Returning to my hometown of Los Angeles was somewhat jarring. At times, it felt like I’d woken up from a dream. Here I was, back in a place that I know in my bones, like I’d never left it. But the city had changed a lot, in sometimes perceptible ways, ways that made it obvious that I’d been gone and for just how long.
Take marijuana. When I left LA on New Year’s Eve 2010, weed was not legal. It’s not like it was hard to get, but unless you were purchasing it medicinally, it was verboten. Now it is just as commonplace as cigarettes, and it’s big business in this town. It feels like there’s a dispensary on every corner, and nice ones too! Now that weed is more of a normal commodity, it’s become somewhat elevated. This blew my mind the first time I entered one of these new weed stores. Big brick showroom, trendy industrial shelving, with premium luxury goods attractively merchandised and displayed. I’m a supporter of the decriminalization of marijuana, and I find this new elevation of it to be quite intriguing. But I also have to wonder: what was there before? What mom and pop small businesses did these weed emporiums replace?
In the past six months, I’ve found myself obsessed with the visible ways in which the city is changing. I walk down streets and see signs of transition constantly: modern buildings next to older ones that clearly wear their age; boarded-up storefronts next to strip malls with chain businesses; sleek, sharp angles of shiny newness next to aging stucco curves and Art Deco details. Streets that are hipster hangouts are particularly enticing, a veritable smorgasbord of transition, particularly Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park, Ventura Blvd. in North Hollywood, and Fairfax Ave. south of Melrose. The last is a particular mindfuck, as I spent a lot of time there in my youth, and it almost doesn’t feel like the same avenue that I once knew.
Fairfax Avenue is historically a very Jewish street, and was once lined with delicatessens and Judaica shops. In high school, I would go shopping at the vintage stores on Melrose, and would always head south on Fairfax to eat lunch at Canter’s, a deli that’s been around for decades. My first job in college was on Fairfax, at the Silent Movie Theater, a revival movie house and classy Art Deco rental space. Now, the delis and Judaica shops are looking pretty tired, wedged between dispensaries and hip hop clothiers, the walls and lamp posts covered in a mosaic of graffiti and stickers. The Silent Movie Theater is no more, but I’m happy to report that the building remains a movie theater which goes by the hipster moniker Brain Dead Studios.
I had good reason to worry about the fate of my college job, as the pandemic too has left its mark on Los Angeles. So many businesses just didn’t survive, same as anywhere, and it’s not uncommon to walk down a street and pass several closed shops and restaurants, lined up like ghosts. The most obvious ghosts, the true markers of yesteryear, are the movie theaters.
Movie-making is the lifeblood of this town, it’s the reason for its existence, so it should come as no surprise that during its golden age single-screen cinema palaces, with their soaring ceilings and bright marquees, sprang up everywhere. Nowadays, the vast majority of these grand dames of days gone by are shuttered. Their demise began with several-screened cineplexes in the nineties, and continued with the rise of streaming services in recent years. However, the vast majority of them still exist on the streets of LA, shadows of the past occupying huge lots with fading and graffitied facades. Seeing them, I can’t help but feel an ache in my heart. Growing up here, I adored classic movies, and the Hollywood of the past. Does anyone still care about these historic buildings? What will become of them?
In some ways, I almost feel like a ghost here myself. I, too, have changed. I’m not the same person who lived here a decade ago. I see the world differently than before, notice different things. I’m more observant, less naive. What will become of me? Who will I be once I’ve undergone my own internal metamorphosis, my current evolution?
There are things that give me hope, however. I am still an optimist at my core. Even in this city obsessed with youth and artificiality, you can see some people trying to create something new while honoring what came before. A few of those old movie theaters now house bookstores or breweries, their marquees proudly proclaiming that week’s latest reads or current brews. And I can think of more than one tire or auto body shop, for LA was built on the back of the booming car industry as well, that has found new life as a bar or restaurant. All Season’s Brewing in Mid City immediately jumps to mind. Inside, you can enjoy craft beer, tacos, and skee ball, but the exterior retains every inch of the historic Firestone Tire building, with all its sweeping mid-century curves and brilliant neon signage.
This is something I can get behind. Of course, all things must change. But if we can do it in a way that’s thoughtful, honoring who we were before while welcoming in who we are today, then that is truly the best of both worlds.
Safe and Happy Travels,