Central City East

People will think I’m completely nuts when I say I love living in downtown LA. It is a crazy place, largely populated by crazy people. But it’s also home to thousands of regular folks just trying to make their way in this microcosm of urbanity, and I do love it. I love its challenges, its hidden beauty, its grittiness.

Technically my ZIP code is Central City East, aka Skid Row. But I’m on the fringes of the worst of Skid Row, just where the Fashion and Flower Districts begin, and as long I know where not to walk the dog, it doesn’t matter. Truthfully I don’t want to live in a building that allows me to pretend the suffering is someone else’s problem.

I live in the Bailey Hat Building, which is a heavy concrete-framed building painted a sunny yellow. My apartment faces east, and the five six-foot-by-4-foot rotating windows let in so much light I often have to run the A/C midday, even in January. There are fire and police stations just down the street, so I get a lot of siren noise. But I also hear birds chirping in the courtyard, kids playing at a daycare, merchants at the flower market across the street, buses announcing their destinations in mechanical voices, and street musicians. Often, if I look to the north, I see two or three sea gulls perched on the top of the parking garage where my car sits, reminding me of the beach and my former home in Ventura. When I look to the south, I see a row of eight or 10 crows lined up on the fire escape of a nearby textile building, reminding me of the foothills of the Sierra, my home for the past year.

Somehow downtown Los Angeles has become a crossroads, an intersection of memory and sense of place. Somehow, when I see the tall buildings all lit up at night as I make my way back from my office in Thousand Oaks, I feel like I’m coming home. I smile every time I see the outline of the US Bank and WedBush buildings, despite their financial evils, because it feels like this is exactly where I belong.

But don’t let me paint an incomplete picture -- it’s not all perfect. There is a lot of garbage in the form of actual trash, human waste, general grime that blackens my dog's paws, dead rats and pigeons, and the entire jewelry district.

One of the routes the dog and I frequent most is the six or so blocks from my apartment to my boyfriend Sean’s. The area immediately outside Sean’s apartment is actually Crazytown. It’s where the Metro station, LA’s stunted subway, collects its patrons, and it’s also the location of Pershing Square and what we fondly refer to as ghetto Rite-Aid. This Rite-Aid nearly always features a long line of a tremendous variety of people, patiently or not so patiently waiting to purchase all manner of drugstore goods. The Square itself is also bizarre; during the holidays it’s home to the smallest ice skating rink the world has ever known, but it’s also a good place to buy drugs, catch up with some homeless people, and walk your dog in the high-walled, smelly pet area that's so unappealing even the dogs of downtown look like they can't wait to get out of there.

I don’t walk around alone at night too much. But one night I left Sean’s around 8:30 and had my first questionable encounter downtown with a fellow human whose name, as I would find out, was Homie.

Homie was about my height, Hispanic, had a teardrop tattooed under his left eye, was in his forties, or maybe he was younger and had just had a hard life. He was drunk, high, developmentally challenged, or some combination of the three. When he saw my dog and me walking toward him he just sort of wandered in front me, tried to put his hand on my arm and grunted. There was no violence or threat of violence – I could have given him a good shove and laid him out on the sidewalk in front of me. It felt like he just wanted me to stop, to stand still amid the cacophony.

I, too, have that feeling about people on the streets sometimes. But I curb the impulse. I don’t actually put my hand on their arms because this is downtown and they might punch me -- I could be one of those crazy people.

What I walked away with was appreciation for the dude’s friend who said, “Hey Homie, you can’t do that. You can’t be touching people, Homie, get off. You can’t be doing that.”

The friend was adamant when he intervened. He could have seen me as different, as someone who thinks they’re better than anyone else because society has insisted, my whole life, that people with pale skin and blue eyes and blonde hair are somehow better. But he didn’t see me that way at all, and you can’t ask for anything more in a city like this. Anonymity, equality, is everything.

On my way to Sean’s earlier that night I’d crossed paths with a wild-haired woman carrying a pumpkin under one arm and what appeared to be a pair of black socks in the other hand. She was barefoot, wore pajama pants, and the pumpkin had been given a lopsided grin with a ballpoint pen. She was in her early 30s and seemed anxious, agitated. Where was she going? Why was she carrying a pumpkin? What, exactly, was going on here?

I don’t know. But people like her are why I feel I need to go back to school for social work – despite the fact that nearly everyone who knows anything about social work discourages me from pursuing it. It’s hard. You feel restricted by a system that’s broken. You cry. You have to look into the dirty face that is the true capacity for human suffering, and you don't get to look away.

But even the naysayers know it’s up to the individual to change things, change the system, change the stories we tell ourselves about why things are the way they are.

Social change is the outward extension of individual evolution, and I believe that evolution occurs in the individual when he or she faces hardship, is able to make meaning of that hardship and then forges connections with other people because of it. I believe I can contribute to social change by connecting with individuals and helping them see their own inherent value. Through social work I believe I can help people learn to make sense of their stories, share their experiences with others, and then move beyond their stories into a more meaningful and satisfying life.

When you give a person a voice, you give them a new perspective on themselves. Just knowing that someone wants to hear your story and thinks it’s worth sharing with others can induce a sense of self-worth, of belonging, which, as Dr. Brene Brown’s research has shown, is what fosters resilience, your ability to “bounce back” when life takes a negative turn and to live a wholehearted life, despite the risks.
“How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?”  --Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW
When I drive home from work, my route takes me along 6th Street to Maple, which is literally where Skid Row begins. As night falls, tents go up on the dirty sidewalks. People carefully arrange their grimy sleeping bags, moving blankets, shopping carts, books, whatever possessions they have, in a neat row along the sidewalk and tuck themselves in for the evening. We are all just bodies seeking comfort, making the best of what we have. I am fortunate, but I am not different.

I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than to help people realize their own value and to encourage them to understand that while our stories may shape us, they do not limit us or confine us to any particular way of being. Who we are and how we live is an ongoing evolution, and when we give ourselves permission to change we unlock the power to change the face of the society we live in. Social workers are just one group of people who have the opportunity to be the agents of that type of change.

Which is not to say that the people I see downtown, or on Skid Row, are victims. They’ve made their choices. Some of them may be perfectly happy with their lives. But everyone has a story worth telling, and we all have the ability to learn from one another.

Any of us can decide to have beginner’s mind, to be open to learning, to be willing to witness the suffering and joy that is life. We can be anonymous, or not. We can be brave enough to reach toward one another, or we can cast our eyes downward as we pass on the street and do our best to ignore each other. We get the luxury of choice, and that’s what makes this life worth living, even, or especially, in a place like downtown Los Angeles.


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