Saturday, February 18, 2012

My L.A.: A City and Its Secrets

AFTER QUICKLY exiting the freeway, and a turn on Gless Street, I’m transported to another world. I step onto the sidewalks of Boyle Heights, pressing the pavement down. I round the corner to reach the school’s parking lot, which serves as the children’s playground after school during recess on Friday afternoons. From where I stand on the concrete playground, I see the freeway overhead in the distance and the tall pillars of downtown, so close that the buildings feel within my grasp. The church and school are painted in an off-white, warm color that absorbs the drowning sunlight of the afternoon. 

Every week, I find myself here, at Dolores Mission Elementary. It’s just for a few hours every Friday, but each visit is a brief release from the pressures of my own world. I am able to experience another part of town, escaping my own. I’d never have found this place without finding LMU first – two communities so different and yet, connected.

We play tag, we play patty-cake. The girls like to hold my hands and skip while the boys toss a basketball around their court. We encircle each other, surrounded by blurred cars on the overpass in sight, but we’re covered more so by the scarce trees in bloom. In our games of tag, the children run in a chaotic mess. I’m always “it”, and I don’t mind, even if I’m never quite able to catch anyone else. I’m continually unable to catch up to their pace. 
Their concept of normal has been so different from my own. Throughout their young lives they have known Dolores Mission Elementary School, their memories shaped inside its cement walls. They tell me of their joys – a present from the tooth fairy, or a story about their favorite movie. They tell me of their troubles – the Boogey man, and how together, we can ward him off. Diana, keychain in hand, twirls around as we sneak through the hallways. It’s all nonsensical, childish whims and worries, but somehow, these moments bring the most clarity. The children, without knowledge of their surroundings, are still children. 
I have come to Dolores Mission much like them. Raised in Michigan, I’d arrived with no knowledge of Boyle Heights and its history. It was not until later that I discovered its historical transformations, and its notoriety for gang violence. It is home to more than more than 20 gangs, and according to the Huffington Post, it is ranked 50th out of 272 Los Angeles neighborhoods in violent crime.

While I have never experienced firsthand any occurrences to support this data, it is impossible to forget the surrounding environment. It lingers in the air, heavy, without ever being seen. I imagine that one day I may be able to press my feet to the concrete and melt the cracks and crevices together to create one smooth surface, impenetrable to those who walk upon it.

Part of what makes Los Angeles the city that it is, is its ability to reveal its secrets to you subtly. A forgotten unknown location can become a home away from home. Maybe part of the beauty of this city is its slow reveal of the majestic. It keeps us waiting until, unexpectedly, we’ve learned to find magic in the ordinary.

 Photo Credit: Jennifer Pellerito

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