Walking South LA
Industry, tacos, working class success (and homelessness)
Hollywood looms over Los Angeles, eclipsing almost everything else. It’s the resplendent thing that shines bright, defining LA as a city of well to do beautiful people posing for cameras. A place where out of touch elites concoct fantasies for the rest of the world.
That, however, is one very small part of LA. Go almost anywhere south of I-10 and you find neighborhood after neighborhood of factories, warehouses, and truck depots. Of steel presses, rail-yards, and logistical networks. Of “We’re Hiring!” signs.
LA is a manufacturing town, not only of fantasies, but of real things. Like aircraft parts, specialized windows, “forged ground engaging tools”1, sliding glass doors, and many other of the mundane things necessary for our comfortable lives. It’s so manufactur-y that it can now claim, according to those who worry about these things, the title of US’s largest manufacturing center.
Move over Rust Belt, LA is now the industrial heartland of the US!2
All the manufacturing and industry begins in the far south of LA, thirty miles from Hollywood, at the port of Long Beach, where ship after ship disgorge container after container jammed with stuff from Asia, to be transported up the 710 to the factories, workshops, and warehouses of Commerce, Vernon, Cudahy, and Compton, where it is all disassembled, refined, and reassembled, to be once again driven along the I-710, I-10, I-15, or some other I, to the rest of America, or back to the port to be shipped back to Asia.
All of this means jobs. Lots of jobs, with enough stability and growth to allow someone without a fancy degree from a fancy college to work hard, find a home, start a family, and build themselves a good life. The American dream kind of life, where they can be pretty certain their kids are going to have it better than they ever did. Even if those kids never work as hard as they did.
The result is that between the blocks of warehouses, rail-yards, and factories, are blocks thick with well kept smaller homes. With F-150s and minvans in the driveways, and immaculately kept lawns of trimmed hedges, bouncy castles, rock gardens, flags, and kitschy statuary.
Next to the homes are strip malls of taco joints, sushi places, churches, grocery stores, donut shops, and coffee shops.
South LA is a modern version of the 50s, the one Hollywood once churned out many glamorized and romantized versions of. A humble town with an extensive lower middle class focused on hard gritty work and dedicated to family, faith, and the flag.
The only wrinkle being everyone now is a lot less white than in that older version. Most are second or third generation immigrants, either from Mexico, Central America, Vietnam, or China.
It’s a real world version of the American Dream that should be celebrated by both political parties. The left for its diversity and working class roots, the right for its industry, faith, and family values.
It’s an LA that is about as far as you can spiritually get from Hollywood. A place of reality, not fantasy. A place where success and transcendence comes from engaging with the here and now, rather than from escaping it. A place where your pride comes from making the best excavator weld-on adapter or flexpin, rather than rendering the best elf army.
A place of uncluttered, uncomplicated, and unembellished goals. Where driving your family in the new decked out Silverado to the street corner for the area’s best taco and horchata, after a day at the mall, is the cat’s meow. The rightful payoff for all your hard work.
A place where, after thirty years of working the morning shift, you can retire to mornings at the local donut shop gossiping, afternoons with the grandkids, and happy hour with a few beers.
It’s all rather wonderful. The epitome of the America we all want to believe in, where, no matter how humble your past is, as long as you work hard enough, you can build a life of comfort, safety, and fulfillment.
It’s pretty idyllic, with one conspicuous exception. The homelessness.
The whole thing works for 98% of the population, and really really doesn’t work for the remaining. The homeless are everywhere, dotted among the pristine homes, warehouses, and strip malls.
Humans covered in filth, living under bridges, in gutters, and along the rivers, parks, and interstates. Anywhere there is a small slightly secluded tract of land, there are intricate constructs of tents, tarps, blankets, shopping carts, and wood, all smelling of weed, piss, and shit.
It’s a constant reminder that something is very wrong with this little American dream. Something is off. You can try to ignore it, look away, but the impact is far more pervasive than the continual visual reminders.
The homelessness has changed how people in LA live, especially outside their homes.
Available bathrooms are rare, and when there is one, locked tight. Public spaces and dining rooms are tightly limited, or highly policed, and if not, overrun with those desperate for facilities, safety, or attention.3 The shelves of stores are being put behind locks, especially those holding anything of value easily lifted.
The city is locking itself tighter and tighter to try and deal with those living only yards away in tents. The structure of normal life in south LA doesn’t allow you to forget those living on the streets.
And no matter how much you might not want to look, sometimes it’s impossible not to see.
In an East LA street of small homes, with kids playing in the yards, a guy was passed out from huffing compressed air. Or, in street lingo, he was out cold from dusting. Sprawled across the sidewalk, separated by only a flimsy fence, from tiny children in a bouncy castle and a father watering the lawn.
Life went on. Cyclists swerved not to hit him, pedestrians crossed the street. The father watering his lawn, only feet from him, didn’t seem to notice, beyond making sure not to spray him.
I asked him if we should call an ambulance, and he shook his head, ‘We did that before and he came back the next day and yelled at us. Told us to mind our own business. So we mind our own business.”
After ten days of walking south LA, I also learned to mind my own business. Not just from a growing emotional coldness, but from an emotional self preservation. There is only so much sadness you can immerse yourself in, especially when surrounded by so much happiness. Only so much talk of bad decisions you can listen to, when surrounded by so many good decisions.
I don’t know the answer to LA’s homelessness. South LA is overwhelming working, both literally and figuratively. There are decent well paying jobs. There is, relative to the rest of LA, affordable housing4, given the level of pay from those jobs. There is plenty of compassion coming from policy makers.
Few, if any of the homeless I’ve met, are only one job or one apartment away from stability. The overwhelming number are dealing with mental illnesses and deep and long addictions to hard drugs that can’t be quickly solved.
I’m going to piss off a lot of my readers, who’ve read my past work, when I suggest maybe the answer is we need to rethink how we are dealing with our drug problem.
Maybe we need to stigmatize drug use again. Not the drug user, but the drugs themselves. Compassion for the person, but not the action.
Maybe we’ve become a society and culture too dependent on medication, both legal and illegal, for emotional comfort in our brutally competitve and individualistic society, and so we’ve made it too easy to get those drugs.
Maybe we need to rethink our own culture that more and more sees drug use as normal, fine, and understandable, when it should be none of those things.
Countries that use community norms, often supported by metaphysical reasons, to curtail aberrant behavior, rather than only the bureaucrats and police5.
Countries that have ways to support people, at a deep meaningful and spiritual level, beyond the economic.
Because if it’s not working in the place in the US that’s working the best, it’s not only about enough decent paying jobs, but it’s about a decent culture.
I have a lot more to say about LA, especially about spending ten days in it, without a car and without using cabs or ubers. (The upshot of it is, LA has a surprisingly good bus system and you don’t need a car here. Although it certainly makes it easier to have one.)
That, and more, will come later.
Now, off to walk Taipei!
There is a longer not so positive story here of course. Off-shoring, which has shifted so much manufacturing overseas, while harming lots of the US, has benefited south LA, given its relative proximity to Asia.
The Starbucks next to my motel has its dining room closed, and not because of too few staff. It’s near a railyard and two interstate underpasses with perhaps 100 homeless living in them. The manager said they can’t deal with the constant “drama.”
In another crowded Starbucks in East LA, as I was resting from my walk, a man came in, and slowly stripped down to his underwear, then went into the bathroom, washed up, and came back out and put on new clothes from a huge garbage bag.
Nobody blinked an eye.
Yes, it could be better. But I’ve met plenty of people both here in LA and across the US living in less than ideal situations (sharing a home or apartment with many others ) who were working their way up the ladder. Or dealing with long commutes (up to two hours on bus) to be able to live in a home while also working a good job.
South LA does have plenty of apartment complexes and trailer parks.
It also has lots of empty industrial areas that could be turned residential, but I gather that is a zoning issue.
Also. The elephant in the room on these discussion is drugs. The overwhelming number of people living on the streets in LA are heavily involved in using hard drugs. No amount of jobs is gonna fix that here.
Far too often in the US (and Western Europe) we ask the State to solve problems created by a collapse of community. A collapse we have accelerated by our aggressive economic policies.