0581 The Friendly Folk of South L.A. (USA 100—revisit)

Los Angeles Travel Blog

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Before I continue with my story, I’m going to rewind about 10 years….

 

I spent a rather lonely, but important 6 months of my life in Los Angeles back in 1999.  After 6 months of confused wandering from Morocco to Spain to Mexico to Venezuela… all across the USA… to India… I felt I needed to settle down for a bit, maybe put down some roots, do something with my music… and prove I can “make it” in my native country--  a country I hadn’t lived in since childhood.

 

I remember landing at the LAX airport, just arriving from India… not really sure what to do… A guy approached me and told me of a hostel up in Hollywood for 15 dollars a night….

I was flabbergasted.  I’d never dreamed that it was possible to stay in Hollywood that cheaply…


So off to Hollywood I went… And woke up next morning looking up at the Hollywood sign and Capitol Records building… Hollywood and Vine just a few blocks away… I felt like I was in a dream…

 

I decided that this is where I’d make my new home, and went searching for an apartment--  soon finding a cheap little studio right off Santa Monica Boulevard with a Nicaraguan former Sadinista fighter as my manager. 

 

I got a bicycle and biked all over the greater LA area… I met all kinds of folks in the music and film industry… extras, rising actors, producers, wannabes, buskers, losers, winners… I got invited to stylish art parties in Beverly Hills and album release parties…

 

But overall it was a lonely phase in my life.

  Rather then playing music, I found myself working at Taco Bell and, with my bicycle stolen, walking home down dangerous streets at 2 o’clock in the morning. Things just weren’t coming together for me here and  I didn’t feel I fit in with any of the many Californian subcultures that I’d come across… so as soon as I made a little money, I got rid of everything and headed back to Morocco where for some reason I felt more “connected”…

 

Back to the Present…

 

I’m excited to be back, and to have the chance to take another look at this city with new eyes… And walk up some of those same streets that are loaded with memories…

 

And my first leg will be up through South Los Angeles.  Back in 1999 I did pass through here a couple of times on a bicycle, hurrying through its darker corners and streets.

  So I did get a fleeting glimpse of these neighborhoods.  But I never had any interaction with people or find out how I’d really be treated as white guy wandering around in neighborhoods where there’s a lot of pent up anger towards white people. 


But today is different.  Today I’m on foot, which I’ve become more and more convinced is really the only way to really experience a city.

 

Still a bit ruffled by my close call in Inglewood, I feel a little edgy when any young fellow approaches.  But I quickly notice something peculiar about people here.  Every person that I pass wishes me a good morning, or a Merry Christmas… or some other sort of cheery, welcoming greeting… maybe a comment about my guitar… No one gives me a dirty look that says “what are you doing in our neighbourhood?”

 

As I start to tally up all the “good mornings” I’ve gotten, it strikes me--  this might actually be the friendliest neighbourhood I’ve ever been in!  Unbelievable!

 

I start to feel ashamed of myself for all this years harbouring unfounded ideas about the anti-white racism in these parts.

  I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but it certainly does not permeate society here as I’d naively assumed.

Maybe it’s just because it’s Christmas… I tell myself… but strangely, as soon as I leave the South Los Angeles neighborhoods… no more cheerful greetings!

 

One thing I can conclude for sure, is that despite the crime and the troubles of these parts, there’s a real sense of neighborliness and community here…

 

So I continue on with my long hike, eyes fixed on my first goal: Downtown LA

 

This whole area is an enormous, perfectly laid out grid that stretches on for miles and miles. It’s pretty much impossible to get lost--  and you always know exactly how far you are from downtown based on the street number… If you’re on, say, 188th street, you know you’ve got a long hike ahead of you… Every so many streets, there’s a main boulevard, where all the shopping takes place.

 

 

It’s nice to see such logic and order used in planning a city--  especially after 18 months in Casablanca, Morocco with it’s ridiculous French design of streets that go every which way and change names every two blocks… but it’s also a bit boring and predictable.  Fortunately the main boulevards here in Los Angeles tend to each have their own distinct flavour… one is a shady street lined with auto body shops… another is lined with liquor stores and abandoned warehouses… One goes along an old rail line and has a couple of huge indoor markets.


South Western Street is the grittiest of them all, with boarded up shops, trash strewn about, lots of hobos--  and at the same time, lots of little Latino and African American churches--  some in old window shops or even converted warehouses…

 

I hear music coming from one, so I can’t resist the temptation to go inside and here some truly authentic black gospel music… I feel pretty awkward going in with all my stuff, but I figure, hey, its church, so they won’t mind.

 

The service is almost over, but I do manage to get in on a bit of the passionate sermon, a song and an altar call…  And get a taste of this major element in urban American culture.  This place is a sort of refuge where you can dress up in your finest, go in and escape the harshness of the streets and hear the soothing words that convince you for a few moments that everything is going to be all right…

 

I continue on my way, up to Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard.  I wrote a song once about busking on “Vermont and Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard”, so I had to check out that intersection to see if that’s actually a realistic idea…

 

And then, suddenly my tour of South Los Angeles comes to an end… I hike up along the LA Olympic stadium, and reach the University of Southern California--  the beginning of Central L.

A. and a whole different world…

 

It was a fascinating and very enlightening tour of a section of the world that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

 

Downtown Los Angeles

 

The first building I notice as a reach Central Los Angeles is a large, green domed mosque--  a symbol of a newer segment of American society that is also often misunderstood these days…

 

Then I dive into the University Campus… It’s manicured gardens and perfectly restored buildings a sharp contrast to the gritty reality a few blocks to the south.

It almost feels a bit… sterile…

 

I immediately realize that I’m going to have to rethink another idea I’ve had about California… “California has no history”… As I gaze at the beautiful buildings and read about the University’s hundred year history of receiving students from around the world, I realize that history is not just measured in years, but in accomplishments… and this part of the world is particularly rich in accomplishments…

 

Here’s where I take my first videoclip… it would have been nice to get a videoclip down on on South Western, but thought would kind of be pushing my luck…

 

Across from the campus is an enormous Islamic looking building… no, it’s not a mosque, it’s the Shriner’s auditorium--  with plaque telling about the big events that have been held there…

 

I continue on north, The LA skyline beckoning me… Along the way I come across all sorts of cool little landmarks… A magnificent cathedral, combining Southwest Spanish Colonial style with more traditional European styles… One of the first car dealerships of LA--  that’s still in business… Some beautiful mansions some of which were owned by the first well to do African Americans…

 

One thing nice about the US is that, even though it doesn’t have a lot of history, wherever there is a historical spot, there’s always a cool little plaque that tells you all about it.

 

The funny thing is that I passed by a lot of these spots 10 years ago, but had absolutely no interest in finding out what they were about.  Maybe I didn’t have the discoverer spirit back then… or maybe my eyes were just turned elsewhere… Anyhow, it’s great to be back here as a “tourist” who wants to cram in all he can in a short amount of time. 

 

I’m getting close to the Staples Center Arena, and I notice how many huge, cheap parking lots there are all around, with guys begging basketball fans to park there…

 

This was an area that was particularly hard hit by the riots back in the early nineties.  So if you want to look at the bright side, riots can be nice and helpful in clearing out land and bringing down the price of parking(!)

 

Downtown L.

A. looks so much more interesting with my new set of eyes… The architecture is fascinating--  with a lot of experimental and ambitious buildings left from L.A.s Golden Age back in the 1920s, giving this town a unique vibe…

 

There the Herald Examiner old newspaper building with its unusual domes and spires… there’s the Mayan theatre, one of L.A.s many unique theatres, with its bizarre pseudo-Mayan décor… An enormous “Jesus Saves” sign stands high above, in front of a crumbling building that definitely needs saving…

 

Despite the city’s short history, you can feel the mix of different eras that have quickly come and gone through this city…

 

Then I reach the Broadway and suddenly I’m in the most vibrant, animated shopping district you could find--  with rows of shops blasting out a cacophony of music… jewelry shops, eateries of every sort, dollar stores and electronics shops… Nobody’s shutting down for Christmas here…

 

Above us are tall, ornately decorated 1920s style “skyscrapers”… all kinds of colourful characters walking up and down the streets--  there’s a predominantly Latino theme here, but there’s something for everyone…

 

I continue on up towards L.

A.s main square, where to keep true to the Christmas spirit, there’s a long line of people waiting to try out a temporary outdoor ice skating rink!  C’mon folks! It’s 75 degrees out!

 

I guess it just goes with the overall theme of the city: “Anything is possible here in LA…”

 

Here I find a nice resting spot to sing a couple of songs and watch folks come and go… I’ve been hiking almost non-stop for 9 hours and I need a break…

 

Wanting to absorb every inch of this downtown area, I head towards very quiet business district with its shimmering skyscrapers… past L.A.s beautiful library… up the hill to another beautiful plaza and an odd “sculpture” that looks like a bunch of airplane parts wired together…  On to another cool theatre, the Disney Theater, modeled like the Bilbao Art Museum with enormous metallic rounded odd shapes on top…

 

Then it’s down the hill again past Los Angeles’ City Hall--  a skyscraper with a Southwestern air to it…

 

I find myself enthralled by all these cool “discoveries”--  like someone coming to California--  and the U.

S. for the first time!  It seems that I truly have become a new person since living here back in 1999.

 

And I’m not done yet.  The day is quickly slipping away from me and although with my hike from LAX to downtown I’m pretty sure I can rightfully claim that I’ve “discovered” Los Angeles.  But I still really want to get back to my old tromping grounds:  Hollywood.

 

But first I’ve got to explore 2 neighborhoods that believe it or not, I never really explored in the 6 months I lived here: Chinatown and the Latino district on Cesar Chavez boulevard.

 

First the Latino District.  It includes a street lined with plaques telling what each building used to be, and subtle reminders of the oppression experienced by Latinos in the early years of California’s history.

  Then there’s a lively plaza with a large manger scene and live music, an quaint little chapel and a market that does feel a lot like Mexico--  maybe a little cleaner…

 

I wander around the plaza watching the people and pondering for a moment on American history.  In recent years there’s been a huge debate about the “new wave” of Latino immigrants… Should they be welcomed or treated as criminals?  Both sides are sure that they are right.  But here, I’m suddenly reminded of something else, that Latinos have been a part of this country for hundreds of years… In fact, here in California, they were here first…

Now, on to Chinatown…

 

Chinatown is also completely packed and does feel a lot like China… Old women selling on the street… squeeze through only market… restaurants selling all kinds of different dishes…

 

I reach a quiet little square surrounded by exaggeratedly Chinese looking buildings… not entirely authentic, but a cool little spot nonetheless…

 

A few blocks further is the restaurant use in the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker movie “Rush Hour”… This is really a fun neighbourhood to explore.


Yet there are sobering reminders of the darker moments of this community’s past… Plaques telling about the burning and killings that took place when anti-Chinese sentiments flared to the surface early on in the century… Other plaques tell of the way American Chinese were treated in the 1950s and 60s when some assumed they might all be communist sympathizers…

It’s been a long, hard road for this segment of American society as well…

 

And with that, my tour of Downtown Los Angeles comes to an end.  Dusk is quickly setting in, but my tour is far from over…

 

Back to Hollywood

 

The Sun is setting as I head up Sunset Boulevard… I’m not sure if this is such a good idea… It’s probably going to be pretty late by the time I reach Hollywood, and I’ve got some kind of iffy neighborhoods to go through… besides, what if the Hollywood Hostel is closed? 

 

But I’m determined.

  It’s Hollywood or bust.

 

Sunset Blvd is a predominant Latino area--  and people don’t seem quite as friendly and spontaneous as folks in South LA--  but that’s only a superficial impression… I know that if I started up a conversation with someone, we’d be chatting away like old buddies within seconds…

 

I pass by a little hippy strip with some funky little shops and cafes… unfortunately all closed for the day…Hey, it is Christmas day after all… I kind of forgot about that there in Chinatown…

 

It gets darker and darker and the streets get quieter and quieter… As I turn off on Santa Monica, I start feeling a bit more ill at ease… I stop at a shabby building that says “hotel” to check on the prices… but it seems that it’s more of a pay by the week kind of places…

Soon my attention turns to all the spots that bring back memories… The Day Labor center where I’d sit around all morning waiting for a job… the 7 eleven where a filthy guy in a wheelchair would sit outside eating peanut butter out of a jar… the little store where I’d buy chicken thighs for 29 cents a pound… the Armenian shop that sold delicious biscuits… The intersection where the “Black Hebrews” would preach that they were actually the Chosen People… Seeing the cops line people up in handcuffs by the side of the road… The taqueria that still sells big, hearty tacos for a dollar… the library I’d go to check my email, hoping so badly someone would write me…

 

I remember how it felt to be living on my own in my own country for the first time--  and feeling very lonely.

  But it was an important time in my life that was preparing me for some big, courageous decisions I had ahead of me.

 

Finally I reach Kenmore Street, and head up to my old apartment block which I shared Nicaraguans, Salvadoreans, Mexicans, Cubans, Hondurans and a weird French guy… I knock to see if my old manager is still there…


…He’s gone… And so is my last hope of reconnecting with someone who knew me during that phase of my life…

 

I continue on along Santa Monica, following the same stretch that I’d take every day to my job at Taco Bell in downtown Hollywood… across Western Street once again… past the old second hand stores where I bought an old table from the Azerbaijani owner… Across Hollywood freeway that always looked like a parking lot when I crossed…
 

And finally, Vine…

 

There’s Taco Bell, there’s Yokahama Rice Bowl, there’s the guy selling dope on the corner as usual…

 

But my hostel is gone for good… It gives me a sad feeling to see that abandoned building that welcomed me to Hollywood 10 years ago…

 

Don’t know where I’m going to stay the night, but I figure, since I’m already here I might as well re-discover Hollywood Blvd…

 

I reach Hollywood and Vine.

  Here is where I stood on the corner strumming my guitar to welcome the New Milennium.  At the spur of the moment, I’d decided that I wanted to be at a significant place at that historical moment--  and Hollywood and Vine, the traditional epicenter of the entertainment world, was the best I could think of…

 

It was a blast… everybody was in a party mood and cheering me on… and best of all, I did something that no one else in the world had thought of…

 

Now I’m back… Back in the city that both inspired and betrayed me…

 

On the Hollywood Strip, the city bursts back to life, crammed with tourists and folks just out enjoying their Christmas evening… Of course Michael Jackson, Buzz Lightyear, the Iron Man and Jack Sparrow are out there posing with fans for a few dollars… The Chinese and Kodak Theatres are splendidly lit up for the night… This is the Hollywood façade… the only side of Hollywood most folks see… But I know that just a half a block away live folks who earn minimum wage and work 16 hours a day just to pay the bills… Hollywood is not the cheery place people think it is.

  I know.  I used to live here. 

 

But tonight, I’m a tourist, so I’m going to enjoy this place as a tourist.

 

I spot a cheap looking hotel down a side street and go check it out.  When I approach it looks and reeks of an abandoned building.

“40 dollars a night” I’m told by a guy with his dirty feet propped up on his desk.

 

Forget it, I’d rather sleep at the airport.  So I catch the subway across town… back down to Inglewood… onto the shuttle bus… back to the airport terminal… and find a quiet seat where I spend the night…

 

It’s been a very, very long day…

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Ice Skating in 80 degrees
Ice Skating in 80 degrees
City Hall
City Hall
Chinatown
Chinatown
Latino District
Latino District
Right near my old apt
Right near my old apt
Hollywood and Vine
Hollywood and Vine
Michael Jackson impersonator
Michael Jackson impersonator