Issue 02: The Heart of the City

What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is no one truth to this city.

Los Angeles is a city with many reputations. It has produced more movies and music than any other city on earth. It’s a place where people chase dreams of all flavors, where immigrants come to achieve the American dream and entrepreneurs flock to redefine it. It also produces drug addicts like Lay’s does potato chips.

Los Angeles is the place that gave suburban sprawl a bad name. This is the city public transit went to die, where a tire company paid the government to pull up the trolley tracks in order to speed the people’s transition to the car. As a community, it’s been hostile to the bicycle almost ever since. I write almost because over the last five years the city, led by then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, began adding infrastructure in the form of bike lanes and sharrows.

The disconnect between the city’s efforts and my life as a cyclist was so great I might as well have been living in San Diego. I self-select as a roadie, which means the vast majority of the miles I ride each year are logged in the company of other riders on roads I may ride three or four times per week. Every inch of pavement the city made more accommodating to cyclists happened on roads I had never ridden. Then a funny thing happened.

I crashed.

The crash itself was anything but funny. At least one doctor said it should have killed me. The aftermath of the event was as fun as a methane-contaminated well and included losing five pounds (liquid diets are hell on lean muscle mass), a skittishness in groups (even though I was alone when I crashed) and a loss of that top-end fitness that is a prerequisite for any group ride that is considered “training.” On one level I concluded that I no longer resembled the person I thought of as “me.” That’s one hell of a mind fuck.

Then my stepfather died.

I spent most of the next month in my hometown of Memphis. Though I had a car at my disposal, I rode more than I drove and I began riding into neighborhoods that weren’t considered typical cycling training territory. Because the traffic density was so much lower than I was accustomed to in Los Angeles, I figured what the hell.

By the time I returned to LA, daily highs were in the 50s and the cloud cover is known as “marine layer” lasted the better part of each day. This is what passes for winter at the beaches of Southern California. I began logging easy base miles for the season that loomed.

When the weekends rolled around my desire to put in four or five hours without making my heart rate leap over tall buildings trumped my need for something resembling a social life, so instead of heading west to meet the groups, I struck out in a fresh direction: east.

Rolling out before my family woke, I began exploring the network of roads that latticed the communities between downtown and the South Bay. I rolled through places like Hollywood and Chinatown, where the attraction was obvious enough, but I also stumbled upon gems like a stretch of Inglewood (definitely the ‘hood) lined with amazing murals. One that is roughly 100 meters long is a visual history of African Americans from creation through the rise of early civilization up to the present day. From the god that blows the universe into being to the nod to African Americans’ influence on music in the forms of Louis Armstrong and Jimi Hendrix, it is a testament to creativity and culture in swirling imagery.

I’d roll through neighborhoods where the early morning smells were not of eggs and sausage but laundry detergent and dryer sheets. I passed cafes fragrant with the perfume of exotic coffees. And in a city as secular as any on earth, I pedaled by synagogues, churches, cathedrals, Buddhist temples, shrines and fenced-in cult enclaves, not to mention self-financed landmarks, some of which were as many shrines to arrogance as they were to paternal philanthropy.

I treasured the early morning as much for its quiet as for the lack of traffic. Compared to what I saw on my group rides, the pedestrians out at before 9:00 on a Sunday hailed from a different world. At the beach, those on foot were either surfers with a wet suit pulled to their waist or romantics performing the walk of shame, Saturday night’s hottest costume wrinkled and paired with hair a casualty to the night’s athletics. Whether neoprene or Rayon, no one’s outfit was pulled on quite right. Just a few miles distant, but a whole world away, in what the media used to refer as South Central, those on foot could be delineated just as neatly.

Grand dames would stroll the sidewalk, primped in their finery for Sunday service. Crisp-pressed suits, bright colors garnished with gold and hats pinned just-so, they walked with the relaxed air of someone who knows how the day will go. It’s a confidence I didn’t expect to see in an area best known for its violence. And those who weren’t their go-to-meeting clothes, well they mostly had in common the uniform of the service industry, lots of black pants and white shirts, the odd apron, the fatigued lean against the bus stop of someone dreading yet another long day in the kitchen/dining room/store.

What drew me out on that first ride was a desire for something different, something flat. What kept me heading east and north was the endless variety of what I saw. One morning, rolling through the garment district past warehouses as nondescript as sidewalks I suddenly encountered people and music spilling from a building whose architect had something other than a church in mind when he first put pencil to the drafting table. The music was passionate, joyous, thumping in beat and lyrical in expression. Had someone inside been speaking in tongues, I’d not have been the least bit surprised, but I’d never have heard them over the horn line.

While much of the city conducts its commerce with no knowledge of downtown, Los Angeles does possess a beating heart, live with the melting of cultures, one-percenters dropping pennies in the cups of the street people, a place where taco stands adjoin gold dealers beneath the offices of importers as likely to be shipping statuary as the tears of the poppy.

And while much of what used to be LA has been bulldozed for something with more square footage, downtown is a place with actual history, where the buildings remind us of the hopes of the early 20th century. From the turquoise of the Eastern Columbia Building to the brickwork and wrought iron of the Bradbury, Broadway—LA’s one-time theater district—is a testament to the idea that what we erect says something about the business we do and the way we do it.

I’ve read scores of essays by writers attempting to plumb the depths of LA, to use a coffee shop, church, sushi house, donut shop, nightclub, bookstore or surf spot as a cultural divining rod, as if by coming to understand this one locale they’ll get at the hidden, true essence of this 12-million-strong beach blanket. Though I’ve been here 17 years, I really feel like I’ve only become a proper student of Los Angeles in this last year. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is no one truth to this city.

If ever there was a place that can stand for the whole of the world, I submit that it is Los Angeles. More than 30 languages are spoken here, some with names I’ve never even heard, originally spoken in places I can’t find on a map.

On one rainy Saturday morning, I made a wrong turn and suddenly found myself approaching skid row. That might not have worried me, but one detail didn’t permit me the relaxed spin that took me everywhere else in the city this early on a weekend. I’d just heard three “pops”—pop, pop, pop—just like that. As they echoed off the buildings there was a moment in which I looked around for the blue glow of a film crew’s lighting rig. Then I realized there were no lights. Those sounds weren’t made by blanks. And then I made my wrong turn.

People were spilling off the sidewalks and into the street. I couldn’t tell if this was SOP for skid row and I wasn’t going to wait around to figure it out. I stood up for a blink, just long enough to put on a little extra wattage. It’s the standing dig you make when you’re trying to accelerate but want it to look like you’re only adjusting how you sit on the saddle—a disguised effort. Back in the saddle, I glanced back just before swinging to the yellow lines and gassing it to the next light. With a quick left I was headed back toward sidewalks with people who clung less desperately to their possessions.

Los Angeles may be one very large city, but as I’ve tried to show, it is by no means homogenized. The names of the neighborhoods continually surprise me, not just for their names—like Canterbury Knolls and Harvard Heights—but for the diversity of what they contain.

This morning I rode north on a street called Van Ness. Due east of me it is lined with unremarkable homes and dense apartment buildings. As you head north they look progressively less well kept. Just north of the flight path of planes landing at LAX bars encage all but the most remote of windows. A half-dozen lights later the lawns show greener, the bars disappear and the homes glow a bit more due to younger paint. The boxy tract shapes and shotguns give way to more custom architecture, peppered with Craftsman, Tudor revival and Shingle homes, some maintained, some rehabilitated and some just a termite from collapse.

Near I-10 I entered a subdivision of Arlington Heights called Country Club Park. The homes there are to stately what Rupert Murdoch is to wealthy. Most were built near the turn of the last century and were big enough to include slave’s servant’s quarters. Rolling over the tree-lined streets I couldn’t help but wonder what the owners did for a living. Robber baron? Drug lord? Murdoch offspring?

Many years ago I took a trip to Disney World and after taking a break for lunch, I spent an hour just walking around the park inspecting the architecture. What drove my curiosity was the way each of the different sections of the park—Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland—blended seamlessly. The buildings that lined the way between Main Street and Adventureland were decorated with verandas and the foliage went from nonexistent to downright tropical. The transition from Adventureland to Fronteirland shrank the foliage, then switched to cactus while the buildings went adobe and then to log and lumber. So it went around the park with no clear demarcation. Los Angeles is a lot like that, just without the careful planning.

In the city’s expanse, it’s easy to find homes next to apartment buildings next to commercial buildings next to warehouses. Sure, that doesn’t happen in the pricier zip codes, but that notion of the wrong side of the tracks falls short here. From the saddle of a bike, it’s hard to find easy demarcations. In riding through the city I’ve encountered a confirmation for one of our basic truths: The divisions we see between ourselves—rich, poor, black, white, Latino, Asian—blur here. My point isn’t that there aren’t differences between us, of course, there are, it’s that even as we seek to live among our own, we have the capacity to tolerate more diversity than it appears.

I write this the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s death. As I rode this morning, I wondered if I’d see signs broken windows, burning cars or buildings, the detritus of looting. Nothing was out of the ordinary.

I’m aware that a white guy in Lycra on a road bike is an unusual sight in the neighborhoods and cities through which I pass. It’s odd to consider, but there, I am the foreign element, the reminder of what a melting pot this place is. I make a point to nod and smile as I pass people, but today was different. I couldn’t stop to tell people what I thought of the verdict, but when I saw pedestrians I slowed, sat up, smiled and waived.

It’s fair to wonder what good that did. In the last year I’ve been the recipient of too many kindnesses not to believe they make a difference. Despite the addition of cycling infrastructure, most of the people on bikes in the city’s interior move on streets without lanes or sharrows, meaning that because they haven’t all been drawn to ride up and down the green-striped bike lanes, like iron filings to a magnet, we remain elusive, nearly invisible.

I like being an anomaly in the city’s more urban areas. In some small way, I think it suggests that cyclists and white guys aren’t all the same, and in that, some may find hope.

Ed. Note: After riding many miles together at events on the road and dirt, convinced Patrick to write an article for us.

He blogs at Red Kite Prayer.


Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog.


Also published on Medium.