“Wait. Are you taking a picture of that so that you can report it?”
I lower the camera and look into the flashing eyes of a woman in a brown-and-tan, cloche-style hat, its brim trimmed in leopard print. She’s stands just inches away. Her skin is smooth, the color of pecans, her vivid eyes a half-shade darker. I feel the heat of her anger. It flies off her body like a stray blue sparks. She wears an aqua, church-length skirt. Low-heels. Handbag. She had been walking with great purpose, taking long, quick strides, being that it was early on a Sunday.
“See all that mess up here,” she points up at the old rubber bike tires looped around tree branches, ring-toss fashion. “That all shouldn’t be up in here. This used to be my church!” Now her voice cracks and I understand the fury in her eyes. She lets the former long name roll off, but all I can pick up is “His” and “Pentecostal” maybe “Redeemer” or “Tabernacle” — “Now look: It’s Jesus’ Bike Shop!” That’s sacrilegious.” —
And there it is in big red letters — “Jesus Bike Shop.” I want to suggest that that might be the owner’s name, but check myself. Really, I’m now here to listen.
These neighborhoods never turn easily. None of them. Ever.
I hadn’t been down the long stretch of Central Avenue — L.A.’s former Jazz Corridor — for awhile. As a kid, I loved the old squat brick storefronts in particular — they were old even back then — and in some ways helped me to better picture what L.A. looked like in the decades before I was born. Then too there was the Dunbar — formerly the Somerville — the “hub of the Central Avenue scene” — that catered to African American entertainers in the 30s and 40s, who would be turned away from lodging in other parts of the city. Despite its own city-tussles it’s still there. This morning a half a dozen men tending to its facade and its garden — the parkway dotted with California resilient, native succulents.
Be that as it may, an elegant museum piece of L.A.’s past doesn’t address her larger problem of the here and now — watching the neighborhood evolve before her eyes.
Now she turns fully to face me and begins to tell me the story of her own street — a few blocks down from where we stand — and how the gangs have begun to use the alley to “drink and drug.” Too, there’s the problem of the mess, “they paint all over those walls. I called the city, I called the 3-1-1, told them they needed to come down and paint those walls and fix my gate. They said: the gate is yours to fix, but they sent someone to paint the walls. It’s improved. The alley looks good now,” she stops, smiles for the first time. “You just have to stay on it. Right on top of it. Gotta stay on the city, me and my neighbors…but you know…”
But truly I don’t quite know. What must it feel like to see your neighbors go — move across town, out of state, die. What must it feel like to lose the rhythm of your routines: your corner store, your pharmacy, your church — your “rock” — to a bike shop — that thinks so little of a neighborhood as to throw its discards into already barren trees. What would it be to not recognize the businesses or faces on your street? But there she was Sunday morning on a stretch of sidewalk that was for the most part deserted, walking with purpose– not fear — talking about “improvements.”
That Los Angeles that she set up household in is long, long gone. Talk about looking deep into the eyes of the past. But what makes her a rarity here in L.A. is that she’s a “past” who is very much still invested in a future — right here, right now, right where she planted and tended her own life’s garden — tough, resilient. Native.