Adapted from an essay in After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, by Lynell George (Santa Monica, CA: Angel City Press, 2017).
We tell ourselves, from a young age, “don’t get too attached”—not to the Pepto Bismol–pink bungalows, not to the wild, empty lots, not to poky amusement parks, not to lush shade trees, not to our friends, often struck by wanderlust (or beholden to their parent’s whims). Everything keeps shifting, moving, blasting off. So really what made me a daughter of this place was a set of particular experiences: roads driven, neighborhoods claimed and cracked like a puzzle, slang acquired, recalled and embroidered stories that kept a feeling of home alive. “That used to be” and “That once was” became as much a part of daily discourse as grousing about traffic or home teams. Even if an absence stung, or seemed too abrupt, something inside of me prepared me for its departure. I was finally just beginning to understand what fluidity meant, and to study those who were better adapted to it.
“It’s hard not to be nostalgic,” an old high school friend mused recently upon hearing of another touchstone lost—another city block razed, in its entirety, “when they keep taking everything away.” But I have to wonder if what we’re feeling is really nostalgia, or rather if we’re simply adrift, lost at home. This fluidity and change are inevitable (and difficult to fight) in a place where so many have come to change, and change again. And so we should find our place in it, ride the wave, find our flow.
Most longtime Angelenos will tell you that there are many Los Angeleses—both physical and locations of the mind. Some—of both varieties—might fit you better than others. Finding your L.A. means giving yourself over to the city, its contours, and its riddles. When you do, you’ll feel it. There’s an aspect of L.A. that slips under your skin. Less attitude than predilection or frame of mind. It seeps in. Like the soot that drifts in, that finds its way through tiny gaps in your windows, the grit that powders your floors after even the mildest Santa Anas. You don’t see it drifting in, accumulating, but you note the traces later. Sometimes they startle you.
For all the blink-and-it’s-gone sleights of hand, here in Los Angeles, the deep past can catch you unawares. Throw you for a loop. I hadn’t seen my teen-years best friend Corrine in decades. She’d eased away in increments—first across town, then out of the country—Europe, the Middle East. Then who knew where. In the last stage, it was so sudden and complete, like an old-fashioned long-distance telephone line that went dead. She’d vanished in a way that’s difficult for people to now, with all the ways that social media tethers us.
About three years ago, we found our way back to one another. By chance. She had slipped back into town, quietly, and was once more trying on L.A. for fit. After an hours-long phone conversation, we made in-person plans and fell into a familiar back-and-forth. Talking, walking, and then aimless driving. Same but different. We’d daydreamed and schemed about getting here, to this stage where we alone mapped the next moves. Sometimes I’d feel the presence of those long-winded girls still in the backseat.
On a couple of these outings, feeding a sense of curiosity that was akin to sentimental, we tried to revisit old haunts. Impossible. All of them were gone or severely altered. One special spot in Venice was so recently shuttered that lights still glowed in the further recesses of the dining room. We scrambled excitedly out of the car only to read the handwritten “Thank you for all your years of patronage!” sign taped to the windowpane. We were too late, again—by mere moments, it seemed.
Gone too were my side roads and secret parking. Vanished were the wide vistas with hints of the not-too-distant ocean.
Some weeks later, I slogged through the traffic congesting our old territories. An early departure had left me with a little time to kill before a dinner meeting. I circled the old neighborhood in a stretch of Culver City that imperceptibly gives out into Venice. An invisible border, but when you grew up there, you knew instinctively when you went from one to the other. A feeling. Some scent on the breeze.
On a whim, I considered doing something I hadn’t done even since reconnecting with Corrine. I pulled a U-turn and headed, from memory, to her parents’ old house, the site of so much of our future dreaming. Closing in, I made the familiar right turn off the busy boulevard. Counted off the lots to my destination. The house was gone. What stood in its place was a construction site in limbo, wrapped in fencing. Perhaps contested. The skeleton of a condo unit was on its way up, its footprint bulging over its limit-lines, a hulking “You-Could-Be-Home-Now” cookie-cutter ad like all over Los Angeles.
This street once had a little bit of this and that. Spanish stucco, bungalow, cottage. Kit house. It was an L.A. story—around-the-world tales. Now you could see just a smattering of evidence of what had been there. In fact, next to the condo sprouting from Corrine’s dad’s old lawn, a weathered postwar cottage still stood tough, though I was sure for not much longer.
What would it be to be the last man standing? The line in the sand? To hold what was left of the memory of a place? I wondered what stories of the old neighborhood remained behind that door.
“Neighborhoods aren’t supposed to be museums,” I’d read in a recent news story. Words from a developer defending the necessary evolution of place: how foolish it was, essentially, to try to trap neighborhoods in amber. Yes. But shouldn’t these places we call home, out of which we grow, harbor some sense of the story that came before—some acknowledgment of what is unique, sui generis?
More and more now, I understand and make peace with the fact that Los Angeles exists within us, vividly in fact: in those memories we made, those new thresholds we crossed, the chain-link we cut through, the different worlds we stepped into. That’s where I suppose it will exist for those who follow us; who mindfully create a sense of home; who invest in neighborhoods and deep friendships across so many lines that could divide; who insist that Los Angeles is more than just a backdrop.
As much as I want to keep pressing rewind, just one more time, this is a fast-forward city. It always has been. I know better. I tell myself, “Keep moving.”