Sunday, February 11, 2007


How LA defies description, every street I turn down reveals another world. I still lose my breath occasionally, sometimes at the beauty, sometimes at the devastation and chaos, and sometimes at the unintentional wit. There is always something.

One thing I've had to come to grips with: I do not define the city, the city defines me.

The fact that I drive back and forth between Hollywood and my neck of the woods (Lincoln Heights), is a reflection on the town. Some sort of oceanic gravitational field pulls me in, and then spits me out.

Some nights I see ghosts as I drive into the darkness. Some nights, leaving the neon behind, I see the night closing in on me under the crushing reality of economic class.

But this night, (once again heading for Lincoln Heights from Hollywood via Hancock Park), I am struck by the universal sense of humor of our town.

My last glimpse of Hollywood is the decrepit piano store "Stein on Vine" (still hanging on in the run-down area where Vine literally fades away as it transforms into Rossmore).

At Larchmont the grimy Hollywood ends, the streets seem to take a breath and expand.
A row of apartments guard the perimeter of the prestigious Hancock Park area. There the 1930's art deco apartment the Mauretania, winks at me. The Mauretania...JFK's former pied 'a 'terre and alleged love nest where Marilyn and he might tryst.

Just a few blocks west sits a large Hasidic community, with Shuls on every corner. There are Persian Shuls, Russian Shuls and the “classic” eastern European variety. But could LA ever be content to allow this phenomena to occur without adding a touch of irony? On the corner stands a Honeybaked Ham store (do you think they offer a Kosher one?)

Leaving the Hasidic world and heading down La Brea, I check in on my favorite combination breakfast joint and flower store “Rita Flora”, which features the appropriately named “well stacked pancakes”.

But I digress...back to Hancock park. The wide avenues are bordered by trees that form an arch of green. The trees are punctuated by the occasional majestic African palm. As I travel further, leaving the homes of the affluent behind... the trees thin, their tops no longer touching, and finally grow increasingly sickly. The needles on the pines grow brown and the trees themselves come further and further apart until you are suddenly dumped into Koreatown. There the grim skyline of downtown L.A. appears in the distance.

These streets can no longer be aided by a tree or two, they give a fresh meaning to what used to be called the mean streets. Mean, but somehow intoxicating. Here mingle Mexican Panaderias (bakeries), Salvadorian Pupuserias (places that sell “pupusas”), Korean Barbecue, tiny mercados (markets) and Vietnamese Boba shops.

Here I sail through the outskirts of Echo Park, over the river to Lincoln Heights. My roller coaster ride through town comes to a jolting stop. The adrenaline fades, I am home.

Want another taste of Art Deco LA? Try one of the Art Deco Society's events:
February 23rd, 6:00 to 8:00 pm
Cocktails in Historic Places

Broadway Bar
830 S Broadway, Los Angeles 90014

Based on Jack Dempsey's New York bar of the same name, Broadway Bar brings 40s-style glamor downtown's burgeoning nightlife scene with antique touches and a lounge fit for a kingpin. Located right next to the Orpheum Theater, the 50-foot circle bar, the chandeliers, the upstairs lounge bar make this a particularly appealing and successful example of "creative reuse."


  1. janet said...

    Los Angeles has always been marked by regional diversity very different than large urban centers to the east. There are no stable ethnic neighborhoods. It is probably the most singular strength of the city if one envisions a future marked by melting ethnic boundaries. If one envisions a dystopic future a la The Blade Runner, then this is undoubtedly the source. The mobility that is the regional hallmark is physical, economic, social and ethnic. The large, exquisite homes in the Adams, Country Club Heights and even Echo Park were once the homes of the earliest generation of wealthy LA urbanites. That class moved ever west to the ocean via neighborhoods like Hancock Park. Amazingly enough, recent arrivals might not know that not all that long ago Hancock Park had not yet been regentrified, and canopy of trees or not was not considered a very tony address.

    My personal favorite aspect of the city's constant recycling of neighborhoods is to drive through some of the oldest areas, often home to the less affluent who may not paint the building exteriors quite so frequently. One can often see the faint and fainter vestiges of several languages painted over the years when the neighborhood was home at different times to various ethnic groups. I suspect that modern paint formulas and the soaring price of relatively close-in housing stock will rapidly demolish these vestiges of the city's past. Downtown urban renewal in Los Angeles has at long last picked up traction as better planning of mixed use redevelopment coincides with the emergence for the first time of a generation of high income renters and buyers attracted to living downtown.

    Public transportation improvements as well as razing old structures have a tendency to turn up amazing artifacts whether in Israel or Los Angeles. Some are just older than others. Often the 'burial grounds' we uncover are more meaningful than the written records, whether we're digging in old garbage dumps, unrecognized cemeteries, tar pits or the lower regions of very old buildings the ghosts are very real, and the details of their lives can be very unexpected.

    3:50 PM

  2. Anonymous6:33 AM

    Speaking of regentrification (on a side note, as I type this into my computer from my "regentrified" West Adams/Crenshaw neighborhood), the LAPD is circling circling circling above), I was at a friend's in "the bungalows" today (a neighborhood made up mostly of craftsman-style bungalows south of Adams and north of Exposition between Arlington and Vermont) when I was shocked to see a white guy walking down the block with his (white) daughter on his shoulders. This was at about Budlong and 28th, right near some apartments that one of my students was shot at (and missed) recently. Fifteen years ago I never would have imagined how "south central" (at least the northern part) would change (or be in the process of change).

    The changes downtown are similarly shocking. I used to work out of the LA Theater building near 5th and Spring. Sometimes I would just stand outside and watch the urban drama play out before me. In fact, I just peeped into my poetry folder because I remember capturing that experience in writing--here's a snippet from '92:

    "Summer came to Spring Street as something came crashing out of a third story window.
    The curious few stop to wonder at its meaning,
    And then move on, as if in disappointed agreement:
    “It was only a chair.”

    Anyways, I know this post is meandering, but let me just meander on my way. While working there, I had a dream one night about creating a recreation program for all the kids who lived in the area hotels. In my dream, my team would go by the hotels after school to pick up the kids and then we would go play in Pershing Square. So, in the next week or so of my waking life, I actually visited those hotels and met with the managers. They were very responsive to my idea/dream, as they told me there were lots of kids living there with nothing at all to do, they couldn't play outside because it wasn't safe, and they basically ran up and down the hallways all day. It was a very bleak existence, as hotel living was one step above homelessness. As I plowed ahead to try to put my dream into action, it got squashed by some internal company politics and soon the entire program/department for which I worked imploded (but that's another story).

    Nevertheless, I've always wondered and worried about those kids, even to this day. But nowadays, when I drive past those same hotels, some of them are being remodeled into high end living and/or (gasp!) lofts. The famous (a la Doors) Morrison Hotel is boarded up and undergoing rennovations right now. I'm sure that someday soon, my old perch on Spring Street will cease to offer a steady view of crack addled detritus being hurled out of third story windows onto the streets below but, instead, will become another tony street, just like Bunker Hill, that got its groove back. I'm certainly not complaining about that, but I do wonder what ever became of those kids.