Week in Review

Los Angeles is burning: part 2

New Zealand writer Anna Rankin concludes her remarkable two-part essay on Los Angeles in lockdown as she wanders through the deserted, crumbling city.

From my small apartment, I take walks around the old Mexican neighbourhood that was once Jewish, Russian, Japanese and so on. History is a palimpsest, its nucleus being migration, and these traces remain in glimpses. You might find a story from a man fanning himself in a deckchair outside his store where you’ll hear that the arrival of the Dodgers bulldozed the Chávez Ravine, and the community of Mexican-Americans were forced to sell their homes to make way for the new stadium. Or that a corridor was once an industrial zone of housing and factories called the Flats, and housed a significant Russian population. When it was razed to develop housing projects, decried as a slum, the original inhabitants were not allowed to repatriate.

You can't be sentimental when you merge with those communities that may feel threatened by your presence, and you can't pretend this isn't true. History is present in everything we do, wrote Baldwin. The task lies in remembering this in every act, and one aspect of remembrance is learning  and respecting the histories of the neighborhoods in which we live.

Mona, the tiny, loud-mouthed landlady, is Mexican-American. She's lived in my building for 30 years. She's married to a dryly observant Japanese man and together they own a husky named Chapo which they seized from a tenant in lieu of his repeatedly not paying rent. Mona smokes indoors and sprays the hall with disinfectant and plasters Bernie stickers on the apartment notice board. She’s hung a cap with All Men Are Trash embroidered across its beak on the front door, which opens to a wide street lined with other equally historic buildings and ancient rose bushes.

The complex is rent-controlled and upon my moving in Mona offered that if I ever expected to be late for rent, just let her know. Her aim, she declared, was to supply the building with a diverse populace; she didn't believe in any form of supremacy. It's a beautiful apartment. I chanced upon it thanks to the good grace of the landlord at my last place, who also owns this building. High stud, wooden floorboards, a deep bathtub, a ceiling fan that rattles. No one leaves here, she announced. And why would they? There remain all the markers of its previous life as a boarding house: rows of gold-embossed metal mailboxes in the foyer, pillars on the landing, an oak shared-use phone booth in the front.

Built in 1924, stucco and two-storied, there are 24 units and a cast of characters from the lovable to the disturbing. They include my neighbor, a sex pest by Mona’s account, who ensures he takes a shower the same time as I and tries to peek through the small outdoor space between our bathrooms. There's a sleepless man above who, since the pandemic left us all house-bound, has watched back-to-back 90s disaster films which bellow through the floorboards, furthermore he appears to derive pleasure from ceaselessly dragging furniture across the floor. One morning after it was just too much I texted him inquiring as to what he was doing. He replied that he was sorry, it was his cat making such loud noise. When you’re offered an absurd response there's no adequate reply.

When I first came to look at the place Mona informed me the sole reason it was available was because the previous tenant had recently died of cancer here. Want his bed? she’d asked, leaning against a broom, a rolled cigarette lit between her fingers. Across from where I sit at the table, the sun highlights shadows of furling wrought iron patterns on the outer wall of the neighboring apartment. Dangling telephone wires draw sharp lines in the sun and my window affords a direct view inside the room of a man who smokes weed throughout the day and blows it back into my window. As night falls I hear him laughing at Seinfeld or 1940s screwball comedies, or blithely singing along to show tunes in the shower, and, as is now customary, setting the fire alarm off when, I am sure, he’s too high to realise whatever he’s cooking is burning. I like this man and I like this sound because it triggers something in the way that certain smells, like roses and orange-blossom, short-circuit memories and I have come to find the sound of his alarm comforting. Faint traffic is audible, as are barking dogs at dusk, the mournful whirl of sirens and the clacking of police helicopters, circling above. Ghetto birds, my friend David calls them. On those nights when I walk to fight insomnia, the milky beam of the helicopter searches for life below.

It's considered a rough area. There have been several instances when I've been sitting at my table late at night and heard gunshots a few doors down, and the following morning I learn a fatal shooting has occurred. Over the course of the pandemic there've been more shootings in the neighbourhood, and by many accounts more crime overall. The increased frequency of sirens and helicopters, already incessant, suggests this is so. Additionally, I notice more graffiti and vandalism in the area, so too downtown, and David tells me that, as an ex-writer himself, the first sign of increased gang activity is more tagging.

"I cannot live in a place that has no wasteland, no bridges nor concrete..."

My building hedges the back parking lot of a bank on East 1st Street, where drugs are exchanged, and beside the bank is a divey corner liquor store, across from a subway station. When I first visited the liquor store the owners mistook me for Syrian, as they are themselves. This, after we exchanged our familial stories, had the effect of forging a kind of kinship. Since that first occasion the store has become my regular for alcohol and snacks as well as information about what’s going on and what to watch out for. Out front are fruit carts manned by vendors who, under brightly striped umbrellas, slice mango in the heat, dousing thick spears in salty, sweet Chamoy sauce and lime juice, stuffed into plastic cups. There is an old auto-body garage where men loiter all day in the sun, a cavernous 24-hour laundromat with flickering blue light, an assemblage of provisional structures with plastic overhangs hawking tacos, and women selling carefully arranged produce on woven blankets laid across the sidewalk.

East 1st Street itself is an east-west thoroughfare that serves as a vein toward downtown. It’s a long, barren stretch that traverses all manner of historic establishments and landmarks as well as the discarded. There is Mariachi plaza, where since the 1930s mariachi musicians have played around a bandstand. This expansive concrete common is edged by a lending library and bakery, small Mexican restaurants with brightly painted murals, and groups of skaters on its flat surface, as well as the entrance to another subway stop that races west. I walk parallel to these tracks to the city where the glassy skyline shimmers under an iridescent sky. I cross the freeway underpass where tent encampments line the walls, the acrid smell of urine and beer. Accosted each time I walk through, groups of men covered in filth and dust stagger toward me loaded on whatever substance, quivering hands outstretched for change. People considered surplus, negative net market value.

From the underpass I approach the pale concrete 1st Street bridge, a 1928 neo-classical construction that divides east from west and crosses the LA river which flows beneath through a broad concrete channel. Toward the middle of the bridge are abutments which resemble smaller Arc de Triomphe and beneath which people sleep, their belongings tidily stacked within the concrete indent.

Throughout the course of the pandemic the weather has been in brutal flux. When it began, it was cold, rainy, at times bitter. Then, the river was swollen in the channel. Torrential rain poured for several days. After it ceased, a heatwave arose, hitting the mid 30’s and the water dried up, decreasing in volume to a trickle, the sun calcifying the concrete. These violent extremes of weather parallel the fiscal violence imposed upon the thousands of people who live out their days in tents, frying under the sun. Weather is, after all, no longer something we can speak of as "natural" but is rather symptomatic of political-economic effect. Climate change is one of those immobilising phrases, emptied of meaning because of over-use and its distance from our daily lives. Because it is so immense, so vast. We knew the warnings, we saw the signs, and here we are.

The bridge bisects rows of train tracks and dead space where cars park up and do burnouts, where rappers film videos for a post-industrial aesthetic, the metal fences adjoining the channel covered in graffiti. Young people who can figure out how to enter the wash with its broad expanse and angled walls sit, smoking or playing tinny music through iPhones, the sound echoing up toward the bridge. It’s a desiccated fallout zone and one of my favourite places in the city. A favoured pastime, I stare down into the concrete basin and watch the trains pass underneath, the metal screeching and sparking in the heat, and watch forlorn teenagers with nothing to do in the expanse below, recalling my own listless youth where I spent much time lurking under bridges, my preferred man-made phenomena; masterpieces of engineering and design. The bridge of my youth was where my friends’ father hanged himself, and we never returned, and a bridge was where my grandfather jumped to take his life into the river below, where I have never returned. I cannot live in a place that has no wasteland, no bridges nor concrete. Ugly pylons line the tracks and traffic passes on the E. César Chávez Avenue viaduct in the distance, beyond which lies the blue silhouette of the San Gabriel mountain range.

*

The mental health consequences of isolation are both predictable and unforeseeable in kind and scale, and are, overall, devastating. When you lose what might constitute you as a person - a job, encounters with people, familiar routines - there's an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness. One of my closest friends left New York to live in a shoebox apartment with his mother in Washington DC, where both he and his mother were placed on anti-depressants. In the past he’s been on similar medication but under Covid-19 the chronic anxiety has returned in force and it is untenable, as it is for his 60-year-old mother who is, for the first time, also on anti-depressants. The situation is bad, he tells me. All she talks of is the pandemic. Anxiety and depression manifest in myriad ways and at times it can be difficult to keep up with him. His memory blanks, he becomes irritated, abrupt or monologues in torrents. He’s awake all the time, messaging close to dawn. His mother’s moods swing, he says, from incessant talking to despair. A first-generation seamstress with limited English, she was furloughed from her job and her son, my friend, suspects it won’t return. He hasn’t told her this. He asks himself how long he should stay with her. He is fortunate to be in a financial position where he can both continue paying rent on his apartment in Brooklyn and support his mother, but the prolonged time in his mother’s apartment is ruinous on his own mental health. He doesn’t want to leave her in isolation, but he doesn’t know what to do.

In the United States the suicide rate is shockingly high. Statistics show a 33 percent increase from 1999 through 2017. There’s no sense of a safety net here; if you lose your job and your health insurance is tied to this, that’s gone. If you have no insurance nor job, there can be nothing there to catch you. Rent, mortgage, insurance policies, student loan payments; the nexus of debt which so many are crippled by. The anxiety and fear induced by the very real threat of financial ruin and no foreseeable way out of the situation, as well as a fear of illness itself, as well as layers of other related fears, can amount to the feeling that one is staring into the abyss of a foreclosed future where there may be a dried up horizon of hope and meaning. Experiencing the weight of these compounded fears while isolated is too much for too many of us. It’s an exacerbating nightmare that doesn’t end.

*

The bridge deposits you in Little Tokyo, beside the Moroccan Lounge and Koyasan Buddhist temple, built in 1912 and one of the oldest Japanese temples in the United States. From here, downtown opens like a maze. The jewelry district, the theatre district, Skid Row; it broadens like a flattened garbage heap. In Los Angeles, a city made for the automobile, walking affords a view beneath the surface. The grid logic applies downtown, as it does in the urban planning of New York, but overall the city itself is a sprawl of connected suburbs, a kaleidoscope of humanity: Watts, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Glendale, Pasadena, Elysian Park, Pacific Palisades, Silverlake, Hollywood, Compton. Adjusting to this new reality of masks and social distancing, springtime blossoms in Little Tokyo, a kid in fatigues with his ass hanging out, mask covering his face, asks, is this plague airborne?

"Block by block I pass what were once rows of pawn shops and jewelry stores, nail salons, credit unions..."

During my walks I pass the same people each day, mostly because I walked this route to work, or to buy groceries, or for the simple need to. In this heat I walk as if in a fugue state past bodies strewn across the street. A man is sprawled face-down on the pavement like a shot body, pants halfway down his legs, a long streak of brown faeces dried under dazzling heat. A man so parched and covered in black filth he resembles an 18th century chimney-sweep coated in soot. Every day he sits encircled by 20 or so black plastic garbage sacks, each stuffed with balled up paper and detritus. The bags melt under alarming heat. I can’t make out his face, it's so stained in black dirt.

He sits among piles and piles of newspapers sprawled out across half a block. He sits and fossicks through trash. Stacks of papers, what I presume are case-files tossed out by attorneys exiting the courthouse across the street. I watch him salvage and arrange these in a circle around himself, as though marking his space in such a way will draw energy or magical protection.

I step out from the shade of a building into blinding sun and take a moment to adjust to the glare. I pass a man holding a plastic, round, pocket-mirror to his scalded face. He is squinting into his reflection. The veracity of the sun burns through the glass, piercing into his eye. It makes me wince. He holds a cotton swab from a filthy toiletry bag someone must have donated. He dabs the instrument into a bleeding, gaping wound on his face; purple skin covered in weeping welts. Parts of his face are calloused and hardened like a cake left too long in a scorching oven. He is administering first aid on himself with the most provisional tools in the wealthiest state in the land.

Unless you deal with the social relations of capitalism, you are not going to come out of capitalism, economist and geographer David Harvey writes. I have walked these same streets, between periods living in New York and Aotearoa, for the past four or so years and to me these relations seem the same, if not worse. The number of homeless is staggering. It’s also difficult to find clear data, with what can only ever amount to approximates due to the complex nature of the crisis. The 2019 count found 58,936 homeless people living in Los Angeles County, with 36,300 of these living in the city of Los Angeles, an increase of 12 and 16 percent, respectively, over 2018. The most recent count was undertaken in January this year, itself a mammoth effort, and results are expected around June. But these are only ever a statistical estimate. Downtown, the convergence of substance abuse, mental illness and unaffordable housing has created an untenable situation, made starker by the pandemic. Prior to Covid-19, in parks around the city you saw sprawling encampments and figures in sleeping bags beside group yoga and picnics. There is the sense it is inevitable, normalised, the order of things.

My walks to and from the city take about an hour and a half each way, beginning in the late afternoon around dusk and returning late at night. On dark in the hollows of the city the atmosphere sometimes feels like an eerie mirage, of muffled sounds, yelling, glass shattering, flickering neon lights that buzz. Not too long ago I passed a small, old man by a bus stop, crouched in shadow and staring into the pavement at some kind of dark, scurrying shape, which was revealed as two of the largest cockroaches I’ve ever seen mating. Repulsive viewing, but we were both entranced. After some time watching and exchanging commentary on the logistics of the act he inquired as to where I was headed. Home, I answered.

At that time I lived on Sunset Boulevard, close to where he lived in Chinatown. Not actually close, but for all intents and purposes to him it was. I’ll walk you, he offered, gregarious and benevolent. The proposal was immediately draining, and I really could not be bothered but he insisted and I felt too wiped out for a repartee. I honestly can’t recall how many corners that simple proposition wound around. We traipsed the city for hours, incited by his energetic persuasions of what was just around the corner. I surely know the entire contents of this crook’s life, and he still messages me Bible verses. There’s a chronicle of these stories in my mind that I flip through like a Rolodex. One evening in recent memory I was playing music at work, I can’t recall what, and Kobe, the cook, came out front. Can you turn that demon shit off? he asked. I feel like I’m dancing in hell. I replied that this was the most apt expression to describe how downtown felt.

*

The walk to work deposited me on Broadway. This particular artery runs through Little Tokyo, past the public buildings, federal and civic institutions; the enormous LAPD Headquarters, Federal Court House, Secretary of State. These grave emblems holding time and restraint rest as formidable landmarks of impenetrable architecture. Opposite this cluster of moral diction is City Hall, stretching upwards into the sky, the government centre of Los Angeles. Constructed in 1928 to resemble the distinctive shape of the ancient Greek Mausoleum at Halicarnassus it centers a green park, edged by Palm trees and purple flowering Jacaranda, which line the thoroughfare of 1st street, its sidewalks covered in blue tarps and tents.

"Downtown evinces political abandonment and abject failure..."

Broadway offers a historical sweep of decaying glory and disrepair. The main commercial street of the city until World War II, when inhabitants fled to the suburbs, this stretch was once a glittering row of Art Deco theatres, now it’s trashed and dilapidated, even more so since the city shut down. Each time I walk this route I notice the facades of old buildings increasingly covered in graffiti, vandalized or boarded up. It is a district that evinces political abandonment and abject failure.

Walking the same territory day after day affords the opportunity to see things over an extended period and observe patterns that emerge or recede. There are no police, I notice, and minimal pedestrians. Just rows of tents and cardboard boxes and sleeping bags. The flash of a few masked delivery workers racing past on bicycles. There’s a man scrunched against the wall of an abandoned store-front with his head in his hands. A man covered in a thin blanket next to a pile of brown vomit, wheelchair parked by his head. I pass a young guy scratching his lower back, dirt smeared on his face, looks a little like an old high school teacher of mine. Our gaze meets and he stops but we have nothing to say to each other. A man with one leg, which looks as though it was violently hacked off, stares dully into space in a half-broken wheelchair. A man bouncing soft plastic bags between his long, elegant fingers tells me these bags are the souls of dead babies, and he handles them as preciously as one holds an infant. I walk past squalid conditions which map the violence of not only the pandemic but the underlying conditions that were resolute in allowing such extensive collapse.

Mannnn, I got stories, an old regular used to tell me, leaning on the counter and fanning his face. In our past exchanges of the news of the day, I told him about a car-jacking I’d seen a while back. I had been standing on Broadway, having just finished talking to a friend on his way to smoke a blunt around the corner. Staring at the red light on the crosswalk I watched as two young men approached a car, stalled at the lights, waiting for a green. Within the space of a few seconds they’d reached in, dragged the driver into the middle of the street, obliterated him into a bloody lump and boosted in his car. This is the world we live in, sighed the civil servant to my side, shaking his head at the scene and tapping his rolled newspaper on his thigh as he departed. I recall blinking into the sun as people went to the driver’s aid, and feeling a slow dread that things felt worse than I’d previously noticed. That while there was clearly a crisis underfoot, a larger one was encroaching from all corners at the margins. Then, the violence felt vicious. Now, it feels blunted and I am not sure which is more destructive.

A security guard named Carlos I used to talk with is dawdling outside the establishment he’s watching, even though there are no customers. He leans against a brass plaque commemorating the late famed food writer, Jonathan Gold, who used to frequent this spot. We accidentally move toward a hug, share cokes and he tells me that crime has risen, that it’s weird. It appears he’s become a kind of governor of the street seeing as the presence of authorities seems scarce. A few minutes later Daniel stops by, a tiny, fast-speaking guy who has lived on the streets here for thirty years. Given his clipped New York accent I was surprised to find he’d arrived here years ago from El Salvador after his parents died, and has since been a kind of omnipresent vigilante on the street serving forms of poetic justice. He bugged me incessantly as I worked, with his stories and complaints, tales of his glory days at punk venue The Smell where he worked the door, so I was surprised to find I’d missed him. We stood outside a restaurant where a young kid from Eritrea had worked. He used to bring me coffee, despite my telling him to save his money after I found out he lived on the street himself. He was 20, had moved to the US alone, had to save money in order to secure a deposit to move in somewhere. He told me that there was no point working if you couldn’t share what you earned. God provides, he had said. I have no idea where he is any longer, and no way of knowing.

Waves of radioactive heat rise from the pavement and the city feels like a giant sink. Block by block I pass what were once rows of pawn shops and jewelry stores, nail salons, credit unions, barbers and counterfeit perfume and sportswear outlets, phone and watch repairs, Mexican bridal stores with wedding chapels in the front, hotel lobbies and bars, delis and fried chicken, donuts and pizza, coffee shops and stores so eclectic they defy category. Bail Bonds and the 711 are some of the only establishments still consistently open all night. That these places are, rightly, closed at the moment also forecloses their role as places of shelter, wifi, a place to sleep; places that can mark the difference between someone seeing themselves as part of a social body, or not. It is easy to reduce such losses within the language of the economy but it is also worth considering these places as belonging to what embodies us as people.

A few blocks over at Wholefoods I wait six feet apart in a line that winds around the corner. Inside, I’m surprised to see the 24 or so registers have been replaced by around 12 self-service machines. I ask the sole guy manning these if this adjustment is permanent. Yeah, he frowns. I don’t know what number of jobs this implementation represents but what I do know is that many of the socio-economic responses to Covid-19 will become permanent and will have devastating structural and material repercussions. Some of these will be classed as inevitable and some of these will be opportunistic, convincingly argued as ‘market forces’ and part of an ideological project that’s been decades in the making.

"The crisis of ideology illuminated by the pandemic has proven that the structures propping up our lives can fall apart at any time.."

Downtown is merciless. Men curled up, shoeless, nodding off on the ledge of a building, even though many of these ledges are lined with spikes to dissuade the homeless from congregating. Boarded up storefronts, probably to never reopen, metal garage doors pulled down form a backdrop for worn out people. It is a strange moment in time to be alive, but I’m glad to be. I pass semi-erected apartment complexes cloaked in scaffolding, industrial fabric draped over metal fences to keep the public out. Filthy birds whirl around me in a swarm, emboldened by their own desperation, probably, and the fecund stench of unwashed bodies, or decay, that particular scent of rot, whatever, catches in my throat. A man says to me, you look like you’ve been here a long time, but you’re so youthful…are you a vampire? This does not seem an unusual question here.

A man has arranged a number of cardboard boxes around himself in which to sleep and it resembles a coffin. Men with makeshift canes limp down the street, time goes by, I hear a train, a siren, a patched veteran with no legs lies amongst enormous scuttling rats that were once scarce during the day. Another vet trying to tilt his wheelchair upwards to enter a bus falls backwards, spilling coins around him, in total distress. The driver waits and doesn’t assist, he is probably accustomed to such scenes. A man and I gather his contents, and direct him aboard and don’t speak to each other because the scene is so awful. Another man in clothes so blackened they are lacquered to his skin slumps in a wheelchair, parked permanently in the middle of the footpath outside a pharmacy. He’s there day and night, surrounded by belongings accumulating around him, crying, talking, falling asleep upright. Whenever I walk past him I have to resist the urge to touch his shoulder. These people are considered accursed, I think, and I cannot imagine the loss of touch from another human because of the appearance of disease. To be rendered so invisible and yet, so multitudinous. Some of these sights I want to never again see in my mind again because they are so damning and the pain that is transmit could smother the world.

People sit for hours with nothing to do, nowhere to go, no traffic to observe, no pedestrians to watch or ask for change, or even talk to, or at. A man sits at a bus stop with a loudspeaker blasting Motown that echoes down the strip. Hours later he is still there. I pass a now-obsolete video store outside which I am approached by a man but I can’t respond given my mask muffles my voice. I lower it to ask him what he wants as it’s not clear, and he says nothing, just extends a hand covered in weeping sores for change. People with lacerated faces walk by, hobbling on crutches, stare with a gaze that drills into my eyes with a kind of haunted primal hunger. If I am honest what I want to say is, please don’t look at me. A middle-aged man ahead in tattered Levis, Nikes, a t-shirt in a particular shade of orange that heaves with pathos and I don’t know why. Like most on the street, he carries a black garbage sack and drags a wheeled suitcase of belongings. He turns and meets my gaze. I worry about looking him in the eye because of what I might find, and what might be asked of me that I cannot provide despite appearing as though I can.

Skid Row is a few blocks over and its residents spill into the streets. With around 5000 inhabitants, it is its own city within the polis. It is not a place I walk, but one day David and I have to drive through. Roughly encompassing a 50-block area it’s mostly warehouses, low-income housing, single-room occupancy hotels and tents. Passing through, it is exactly as one expects; a landscape of deprivation, tent encampments crowding the sidewalks block after block, trash all over the streets, sidewalk bazaars, rows and rows of tents squished together, often covered in tarpaulins. There are people everywhere, moving in swirling energy. People congregate en masse on the sidewalk, outside portaloos, pushing strollers stuffed with belongings. For more than a century Skid Row has existed as a neighborhood for the destitute, and it is so shocking it’s difficult to absorb more than one scene of the critical mass at a time.

In the mauve eight-o’clocks of spring evenings people still forge ahead with photo shoots, jacaranda still blooms for a brief season and smells sweet within the sour odor of the street. A man living in his van outside my apartment still lights up the flame under his camping cooker and makes dinner. In the mornings, I hear the roar of his blender as he makes juice. My neighbours hanging out on the front porch who I now know, seeing as they’re out of work, how nice those first meetings were. When the world has been subdued by such shock and grief the tenor of the moment changes, and alters our affective states. There is an emotionality that at times seems to summon the entire complexity of this historical moment, and the sadness rests like fog. There is the residual sense of moving through the world both detached from one’s body but acutely aware of it, especially in proximity to others.

The crisis of ideology illuminated by the pandemic has proven that the structures propping up our lives can fall apart at any time; we reside on a thin edge. The pandemic and its repercussions might offer some of the most relevant and convicting critiques of life as we’ve known it. But the danger is that we will forget this moment, move on. It is not only about what we do but what we don’t do. The requisite policy responses will determine whether inequality decreases or escalates and we should do all we can for a just world, make difficult choices because we have to, because there is nothing to lose any longer and everything at stake.

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