Over the weekend, while waiting for a friend and listening to Spotify, the album Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg & Wilco came on.
Seeing the words of the album based on Woody Guthrie’s lyrics scrolling across the screen took me back to a summer visit to Coney Island. But this wasn’t a recent visit. This trip was long before the hipsters had discovered that there was a lot more New York beyond the East River. The songs transported me to a Brooklyn that is largely gone; a gritty, dangerous place with more gaps in the streetscape than a Skid Row junkie’s mouth. Mermaid Avenue then was poor and black and Puerto Rican and I was, and am, white and privileged and didn’t belong there. Sure, I could fit in outside of Nathan’s on the Boardwalk, or at the New York Aquarium, but this was Mermaid Avenue, blocks from the relative safety of the beach or Brighton 5th.
New York was different then. The whole city for me was a Coney Island of the Mind.
It could be rough but I never had too much trouble. On the whole, it was a place I could walk around visible but unknown because it was so far from my home in the leafy suburbs where I was raised. I never ran into anyone I knew when I was slumming it in Coney Island or Bedford Stuyvesant or Crown Heights, decades before the Wall Street bankers, app developers and trust fund babies discovered those areas.
Fast forward to 2016. To Los Angeles which like New York I will never leave metaphorically. Each weekend, as I did when I lived in New York, in San Francisco, in Paris and in Boston, I explore on foot a different corner of the endless city.
Saturday it was beautiful Silver Lake, a lifetime or more away from ragged, sweltering Mermaid Avenue with its bodegas, dope dealers and shaved ice sellers in the summer.
Together with my friend, we started our walk at Tropical on Sunset Boulevard which makes what may be the city’s best cafe con leche. Fortified by the caffeinated rocket fuel, we made our way north along Silver Lake Boulevard and eventually up some long staircases and winding streets to the perfect spot for watching the sunset over a line of graceful palms shimmering in the distance.
Silver Lake, like countless other parts of Los Angeles was once well-served by the long gone Red Car Line, the region’s extensive streetcar system.
I am decades older now than I was on that visit to Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island but fundamentally I am the same. I am still the hopeful romantic about my city, albeit now a warmer one with different flora, mountains, tastes and accents. Los Angeles and cities all over fascinate me because their density and clash of dreams and cultures create built environments that are greater than the sum of their parts. They are places where industry, vision, art, architecture and necessity collide to forge solutions to the challenges the landscapes and people demand.
Saturday’s sunset was made all the more beautiful by the foresight of someone who planted that row of palms off in the distance maybe a half century ago. And the bougainvillea, lemons and oranges around us and those Bauhaus inspired and Neutra, Schindler, and Lautner designed homes on the Red Hills were also planted or built by someone with the wise notion of enhancing the beauty of the area.
Like New York’s D train to Coney Island, Los Angeles will soon be blessed by its own train to the sea when the Metro Expo Line opens in May. Most of all, this rail line will serve the thousands of daily commuters moving between downtown LA, Culver City, the Westside and Santa Monica. The new line will free riders from the shackles of a steering wheel, car insurance and traffic.
On those trains will also be men and women and children just out exploring the wonder that is this massive city we call home. Riding the trains and buses and walking the streets, we encounter one another in unexpected and mostly welcome ways. In embracing transit and thoughtful density and making Los Angeles more pedestrian oriented we are enriching our lives and creating opportunities for the most imaginative among us to forge new ideas about work, life, art and community.
I don’t love every street and neighborhood in LA equally. Some of our areas are beautiful while others compete for last place. But all of them hold secrets and treasures that one is sure to miss if one barrels by at or above the speed limit. It is why I walk and bike and ride the bus around this great city as often as possible. The Expo Line to Santa Monica will be a game changer for those of us who choose to Go Metro. But as the pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks will tell you, there is no need to wait to discover the wonders that Los Angeles has to offer. And taking it in on foot doesn’t cost a thing.
Yours in transit,