Más Más Más

Thursday, November 26, 2009

...So, as of late, I’ve been quite busy with school. Lots of assignments, deadlines, projects, essays, etc, and the like. That’s not to worry, though, as I’ve been doing the work on time, and in an almost meticulous fashion at that. And the few instances when I haven’t been totally swamped with schoolwork, I’ve been up to my usual ways. Those are, of course, biking around ethnic nabes, eating ethnic food, “interviewing” locals, writing in my journal, and just in general, getting a better feel, grasp and understanding of my city. And it’s been working, too.

Through these long bike rides, along with me being the keenly observant and alert person I am, I’ve come away being much more knowledgeable about the city as a whole. As previously stated, I feel bicycle riding and in general, being a pedestrian, is by far the best way to create and fostering a true understanding of and feel for a city. Doing this, it’s as if I am seeing things at face value, and for what they are. Such rides are prime opportunities to discover the many nooks and crannies of this city – things people can’t see when driving by at 40mph from the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned car.

Admittedly, it is often the quest for tasty street food often leads me into off-the-beaten-path nabes. Or, at the very least, those that are “different.” Notable amongst the treasure trove of nabes I’ve visited lately are East Hollywood, of which I refer to as EHO, and the refreshingly 3rd world Westlake, which I’ve designated “El Barrio.” These places, with their pre-war aesthetic, large immigrant communities and undeniable urban vibes, strike me as quintessential LA nabes. (I’ve been in South LA, aka South Central a lot, too..but that’s for a post in and of itself)

EHO…what can I say? It’s incredible. First and foremost, it is one of LA’s most diverse places, bar none. Its United Nations-esque mix of Mexicans, Salvadoreans, Thai (with a “Thai Town”), Armenians (a “Little Armenia,” too), a bevy of Ukrainians and Russians, and a smattering of hipsters and yuppies, is one of the most potent I’ve seen, anywhere. The said mélange of groups provides ample opportunity to immerse one into foreign cultures and their respective culinary traditions, of which I feel is perhaps the best one to truly explore a culture.

And as for its architecture and housing? It’s all over the place, quite literally. The styles run the whole spectrum, with the standard pre-WW2 architectural trinity of Spanish, Tudor and Craftsman, but also a rather large contingent of 70s Dingbats and other, minimalistic styles. If you look hard enough, there are a few gems to be found, especially north of Hollywood Blvd, as the nabe was obviously once quite affluent. My favorites are the random beaux arts buildings you find looming over unassuming, low-rise city blocks. There are few things better than riding by at full speed and smelling, hearing, absorbing and taking in the various sights, sounds, and smells of this polyglot neighborhood.

Though, what I like most about EHO is that, despite it carrying the infamous and world-renowned Hollywood name, it is nothing like its namesake sister portrayed in the media. It’s almost as if its Hollywood’s darker, much more sinister twin. If anything, with its gritty character and nature, rich wealth of diversity and culture, and unabashedly “raw” urbanity, it shows that beneath the glitz and glam (in LA), a real city, where real people exist.

Now for El Barrio. Man, I don’t even know where to start. It is, without doubt, LA’s most urban nabe. Seriously, where else do you have Manhattan densities in 3-4 story 1920s walkups? LOL. Coming in at over 95% Hispanic, its, uh, hardcore Hispanic, primarily Salvadorean, but with pockets of Oaxaqueños, too. Incredibly impoverished, with the average income hovering 3x below that of the average Californian, the bulk of the businesses are, unsurprisingly, low-end and geared towards Salvadorans and other Hispanics; pupuserias, 98 cent stores, immigrant health clinics, SRO's/"hotels", various mini-markets and discount clothing outlets (the kind selling 10x socks for a dollar), etc. and the like.

Westlake is a place where real, urban interactions are commonplace and influence many aspects of life. With its myriad vendors, flourishing sidewalk culture and sheer number of people outdoors walking around, its street culture is unrivaled. The buildings are amongst the best in the city, as Westlake was once a popular haunt for the moneyed, and the crème de la crème of 1920s LA neighborhoods – which, of course, is something made rather clear in the attention to detail in these buildings. It’s almost unreal. The crowds watching fútbol, the persistent buskers hawking fake ID’s and passports, the loud cumbia and punta music blaring from storefronts and 1990s Asian hatchbacks (replete with rosaries and El Salvadorean flags hanging from the rear mirror), as well as the fact that English is spoken so infrequently, that it stands out, all lend it a decidedly 3rd world vibe.

Despite its current gang/drug-addled nature and dire poverty, the nabe has made significant changes in the past 10 years alone, especially with regards to reducing crime and gang presence -- the visible forms of them, anyways. That said, the future is probably the brightest it’s even been, though that and other changes are contingent on current strides continuing. IMO, Westlake is poised to become the next big neighborhood, due to its awesome mass transit access (2 train lines), the most grand park in the city (MacArthur Park), the most charming and ornate housing/building stock in the city: its preponderance of pre-WW2 masterpieces, and lastly, its walkability/human-scale/street vibrancy and build form. Not to mention that you could, uh, walk to work in Downtown. Interestingly enough, even in its current form, many people romanticize its ‘Latin’ vibe; the music, people playing soccer, the illegality, noise and dirtiness of it all.

Chicago: Neighborhoods Pt.II

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wicker Park:

Wicker Park..the Silverlake and Williamsburg of Chicago. Chock full of bustling thoroughfares packed with endless trendy cafes, haute restaurants, fly boutiques, antique shops and other, specialty stores (stores selling notebooks, messenger bags, cult items, etc). I visited there a few times, mainly to just hang out, but also for breakfast and to photograph the area itself. One rainy morning, I followed the wise words of a bearded, bicycle-riding hipster and grabbed breakfast at the funky “Earwax” café. I got the highly-recommended challa bread French toast served with pastry cream…which made for a splendid breakfast, to say the very least. The place, with its “staff” (and our discussions about The Wire), wild décor and dive-ish vibe definitely reminded me of some my preferred haunts down here in LA. After that, in pouring rain, I walked along Milwaukee, admiring the handsome architectural offerings; it was primarily 2-4 story buildings done up in various Chicago-styles, often replete with corner turrets and other, prominent fixtures and details. There was lots of questionable infill, too, particularly in the form of 2-story “jumbo brick” buildings, which sported recessed roofs and decks. Not long after that, I wandered off the commercial corridor and into the residential part, something I’ve got to admit, was quite nice. Imagine block upon block of handsome brown and greystones, on wet, rain-soaked streets teeming with foliage in the various attractive hues, colors and tones of autumn. Such a setting, reminded me, at least to a certain degree of parts of (brownstone) Brooklyn, particularly Fort Greene.

And while this neighborhood definitely has an artsy vibe, you can tell that it it’s not nearly what it once used to be, perhaps the work of the gentrification handyman. Most of my friends told that the neighborhood is now thoroughly gentrified and much of the “scene” has migrated to places further west, such as the Ukrainian Village, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. Glad to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same; gentrification patterns across the US are pretty much the same.


Pilsen. One of a handful of Chicago neighborhoods that I declared a “must-see,” I was drawn to Pilsen for its position as the revered heart of Chicago’s rapidly growing and now large Mexican community. Coming from Los Angeles, itself a city of Mexicans, seeing the Pilsen – and later comparing and contrasting it to similar Mexican neighborhoods here – was an obvious priority. Of course, hailing from the world’s 2nd-largest Mexican city, one second to only DF and larger than Monterrey or Guadalajara, it was a place that I could certainly relate to. Having grown used and accustomed to panaderías, carnicerías, taquerías and other neighborhood facets unique to Mexican culture, I felt right at home seeing such in the Pilsen.

The architecture was quite wonderful, too; A bevy of gorgeous Bavarian, Czech, and other Central and Eastern European styles, which were often characterized by large amounts of stonework. Somewhat unsurprising given that the neighborhood afterall was originally built and settled by immigrants from those countries. Today, legacies of their past remain, even if only in the form of old immigrant societies and organizations, along with their respective languages inscribed into the buildings, stating their purpose (or at least, former purposes). The neighborhood has obviously changed – most likely for the worst – something evidenced by the crumbling facades and the seemingly ubiquitous CPD (Chicago PD) CCTV installations that dot the urban landscape. Locals mentioned a gang problem, too, but aside from some graffiti here and there, I didn't notice too much really going on.

Following an extensive tour of the neighborhood, a friend and I debriefed in what really seemed to be the only welcoming store, a Church’s Chicken not too far from 18th St. I’ve got to admit, toying around, pointing at photos on thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment – almost naively, to a certain degree – inside a greasy chicken joint, and the reactions I received from the largely blue collar, working-class locals from doing so was definitely…memorable. After an hour had past, we set out to canvas the rest of 18th St, and then headed to the neighboring Little Village (nicknamed La Villita) nabe for the remedy to a 40-degree rainy day: a warm, authentic dinner comprising of Bistec a la Mexicana, una papa, arroz y frijoles con tortillas (Mexican –style steak served with rice, beans and a baked potato; also with tortillas, allowing the meal to be eaten like a fajita).


Uptown was another interesting nabe, for it obviously has 2 very conflicting and polar-opposite identities. Once the theater capital of Chcago, and a potential preeminent to the Loop, this nabe blossomed from 1920s development and investment, receiving many theater houses and (now) seemingly out of place skyscrapers.

I found Uptown to be stratified between the nicer, attractive gentrified areas near the Sheridan L stop (i.e Buena Park) and the grittier, run-down areas near Broadway and Wilson. Full of the homeless, abused, addicts and people of the aforementioned groups in various stages of recovery, alongside other marginalized groups, through the efforts of the local Ald (Shiller), the nabe is home to the highest unemployment, poverty, concentration of homeless shelters, number of sex offenders and violence in the Northside. Amongst other things it is also the home to the highest concentration of the chronically mentally ill (in the nation) – constituents the infamous alderman fights to keep there.

Several times, on Broadway/Wilson, I was accosted for money and solicited pornographic DVD’s. The neighborhood itself, the poorest & most dangerous on the Northside (only Rogers Park is higher) is one of Chicago’s most diverse, hosting a near-equal mix of Whites, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics, with an equally rich mix of socioeconomic groups. Locals differentiated the neighborhood from “gang-infested warzones” such Garfield Park, and said that Uptown was merely a good, livable nabe that so happened to have a high crime rate. Closer to the Argyle stop, one finds a large Vietnamese community, replete with the appropriate restaurants to compliment such. I have to admit, it was strange seeing a neighborhood with such amazing access to the lakefront and 24-hour Red Line, stellar architecture in a somewhat disappointing state.

Though, using the handful of theaters that’ve been renovated, the sprinkling of building renovations and new construction, the new-ish Borders and Starbucks and a visible youth presence, one could vouch that the nabe was in some stage of gentrification. In fact, several of the original establishments that helped build Wicker Park’s artist vibe have since relocated to Uptown, in the quest for cheaper rents and bigger spaces. Of particular interest to me was the abundance of stunning terra cotta architecture; the sheer detail and craftsmanship in these buildings was to be admired.

Lincoln Park:

Next stop was the archetypal Chicago yuppie neighborhood, Lincoln Park. I explored the areas surrounding the Armitage Brown Line stop, which with its near-continuous stretches of spectacularly-colored Victorians donning ornately-detailed corner turrets. The area was fascinating; it was dense, well-served by transit (Red/Brown lines) and had a handsome architectural integrity. The people seemed to be largely transient, with a majority being students at the nearby DePaul University. That said, while the Midwestern student body of DePaul often comes under scorn for various reasons, I’d much rather have them – frat boys, NCAA team-specific bars and Abercombie & Fitch withstanding – than the people who really drag down the quality of life. Lincoln Park actually reminded me more of Boston than it did Chicago; charming architecture of a ubiquitous style, college students and bars, tree-lined streets, intimate atmosphere, etc.

UK Village/E.Humboldt Park:

My favorite section of Chicago, though, had to be the areas on the periphery of Wicker Park: Ukrainian Village, E. Humboldt Park and Logan Square. As mentioned in my previous blog post, these areas appeal to me for they offer great proximity to the scenes in Wicker Park & Bucktown , but aren’t too far from major employment centers and transit arteries. More importantly, you have these wonderful conveniences, without the exorbitant prices (though, as a Californian, all of Chicago is relatively affordable) and without the hyper-development and gentrification that is found in the former neighborhoods. The lack of hype has kept these locales somewhat secluded and sheltered, giving them an almost quaint, intimate feel – an oasis within the city, if you will. What appealed to me the most, though, was that the neighborhood had a perfect mix. It had the gritty authenticity that I would expect from Chicago, but, too, it had trendy restaurants, bars (I love all of the old-school watering holes with Cyrillic signage) and boutiques reminiscent of home. The desirable balance and stellar locations would make these nabes my number 1 pick were I to move to Da Chi.

Metro Gold Line Opening

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yesterday, November 15th, Metro opened it newest rail line: The Gold Line Eastside extension, a 6-mile, 8-station light rail connecting Downtown to the predominately-Hispanic areas immediately east of it. The train, which runs at-grade along a dedicated right of way and an underground subway tunnel (the latter for 1/3rd of the trip), debuts as the first rail line in the transit-starved and -dependent region; and was met with appropriate fanfare: some 75,000+ people showed up for free rides, food and various festivities along the route. The rail successful opening comes on the heels of a Metro marketing blitz that included interactive websites, advertisements throughout the city and numerous community meetings designed to foment demand and awareness.

Around 1-oclock, I set out from the 7th/Metro Center to Union Station, where I anticipated a free ride from its westernmost terminus. However, though, that was all but impossible; lines snaked throughout the station and into adjoining parking lots outside of the facility itself. That having failed, I backtracked to my starting place and caught a ride to the Little Tokyo station, hoping the station would be absent of the ridiculous crowds, madness and frenzy found at Union Station. The Little Tokyo station itself was typical of the Metro light rail stations as of late; generally outdoors in nature, compact in footprint and minimalistic in detail, with a central theme incorporated into the design. Having succeeded in avoiding the chaos at US, I called a friend of mine, Eric, and told him to meet me there and to bypass Union Station altogether.

While I waited on the platform for Eric, I was recognized by several people who were familiar with my photography work on sites such as Flickr and Skyscraperpage. Being the congenial person I am, we all chatted about and discussed the euphoria and praised the expansion of LA’s fledgling mass transit system – while of course, urging for the continued expansion of it. And, while on this topic, I’ve got to admit, there is a certain coolness associated with being recognized by folks from the ‘net. Before we knew it, amidst all of the commotion, we were aboard an eastbound train, having decided upon Mariachi Plaza as our first destination.

The station, named for the oft-romanticized mariachi bands that have traditionally performed at the titular plaza, was jam-packed with a fairly large-sized street fair taking up most of 1st Street. The fair unsurprisingly was complete with a mariachi band, of who were crooning while hundreds of people visited the booths of the numerous food/craft vendors, community organizations and NGO’s in attendance. After that, I continued heading along 1st, and before I knew it, I had crossed the 5 Freeway and was within distance of the Soto St. stop, which was a handful of blocks away.

The Soto St. Station, with its pulsating egg and refreshing simplicity was my favorite and definitely a looker. Blue and white, the station’s clean lines gave it a suave minimalistic edge and aura. Cool subway stations aside, I was most attracted to the theme and its relation to the neighborhood; the colors were definitely a stretch for the nabe, but the theme, which stressed finding home and one’s self was fitting, given Boyle Heights is a major hub for Mexican immigration. (Despite being nearly 100% Hispanic today, Boyle Heights was once the home the largest Jewish population west of the Mississippi – boasting some 50,000 Jews and 100 houses of worship).

After hopping on and off trains all day, engaging in a good bit of conversating and picture-taking, I had gradually worked myself up an appetite; and now was time to eat. I went to the perennial King Taco, the granddaddy of Mexican food in the area, and a place celebrated by locals and foodies alike. I ordered the quesadillas de pollo, served with guacamole, and got a coke to drink. Quite tasty, as usual..no surprises here. As previously mentioned on this blog, Boyle Heights/ELA, alongside perhaps Highland Park and South Gate/Huntington Park nexus (don’t really visit the latter 2) are the crème of the crop when it comes to Mexican food in LA. The sheer number of good places, on a per capita basis, is unrivaled…though Boyle Heights *should* be that way given it is the heart of Mexican culture in the world’s 2nd largest Mexican city.

So, what do I think of the new Gold Line? Well, first and foremost, I support Metro’s efforts to expand mass transit and foster a more livable, human-friendly city and environment. That said, I feel as if some things could have been improved. Number one being that it really should have been the subway the area deserves – and was promised. As for the light rail itself? The at-grade and stopping at red lights both have got to go. (Though, these aren’t nearly as bad as the stations in the 210 median, lol!) My other concerns, namely the slowing down around Union Station and Indiana Street will hopefully only be mere teething issues and resolved at a later date. Still, though, I am excited for this opening represents one of the more tangible results of our rather new commitment to transit. Too, this is the coming of age, the unfolding of the “new” Los Angeles – right before my very eyes, to boot.