From Raymond Chandler through "Blade Runner" and the long-running Damian Monroe Williams Punch & Judy show, Central Los Angeles has long been America's favorite dystopia, the crumbled shortcake found inadequate to the sugary California dream.
In 1966, a year and a half after the first L.A. uprising, Time magazine ran a cover story on L.A. that might have been written yesterday, contrasting Sunset Strip mushroomburgers with crushing inner-city poverty. (One key difference: L.A. teacher salaries were the highest in the nation 22 years ago.) In 1966, as today, parts of the city looked as deserted as gritty urban movie sets after the gaffers have gone home for the night.
But the central city's older commercial core is not as abandoned as it looks. If you drive down dim thoroughfares, past what seem like long rows of unused storefronts or auto-parts warehouses, you may find--if you stop--entire communities brought together by the single motivating factor of really big spaces at really cheap rent, entire blocks and commercial strips occupied by secret enclaves of art and cool. Look for artist-in-residence plaques and battered antique pickups, for ponytails and dogs. Listen for Coltrane played way too loud. Black and white and Latino and Asian, these communities are as ethnically mixed as any neighborhood in the world. Urban artist types may envy your patch of lawn and 2.3 kids to the point of distraction, but they will never, ever let you know.
Artists always end up as the landlords to a certain breed of tenant. They realize that the secret to living cheaply often comes down to being able to sleep crashed out under the sink of your darkroom when you've sublet every other square inch of your loft. If the big one ever hits, look for the artists to find a way to thrive among the rubble. One guy I know, on an especially hairy stretch of Adams Boulevard, guards his place and entertains neighborhood kids with his noisy flock of "watchgeese."
Unless you're invited to a gathering of these urban homesteaders, to drink sour red wine and listen to scratchy \o7 charanga \f7 records at the cat-infested storefront of a friend of a friend, you may never get a peek behind the corrugated-iron walls into the elaborate patios that lie behind, never eavesdrop on conversations that run to the best \o7 bodega\f7 espresso and the prettiest way to string razor wire across a wall, never hear stories about Chinese bamboo scaffolding that towers 40 stories tall. Urban artists fix up old drill presses, read Proust, grow tomatoes, carefully tend to sunflowers that lean up against battered concrete walls. Their living rooms look the way art galleries might, if art galleries were a little more lenient on dust. At night, they may head toward the local blues bar or Ethiopian dive, but they probably stay up working instead.
Visual artists aren't impractical Montparnassian dreamers anymore. They are among the last people remaining who actually know how to do stuff--to run the pipe for a shower stall or shore up the rotted-out floorboards of a chugging '52 Ford pickup--without first looking through the Yellow Pages for a specialist. Artists tend to be the ones who ferret out the best Salvadoran bakeries or discover the wiping-rag wholesalers who discard perfectly serviceable sports coats on Thursday mornings. If an artist can renovate an old lawn-mower factory or build a Tinguely-esque behemoth of kinetic steel sculpture, she can supplement her income by fabricating the intricate copper doodads that architects dream up.
And as an educated Victorian layperson might have been expected to understand general lectures on topics as diverse as Hindu poetry and the taxonomy of hairy Madagascar apes, the present-day artist may be the last of the Renaissance people, knowing both how to wend her way through a work of post-structural criticism and how to weld a cracked muffler. Let the future screenwriters waste their days in coffeehouses: She may be an unrepentant romantic at heart, but nobody works harder than an undiscovered sculptor.