Thursday, May 01, 2014

the griffin avenue preemptive nostalgia tour

1. take a walk

My new thing is walking home. I’ve done it three times now, first because the Gold Line was broken, later because it seemed more efficient than driving to the gym. On Tuesday I took a new route up Griffin Avenue, which runs through Lincoln Heights, Montecito Heights, and the southeast side of Highland Park.

The day was too hot, but the light was perfect, that pinkish gold that filmmakers love. The houses in Lincoln Heights wore their decades in layers. Shingles, stucco, rickety bedrooms built over carports. The makeovers got nicer and more up-to-code as I moved north. Walking a long street is always a series of ethnographic studies, as you make your way through waves of immigration and gentrification.

House on haunted hill.
I discovered that the grassy no-man’s-parkland near the Arroyo is where old TV’s go to die. The whole walk, I felt like I was witnessing the last of something. Maybe because history was so compressed all around me, maybe because re-urbanization means that beautiful ruins don’t stay ruins for long. Maybe because if I walk or run long enough, the sadness I’m able to file away quite easily these days usually makes its way out, like a splinter that comes to the surface of your fingertip weeks after embedding itself. I didn’t quite know if it—the pinky-gold hills and crumbly houses inhabited by not-rich people—was leaving or I was. A foreshortening of the future is a sign of depression, as my therapist likes to remind me when I get all but-I-just-can’t-imagine-ten-years-from-now-so-I-must-have-a-disease.

I mean, I’m not depressed right now. I don’t think. But I have that splinter.

2. everything eventually became a macy’s

Yesterday I drove to the South Bay to meet my family for dinner. I passed Hawthorne Plaza, a sprawling seventies-style mall that appeared to have been empty since at least the eighties. Besides the overt decay, there was the fact that its anchor store was the Broadway. The Broadway! One of those ancient department stores I vaguely remembered from the Manhattan Village Mall of my childhood, before everything eventually became a Macy’s.

Mall of America.
The fact that a huge commercial space could stay empty for thirty-something years was stunning. It seemed like something that would not happen in Echo Park or even Montecito Heights. It’s the re-urbanization thing. Only east Hawthorne (and, like, the entire rust belt of the United States) has the perfect ecosystem for sustaining such decay.

They say the neon lights are bright.
When I got to dinner, I asked my dad about it, and, shockingly, he waxed nostalgic for the days of indoor malls. My dad hates the indoors, and he hates shopping, but he said, “I remember the first indoor mall I saw. The Sherman Oaks Plaza or something like that. It was beautiful, with a big fountain in the middle—well, I guess it wasn’t a fountain, but there were running lights that looked like moving water.”

He said that Hawthorne Plaza had been heavily subsidized to help bring business to a rundown area, but “they destroyed their own businesses, with all the gangs and crime.”

I suggested that was because what “they” really needed might not have been a mall after all.

Then I confessed that, politics aside, what I really wanted was to hop the fence and take pictures. Yeah, I’m like a local version of those artists who take ruin-porn pictures of burned-out Detroit. While I’m many years past romanticizing poverty, and I would vote to make Hawthorne Plaza into a park in a second, I think there’s something about ruins that appeals to a lot of people for very human reasons.

We live in a culture obsessed with new and next and progress and productivity and happiness and TED Talks and brain science and data-driven outcomes and life hacks. We want to do everything right on the first try. I’m a part of this culture, and on some level my head is turned by all of the above. (On my walk home, one of my primary thoughts was that I really need to get an iPhone so that I could live-Instagram my journey.)

As if the Great Depression weren't enough.
We need ruin—we need to see the external manifestation of our broken little hearts. We need to see failure writ three blocks and thirty years long. We need to walk the length of it so that our bodies know things change from good to bad and back again, but always with a touch of sparkle or a hidden walkway that leads to the street below.

This girl isn't my grandma, but I love her.
The subject at our family dinner turned to earthquakes. My grandma said she remembered the Long Beach quake of 1933. She was only three years old, but it was a big deal. The aftershocks were so bad that her family slept on the porch. When they went in the kitchen, she saw that all her mother’s cake decorations had fallen off the built-in shelves her father had made, the bottles shattering on the floor. She loved it, she said. She thought the whole kitchen looked like an Easter egg.


Nicole Kristal said...

Fantastic piece -- maybe this is just because the descriptions were so relatable and gripping. Oh, and I love ruins.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for the kind words. See, the Eastside isn't so bad. ;-)