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In search of a bygone Los Angeles

For Angelenos, home is often a place unrecognizable from our memory.

August 26, 2011|Hector Tobar

When I became a reporter for this newspaper in the late 1980s, my work sent me to corners of my native city I'd never visited.

Some had names that were already beginning to fade from the city's memory: Crown Hill, for instance, and Diamond Street. I liked these neighborhoods because they were old. They were filled with clapboard structures, sidewalks stamped with ancient dates, and ruins of concrete and brick.

Like the narrator of Italo Calvino's novel "Invisible Cities," I felt I was wandering a city with a history largely unknown to me. So I taped a passage from that book to my Times cubicle:

"The city … does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps…."

These days, just about everywhere I go in L.A., I feel history written in the landscape. L.A. is getting older. And when I go home, to the blocks where I grew up, I see the imprint left by generations of Angelenos.

Harold Way in East Hollywood is where I learned to walk and where I learned to read, on three blocks straddling Western Avenue.

Go there now, and you'll see a neighborhood that's seriously overbuilt, with a few apartment buildings from the Art Deco age: the kind of places where the opening pages of Nathanael West's 1939 novel "The Day of the Locust" might have taken place.

The newer structures from the late 20th century look like glass-and-steel fortresses, surrounded by wrought-iron gates, with security doors that require secret codes to open. Peering through the gate of one of these on Harold Way, I can see to the back of a long, narrow lot.

A two-story duplex once stood there. It faced a courtyard surrounded by other duplexes. On that now vanished patch of concrete — dug up to make room for an underground parking garage — I learned to ride a bicycle and celebrated my fourth birthday, outdoors, on a warm winter day.

In the neighborhood of my memory, there were few fences. It was 1970. I walked alone to school from age 7 or 8. One of my regular stops was a storefront Italian deli at the corner of Western Avenue with sawdust on the floor and sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper.

Today, that storefront is the lobby of a Super 8 motel.

Across the street, there's a restaurant with a little cupola on the roof that was once decorated with the eagle of the "All-American Burger."

There's a Oaxacan restaurant there now.

A block to the south, at the corner of Western and Sunset Boulevard, I used to buy model airplanes and aircraft carriers at a hobby store. The building was leveled long ago, and today it's the parking lot of a Home Depot.

None of my old East Hollywood friends still lives there. Donald was the son of a soldier killed in Vietnam, and his widowed mother was a big Elvis fan. My classmates included kids from Arkansas, the Philippines, Lebanon. Bobby was from the now-dissolved country of Czechoslovakia. His old home is still there, reachable via stairs that ascend to an apartment above the Hollywood Boulevard liquor store where I used to buy RC Colas.

But so much else in the neighborhood I knew has been swept away. And what's taken its place isn't nearly as attractive or welcoming.

A lot of Angelenos feel this way when they return to the place they once called home.

Last week, I wrote about the writer Gary Phillips' memories of South L.A. in the '60s and '70s, which prompted an email from a reader who lived in the community and attended Manual Arts High in the '40s.

The campus, he wrote, "looks like Folsom Prison. The front green grass has been replaced with a parking area. The buildings are now military gray…."

It's hard to see the stage upon which you played out so many childhood scenes change so drastically. But, like Phillips, I don't feel bitter about it. I know my parents left East Hollywood — separately, having gotten divorced when we lived there — for the same reason they came to it. They were ambitious and restless.

Standing before my old Harold Way apartment, I can still hear the clack-clack of my mother's shoes as she headed off to a secretarial job just two blocks away, a newly divorced single mom in her mid-20s determined to depend on no one.

The neighborhood is called Little Armenia now, but I can't blame the Armenians or anyone else for taking it from me, since my parents freely chose to leave that place — moving to Montebello, and then finally to South Whittier.

We Angelenos have always been people on the move. It's a quality that also makes it painful to be an Angeleno, because home is so often a place unrecognizable from our memory.

Returning to East Hollywood today, I feel all the journeys that brought people there. I feel the roads that lead there from Arkansas and Guatemala, and away to distant suburbs. I feel the dreams of all the romantics who've ever lived there, the artists, the refugees and the single moms.

I'd like to have my old neighborhood back for a day.

I'd sneak back into the playground at Grant Elementary and play baseball on the blacktop again. I'd walk over to Hollywood Boulevard with my friend Shahe to our neighborhood movie theater, and watch a matinee for 45 cents.

That theater was demolished ages ago. But walking past the site last week, I saw a patch of sidewalk embedded with coral, green and purple stones — the walkway where we lined up to buy tickets, proof that my memory of that place wasn't just a dream.

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