulations from friends, family and fans, who believed the magazine was collaborating with her company.
Lynn says she was flabbergasted that she had not been approached by the magazine to discuss working together or using her trademarked name. “My idea had been stolen,” she coolly reflects.
Lynn arranged to meet with editor-in-chief of Los Angeles magazine, Mary Melton, early the following month. Although distressed, Lynn says she wasn’t spoiling for a fight. If anything, she maintains that she was open to settling the matter with a collaboration arrangement.
“Mary Melton pretty much said that she didn’t know anything about Facebook or that the Hidden LA community even existed, despite a number of their writers being acquaintances of mine and readers of my page for over a year,” says the blogger, who left the magazine’s Wilshire Boulevard office feeling disappointed but somewhat resolved.
“I felt that I’d addressed the issue. I didn’t expect them to do it again,” she states.
The attorneys for Los Angeles subsequently filed trademark applications in two categories for “Hidden L.A.” Both applications were rejected for being too similar to Lynn’s trademark. But—much to Lynn’s surprise—that didn’t stop the magazine from publishing another “Hidden L.A.”-themed issue in February 2013.
After discussions went nowhere, Lynn’s attorney filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Emmis Publishing, the parent of Los Angeles magazine, in federal court. “I’m not at all confrontational or litigious, but if Los Angeles magazine just goes and takes my name and tries to lure my community away, then how does all this work that I’ve done retain any value? It loses value each time.”
Winning the court case could prove difficult for Lynn, because her Hidden LA has a supplemental register, says intellectual property attorney Casey L. Griffith, a senior partner at Dallas-based Klemchuk Kubasta LLP. A supplemental register is a trademark that does not meet all requirements of a full principal register.
“The reason for a supplemental register is because you generally can’t trademark descriptive terms like ‘Hidden LA’ unless you can establish a secondary meaning. She wasn’t able to establish that it was distinctive and protectable when she filed. If she can present evidence that her mark had become a lot more well-known, she can argue that her mark has achieved secondary meaning.”
Lynn’s attorney, Olivier Taillieu of The Taillieu Law Firm in Beverly Hills, believes that he and his client should have no problem demonstrating secondary meaning, especially since Hidden LA had an established brand and audience long before Los Angeles magazine first used the moniker.
Regardless of the outcome, Lynn isn’t slowing down. She’s considering a tablet publication and publishing a related book. She’s also weighing the prospect of syndicating her idea to other cities. After years of organic community growth, like so many bloggers, she needs to figure out a way to monetize.
“This has been the hardest and worst-paying job that I’ve ever had. It’s not a hobby for me. But if I didn’t love doing it, I would have quit long ago,” she confesses.
But her dream to expand is now on hold due to the lawsuit. And, she admits, she is heartbroken. “Now I may have to sell my father’s home in the Valley to raise the legal fees to fight Los Angeles magazine’s attempt to take my brand, instead of putting it toward building my business,” she laments.
She notes that it is something of an unequal fight: a small business owner up against a large corporation. But as Lynn continues to stay positive and move forward, Hidden LA seems a bit like the little engine that could.
At the time of publishing, Los Angeles magazine did not respond to requests for an interview.
Mirabelle Wine Bar offers a three-course, prix fixe dinner on Sunday nights in Valley Village, which is especially ambitious given their limited kitchen.