Safe at home in Los Angeles

Even under restrictions, the city shines for all to see.


The color of the land is in the light ...”
 —Carey McWilliams

“A part of the backyard ... asserts the premise of indigenous, a place where the ground refuses to be manicured. There is a bird’s nest, perhaps, and vines with mice, hedges of red-and yellow hibiscus thrashed with latania.”
 —Kate Braverman  

It’s just out of reach, the source of this memory: An image from a film on a loop, flickering like the California Dream itself. A critical scene shift. An establishing shot locates us in a sleek, dim bedroom: Drapes, pulled apart, allow a streak of clear, sharp light; tropical plants with scalloped leaves stir in a suggested breeze; palm fronds throw spiked inky shadows on a white wall. The protagonist raises herself in bed, reaches for a peignoir. Sitting back, she accepts the breakfast tray from an unidentified attendant. It’s arranged with toast and coffee, a grapefruit half. Next to the dishes, a folded newspaper confirms what we already suspect — know — that we are in Los Angeles. We intuit this from the delicate change in light from powdery to aqueous, which tells us always that the East has been shed for the West. It’s the morning of a new chance, so different from the half-light of the last location.

 

As a native of Los Angeles, I take this blink-awake moment to occupy someone else’s imagination, absorb its sensory cues, take in the physicality of the place with someone else’s eyes. Bask in it. To wake in paradise, into a second chance, is a trope, but one of the sturdiest conveyed in film and books and music and television. It thrums in the light of paintings and swims in the frames of photography. What might it be to see, feel, smell, hear, taste Los Angeles for the first time?

That’s outside my own stream of memories, of course, as I have always been here. But growing up here, I understood very early that we daily traverse both a real and imagined Los Angeles.

We live amid a tangle of clichés and misapprehensions. We may cut them back, but we will never kill them. Still, this is my city, my shelter, my place.

So much here shifts in a blink, as effortless, it sometimes seems, as a scene change. Depending on who you speak to, we are built on either impermanence or illusion. Earthquakes, fires, floods rewrite the narrative of the city as we know it, in the moment. Depending on how you frame the story, there’s always some malevolent force crouching in paradise.

Los Angeles has long been a contested domain — both as territory (from the Indigenous Tongva onward) and as emblem. Boosters, speculators and swindlers have had their way not just with the land but with the very image of Los Angeles. The city grew, like an opportunistic vine. It couldn’t just be. It had to be bigger than life, better than perfect. Even within my lifetime, popular culture has conjured a vision of Los Angeles that is sleight-of-hand, a trick of light, brutally at odds with the lived experience. Los Angeles, by its sprawling nature, absolutely resists oversimplification. This, despite its frustrations, irritants and absurdities, is precisely why I remain here.

Sunset Boulevard is eerily quiet since shelter-in-place orders were enacted in Los Angeles. One of the city’s most iconic thoroughfares, on any given day it’s normally teeming with cars and pedestrians. Now, businesses are closed, parking spots are empty, and the ubiquitous billboards and movie posters seem to be advertising to no one.

Over the years, I’ve railed against what Los Angeles isn’t (the nested insults about vacuousness), or shouldn’t be limited to (the slick surfaces). On a recent evening, upon meeting a friend’s visiting sibling, we eased into sunset small talk on a patio draped in bougainvillea. “I could see, if you grew up here, why you might stay,” he offered. It was a non sequitur. We hadn’t been talking about the place, we’d been talking about the flu, but yes, here we were sitting in the center of an L.A. cliché made real: the afternoon light softening to blush, a dwarf orange tree, showy with February fruit, fragrant beside us. He leaned back to share his own blink-awake memory of Los Angeles: a child, hurrying off a Midwest-originating flight, winding through the fluorescent terminal, pushing out of the automatic doors and peeling off layers of winter clothes with each step. December. Balmy. Unexpected. The sky, salmon, dusted with clouds that in the dying sun appear violet. Fifty years gone, he holds on to that moment, the sort of memory you fold into your wallet or press like a flower between pages.

In this sense, Los Angeles — physically — is an exhale. A recalibration. At times, I wish I could experience a “first-glimpse,” a “blink-awake” moment, but the region has always  been my backdrop, my ride through, my nurturing soil. Therefore, my relationship to Los Angeles — and how it looks, sounds, feels, pulses — is specific to my lifelong commitment to exploring it, sinking myself deeply into it, articulating it — its vastness, its complexity, its paradoxes, its defiance.        

Los Angeles, by its sprawling nature, absolutely resists oversimplification.

The city has always been slippery, if not elusive. And it is expressly because of its transitory nature that I began writing. Not with a goal to become a writer, but with the intention to try to capture what I saw and felt before it all went away — a quick cut, a scene change.

I’m often asked, “What was it like to grow up in Los Angeles?” I think what the inquisitor really means is not “How do you live amid fires and earthquakes and floods or disaster?” but rather “How did you find a place in placelessness?” How did L.A. as a presence, a territory, first come to me? As a physical presence, beyond the sun on my skin or sleeveless Christmases? Or bobbing in the surf, my father’s large, sure hand at the small of my back, steadying me? These are flashes of early sense memories: If you have nothing to compare it to, L.A. just is.

As a child, I saw and smelled it first through my parents’ vivid descriptions. Both traveled here from radically disparate origins. My mother, who was born in New Orleans, always spoke of California’s orange groves. You didn’t have to drive anywhere to pick up the scent. It was the region’s perfume. My father, who was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia, was a proudly self-defined East Coast kid, who shrugged out of his wool vest and sweater and coat and, once he crossed the city limits, was happy to never again shovel snow or scrape ice off a windshield. He was taken by the adjacencies, the access to various textures and climates. He took to the smooth beaches and the sharp angles and temperature twists of the desert. I remember happening upon a photo album years back — a catalog of time, pre-me and my younger brother. It featured just vistas: ocean and cactus and redwoods, just lush, lush, with hardly a person for pages and pages. Not even the two of them for scale, or an “I was here” flag in the sand. Just landscapes within which to set a story. Both of them, and then us, were officially Angelenos, all part of the Great Migration of African Americans tipped north and west. Southern California’s environment was the prize, the land the centerpiece. Look, we made it, the snapshots said. It is ours. All of it.

In Candacy Taylor’s recent book, The Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, the historian and photographer explores this “dreams come true” allure, the physical beauty and freedom the West promised people of color generally, African Americans specifically. Los Angeles represented the apogee: “In the mythology that gave us the American Dream, the West has always represented freedom. And once you reached the westernmost edge of the continent, there was California  there you could relax in the land of swaying palm trees framed by a cerulean blue ocean, while ripe fruit fell to the ground under a sunlit sky.”

We know the rest. I was fed on it. Both the beauty and the rub: Things are not what they seem. Restrictive housing covenants. Broken promises. Double-edged illusions. So many families uprooted for work—train labor, industrial jobs in manufacturing, in aerospace—but high-paying industrial jobs often eluded many who’d come with high hopes and limited means. This forced a pivot, in plans and in dreams.

Like the television and movie figures we happen upon — ducking in for coffee, picking up dry cleaning, heading up a trailhead — people and place look very different close up. So much of what we Angelenos live around and what defines the region has been imported —trucked in, sailed in, nipped and tucked, fluffed up. As Carey McWilliams wrote in his seminal assessment of the region in 1946, Southern California: An Island on the Land, this place is a paradox, “a desert that faces the ocean.” Modernity changed ecology, the palm trees, the eucalyptus, the acacia and pepper trees, the flowers, and of course the flow of water. None of this is ours, yet all of it is us.

On clear days, looking toward the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast, you can make out a semblance of what was, what greeted our forebears. “The natural landscape,” McWilliams writes, “was not particularly prepossessing. The native vegetation consisted of chaparral on moist mountain slopes and bunch grass on the lowlands.” That’s what I am drawn to — the glitches, the stubborn outgrowths that can’t be tamed; the hardy seedling volunteers that root among the acquiescent native plants. As underscore, McWilliams quotes the writer James M. Cain: “The naked earth shows through everything that grows on it. The earth is naked and exposed in California.” The truth is always with us.

  • Near Broadway, Chinatown

  • Local resident Soraya Zain, 25, skateboards past shuttered businesses along the famous boardwalk in Venice Beach, California. Though stores, restaurants and the beach itself are closed, some residents are still venturing out for fresh air by the sea.

  • Normandie Avenue, Koreatown

  • Central Avenue, Little Tokyo

  • Virgil Avenue, East Hollywood

    Anthony Wilson
  • Sunset Court, Venice Beach

FINDING HOME

The spaces I moved through as a child and adolescent often didn’t square with what I encountered in books or in movies. My Los Angeles was not an idyll. It was cacophony, it was a bouquet of languages that sometimes merged; it was a stop-and-go saunter through wildly varied experience, improvised architecture, middling air quality, flora and fauna, mix-and-match street culture. It didn’t look at all like the fantasies of advertisements or the punchline of a joke. I’d see recognizable locales on some television shows, like, say, The Rockford Files, the 1970s detective drama that flirted with the workaday subcultures along the county’s edges. The show’s creators understood L.A. as a series of discrete and distinct neighborhoods that sprawled beneath the flight path or hugged the foothills; Jim Rockford lived in Malibu Cove with an uninterrupted ocean view, sure, but in a sun-and-sea-beaten 1959 Nashua house trailer.

Weekly, for decades now, before the sun makes itself fully visible over the L.A. Basin, I make a trek high up into the hills, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend. It’s not church, but it is more than a ritual, a way to situate myself. Most often we head to the trails that wind up into Griffith Park. This is L.A.’s municipal park, a gift of industrialist and philanthropist Griffith J. Griffith. Situated at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains and covering 4,310 acres of land, it stretches from Los Feliz on the western end to Burbank/Glendale to the east. It’s a well-worn Angeleno joke: You must drive to take a walk. (It’s not always true; some mornings I walk straight from my house into the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles National Forest, with its lush tree groves and calming streams.)

Always, I hold out hope that the park will be quiet and unpopulated enough to allow me to simply concentrate. Not on beauty, but on incongruity. On how the impossible was made possible. I marvel at the coastal sage scrub, sycamores and oak, the wandering coyote and deer, and that I can look past them to an ever-changing skyline that seems to have simply sprouted, like the wild mustard, from the same earth upon which I stand; to the crisscross of freeways — the I-5, braiding with the 134 and, farther out, the I-110; to the metropolis of millions, soon to blink awake.

Ingraham Street, Koreatown

“firmness is a kinky illusion. no stomping ground/the marriage
of fire and water tar pits deserts earthquakes
emotional swamps of mood. lakes of molten love. a sky of
cries.”
 —Wanda Coleman, from Gonwandaland

I’m not certain when I realized that Los Angeles, with its varied microclimates and unique seasons, its fluid ambivalence about its past, had somehow tattooed itself upon me. I do know that for as long as I can remember, I’ve been hungry for books that found their traction here; I sought writers who wrote from their Los Angeles. I slipped through seams in time (’50s, ’20s, ’40s, ’60s) and jumped around genres (history, poetry, literary fiction, memoir, noir). I wanted to see those backdrops flicker up. Not just the column of clear white light projected on a wall, but what it was to move through Los Angeles in those eras — to touch it, smell it, taste it. I was trying to find the familiar and to answer questions about how we got here, to this flawed overarching narrative, the land of the “laid back,” mañana lifestyle, the capital of “everything loose will land” here.

I read Chandler, Cain, West, Fante, Bukowski, Schulberg, Fitzgerald, Himes. These were stories that told me what histories — whose turf — I stood on: shadowy barrooms, dusty flophouses, sunny Hollywood conference rooms, a deeply past-tense world lit through venetian blinds. But it wasn’t mine. My L.A. progressed beyond the doors of my local library, my sunny east-facing bedroom, through the Spanglish banter of corner stores, the scraping of skateboards in drought-drained pools, the drum circles in Leimert Park, whose beats followed the flow of girls in tap shoes hurrying to Saturday-morning class. The sounds of neighborhoods, of hustle and scrapping.

“L.A. is a wash of sounds. Of moods. Of textures,” says musician and composer Anthony Wilson. Over the past few years, Wilson, a native and son of the late, great L.A.-based jazz bandleader Gerald Wilson, has been trying to chronicle a sense of place, not just in his own music, but also in photographs. He walks and bikes, and this slows the city down — slides it into focus, the ways communities segue into one another, some abruptly, some imperceptibly. The images of his that most resonate with me are instances and perspectives that an outsider would never pin as quintessential Los Angeles. It’s not the palm tree shadows or the dusty fronds themselves, or even the blink-awake aqueous light; it’s the riot of color — yellows, turquoise, hot orange — of buildings and close-up hand-painted signage. It’s a careful arrangement of executive office chairs on a vast asphalt parking lot, or the angle of late-afternoon amber light slicing through a storefront window.

It’s not the palm tree shadows or the dusty fronds themselves, or even the blink-awake aqueous light; it’s the riot of color — yellows, turquoise, hot orange — of buildings and close-up hand-painted signage. It’s a careful arrangement of executive office chairs on a vast asphalt parking lot, or the angle of late-afternoon amber light slicing through a storefront window.

Spinning through his images, if you concentrate enough, you might pick up what Wilson hears when he’s grabbing these visual notes. “When you get quiet enough in yourself to hear it — beyond the dry roar of automobile and air traffic, past the sounds of mariachi and ranchera music in East L.A. or the northeastern L.A. hills or the deep bass thump of hip-hop coming from cars on the streets throughout the city — in any part of Los Angeles there is always the sound and song of birds: incessant chirps from inside bushes and treetops, insistent calls of crows and gulls, coos of doves and pigeons. It’s really there always, and there’s so much that seems more identified with this city, but for me, it’s the music of the millions of birds who share this space with us that is the true sound of Los Angeles and tells me that I’m here.”

I also hear that dance between urban and wild. Depending on where I’ve landed for the day, it’s mostly an urban hum: I too wake to birds, but as the morning cedes its tranquil hold and afternoon takes hold, the backdrop fills: The sound of a bus’ air brakes; the snap, pop of live electric wires overhead, the mechanic’s lift, the fruit cart’s squawking bicycle horn, the screeching wheeling migrating wild parrots; the tumbling tribal drums that echo in the moist night air; it’s the freeway hiss that you pretend is an ocean advancing and retreating. Forever and always, it’s a city of contradictions and brokered coexistence, even its sonic ambience.

LIFE AS IT COMES

Sometimes a clear-eyed, poetic depiction of the city catches me unawares. A vision that combines Los Angeles’ ragged urban rawness with the sobering spectacle of nature: its paradoxes, its flashes of wonderment. Like the city itself, the best rewards — that flock of screeching wild parrots in a tangle of old television aerials, a bear taking a stroll through San Gabriel front yards — are not searched for but happened upon.

I’ve begun to to see the more recognizable contours of my city more and more. By chance, when I stopped by to check on a friend recovering at home from surgery, a screener of director Karen Kusama’s thriller, Destroyer, was just starting up on her TV. The movie stars Nicole Kidman as a worn-out undercover detective for the LAPD. I could tell from the first frames it wasn’t escapist fare. Grubby and vacant-eyed, the detective moves through the harsh desert light, chasing her past, and along the way I see my present — the concrete river, the wash of mishmash architecture and urban blight, a 21st century backdrop, a character itself. I took a seat. I watched, transfixed. What struck me most was an elaborate foot chase that begins at night in the gritty urban flats (here, south L.A. subbed in for Echo Park), then rises up narrow, dimly lit concrete pathways. The pursuit extends, the characters breathing heavily as they stumble up a steep grade and into the dirt footpaths of hills, then stop amid a lacy stand of trees. The city fans out below, not a beautiful glittering gem, but a wash of light, diffused by a bit of marine moisture. From their perch, the expanse reveals how high the climb and how tremendous the drop.

In this cinematic moment, I see L.A. at its most beguiling and real: You can cross on foot from one completely “wild” environment into the next, on foot.

To people watching elsewhere, unaware of L.A.’s terrain, it must look like invention, or even a mistake. How could they run from the center of a city into the woods in a matter of minutes? Angelenos know: You can. Why is this multifarious, wily Los Angeles still such a stranger to the world? Why is its richness still such a mystery?            

“Why,” I ask out loud, “did this send me so?”

I’m sitting across a two-top dining table, sharing small plates in a restaurant at L.A.’s Union Station with the novelist Nina Revoyr, reanimating this hilltop scene, the juxtaposition of territories. This is another day for us, in the place we know, the place we call home, but the backdrop is sure to shift as it always does, sometimes in small tremors many miles below the surface. Revoyr feels this and is familiar with the city’s nuances, a longtime resident of Los Angeles who has lived all over the basin. Revoyr’s work — more than two decades of stories about people and sense of place in obscure regions of Los Angeles — feels like a devotional, rendering a more complex version of the city, clearing the sightlines to allow a better view.  

What I realized finally, I tell her, is that that moment was a visual echo that pulled me back to a similar instance from an earlier decade: Allison Anders’ 1993 film, Mi Vida Loca. It’s the same general locale — the Elysian Park trails above northeast Los Angeles’ Echo Park, presenting the same view of the outstretched city — where two childhood friends, Mousie and Sad Girl, go to settle scores. They call this hidden-from-outsiders turf “The Logs,” a place they, and their Mexicana/Chicana posse, can travel on foot. But most strikingly this: Despite the relentless turf warfare, the graffiti-sprayed streets, that breathtaking million-dollar view on a brisk, clear night is theirs and theirs alone. All their struggles — the violence that is evident or hinted at — transpire against a backdrop of exquisite natural lushness. That flickering California Dream. And the freeway-adjacent Arcadia.

Daly Street, Lincoln Heights

Tonight, we sit with a view of the station’s concourse, watching waves and waves of commuters rush toward the subway escalators or up toward train departure gates, and I can’t help but reflect on the fact that this is the portal through which my mother first entered the city, and that we are also sitting on land that was once the largest of the villages of the Tongva — Yaangna.

And this is what Revoyr sees, the layers, and, too, what the naked earth reveals. This is what we’ve come together to talk about, our visions of our city: Where they merge, where they depart. Not just ski to surf, but how just a jog across the basin puts you in the path of mountain lions, coyotes and bobcats along the foothills, into the thick of the always-changing complexity of “home.” L.A.’s land speaks, reveals the past and present; you just have to be conversant in its symbology. For a hiker, Revoyr explains, “it’s striking, looking down. It’s evident which areas are wealthier and which aren’t, just by the amount of green they have. Hancock Park, for example, looks very green from above, because of all the trees and irrigation — much different from neighboring, congested Koreatown.”

She identifies other markers: “Driving down major streets, like Central or San Pedro in South L.A., is very different than, say, driving down Pico in West L.A. There are so many little stores and storefront churches, rundown businesses that struggle to stay open. Graffiti and murals. Metal gates opened in daytime that are drawn closed at night. And yet there is so much more street life here, too, a different kind of vibrancy.”

“It was just an extreme version of what’s happening all the time.”

Proximity to the ocean, sprawling views, adjacency to big nature: These, generally speaking, are the backdrops that become more accessible to (and associated with) Angelenos with wealth, but, Revoyr says, the divide is even more fundamental than that. That fabled air and light? It’s not available to all. It cuts both ways. “When you look at tools like CalEnvironScreen — an online mapping tool that identifies areas of high pollution throughout the state — you’ll see that our most severely polluted areas map almost exactly with areas where low-income people of color live. It’s folks of color whose neighborhoods are slashed through by freeways, who live near the ports and refineries and trash-burning facilities, whose homes are right next to active oil drilling.” Not long ago, a Delta airline jet preparing to make an emergency dumped 15,000 gallons of fuel on an elementary school, injuring children and adults in the working-class community of Cudahay. “It was just an extreme version of what’s happening all the time.”

And yet, while grappling on the page with these tensions and divides, Revoyr is still captivated by the stretch of experiences one can move through in a single day — or a single hour; the many Los Angeleses she can call her own. “When I lived in Glassell Park ... owls would serenade each other over the canyon,” she says. “I would walk twice a day with our dogs and feel both that I was moving through a major metropolitan area — busy neighborhoods and freeways in every direction — and like I was moving within a large expanse of nature, in terrain people lived in, but could never control. Even as we’ve covered so much of this land in concrete, nature keeps wiggling through. … It reminds us who is in charge.”

It reminds us why we’re here.

CASUAL DREAMERS                                       

Like many Angelenos of late, I’m trying to read between the lines of a new narrative. The order comes on a Thursday: Not a full lockdown, but an aggressive response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, a stepped-down version of “shelter in place” — “Safer at Home.” I listen to the press conference of L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, on my laptop, attempting to multitask through tabs until I can figure out the contours of this new story. Reporters phone in with questions, parsing language: How is this edict different from shelter in place? Other words from the mayor’s address vibrate in my head: “There is no magic moat around us. ... Today is a day that will be seared into the story of the streets of this city.”

We will have to stay apart to come together. In this sense, our sprawl will serve us differently. I take the edict seriously: A before-and-after marker. I vow to stay close to home. I also take note that it is the first day of spring, the air itself vivid with birdsong and the scent of new blooms. Los Angeles at its most fetching. By Saturday morning, my curiosity gets the best of me. What has happened to my city? I drive into my old neighborhood, Echo Park, to do my sanctioned grocery shopping. Just as I’ve glimpsed in the TV coverage, Sunset Boulevard appears as if asleep. Surreal for a Saturday: the empty streets slick with morning drizzle, the bus benches clear of commuters, the sleek new cafes, usually noisy with morning business, shut tight behind accordion gates. Blocks away, along the placid lake, a few joggers make a loop, and pairs of mallard ducks parade near the shore. The paddle boats, docked in careful rows, as if waiting for this — this ill wind — to pass. 

We will have to stay apart to come together. In this sense, our sprawl will serve us differently. 

This is the part that is sometimes difficult to put into words: The L.A. that moves through us. The Los Angeles we carry with — and in — us, every day. It abides through all the changes. I see it in Wilson’s photographs. I hear it in some of the cross-genre music that was the soundtrack of my southwest L.A. days — the salsa, funk and shredding guitars — that represent a collision of bordering ethnic neighborhoods. And I saw it in the wistful frames of Allsion Anders’ film.

A few weeks back — moments, it now seems, before everything turned upside-down — through the pure gift of serendipity, I crossed paths with Anders at a benefit in an urban oasis in Pasadena. Arlington Garden, a three-acre public green space dedicated to the flora and fauna of Southern California — here we stood amid the familiar — coastal sage scrub, succulents, old shaggy palm trees. Our big town is a small town. In minutes, sharing stories standing in a lush oak grove, alight with darting butterflies, listening to dreamy DJ sets that fold in salsa, samba and soul, we realized that we had both lived in Echo Park during the same era, and now once more share a hometown flush against the San Gabriels. Her work speaks my language because it has walked my same L.A. footpaths. I tell her about how much I was struck by the mood and sense of place of Mi Vida Loca — the play of light, the colors floating, the ebb and flow of street talk — so much so that I carried it around with me, tucked away, a memory of a vanishing place.

We live in a fast-changing city. That was always a given, but now gentrification is rapidly grinding away many more recognizable contours. And while Mi Vida Loca is a chronicle of a friendship, and the love that ebbs and flows within it, it now also reads as an ode to the lost Echo Park and the hardscrabble neighborhoods like it.

The life of the street pulses. The sidewalks buckle, tree roots push through concrete, gunfire tears through the most perfect moment on a most perfect day. But flowers grow out of asphalt. Trees regenerate after wildfires. The natural environment is emblematic of hope, and the promise of L.A. floats, even tarnished, in view, if not in reach.

To understand Mousie and Sad Girl and their cohort (Whisper and Sleepy, Giggles and Casual Dreamer), Anders explained, “I had to understand the place they inhabited. Where do they sleep? Where do they eat? Where do they shop? That’s how I get to know who they are. What I’m always interested in are communities of people in a space that they have not necessarily chosen to be in. That’s, of course, working-class people. … They are going to have to be resourceful, because they have to be. It’s not going to be beautiful, but they are going to make it beautiful.”

When Anders moved to Echo Park, it was the same neighborhood I inhabited as a young journalist, just starting out, seeking affordable digs. Echo Park then had the texture of a real neighborhood, a real place — heavy with history, noisy with chickens and roosters, spiky territory tags/graffiti tossed up on walls, a smear of music that rose up from the bars and blasted from cars into the streets. But if you stopped for a moment, from up high on a clear day, you could see not just the lake but the Pacific. This all created a deep sense of community connection, of pride, even back in the 1990s, when the L.A. River wasn’t much more than a trickle, still strangled by concrete. When Sad Girl says, “You can get anything you need in my neighborhood,” she means it.

“When I was interviewing DPs (directors of photography),” Anders said “they’d read the script and say: ‘Oh, I know. I’m going to make this really gritty and urban.’ ” It sent up an alarm. “I’d go, ‘Ehhhh. …’ But then Rodrigo Garcia showed up and said: ‘I’m going to make this really beautiful, because that’s how they see it.’ I needed somebody to do that. Because it is.”

Look up, look around. Nature reminds us: “There is something beyond all of this. If you can just get a moment to stand on a hill and look out, you can regain your perspective. You can get beyond all of this. You can get through it.”

Luis J. Rodriquez, the city’s former poet laureate‚ writes in his “Love Letter to L.A.”: “To truly love L.A. / You have to see it / With different eyes / Askew perhaps ...” This line sticks in my mind like a skipping record. In Los Angeles, sometimes you have to tilt the frame to see more, to regain perspective, but you also have to know to do so. Because of the region’s tangled histories — its whispered restrictive housing covenants and redlining, its power shifts and social hierarchies, its discrimination, its de facto brand of segregation, its legacy of strictly enforced “sundown towns,” which restricted nonwhite citizens, not just from living there but even passing through — some stories of the city, those that are uncomfortable or inconvenient, remain muted. The people who have the privilege to tell the story of a place, do. And often, they retell the same one over and over.

Every day, we walk atop Native people’s land. I’ve tried to memorize whose and where: like Yanngna, where Revoyr and I sat for our conversation at Union Station, or Karuuvanga, situated on the city’s westside, minutes from where I grew up, where a spring still flows. For generations, developers have built housing, parking lots, over not just city blocks but entire former neighborhoods. They’ve remade and renamed so many spaces. But the physical places in Los Angeles still live within the stories of the people who worked graveyard shifts in aerospace, or once made their homes in the jewel-toned bungalows now cleared for a freeway, or who kept neat vegetable gardens and fruit trees and shared their bounty. Some of them still stand. Everyday, we walk over the shards of old dreams. It’s important for us to remember and tell out loud these stories that don’t fit snugly in the quasi-official narrative; they are essential to understanding the spirit of this place.

L.A. isn’t just an idyll. It is urban — with all of the tensions inherent in that. And in this extended moment, through our abundance of caution, I realize there will be no more sharing small plates, no tandem bike rides, no serendipitous meet-ups in oak groves, for an interval of time we cannot predict nor will into being.

Paradise can be a backdrop to tragedy, to disappointment, to disaster. When I circle back to Echo Park now, it’s home to a sizable homeless encampment, with a view of Echo Park Lake, where Mousie and Sad Girl sat in the glorious light of afternoon, trading tragedies. The wild pops up out of nowhere sometimes, in the middle of the urban. It’s part of the American story of second chances, of possibility, L.A. ever the epicenter.

Paradise can be a backdrop to tragedy, to disappointment, to disaster. 

Like Anders, Revoyr knows that when writing of home, it’s important to sink into the particular. I reflect on her observation: “I tend to write about neighborhoods that are challenged and complex. I do want to show the difficulties, the struggles. But there is also loveliness too, and I want to capture that, the resilience of the people, the connections and family, the physical beauty of neighborhoods that people may not notice, or may not know to look for. … I want to show them in all their complexity.”

Those stories of place, the Los Angeles of my childhood and adolescence and young adulthood — the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s — couldn’t be told until we began to tell them. Until we steadied and raised our voices. Until we made our way through gatekeepers, and most significantly until we were of age and of mind to turn our attention to a shifting definition of the West (or El Norte), one that included stories of migration and immigration, of protest, of underemployment, of struggle, and of love and resilience despite disappointment, and in the ways in which we tend to the physical environment, to conserve against drought or be mindful of energy use and emissions. We must tend to the region’s various topographies in narrative. It’s imperative. Or they will be lost. As a chronicler, my responsibility is to try and tell an honest story. True to its roots. Even now, even in this quiet moment in the city, we must remember its cacophony, its music.

We are trying to convey something of Los Angeles — the flicker of light that sparks a recollection, a borrowed memory that resonates — and ultimately leave some clearer understanding of the gradations, the mix and the complexity. I suppose, in the seeing and retelling, we are all trying to leave a little bit ourselves, too — like the laced graffiti, which, even in the press of change, still claims walls, marks territory, exclaims: “I was here.”

Griffith Park, Los Angeles

Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles-based journalist and essayist. She has been a staff writer for both L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday) and After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, (Angel City Press). Her new book: A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World That Made Octavia E. Butler, will be published, Fall 2020, by Angel City Press. Follow her @lynellgeorgeEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.