The street I live on isn’t actually Love Street, it’s Figueroa and it’s more like Haight Street in San Francisco. Locals refer to it simply as “Fig”, alluding to the name’s meaning “fig tree”. This “Fig” is deeply rooted in the heart of LA and it’s slowly withering away as if Jesus himself had descended from Heaven and cursed it like he did the one outside of Bethany. I like to go on walks along it. Long walks. Walks that are too long for my own good; ones where I have almost gotten run over by careless drivers, mugged and assaulted by junkies in plenary bouts of anxiety looking to score a dollar to fund their next hit or taunted by listless teenagers too young to be threatening, but too old to simply brush off. Walks amongst people from all walks of life, who look at me with the eyes of a wounded animal, fearful for its life, ensconced deep in its den.
This street is nestled in the northeastern part of LA; the “north” is tacked on adamantly by hipsters to take the edge off the area that was once known for having one of the highest levels of gang activity in the city. Now it’s lovingly called “Nela”, not quite as rough as Lincoln Heights or as pristine as South Pasadena; just the right amount of ferity that Goldie Locks would feel comfortable living in. Figueroa, however, isn’t completely barren. Businesses of all types are budding like flowers bringing in overpriced artisan coffee and pre-prohibition style bars that are only open for a few hours a day, staffed by early thirty-year-olds clinging to be twenty-something-year-olds who still live with coed roommates—all trying to “make it”—decorated with enough tattoos to cover two people, in whom the concept of customer service is perceived as a choice and not as a consumer privilege.
Old signs from the 1950s—post-apocalyptically rusted as if they had witnessed a nuclear holocaust—adorn buildings that should be condemned. While inhabited by minorities, these buildings constitute what ghetto is, while inhabited by hipsters, vintage chic. The merchants that work on the ground floor and tenants that live above, go about their days as casually as one can in such squalid conditions. The filth that imbues these decrepit structures transmits a blasé sentiment to its inhabitants, knowing that the neglect they have given the building they have called home for many years is a reflection of the neglect the city has given them. An old man with a striking resemblance to the old Florentine master Michelangelo Buonarroti sits on a chair in front of one of these buildings, picking at a scab on his head. The tips of his fingers—covered in blood—slowly detach the crusty stuff and carefully place it on his right knee. A sign of the renovation to come.
There’s a park that serves as a buffer and respite between the serpentine Arroyo Seco and the arid concrete clad Figueroa landscape. It is covered in litter of all sorts. Some of it is kid trash like candy wrappers, chip bags and empty bottles of soft drink of various colors. It’s like urban deco. It gives the neighborhood that rawness you want it to have when you’re in your twenties and lacks the Stepford look you do in your forties. Other litter falls into a more depraved category that includes: syringes, balloons, charred stainless steel spoons, used surgical gloves, dried streams of urine and human feces. The pigeons flock to it and peck at it like chickens in a farm.
At night, the street is lit by tacky neon signs from mediocre Mexican food restaurants and beauty and nail salons that emit scents of noxious tortilla chips and chemicals reacting on human hair and flesh. Drug users come out at night feeling safe to do under the cover of darkness what is frowned upon during the day. Unlike most people who fear it, drug addicts seek it as the darkness allows them to be themselves—to be bare without judgment—like two self-conscious lovers undressing with the lights off before one another. Their ghoulish gait and unintelligible speech pierces through the urban soundscape like crickets serenading the moon.
Buses and trains whiz by full of people sitting comfortably and proud like children on their fathers’s shoulders, looking out the window as if on safari, admiring the sight of humans in their natural habitat. When the bus stops at a red light or if I’m traveling in the opposite direction to it, I can catch a glimpse of a person and sometimes even lock eyes, both of us wondering where the other is off to.
There’s a man that sweeps the streets every day. I see him doing so as I come out of one the six coffee shops in a span of four blocks. He gives me an acknowledging look and then says “hi” to my dog, a cheery yet picky golden retriever that doesn’t get excited with just anybody. It brings a smile to my face seeing how she wags her tail as he approaches to give her a pat on the head. It makes me think that he must be a good person, not only in his persistence to keeping these filthy streets clean, but in the inner kindness that only animals seem to be able to detect.
The street art—like cave paintings left behind by a civilization on the brink of extinction—tell a story of a different way of life, one that involved violence and pride, colors and tribalistic communities, where things weren’t always great, but at least nobody cared that ten people were living in a one bedroom apartment or that accounts ran delinquent. This art, along with the people that use to live here, is being painted over and erased, leaving no discernible mark behind of its existence. The walls that are lucky enough to escape the systematic extermination of local art are vandalized by a perpetually marginalized youth that—generation after generation—feels out of place in the realms of the gentry and of their immigrant parents. They are unwittingly trying to break free from the vicious cycle of gentrification followed by decades of neglect. They no longer want to turn, smile, shift, and repeat.
And then it started to rain, as if the Earth wanted to wash away the dirt and shame off its craggy and scabrous skin, crying and naked. Walking home to shelter, I started humming a song sung by Sweeney Todd about his own hometown: “There’s a hole in the world, like a great black pit and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit and the vermin of the world inhabit it…” For now, I simply call Figueroa, home.