The poverty in Los Angeles remains mostly invisible to the nearly 40 million tourists who visited the city last year.
Traveling for the glimmer of the Pacific Ocean, most tourists steer clear of sights of homelessness on Skid Row, though it is no more than a mile or two south of some historic landmarks downtown.
On the stretch of Olympic Boulevard nestled between Pico-Union and Koreatown, there is a short Mexican man who brushes corn tortillas generously with oil and meat juices to heat them before using them to scoop carne asada sheltered under a sky of tin foil. Fixings such as cilantro and diced onions are deferred to the discretion of customers, and they can have almost as much as they’d like on a taco for only $1.50.
This is the scale on which I like to experience Los Angeles, my hometown and one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country — away from the buzz of the Walk of Fame nearly 10 miles away.
When I was last in Los Angeles, my best friend and I went to King Eddy, one of author Charles Bukowski’s favorite watering holes on Skid Row. I almost always go to Dino Jr’s for a charbroiled cheeseburger in Lincoln Heights, where I grew up just 10 minutes away from Dodger Stadium.
It is easier to think about a place after you’ve moved away from it. After I moved to Phoenix nearly three years ago, the strangeness of the East Valley only made me withdraw deeper into the comforts of home.
Because most of Phoenix is so new, its towns and cities don’t have the façade of nostalgia that’s often consoling to the foreigner. A sense of time and history can be unexpectedly welcoming, as I discovered when I visited Charleston, S.C., two summers ago, with its pastel-colored homes and majestic steeples of which no building is legally allowed by city regulation to supersede.
But when I first looked at Phoenix on a map, it seemed absentmindedly dropped in the middle of the Sonoran desert, misplaced amid the aridity and impenetrable vastness of the desert landscape. If you’re traveling eastbound through Phoenix on the I-10, this fact becomes nearly self-evident. For me, there wasn’t much resembling the vibrancy of Los Angeles for nearly 200 miles, and no link to the quirk of Tucson for another 100 miles.
Phoenix became intimidating under the realization that it is nothing more than a simulacrum of the natural landscape in which it’s been circumscribed. It was hot, but the city was not warm to me. Suburbs such as Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe continue to grow, but their growth seemed measured by town homes and drug stores. Scenes of people boarding the bus or pedestrian bustle are rare, not like they are in Los Angeles.
When describing another busy city, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard says there is no reason to live in New York “except for the sheer ecstasy of being crowded together.”
I felt this ecstasy in Phoenix was reserved only for cool nights when the young on Mill Avenue or the Scottsdale crowd awake from the day of intolerable heat. Certainly, this nightlife could never be fully representative of the people of the East Valley. They are dressed up, fully cloaked in regalia meant to impress members of the opposite sex. Who they are in the daytime — who knows.
My initial discomforts were typical symptoms of a young person moving away from her parents for the first time. I also hated Los Angeles right before my move to ASU, and my affections for it have only been applied retroactively, after feeling so alone during the first year and a half of living in Phoenix.
In fact, everything I resented about Phoenix was similar in spirit to the things I resented about Los Angeles: the purposelessness I perceived in leading a life dictated by traffic congestion, the red carpet, the people who were so glib in their efforts to become the next big star and the erection of new condominiums that dismissed downtown’s hungriest residents.
Like the tourist visiting my hometown, I couldn’t move beyond my own vapid generalizations of Phoenix. But after living in Phoenix for two and a half years, I began to trust the city a little more.
When it comes to traveling, it’s important to make a home of wherever you go and to reduce the scale on which you experience a place.
By defining my time in Phoenix by small events, I was able to experience the city the way I wanted to. A few weeks ago, I ventured outside my comfort zone (and fear of drowning) by kayaking on Canyon Lake and the Salt River.
I will always miss Los Angeles, but there are places in Arizona that have become important to me, too: Boulders on Broadway, where I started my beer education and held my own in raunchy conversations, Coffee Rush in Chandler, where I write my columns every Monday and the US-60 highway at dusk, where I can see the purple mountain majesty of the Superstition Mountains to my left.
Reach the columnist at email@example.com or follow her at @ce_truong.