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'Little Armenia' sign in Hollywood feels strange, but right

January 27, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

A wise American once wrote, "You can't go home again."

If you're from Los Angeles, you know that truer words were never spoken.

Call this city home, and eventually L.A. will repay your devotion with a swift kick, a cold slap, and a mocking wave goodbye.

I learned this lesson the hard way after many years away. I decided to revisit the corner of L.A. where I was born and raised.

When I was a kid, I called this place Hollywood. The glitzier meanings of the name barely registered in my young brain. The Hollywood I knew was a sooty playground of concrete and asphalt where all my friends lived.

Then I got older, and moved to Montebello and many other places in California and beyond. I started telling people I was born in East Hollywood. I liked the gritty feel "East" added to its name.

But on my recent return, I found my old homeplace had a new name.

"Little Armenia" read the bold white letters on blue rectangular signs, installed by city workers on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, I am not Armenian.

Returning to your childhood home and finding it officially named for another ethnic group is sort of like going to your birthday party and finding someone else's name on the cake.

If the sign had read "Little Guatemala," I'm sure I would have felt a burst of pride: I might have called my immigrant mother to say, "There's a little part of L.A. named after us!"

The sense that the Armenians had picked my pocket, culturally speaking, lasted about three seconds -- three seconds in which I channeled my inner Lou Dobbs and scowled like Bill O'Reilly.

Then the great urban designer in the sky whispered in my ear, "Don't be a hypocrite."

My parents came here from Guatemala to reinvent themselves. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans followed after them, changing the L.A. neighborhoods they lived in.

Famous for both its transience and its diversity, Los Angeles is a place where any given street corner is rarely one thing exclusively for very long.

Little Tokyo, we read in this paper Saturday, is filling with Koreans. There's been a big Vietnamese and Cambodian presence in Chinatown for decades now. And my part of East Hollywood probably could just as easily be called Little Manila or Little San Salvador.

There's no denying the Armenian imprint on my old stomping grounds.

Armenian business owners have populated the neighborhood with signs written in the loops and arcs of their alphabet. My inability to speak Armenian led to a short conversation with a local merchant that ended with him apologizing for his poor English.

"I am not good listening already," he told me.

And when I thought about it, maybe I wasn't so good remembering.

Truth be told, there was always a little Armenia in the Hollywood of my childhood.

My best friend during those happy days of my boyhood was Robert Adalian. Lebanese-born and Hollywood-raised, Robert is a proud son of the Armenian diaspora.

He rescued me one day when I was a fifth-grader crying on the blacktop basketball court of Grant Elementary School on Wilton Place.

A lot of other kids were laughing at me -- I don't remember why -- and Robert stepped forward, put his arm around me and told them to stop.

"You know who this guy is?" he told them. "This guy is Jerry West."

Invoking the name of a Lakers hero in my defense was a remarkably compassionate thing for 11-year-old Robert Adalian to do. For that reason, I can't resent him for being the one who gets to call his immigrant mother and say: "There's a little part of L.A. named after us!"

I went to lunch with Robert the other day, in an Armenian restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.

We studied the menu of chicken kebabs, pickled turnips and other delicacies, and shared memories of the neighborhood. They weren't Armenian memories or Guatemalan memories. They were L.A. memories.

The East Hollywood of our youth, we agreed, was a more open and less fearful place. The gate to the Grant schoolyard was never locked, and we played baseball on the school blacktop on weekends.

I told Robert that the day he rescued me is ingrained in my memory. But Robert said he didn't recall it.

"What I remember," he told me, "is the day I was humiliated because you beat me in a one-on-one on the basketball court."

We bet two dollars, he said, a princely sum back then.

"The whole school came out to watch," Robert recalled, though I'm sure this is hyperbole. In my memory, it was a mere 200 people or so. He was 12. I was 11. "I was sure I was going to beat you," he said.

Robert had a Wilt Chamberlain headband and Jerry West wristbands that gave him an aura of invincibility. "When I lost, I went crying home to get that money I owed you," he said.

On that day, the score line read: Little Guatemala 1, Little Armenia 0.

Not long afterward, my divorced mother remarried and we moved to the suburbs.

Robert and his family stayed as East Hollywood went into slow decline. It was a bad sign, Robert says, when a crew came to film an episode of a crime drama across the street from Grant.

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