April 26, 2020. Los Angeles, California.
It was a warm, clear Sunday afternoon, though not unseasonably hot. Think mid 70’s and sunny. It’s this incredibly pleasant climate, which has attracted people from across the planet, for generations, to live in southern California. The time was 2:57 PM.
For the past 5 weeks, I had been (mostly) staying indoors, save for a vigorous morning run. Once or twice a week, I’d go to our nearly deserted office, located just a few miles from my home.
All those hours indoors gave me a chance to reflect. I never thought I’d say it, but I missed the freeways of Los Angeles. The creeping, ceaseless traffic. The multitude of people living their lives. Millions of stories — each incredibly compelling, if you stop for a moment to listen.
The coffee shops and cafes, whose laughter and quiet conversations have a way of brightening the day. The restaurants and food trucks, with the aromas of tamales and samosas and pad thai and falafels wafting through the air as you walked by. The bookstores and comedy clubs, and of course, the truly inimitable Venice Beach. Let’s not forget the Sunset Strip, the boulevard which needs no introduction.
Anyone who calls this chaotic metropolis home can tell you that we pay a price to live here. High living costs, ceaseless traffic, tiresome overcrowding, and yes, a vague sense that life might be easier somewhere else. These are all things I ponder regularly. As a native of the LA area, who left to live in New York City for half a decade, I’ve had the chance (or the misfortune, some might say) to experience this on both coasts.
Northbound on the 405
On that afternoon, I was thinking about all of this — and more. I decided I should go for a drive, to see how this town of mine was faring in the middle of a global pandemic. I hopped on the 405 North at Hawthorne Boulevard, just a few exits south of LAX airport.
On a typical Sunday, the 405 is far quieter than on a weekday. You might find yourself jammed up during brief stretches — and ask yourself, where could all of these people possibly be going on a Sunday? Of course, the other drivers might be wondering the same thing about you.
What I saw today was very different. I was driving on a middle lane, with no one within at least 6 car lengths of me, in any direction.
This was sort of like heading to Death Valley on a random Tuesday. There are people around, but really, not that many.
The thing is, Death Valley is an isolated desert. I was on the busiest freeway in Los Angeles County, which is home to more than 10 million people.
Everywhere I looked, I couldn’t help but be reminded of COVID-19. Billboards which would normally advertise local car dealerships, or Pacifico beer, shared reminders to stay home, or thanking healthcare workers for their efforts. Freeway signs encouraged us to stay indoors.
On my right, I passed by the Howard Hughes Center, a shopping mall which is typically packed with shoppers and moviegoers. No one was exiting the freeway to visit the mall (it’s closed), although bold signs informed me that there were spaces for lease.
In this economic climate, it felt more like an ominous warning than a real estate listing. A more appropriate sign might have read “Lease At Your Own Risk.”
I was now right by Santa Monica Boulevard, Just off off the freeway, on Beloit Avenue, was the apartment I lived in for the first year after college. If you aren’t familiar, this neighborhood (known as Sawtelle, for it’s main thoroughfare) is an incredibly walkable hub, which is home to a large concentration of delicious Japanese spots.
Of course, the only way to eat at any of those places today would be to grab something to go, and eat in the car, or at home. That just wasn’t as appealing.
Sunset Boulevard, Part 1
I was now by Sunset, and about to hop off the freeway. I’d be heading east, a drive I had made countless times. You see, I attended college and law school at UCLA. This stretch of Sunset curves left and right, and driving on it is actually a lot of fun.
On my right sat the UCLA campus, which is home to some of my fondest memories. From the dorm dining halls to Pauley Pavillion to the Kerckhoff Patio and the steps by Royce Hall, this campus is a special place for me.
I met some of my closest friends to this day, and grew tremendously as a person. Heck, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article if it weren’t for my time writing for the Daily Bruin. That experience gave me the confidence to share my voice with the world.
I was now passing through the portion of Sunset which is part of Beverly Hills, where you find stately homes that would best be described as estates. The price tag on these properties is astronomical, and most of them are gorgeous, and brimming with character. I’ve been in one or two over the years. They are, to say the least, incredibly impressive.
On a typical Sunday during this time of the year, you would usually see quite a few people strolling and jogging on this stretch, enjoying the spring sunshine. Today, however, I saw a total of 6 people on a one mile slice of Sunset. COVID-19 really was remaking Los Angeles.
Sunset Boulevard, Part 2
We’re now entering West Hollywood. I can’t think of any place in America not named Times Square, which prominently displays so many billboards and advertisements. On your right, you’ll see a dedicated HBO billboard, advertising the network’s latest offerings (in this case, Insecure).
Of course, HBO is not the only occupant of this strip. Netflix, refusing to be outdone, is eagerly pushing it’s latest series, Hollywood. Other signs dot the landscape, both for TV shows and movies, as well as fashion brands, beers, and boutique hotels.
However, it wasn’t just the billboards I was focused on. On my right was perhaps one of the most storied Hollywood hangouts in existence — The Viper Room.
Since the Viper Room first opened in 1993, it has become the stuff of Hollywood legend — although you might not guess it from the outside. River Phoenix tragically died of a drug overdose here, and yes, Johnny Depp was once a major part of the club’s ownership group.
However, those who come here know the venue as a place where rock bands show up before they’re famous. Or, perhaps they come here and are discovered, morphing into global stars. An evening here promises some great sounds — and tasty drinks.
Even though the excitement doesn’t start until later, you’ll see people milling about starting in the late afternoon — tourists and local alike. Today, nothing. The Viper Room was little more than an interesting-looking black building.
Does a city exist because of it’s people, or independent of them? What exactly is a series of desolate physical structures? I’d never considered the question until today.
For a moment, I couldn’t help but think back to my travels to Turkey and Greece and Rome, where I visited the remains of once-bustling centers of civilization. Today, those sites serve primarily as exhibits for tourists. It was a troubling comparison.
With so few people out here, Sunset Boulevard looked like a great urban entertainment center, but certainly didn’t feel like it. It’s as if time were frozen.
I passed by the restaurants and music venues that make up the rest of the strip, feeling a little disturbed. This strange virus had ground life in our city to a halt. How could this be happening?
I turned left onto a side street, and made a circuitous U turn. I was already past Highland, and I wanted to get back to La Brea.
I drove by a huge apartment complex ,where a friend from school once lived. His pad was the launching point for some raucous nights in Hollywood watering holes. The mid 2000’s, what a time that was!
I was now on La Brea, heading south. See you later, Hollywood. I hope you return to the old days. Someday, perhaps. Someday.
The Wilshire Boulevard Adventure
As I head south on La Brea towards Wilshire, I realize we can’t take even the smallest things for granted. How many times did I drive by this Trader Joe’s, once in a while stopping to grab some groceries? I suppose you never realize what you’ve got until it is gone.
Today, people are lined up one by one, 6 feet apart, wearing masks. Social distancing is in full effect. A Trader Joe’s employee regulates traffic in and out of the store, which means that it will take you longer than ever to grab groceries and get going.
We’re now on Wilshire Boulevard, heading east. On my right is the historic Wiltern Center. For those who haven’t been here, the Wiltern is an incredible concert venue, which has been entertaining Angelenos for decades.
I can hear Talib Kweli over the speakers like it was yesterday, swaying to the beat with my friends. One of the huge advantages of living in LA is that pretty much every great music act passes through here. More than a few of them, including The Eagles, NWA and Red Hot Chili Peppers, are natives of the area.
I can’t help but think of the sheer amount of experiences (which eventually become memories) that people are missing out on this year — and perhaps, for much longer. Of course, there are others in this world who are suffering much more. Still, there is a toll exacted, when life is placed on hold, for time stopped in it’s tracks.
No Place Like K Town
We’re now passing by Western Avenue, and entering Koreatown. K Town (as it’s popularly known) stretches both north and south of Wilshire, and is a large cluster of bars, restaurants, cafes and churches.
As it’s name suggests, Koreatown at one time comprised the heart of LA’s Korean-American community. Today, many Korean-Americans have moved to suburbs in the South Bay, southern LA County, and of course, Orange County.
All of that is information a demographer might enjoy — and I do as well. To me, K Town is the home of delicious soondubu, and late night spots (especially karaoke bars) surreptitiously stay open well past LA’s 2 AM closing time for nightlife venues.
This is where to come if you want to have a delicious Korean dinner, belt out your favorite 80’s and 90’s tunes in a private room with friends, followed by a late night snack. Sounds like fun? You bet it is.
Today, K Town felt incredibly different. BCD Tofu House (a longtime fixture of the area) was open for takeout, as were some other spots. However, coming to an area as happening as Koreatown, and taking boiling hot food to eat in your living room, just doesn’t feel the same. How could it?
We’re now leaving behind K Town, and heading towards the Westlake / MacArthur Park area. I’m on Wilshire just past Park View Street. MacArthur Park lies on both sides of me.
The park is one of the oldest in the Los Angeles area, dating back to the 1880’s. In those days, it was known as Westlake Park.
The southern side of the park is home to a large lake. If you arrive during the right stretch of the mid afternoon, you’ll catch one of the most gorgeous views Los Angeles has to offer. The sun hits the water at just the perfect angle.
Starting in the early 1980’s, the area surrounding the park (including the Westlake and Pico Union neighborhoods) became home to tens of thousands of refugees from El Salvador, most of whom were fleeing a devastating civil war in their native country. There’s also a sizable presence of immigrants from other Central American nations, primarily Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras.
To say life has been challenging for these families (whether in Central America or here) is a gross understatement. Yet, this is Los Angeles. People from all over the world come here, and make a life for themselves, difficulties and all. This neighborhood is a testament to that.
When I was growing up, the Westlake and Pico Union neighborhoods (and of course the park) were filled with street vendors, selling everything from fresh fruits, to shoes and t-shirts, and yes, occasionally, fake ID cards. While street merchants have traditionally been restricted by the city (and subject to police crackdowns), these business owners remain a feature of the local landscape. Small retailer’s, and Central American restaurants, also dot the blocks surrounding the park.
That’s not all. This is where MS-13, the 18th Street Gang, and other street organizations first gained a strong foothold.
When you think about the dislocation and poverty which immigrants here faced, it is hardly shocking that gang activity would become an issue. Italian and Irish immigrants, during another era in American history, went through some of the same things.
Eventually these gangs became transnational entities, not to mention fodder for presidential speeches. In those early days, the gangs imposed a “tax” on local merchants and street vendors, and oversaw a fast-growing web of drug dealing, smuggling and prostitution operations, which quickly expanded far beyond Westlake and Pico Union. The violence followed.
By 1990, MacArthur Park, and the streets close by, was widely known as one of the most violent sections of Los Angeles. In 1993, a gang arson at a local apartment complex left 10 people dead (mostly children and pregnant women), a horrific, highly publicized crime.
Drug dealers who were affiliated with a clique of the 18th Street Gang (known as Columbia Lil Cycos) were angry that residents of the property (and the property manager) were interfering with their bustling narcotics sales. They retaliated in as terrible a way as one can imagine. It took nearly 24 years for those allegedly responsible to finally face justice.
I was barely 10 when this happened, and I can still recall the incident. That incident bookended a bloody era in Los Angeles history, as things started to (slowly) calm down in LA, beginning in 1994.
Over the past decade, the area has seen especially notable changes. Crime has dropped precipitously, and the area has started to experience some of the same gentrification as places like Highland Park or Boyle Heights, although more slowly.
In some ways, life for local residents has improved. Yet, as living costs rise, other challenges have arisen. Many longtime locals (some of whom have never lived anywhere else) find themselves priced out of the area.
In a dense, poorer area, social distancing is difficult. We see that back east in my old stomping grounds of Brooklyn and Queens, and you’ll notice it here.
While plenty of folks were wearing masks (and many weren’t, as is true everywhere), folks were closely crowded together. Since many who live in this neighborhood work in essential services, especially retail and service jobs, you certainly didn’t get the same sense of being in lockdown. There were definitely more people outside.
The nearby 99 Cents Store had a line around the block, masked faces standing 6 feet apart. There’s something strange about seeing these lines outside stores, with no one interacting, and wearing state-encouraged gear.
I’m not suggesting that the threat posed by COVID-19 isn’t something we should take seriously. However, I couldn’t help but think of bread lines, or people living behind the Iron Curtain, forced to follow a social order that left them too often desperate and isolated.
Downtown Goes Dark
I’m still on Wilshire, but I’ve passed by Alvarado. We’re transitioning into downtown Los Angeles. I pass by the shiny condominium building where my friends held a New Year’s Party in 2017.
You immediately notice the difference in this area, as compared to normal times. There’s very little foot traffic outside.
As compared to much of Los Angeles, the buildings are taller — and newer. The renovated Wilshire Grand Hotel is home to a gorgeous rooftop lounge/bar, which at the time of completion was the highest rooftop west of the Mississippi River. Here, you can look out on all of Los Angeles — and realize how lucky we are to be here.
I’ve enjoyed an afternoon up there, but today, all I could think of was how long ago that all felt. A lifetime? Maybe two?
I’ve now turned on to Flower Street. Until my later high school years (1999 to 2001), Flower Street, like much of downtown Los Angeles, wasn’t a happening place. There were plenty of office buildings, but not much in the way of great eateries, bookstores or breweries.
Much of the neighborhood was known as a place you didn’t venture after dark. The arrival of Staples Center, along with more and more large corporate offices, brought about a gradual change, which soon accelerated into a rapid transformation.
These days, the neighborhood offers a variety of after-work hangouts, including dive bars, swanky lounges, bookstores, and higher-end sushi and ramen spots. It’s one of the most happening neighborhoods in Los Angeles, if not the entire country.
I’ve now turned right onto Olympic, and am passing by the edge of LA Live and Staples Center. Or, as it seems appropriate to call it now, The House That Kobe Built.
Kobe joined the Lakers right before they first started playing at Staples, and was there for his entire career. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Staples Center, and by extension the entire area, would not be what it is, but for the efforts of Kobe.
I can’t think of a Lakers season more jarring than the one we’ve had, with the death of Mr. Bryant. The cancellation of the season due to COVID-19 almost feels like an afterthought.
Yet, it’s hard not to feel a great sense of pride that this team is part of our city, and we’re a part of them. The Lakers, and Los Angeles are truly one, tied together, by the bonds of history, forever.
South to South LA
I’ve taken Olympic back to the 110 South. Normally, this is a fairly unpleasant stretch to drive.
If you’re leaving a game or a concert at Staples, traffic is bumper to bumper. Since many drivers are unsure which lane takes them to the freeway, you’ll find vehicles swerving in front of you last minute, furiously trying to beat the traffic out of the area.
Today, of course, there were no such issues. I zipped past USC, and shortly after, started keeping a careful eye on each exit. Florence. Gage. Manchester. Century, Imperial.
If you aren’t familiar with this stretch of the 110, we’re entering South Los Angeles. To many, it isn’t South Los Angeles, it’s South Central. That’s what everyone of a certain era, including most natives of the area, had been calling it for time immemorial.
South Los Angeles was a creation of urban planners and real estate investors, trying to run away from the negative connotations of South Central. Often, these were issues Angelenos in the rest of the city didn’t really want to think about. “It’s over there”, was the prevailing mindset. In some ways, that is still the case.
The area’s sub neighborhoods were further rebranded after the 1992 civil disturbances. Vermont Knolls, Gramercy Park, Chesterfield Square. These neighborhoods exist on paper, yet, they are also an artificial creation. Few who live in Vermont Knolls or Green Meadows call it that.
Then again, aren’t most neighborhoods somewhat artificial? After all, community is what we make it — and how we label it.
I get off on the 110 South at Imperial, and head east. There are more people outside than in other neighborhoods, though things are still pretty quiet.
This stretch of Imperial is lacking in retail, except for a busy liquor store. The thoroughfare is dotted with dozens of small, older apartment complexes, almost all of which have fences and gates in front.
We’re now on Avalon, heading north towards Century Boulevard. When you’re in poorer neighborhoods in Los Angeles, you notice an abundance of tire and auto body repair shops, and this is no exception.I turned right onto Century Boulevard, and headed east into Watts.
Wandering Through Watts
If you’ve read 1960’s American history, then Watts definitely rings a bell. This was where the infamous Watts Riots (some call it the Watts Rebellion) occured in the summer of 1965, in response to the arrest of an African-American motorist by LAPD officers.
Thousands were arrested, and 34 people died. The events of 1965 became a symbol of the challenges of urban America, and of the tense relationships between police and the black community. Over the past 20+ years, Watts has become majority Latino, although there is still quite a substantial African-American presence here.
I drove by Ted Watkins Park, the sprawling oasis of greenery which lies at the corner of Century Boulevard and Central Avenue. Normally, on a Sunday afternoon, the park would be pretty crowded with families.
Today, there were a few individuals jogging, but the area was excessively quiet. A couple had set up a pupusa stand just east of the park. Had it not been for a late lunch, I would have indulged. If you’re from LA, then you know that some of the greatest food adventures begin on the side of the road.
I’m now on Grape Street, and am making a right. Across the street is the Jordan Downs public housing complex. Jordan Downs was built towards the end of World War II, and was a flashpoint during the Watts Riots.
As manufacturing jobs continued to leave Los Angeles during the 1970’s, Watts and similar neighborhoods were hit hard. By the late 1980’s, the crack epidemic, and gang wars, led to horrific levels of violence. Menace II Society, a 1993 film from the Hughes Brothers, further cemented the general public’s impression of the area.
Today, however, things are quite different. Jordan Downs is being redeveloped, with shiny new affordable housing units going up nearby. Ross and other retailers are setting up shop just around the block.
Yet, it’s hard not to worry about what will happen here, in the face of a persistently depressed economy. Even during good times, relatively few Watts residents are employed in jobs that pay well. The 90002 zip code’s poverty rate is amongst the highest in Los Angeles County.
Things have improved, yes. Very much so. However, there is still a long way to go.
As I drove around, I told myself “I hope someone is thinking about this.” Pandemics are a very serious risk — but stripping a community of it’s economic well being is also incredibly dangerous. How do we reconcile these concerns?
I had now headed west on 103rd Street, passing by the shuttered restaurant Locol. Locol was the brainchild of chef’s Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, who sought to bring healthier cuisine to Watts. Locol was staffed almost entirely by Watts residents. While Locol ultimately didn’t succeed (the restaurant was converted to catering only), it demonstrated that Watts could move in a new direction, in a neighborhood which has long been a food desert.
I made a left onto Compton Avenue. I was heading back towards Imperial, with the Nickerson Gardens public housing complex on my right and left. Nickerson Gardens is not only the largest public housing complex in Los Angeles County, but is amongst the biggest apartment properties in the region, period.
Nickerson Gardens is acres of land, filled with more than 150 two story buildings, all of which look startlingly uniform. There’s something about this setup that feels impersonal, & frankly tiring.
Save for a few kids playing outside, Nickerson Gardens is completely deserted. Like Jordan Downs, and the nearby Imperial Courts and Hacienda Village housing projects, Nickerson Gardens has been long known for gang activity.
However, residents of these 4 housing complexes were also architects of the 1992 Watts Truce. This was a ceasefire between the various Bloods and Crips groups which controlled the projects, and engaged in bloody street warfare.
The Watts Truce didn’t garner much media attention. And yes, the agreement eventually (more or less) ended, although Watts is still far, far calmer than in the old days. Yet, it was a monumental achievement for this community— and one which local folks deserve a lot of credit for.
There’s another concern that comes to mind: children. This isn’t a concern that is specific to Watts, although it’s felt strongly here. How does the COVID shutdown impact the education of youth in Los Angeles?
We know that in poor communities, access to sufficient wifi, and laptop computers, is often lacking. Commonly, many occupants live in a home, and it’s difficult to find quiet space to get work done. Schools in these areas are already underserved, so what happens when you close them down, and expect kids to learn from home?
What about child abuse? When kids aren’t seeing their peers, and are stuck at home, there’s real potential for abuse to go undetected. Think about all of the stories we hear, right here in LA, about children being killed by abusive relatives, or a parent’s partner.
These incidents occur during normal times. In the middle of COVID-19 lockdowns, there is even less potential to discover such abuse.
Again, this is not just a consideration for Watts — I think it applies to many neighborhoods, rich and poor. Yet, in poorer areas, families have fewer resources, and face unique challenges. Children are often held back from reaching their full potential.
What’s the solution? I don’t know. The problem, however, is tragically real.
Where Did LAX Go?
I head west on Imperial, as I consider these possibilities. I passed through another section of south LA, and into Inglewood. To my north was the NFL’s newest stadium, Sofi Stadium, which was still under construction.
Gathering together in large arenas doesn’t seem like a wise course of action, while the pandemic is ongoing. Yet, life has to go on at some point. I firmly believe that despite the current moment, the NFL will enjoy great success in Los Angeles.
I’m now by Aviation Boulevard, which is one of the main roads running past LAX. Make a right, and you’ll pass by the Proud Bird restaurant on your right. The Proud Bird is a Los Angeles icon (it first opened in the 1960’s), which was completely renovated in 2017, and turned into a food hall.
The old Proud Bird was more memorable for the airplanes parked outside (they’ve got some really magnificent classic models) than the food and drink. The new Proud Bird has sought to retain the old charm, but add in some good food and drink.
Based on my experience, they’re succeeding. When you go, head to the bar in the center — some of LA’s best breweries can be found on tap.
Of course, once you’re done, you must head to the patio outside, and check out the flights coming in and going. Sitting on that patio, you can’t help but be amazed at the miracle of flight — and think about the journeys we’re all on, unfolding each moment a flight touches down.
Driving north on Aviation, I turn left onto Century. LAX is in my sights.
If you’re familiar with the westbound lanes on Century near LAX, then you know they’re usually pretty crowded. People are usually heading towards the airport, entering and exiting the many sprawling hotels on the boulevard.
Right now, however, it’s nearly empty. I don’t count more than 3 other cars on the road with me. As I get closer to LAX, it starts to thin out even more.
At LAX, you get to Arrivals & Departures by taking two different roads. The road for Arrivals winds and meanders before bringing you to the lower section of the airport. I paused, and exhaled for a moment.
LAX was nearly deserted. I passed by Southwest (Terminal 1), which is traditionally one of the busiest terminals at LAX. No one in sight.
Many rows in front of me, I saw a car. I also spotted a couple of vehicles affiliated with airport hotels. Other than that, there were almost no vehicles — and no passengers arriving.
It wasn’t until I passed by Terminal 4 (American Airlines), that I saw anyone with luggage on the street. When I was by the Tom Bradley International Terminal, I spotted a family — the only one in the entire stretch.
Delta. Aeromexico. Cathay Pacific. United. No one there.
United. The memories come flooding back. That Monday morning when I stood in the terminal, with a backpack, two suitcases, and a one way ticket to Newark Liberty Airport.
I was off to make a life in New York City. I was so nervous — but also incredibly excited.
I loved my years in NYC, beyond measure. They were vital to my personal growth.
Yet, I can’t help but think back on another day, many years later, when my flight touched down at LAX, and I moved back to this crazy, magical place. We came full circle.
What happens when people stop seeing each other, and seeing the world? What do we become? How does the world shift?
If you really thought about it, people in America were probably traveling more 60 years ago, than they were today. We’ve really never stepped backwards into time, the way we are at this moment.
At the same time, maybe there’s a silver lining here. Perhaps what we need is a pause on things, a sense of perspective. I don’t have the answer — but it is something to consider.
I drove west on Century Boulevard, and south on Aviation. Time to head home.
It was now 5:43, and the sky was beginning to get a little darker. My mind was both troubled, and at peace.
You see, we’re living through a strange moment. I’m not sure where we’re going. None of us really knows.
However, I also know how resilient the Los Angeles region is. This place has seen it all, and somehow, finds a way to persevere. Earthquakes. Fires. Economic downturns. Police brutality. Riots. Drug epidemics. Gang violence. A homeless and housing crisis. And now this.
You can knock us down — but we get back on our feet. Things aren’t perfect, but we find a way. I don’t know when, and it’s hard to say exactly how, but things will change. Bet on it.
We’ll be back — more resilient than ever. Just watch. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Stay tuned.