Hollywood, Sunset, La Brea, Fairfax. North/south, east/west, a compass of boulevards that melt into highways, dotted with glistening lights and screaming cars. Cracked asphalt, prime real estate, men and women sleeping in the fitful shadows of bus stops. Billboards block the sky, announcing upcoming Amazon Prime series and cannabis-friendly “coworking spaces.” Here are the coffee chains and smoke shops and gas stations and urgent care clinics and poke bars. Here are major arteries of Los Angeles.
Just a few blocks southeast of my apartment, on La Brea, is The Jim Henson Company. The Kermit statue above the gate gazes at a strip club across the street advertising crazy girls, live girls girls girls, crazy and alive like the city. The Chinese Theater is a few streets east on Hollywood, along with the Walk of Fame and Madame Tussauds. I would never go there except it’s the only way to the closest metro stop. Whenever I need to be downtown I wade through hordes of tourists and hawkers to get to Hollywood and Highland, the station cavernous and efficient and empty in a way New York subways never are. And then there’s Sunset Boulevard, a movie I still haven’t seen and a street, freewheeling and ugly and vital. And Fairfax — head south and it becomes the Melrose district, where Glossier and Louis Vuitton give way to thrift stores and head shops.
Nestled between the tourists and the commuters and the many, many people without homes, between these gaping congested roads that live large in the imagination, is a narrow neighborhood of residences. They are mostly broad, blank, concrete buildings in bright colors, home to young professionals and aspiring media moguls. I’m living in one for the summer. My apartment is a two-bedroom I share with three other women, all about my age or a little older, all strangers.
After work (an internship in a Century City highrise, where I spend most of my time not even pretending to work since absolutely no one seems to care), I walk back to this apartment from the bus stop on Sunset. Within a block the landscape changes — no strip malls, no billboards, no people. The streets here — Formosa, Poinsettia, Hawthorne — are narrow and quiet and dark at night. (This darkness, for a city, is profound). It’s an uneasy peace, an uncanny silence. No boundary separates us from the tour buses and the streetwalkers. Instead we have signs that read “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” and gates and keys and windows high off the ground.
On weekends and holidays I explore this neighborhood, camera in hand. I find it beautiful. I find it quintessentially SoCal. Or at least it appears so to my East Coast eyes: bright, glossy, sunny, soaking in the hot smell of concrete and palm trees. But I also find that the streets are almost always empty. This is not a place for walking. Zoning laws keep away businesses and thus foot traffic. People who don’t live here won’t ever turn up here, except maybe by mistake.
When I spend time outside I feel as if I’m on display: the anonymity of a city street doesn’t exist when the streets are empty. I’m reminded, more than anything else, of how I felt wandering around the planned streets and cul-de-sacs of the suburban New Jersey neighborhood where I grew up. “Outside” is a place you go to be alone, but also a place you go to be looked at — to feel the weight of gazes behind blinds, to become the subject in the landscape.
Here, I point my camera at windows and doors. Looking for boundaries, both for places where access is controlled and where some inkling of something might be allowed to trickle in. My camera becomes less of a tool for taking (we talk of “taking” pictures, as if the picture is a lip gloss by the register and the shutter click is the teenage girl, swiping it and running, laughing, away from the cashier) and more one I use for asking — can you see me? Can I see you?