My friend Pixel is someone I work with, part-time. He wears the standard outift of snapbacks and shorts, a T-shirt usually from his friend's company, and Nike dunks.
He grew up in Pico-Union, and when we get together, he's pretty much my informant about life on the streets as a Latino youth in 1990s South LA.
"Broadway, Downtown LA was our playground. Ain't nothing anybody can tell me about living here."
Bringing Back Broadway: Free Shrugs
Way back in 2007, fresh out of college, interested in urban planning and running, I'd attended a Bringing Back Broadway meeting.
I remember Jose Huizar making comments about how he used to go to the theaters along Broadway and watch Kung Fu movies.
I remember people waxing poetic about the old, classic theaters.
I remember the idea of a Historic Preservation Committee there speaking to landmarkize these theaters that were over 50 years old.
I remember the idea of a Streetcar coming back to LA.
I didn't really know what to make out of it, other than think, 'Oh OK.'
Now, almost 7 years later, it looks like momentum is on a big upswing.
For a few days, a crew and I were tasked with doing interview surveys along Broadway on behalf of LADOT.
A LONG few days mostly because we had to meet a certain quota, which could become tricky to meet when there is no one walking after 7PM at night.
I culled surveys from a great range of people (or what I thought was a great range): long-time residents, new residents, people who work there, people who recreate there, old, young, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, men, women, black, white, Asian, Latino, affluent, transient. To me what was missing and what there didn't appear to be many of: Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, Indians from India.
As a method of data gathering, interview surveys are one way of getting information quickly.
However, not all surveys are taken equally. Some respondents were really putting thought into their answers and put me at ease, some I had to yank answers out of and write quickly. However, the interview surveys won't say that at all, it's just a series of circles of and ratings --- nothing really about what it means to live, work, or just be in the area, just questions about people's perception of safety.
Some gave me an oral history of "how it used to be." I enjoyed those interviews the most, albeit in the midst of being mandated to meet an hourly quota, they were an impediment, an obstacle.
It was a bit of a shame to not be able to record what they shared with me. I felt there was an overwhelming worth to what they were saying, because they were sharing with me what they thought or at least what they thought could be interesting.
So in attempt to re-capture what they told me, from memory, here's a sampling of what people talked to me about:
- A young white homeless man who agreed to be my first interview after seeing my initial attempts to corral a passersby for an interview. He knew the routines of the local district peace officers; he couldn't stay around in his corner. He wouldn't be around for long. After the interview, the officer came and gently asked him to leave.
- A elderly Christian black man. When I told him that "we were interested in his opinions", he seemed to be very interested in saying that adding what we were adding on Broadway was "progress." He seemed to be indifferent to it, mostly. However, he was able to recount his youth when there was a streetcar on Broadway and when there was a Streetcar that went all the way to Watts. While he revealed a wealth of information, what I remember most from our conversation was that he predicted racial strife in the future and disliked the gay lifestyle. He was waiting on a bus bench when I met him for his fellow evangelist friend who never appeared to come; he told me that following Jesus was the most important thing I could do in life.
- An older Latino business owner/employee at the Grand Central Market between 3rd and 4th Street wanted to tell me that it wasn't very handicapped friendly
- A red-haired 56-year old black man waiting at the bus stop. He had seen me struggling to cull in participants and told me "you could survey me." He said that he had been in the neighborhood to pick up a check from his bank, and pay his rent. He'd been on disability and was proud to pay only $200 of rent in his $1,300 apartment in Crenshaw. He says that it was about time; he was 56 years old.
- A skid row resident Mexican and East Indian whom I thought was a business owner. Why a business owner? He criticized the presence of the homeless as something that brought down the value of the neighborhood. It was all fine and I was nodding my head along till he mentioned that he himself stayed at Union Rescue Mission, which made me wonder, why the self-hate? He said he had come to the US in the 1970s and everything was "bad" back then.
- An old school 2nd generation Mexican American who said he knew everyone in the neighborhood. He had a tatt on his neck, and it seemed like he worked for a restaurant there as "unofficial" security guard.
- A philosophizing borracho talked about how life was not limited to our bodies. He told me that he didn't want his wife knowing that he was out and about. He told me about how he was a contrast to his tightly wound worrying brother who died a few years ago. His mission was to enjoy a few drinks. When I said that I am Filipino, he said that he knew a few of us when he worked in the medical industry; I wondered what he did now.
- A white West Angeleno talking about how downtown needed to have afterhours stuff like more bars and restaurants. He'd noted that he'd come to this part of town because of this particular Italian restaurant that we were in front of; he reasoned that people would come to any neighborhood they thought had a destination such as this Italian restaurant. He noted that all he saw was bridal shops and businesses that closed down early. He would like to see lofts and restaurants.
- Speaking of Italians, a transplant from Italy who recently moved to Thousand Oaks. She was there showing her mother around the big city. She'd said that neither Thousand Oaks nor LA was a real "city." It wasn't a real city because she couldn't walk, bike, or take transit anywhere. She was frustrated because of her complete reliance on the car to get around Southern California.
- Two punk rock queer girls, one from Brooklyn, the other from here. Both with a sense of sarcasm. They were going to the Chinatown New Year festival, something I'd wanted to go to. They'd just been passing.
My friend Pixel immigrated here from Mexico when he was 4 years old. He has an older brother who taught him English, which allowed him to skip ESL classes. They thought his balding ass was some kind of genius kid.
He's told me about an elementary school of hanging out, walking down certain streets, being jacked, and being labeled a gangster while going to high school in Granada Hills. How he received lessons about horticulture and chemistry just by virtue of being an avid blazer.
He's asked me, "Do you know what it feels like to be jacked? Do you know what it feels like to have a grown man searching your body for anything they can take? Do you know what that does to you?"
Of course I didn't know.
He'd punched a 22-year old in defense of a friend before he learned what a mall was. He remembers the old stores along Broadway: his favorite toy shop, where his mom got clothing, where he and his folk did business.
The streets of downtown LA at night are where he went to "play" as a youth. Essentially, only the freaks came out at night As a young Latino male, ready to get down, he liked this. Reveled in this invisibility that was already forced upon him.
They knew the vacant buildings, the places where they could smoke, drink, throw parties.
They knew where they could write. At least the more encoded, more public type of writing.
Pixel remembers those days fondly, this was his youth. Broadway was the canvas, a place that held these memories of him and his friends together. It's what essentially made him, him.
His reaction to the new developments?
Maybe you can guess.
How would you react to someone stripping away the infrastructures of what made you, you? How would people react if they stripped away USC or UCLA or some institution? Of course its not exactly similar, but it's where he got educated about the world. The only difference is that USC/UCLA/other institutions charge, have rules, and give employers a more stable reference point about an applicant's qualifications.
Once they started "cleaning" out the "bums", it was over. They began to make it safe for "other people" to come.
He dislikes the Staples Center, the Lakers, and LA Live for what they did to the people living there. He tells me that what happened at Staples Center is what happened to the people at Chavez Ravine when the Dodgers re-located to LA.
"No one knows these streets better than we do. They don't know the alley ways, the empty buildings, the cuts. They're just visitors," says Pixel.
This makes me wonder, where would someone in his shoes at Pico-Union be today? Where do they go?