Los Angeles: A tale of two cities

I may not have a piece of designer clothes to my name, but I’m a sucker for anything glitzy and glamorous. My Netflix history says it all: Million Dollar Listing, Selling Sunset, Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I love a 30-minute snippet where I can see the world from someone else’s eyes (whose loaded, obviously), where I don’t have to worry about finding another part-time job to pay my rent next month or think about our mismatched furniture. 

So, of course I was beyond thrilled to head to Los Angeles for one day during our weeklong tour of SoCal. Mike doesn’t share my thrill for chasing celebrities down Sunset Boulevard, so instead, I booked a food tour through downtown Los Angeles with Sidewalk Food Tours, figuring we could check out some cool foodie spots and I could scope out the scene I have so dreamed about. 

I am so dumb. 

Please also note I did not Google the tour’s distance from famous L.A. hotspots, like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive or the Chinese Theater. I just figured in the City of Dreams, everything would be flashy, bathed in gold and Kim K’s BFFs would be coming around every corner. 

It was immediately clear that was not the case. Not only was downtown L.A. not glamorous, it was just about the most un-glamorous place I had ever been to (and I live in New Jersey.) Homeless people were on every corner, sleeping on everything from a doorway to a forgotten couch. There weren’t any glittering silver apartment buildings and hotels, like I was used to in New York, a city I also consider quite grimy. Pershing Square, a park filled with a few chairs and some grass in severe need of a watering can, was almost comical. 

Looking back: A New York City Christmas: What that looks like during a pandemic

Our food tour, and our self-proclaimed history nerd of a tour guide named Chris, didn’t try to make it anything other than what it was. What the food stops did have was authentic ethnic cuisine, from everything from a brisket so tender all you needed was a plastic fork to pull it apart to Neapolitan pies to Japanese gyoza. Much of it was housed inside food halls both big and small, which seemed to allow food artisans the opportunity to house a business and offer their own creations to the masses. 

As Chris walked us from stop to stop, he told us a lot about the downtown’s efforts to revitalize and support, especially during the devastating pandemic, like how the city invited artists to occupy shuttered storefronts with their works and others to paint Black Lives Matter murals around Pershing Square. He didn’t shy away from the area’s grime – instead, he was thriving alongside it, it seemed to me. He casually ignored the homeless man following our group, and avoided a drama by slipping us out the back door of a food hall instead. He told us about the grandiose 16-foot ceilings of his apartment and swiftly corrected my pronunciation of the Cecil Hotel. 

Besides loving truly awful reality TV, I also love true crime, and I watched the “Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” a few months back. It occurred to me that the hotel was here in this city I also happened to be in, and I was thrilled to discover it was only a five-minute walk away. 

A foodie summer: The empty chef’s table in Central Maine

That’s when it all made sense. I remembered the documentary describing the Cecil Hotel’s dark, storied past, and its place in the heart of Skid Row, one of the most dangerous places to be in the United States. I remembered learning about the city’s “experiment in containment,” at one point literally barricading the homeless from leaving Skid Row’s 56 blocks and keeping them from those streets of gold, only a short drive away. 

After the food tour, we drove to Hollywood, but to me, the city felt tainted now (and also, Mike had a headache because he had been hydrating with beer.) The shining sun, bleached blondes and people laughing in cafes over organic, vegan and gluten-free eats was satirical at best. How does anyone drive their Range Rover past a line of people living in camping tents on a bridge and then go about their day?

But maybe I’m just one to talk. We live in the ‘burbs of New Jersey, but in my modest downtown, there are a few homeless people I see multiple times per week and rarely have I thought twice. I haven’t wondered how they got there, or where their kids are, or where they sleep when it’s really, really cold. Until this moment, I didn’t consider what they did during the devastation of Hurricane Ida that struck Central Jersey less than a month ago.  

I’ll never drive – let alone, own – a luxury car. All of my clothes come from TJ Maxx. But how different am I from a person who strolls past a person who has lost count of the days they haven’t had a hot shower before turning the key of my home? 

3 Replies to “Los Angeles: A tale of two cities”

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