Southern Girl in a Strange Land (Part 3: Lost Angeles

This is the third installment of a recurring column in Tangents Magazine about a young Charlotte writer’s move to California. The original story can be found here.

“I can see the city’s rugged landscape, feel its warmth and energy, smell its worldly aromas, and sense its people’s pride more sharply than ever. It is vintage heaven, art heaven, music and comedy galore.”

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Hello again, lovely readers! It’s been far too long. If you’re new to this column, you joined at a great time. If you read the first part of my story, we last left off where I made my escape from Orange County (which, as you’ll recall, I found stunningly beautiful, yet suffocatingly conservative) and migrated north to Los Angeles.

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Griffith Park

Funny how an hour’s move across a single county line can provide more of a culture shock than the move across coasts. It was just the adrenaline jolt I’d been anxiously awaiting for months. I quickly made friends in Hollywood, with whom I lounged around punk band practice spaces nestled high above the Walk of Fame, saw shows at The Whisky and The Roxy on Sunset Boulevard, and devoured the world’s best falafel wraps at the aptly-named Perfect Pita. I once went out for drinks at Chateau Marmont and woke up the next morning in a VW bus parked on the rocky shore of Malibu beach. Sure, I shared a three-bedroom apartment among six people, but who cares? It was par for the course in LA.

I had trouble finding steady work, though, and even more trouble focusing myself on much of anything productive. The one writing connection I secured was with a DIY punk zine called Razorcake, and I was overjoyed when they agreed to publish my record reviews. I visited the Razorcake offices in Highland Park and helped the editors process mailings of the ’zine to be sent all over the world.

Even though the gig didn’t pay, I should have latched onto the opportunity and channeled all of my free time (read: underemployed time) into writing. Instead, I found myself carrying out the magazine’s slogan “We like to drink beer and listen to records” with entirely too much dedication. (Is alcoholism a form of dedication? Only an alcoholic would think so.) No longer was I out on the town partying — I drank, increasingly, alone in my room.

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That wasn’t always water and coffee.

By this point in my long, solo journey, I had spent the better part of a year in isolation. A self-made prisoner of solitary confinement, I began to mentally unravel. I spiraled downward into the pit of myself and could neither drink my way fully into nor out of oblivion. Stuck in the narrow space between life and death, I lay paralyzed for days. You could say I followed in the footsteps of the Donner Party, the pioneers who traveled hundreds of miles across the plains to the western edge of the continent, only to self-destruct and perish.

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A very morbid place in Hollywood.

But instead of dying, I managed to weakly outstretch a wounded hand for help. A series of referrals led me to an absurdly stereotypical L.A. experience: Rehab! (Those who knew me in my Plaza Midwood heyday are not surprised, I’m sure.) It was the last place I ever thought I’d wind up, but as soon as I arrived, I was overcome with the conviction that it was what I really came to California to do. My subconscious brain wanted to get sober, so it propelled me across the states and down to rock bottom before my conscious brain wised up to its plan and opted out. Smart.

Three months later, I am sober and sane, living in the San Fernando Valley, just slightly northwest of L.A. I can see the city’s rugged landscape, feel its warmth and energy, smell its worldly aromas, and sense its people’s pride more sharply than ever. It is vintage heaven, art heaven, music and comedy galore. Elderly businessmen in a pizza parlor do not so much as flinch at the sight of a still-costumed, heavily made-up actress from the theater next door. Anywhere else, she would be gawked at, and I am comforted by the freedom to be eccentric.

It is appropriate that I am writing a recurring column about a southern woman’s experience of California, because my own favorite writer Joan Didion released a memoir this year called “South and West” which is the exact inverse: a native California woman’s impression of the South. The book is a collection of notes from a road trip Didion took with her husband in 1970 through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. It was a crucial point in history to visit the Deep South, but her impressions are as relevant today as ever. Although many Americans view the South as a place stuck in the history books, clinging to outdated ideas and resisting societal progression, Didion proposed in 1970 that the South represented not only America’s past, but also its future. She predicted that the nation would always inevitably circle back to the traditions on which it was built. Nearly fifty years of “progress” later, look where we are: back under a conservative regime lifted up by communities of Americans who still believe in the traditional nuclear family unit, the value of self-sufficiency, and Christianity as the basis of federal lawmaking. Those of us who spent the last several years with our eyes fixed squarely upon the promised road ahead failed to adequately measure the strength and gusto of those communities, which we mistakenly deemed to be “lagging behind” or “out of touch.”

As such, California was downright blind-sighted by the election’s indication of where the rest of America stands. Socioeconomic inequality is as alive and well in Los Angeles as it is in Charlotte, but it takes on a different form here. Although Charlotte certainly has its neighborhoods like Ballantyne and Beatties Ford that are predominantly inhabited by one ethnic group or another, the whole city is small enough that no group can go very far without running into one another. Racial issues are a natural part of public discourse in the South; it would be awkward not to talk about them. That old, faux-liberal adage, “I don’t see color,” insults people more than would a simple acknowledgement of the very real white privilege that still exists, perhaps with a caustic humor to break the ice. When Keith L. Scott and Jonathan Ferrell were shot and killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers, citizens of all colors took it personally and showed up in droves to protest. When the question of Confederate flags and statues arose in Charleston, whites in favor of taking them down were every bit as vocal in the debate as blacks. The problem of racism in the South belongs to us all.

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But not so in Los Angeles. This city is big and sprawling enough that its most- and least-privileged groups can remain largely out of sight and out of mind from one another. Writer John Lopez of Departures magazine agrees, “The city has always been an archipelago that clusters wealth in islands cut off from needier neighborhoods by an asphalt sea and rivers of traffic.” The affluent, predominantly white residents of Beverly Hills have no reason to come within viewing distance of the horrifying poverty in South Central. It doesn’t exist to them. And it works both ways. I met a girl of about 21 named Serenity, who has lived in the projects of South L.A. her whole life. In that time, she’s had little-to-no exposure to the most popular attractions in her native city, including free ones like Griffith Park and The Getty Museum. Serenity was born to a 14-year-old mother, and college has never been within her purview. She works full-time at a movie theater where she sells tickets to the films made less than ten miles away; but to her, Hollywood might as well be in a different universe. Serenity illustrates to me the true injustice served to children raised in the inner city: It’s not just that they don’t have nice things; it’s that they’re taught not to dream.

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South L.A. was designed for its inhabitants to see no way out of poverty in any direction. An exhibit at the California African-American Art Museum (CAAM) called “No Justice No Peace: LA 1992” chronicles a timeline of violence between LAPD and citizens of color from the 1965 Watts rebellion to the 1992 protests following the brutal police attack on Rodney King. It also displays urban planning maps from the 1960s created with the intent to keep blacks and Hispanics corralled in specific areas to prevent homes in more prosperous neighborhoods from dropping in market value. Real estate agents knew their white clients would be less inclined to purchase homes in neighborhoods where blacks and Hispanics resided, so they kept the inner city segregated using this legal (yet highly discriminatory) process known as “redlining.”

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Rose gardens outside the CAAM

On the final wall of the exhibit are painted the words, “In today’s political climate, how can we bring change to unify ourselves?” inviting visitors to write their ideas on the provided slips of construction paper and hang them from hooks on the wall. Talk less. Listen more. Use words, not violence.

I suppose the activity of brainstorming ideas aims to leave the viewer with a small sense of hope or agency over a bleak history. LA at large is by no means engaged in such debate over how quickly or thoroughly to erase the remaining evidence of a racist history as the Carolinas are right now. But it’s not because the city is still racist — quite the opposite. It’s because most people here are so genuinely friendly and welcoming toward one another that they may not see much evidence of a racist history. (Hell, the CAAM made a whole exhibit so it wouldn’t be erased from the collective conscience altogether.)

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Some friends and I drove 6 hours to San Francisco for these famous super-quesadillas and nachos.

Latinos officially outnumber whites in California, and Latino culture is as much a part of the landscape as the palm trees, much to my torta-loving delight. (I am so glad I paid attention in Spanish class growing up!) Hispanics occupy all levels of the socio-economic ladder here as their prosperity has risen unfalteringly in the last decade. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, dean of education at UCLA’s Graduate School, told The Los Angeles Times, “Where L.A. goes is where the rest of the state goes and where the rest of the country goes. We announce, demographically speaking, the future for the rest of the country.” Of course, that was in 2015 before the current federal administration put doubt, fear and feelings of unwelcome-ness into the hearts of local Hispanics who called California home long before the land was ceded to the United States fewer than 200 years ago. Suddenly, a whole generation of grown children who know no other home than America will have to fight to stay here, and close-knit families will be torn apart. I recently attended a poetry reading featuring a group of phenomenal Hispanic female poets orating their struggles with passion and eloquence. One of these poets was just 11 years old, and I was equally impressed by her verbiage as I was heartbroken that such young people had to toil with garbage phrases like “border-jumper” and “build a wall” coming from authority figures. Fortunately, Mayor Eric Garcetti has resisted pressure to cooperate with the federal government’s crackdown on immigration and embraced the branding of Los Angeles as a “sanctuary city.”

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At least two powerful forces that I can see are changing the status quo for better and for worse. The latter is gentrification, a trend both California and the South know all too well. Standing on Arlington Street in South Central, facing north toward Koreatown, one can just make out the Hollywood sign glowing atop a hill in the distance. Hipster coffee shops and luxury condos are rapidly making their way down the hill, bringing the rich and the poor physically closer together, yet economically further apart. Housing costs are skyrocketing across southern California, making it less and less affordable for people of low-to-medium income.

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Finding addresses in Koreatown is fun.

The other, more positive integrating force is the innovation of visionaries like Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. See, the Museum owns far more art than it can house, so Govan plans to bring large exhibits to unused spaces in disadvantaged neighborhoods, like a 84,000-square foot warehouse off Crenshaw Boulevard. Local residents will be able to view the exhibits for free, and the city will save a fortune in what would have been demolition and cleanup. It’s a great way to bring art to those who wouldn’t otherwise see it, but I can’t help but wonder if this kind of cultural relocation is what starts gentrification in the first place.

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Overall, I don’t see the western MO of forward thinking as a reflection of ignorance about history — I see it as a reflection of forgiveness and optimism, both of which the South could learn from. I have come to rely upon that spirit of forgiveness every time I accidentally cut someone off in traffic on the 405 freeway. And I espouse that spirit of optimism every evening at five o’clock, when the hot summer sun hangs at it most oppressive height, trusting that a vividly pink sunset will bring cool relief at 7:00. Will optimism and innovation keep California at the forefront of progress? Or was Didion correct in her suspicion that history is bound to recycle itself? Only time will tell.

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Yes, I miss Bojangle’s dearly, but I love fresh avocados just as much. And I miss the shady comfort of sitting under an old oak tree, but I also appreciate the resilient beauty of succulents and cacti. Long drives over the florid mountains punctuate my workdays; thrift shopping and lazy strolls through the park fill my weekends. I absolutely love Los Angeles, and because I’m sober now, I’m finally at peace in my own skin. I’ve been a gypsy long enough. This Southern girl is here to stay.

❤ SG

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