I went on a walk on Christmas day. I was a solitary Jew looking for something to do besides eating Chinese food. My cousin recommended a quirky little guide book to help me. It features the “historic staircases of Los Angeles”. (I’m not kidding, such a book exists, it’s called Secret Stairs.) That’s how I ended up in Echo Park on Christmas Day.
There is a statue of José Martí positioned at one of the entrances to the park. I took a picture of the bust including some of the dozen or so tents that make up the homeless encampment that’s adjacent to it. While I was taking the photo a resident of the encampment came up and politely asked what I was taking a photo of. I replied with a half truth or half lie depending on your perspective. I said I was taking a photo of the statue of José Martí, a Cuban revolutionary. I didn’t tell him I also, deliberately, put some tents in the frame. I wanted people to consider how a great egalitarian like Martí would feel having a likeness of himself in a place of such incredible inequality.
I listened to the demand for dignity this man had quietly asked of me. We parted amicably and I cropped the photo so that the tents were no longer prominently and provocatively in the foreground.
How many Instagram moments have been taken of this encampment? Can we bear witness to the awful societal failure embodied in this place and thousands more just like it? Is it possible to do so and also resist the urge to objectify the people who are forced to make their homes on the street? There are no easy answers.
I went on my way, taking in the gentrifying neighborhood of Echo Park with its well kept modest homes that look down on its namesake lake. At the top of some stairs that ascend to the neighborhood, two men were sharing a joint and the view. Another group of young men were enjoying the holiday listening to music from a car radio. As a non-Hispanic in a gentrifying neighborhood I felt it was important to greet everyone I encountered with a smile and a holiday greeting. (Greeting strangers doesn’t come naturally to this former New Yorker.) I can’t tell you why I did this. I suppose as a stranger I wanted the residents to feel at ease with my intrusive presence. I wish I had worn a sandwich board that said “not buying, just passing through”, but that would have been awkward too. For all I know some of the residents of the homeless encampment below were from Echo Park. Perhaps they were people who’d been priced out their homes. Discarded. Devalued. Dehumanized.
On a derelict walkway overlooking Echo Park Lake, there was a pile of abandoned clothes and a traffic cone poking out of the pile of debris–someone’s life on public display. Graffiti lines the wall of the path. Even a sad looking palm tree didn’t escape the street artist’s spray can.
Across the lake from the working class Echo Park neighborhood is Angelino Heights. As I ascended the hill modest houses gave way to much bigger ones. Some were large enough to be called mansions. At the top of the heights is the largest concentration of Victorian Houses remaining within the L.A. city limits. Although the houses are magnificent, many lovingly and expensively restored, there aren’t really that many of them. Two streets contain all that’s left. But in a city that has bulldozed so much of its architectural legacy any remnants of the past is surprising and welcoming.
From Angelino Heights I returned to Echo Park Lake. Families were out walking along the shore and paddling in Swan boats. A drunk man in a Santa hat greeted everyone in an exuberant but slightly menacing way. At one point he danced with the guy selling roasted corn from a cart. I sat for a moment on a bench to take in the scene.
As I returned to my car I passed the statue of José Martí and the homeless encampment that surrounds it. Some of the residents were in the middle of the tents. They were singing as one man played guitar. It was Christmas Day in L.A. at the end of second decade of the twenty-first century. I had to get back to the house. I had a dog to walk.