Sunday, January 18, 2015

Angeles' Ashes

An intersection at 6th Street and Commonwealth.

Exit La Fayette Park Place and take a right past South Baylo University on 6th Street. Walk past the charter school and the quaint Mediterranean Revival public library, past the courthouse and the First Congregational Church cum high school.

Arrive at the intersection of 6th and Commonwealth, and you'll notice a line drawn in the poorly maintained roads.  Beneath the layers of asphalt, vestiges of what was formerly the world's most elaborate streetcar system have slowly started to fight their way to the surface.

Having lived in Houston, and now living in Los Angeles, it isn't too hard to see how the pair are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps just two data points along the same narrative.  More bluntly, Los Angeles fifty years ago is what Houston is today.  Los Angeles existed before the advent of the automobile, and faced an awkward transition into the age of the automobile, something for which it continues to pay dearly.  It is now entering that junction in its development where it can follow the status quo, or accept the investments that would be required to serve a generation whose lives don't revolve around the car.  Houston has only really existed in its current scale with the automobile, and really won't exist in any other form for the foreseeable future.

Given the setup of Los Angeles is not dissimilar from Paris, a comprehensive rail system (or something of the sort if you are of the opinion that rail is too expensive) would function relatively well. The interesting reality is that the city is using preexisting right of ways from the historic Pacific Electric cars to build the new light rail, and is doing so faster than anywhere else in the country. Thus, it sounds like within the next decade or two (eek), this type of system might come back to place.

It's not the most beautiful city in the world.  In fact, those individuals stepping off the plane from Asia into this gateway city may think they've gone back in time.  Too much stucco and too little street cleaning, streets that are too wide and give deference to cars rather than bicyclists and pedestrians.  You can tell that the concepts are new to a lot of Angelenos, in the way that they honk at pedestrians who have the right of way, or don't know to watch out for bicyclists before taking a turn or opening the car door. Still, sufficient historic buildings and a gridded layout exist to serve as the backbone for an incredible future, especially in what is actually the densest metropolitan region in the country.  It seems the proper steps are already being taken.  But is it really impossible for privately owned rail to succeed in the US?

The weather is about perfect 300 days of the year, so it isn't hard to envision a much different future for the basin, and perhaps one that can take a cue from the past.  I'm pretty optimistic.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The One that Melted in the Dark

Take a stroll just five blocks east from my condo and you'll find yourself staring at one of the most beautiful urban parks in Los Angeles.  Formerly a drinking water reservoir, Westlake (and the MacArthur Park neighborhood in particular) were billed as LA's answer to the Champs-Elysées some time in the middle of the century.  Sitting in the famous Langer's Deli looking out onto the park, one can see the past logic that the neighborhood just outside of downtown would have been designed as a pleasantly residential area for families to live just a short streetcar ride from work.

Fast forward a few decades later, and the park would find itself the center of unfortunate crime and urban blight.  As with the rest of Westlake and Koreatown, one can see the vestiges of a bygone era in the ornate façades, in the asphalt that is peeling back to reveal the tell-tale streetcar tracks that betray what was once the world's most elaborate streetcar system.

In the past decade or two, significant strides have been made in revitalizing the park, repurposing such beautiful (but unoccupied) historic structures as the Park Plaza Hotel as an event venue (Lance Bass had his wedding there a few weeks ago).  Correction-it's actually called "The Legendary Park Plaza," perhaps because it isn't actually a functioning hotel anymore, and thus to call it a hotel would be false advertisement.  Though the park is still the place of Donna Summer fame, a place to go if you need a fake ID, the area has been a case where "revitalization" was not merely a euphemism for the displacement of the local population.

Halloween saw thousands of families taking to the streets for Trick-or-treating.  More importantly, the Mexican consulate's MacArthur Park-facing office has seen multiple demonstrations in solidarity with the Missing 43, including the one pictured above that temporarily shut down 6th St.   The demonstration took place entirely in Spanish, which I suppose is only surprising in that it surprises me.  The park is vibrant: never have I seen it during the weekend without a large crowd gathered for a game of soccer, with others playing frisbee or just laying on the grass.  Maybe someday the boathouse will reopen to allow for paddle boats once more.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The One with the Geography

Koreatown.  Recently described by the Los Angeles Times as the neighborhood to reflect what most of Los Angeles will become (more dense, higher rail transit, walkable), the neighborhood sits at a nexus of some of the most vivacious neighborhoods in the city.  Downtown is two stops away on the Metro.  Greater Wilshire and Central LA are just to the west.  And clockwise going north are West Hollywood, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silverlake, Echo Park, and Chinatown. It's really a question of which arrow on the compass inspires for the day.  Smaller neighborhoods of Olvera Street and Little Tokyo round out the loop.  Oh yes, and Skid Row.

I should start by saying that Koreatown isn't technically even east Los Angeles-but on the broader scale, the "West Side" comprises the beach towns along the 405: Santa Monica, Venice, Manhattan, Redondo, Hermosa, etc.  The east side traces the 110 freeway (and includes all those neighborhoods mentioned above, as well as Boyle Heights, Alhambra, and Monterrey Park), and South Central is the neighborhoods of Florence Graham (a street near home is named Bonnie Brae, I really can't complain about local nomenclature), Watts, and Compton.

Known to be the center of Korean culture and business for Los Angeles, Koreatown is actually over 50% Hispanic.  The neighborhood is home to a eclectic mix of mid-century classic architecture and a host of ultra-modern developments popping up left and right, including the recently completed Vermont Towers.  It's the home of the best $10 bibimbap I've ever had, as well as some of the best flautas.  In fact, we've come to realize that the best food to be had in the two mile radius around us comes from restaurants where the only language missing on the sign out front is English.

Often criticized for its lack of parking and somewhat hostile (for LA) environment for cars, the area plays host to two subway lines-the red and purple.  Yes, one can get all the way from our place to Universal Studios without ever changing lines on the train, or get to Orange County with one switch at Union Station, the most beautiful building in Los Angeles (more on that later).  Los Angeles is actually building rail faster than any other city in the country (come on Boston, pick up the pace if you want to be ready for 2024).

Center of the world? Maybe not.  Center of everything in Los Angeles that is more than the beach? Perhaps.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The One With the Backstory

"You're moving to California."

My heart stopped.  Three years had passed since I had locked the door to my San Francisco apartment for the last time.  I quelled my voice to maintain my professionalism to my manager.

"I appreciate the opportunity, this is really exciting!  I'll look forward to discussing the logistics with HR."

I put down the phone.  I picked it up.  Hey, Rod, um, I'm moving to California.  Rod was my landlord and closest friend in Houston.  For a year I had been renting the first floor of his beautiful town home.  Moments later my phone rang and all that I could hear was "Why God?!" blasting through the earpiece, in his characteristic why-are-other-people-getting-what-I-want humor.

For the next month, I spent my evenings and weekends on Trulia and Curbed LA, trying to find the neighborhood in which I would live.  After life in Texas, I was ready to get back to a dense urban setting, and knew that the densest part of Los Angeles was the part that I wanted to call home.  Any neighborhood with "Beach" in its name was out for price reasons.  I consulted with a colleague who had lived in Hermosa Beach after growing up in New York.  He knew I hail Boston and that my sensibilities are accordingly calibrated. "You'll like Koreatown," he advised.

And he was right.

I found a place right on the border between the Koreatown and Westlake neighborhoods, near the infamous MacArthur Park.  Soon after moving in, I had my first taste of LA living.  A friend of mine moved to town as an aspiring actor and became my roommate.  While Nick eventually found himself a spot in West Hollywood, I managed to convince one of my closest friends from college to move here following her graduation from Princeton's school of architecture.  And in August, she became my new roommate.  This blog is the story of our experience in the second largest city in the United States, a city of dreams, of immigrants and perfect weather.  A city that is actually an amalgamation of dozens of neighborhoods.  A city that has seen social and economic rise and fall.  A city where everyone is just one big break away from immortality, but also one small break away from bankruptcy.  A city that has reinvented itself multiple times over the course of its history.  A city of nearly 4 million people (and a county of over 10 million). With luck there's room for 3 more.