I moved with my girlfriend in May, to a neighborhood of Los Angeles known as Highland Park. When I met aforementioned girlfriend, I knew nothing about the place. It was a place whose name I had heard in fleeting conversations, associated vaguely with crime and odd coolness, in the far Northeast of what still constitutes LA, beyond the moronically fashionable havens of Silverlake and Echo Park that I have always so thoroughly avoided for their dense, unflappable hipsterness.
My derision of hipstertude is a difficult, complicated treatise better left the subject of it’s own article. That said, when we started looking for places, the lady was really into Highland Park. When pitched to me, the place seemed to meet all of our most important qualities: cheap, easy to find parking (if you don’t live in LA, you have no idea how pivotal this is to your quality of life index), relaxed, full of real human persons rather than Los Angeles people. It’s hard to explain to you what exactly I mean by Los Angeles people. There’s a dense fog of ambition, fashion, and arrogance that trickles out of the tops of the palm trees and floats down into the upholstery of the luxury convertibles and hybrid road trip machines of the successful, slowly failing, and doing well enough’s of LA County that makes huge swaths of us say asinine things like “let’s set a call”, “parking structure”, and “fair trade organic ethiopian decaf brazilian avocado wax”.
In LA part of being successful, a big part actually, is ACTING successful. When in doubt, pretend you’re a turgid, tumescent erection, prepared to ejaculate the news of your recent deal, project, script, web series, role, gig, festival entry, or option all over the disinterested faces of anyone who dare pause in front of you for longer than it takes to order a chai latte.
This is not my personality. I inherited a “hide-in-a-cornfield” introversion along with my gorgeous yellow locks and appreciation for office supplies from my mother. In turn, for my entire life I have associated to a great extent with neurotic types who scream in terror at ringing phones and simultaneously raised their pale fists, gnarled from carpal tunnel, in joy at the rise of self-checkout machines in stores, finally Japanesing away the need to interact with human beings, ever, for any reason.
Because of this, I make an awkward Los Angeles resident.
Other things I hate: ambition, the sun, the beach, fake boobs, forced automobilism, tans, “networking”, frosted tips.
However, I don’t hate everything in the world. I do enjoy: tacos, hills, fancy beers, cheap beers, heavy metal, post punk on juke boxes, commenting on vintage cars that I will never own.
Highland Park is a very strange place in Los Angeles. I am part of a very real wave of gentrification in the form of quiet, nervous, oddly-dressed white folks between 25 and 35 moving in, mostly in couples and families, that has been otherwise a relatively homogenous latino neighborhood for the last twenty-plus years, but throughout a long history of demographic turnover, the area has remained an important headquarters for artists and artisans of various stripe.
The thing I like most about it though, beyond the parking, is that on any of the two major streets in the neighborhood, cascades a carnival of characters reminiscent of an R Crumb comic. Highland Park residents tend to be younger and older, bigger and smaller, darker and brighter, crunchier, hunchier, raunchier, and altogether peanut butterier than folks in Hollywood, Downtown, or Buddha forbid the West Side.
Scuzzy latino high school students slide by in packs on skateboards in neon high tops, cholobillies cruise Figueroa sporting greaser ducktails in sea foam Fords on their way to La Cuevita (formerly Little Cave, the the cultural epicenter of what constitutes the purple section of a venn diagram wherein The Smiths, Motorhead and working class Mexican families intersect).
When it’s time to eat, you’re much more likely to be ordering in Spanish than in English, but it’s also even more likely that what you’re ordering has never been frozen, and was cooked by people who actually knew the people that farmed it, picked it, and/or butchered it. And it will be fucking delicious.
I will admit, that already the happening, Occidental (or Oxy, for a-holes that matriculate) student-infused section of York Blvd from Ave 50 to Ave 51 gives off something of a “too cool for school” vibe fairly frequently, but it’s hard for any polka dot adorned black banged Betty to stay pretentious when dodging a pack of wild chihuahuas, standing in the blazing hot sun, and surrounded by residents of a place filled with folks on their way to, or back from actually doing work for a living.
That’s the key thing that infuses Highland Park with it’s unifying flavor. More than the stand and eat burger and burrito joints, the Chicano music stores, or the dissonant sounds blasting from decades-old speakers from every direction, Highland Park wreaks with work. People hustle, shove, commute, dig, suture, sift, pile, sweep, cut, sort, sell, deliver and paint hard, long and frequently. They don scrubs and restaurant whites, clip on name tags, key fobs, and wolverine boots. Highland Park works.
With my milk carton combed hair, Prussian blue eyes, and stumbled-into-the-wrong-room-at-the-hotel radio announcer’s voice, I get a lot of strange looks in this new place I call home, but I’ve always been a cultivator of strange looks. I inherently hate almost any situation where I could possibly feel like I belong. Belonging comes with assimilation, and assimilation never really jived with me. I blame Kurt Cobain, and Groucho Marx.
So, Highland Park, I will forgive you for being, according to Wikipedia, LA’s new official home of hipsterism, I will forgive the incessant barking of the sad eyed hound across the street, and the insomniac cockatiel and the two am fireworks, and even the damn bleach fist of the unmitigated sun that burns my thinning Nordic widow’s peak. I forgive it all as long as you promise to not get smug and self important.
Let your signs always be crooked and hand painted, your carne asada salty and thick, and your populace always be calloused and stained. This is a good place, and we will try not to fuck it up.