LA culture shapes Occidental experience


Dear Los Angeles,

I love you, but I must go.

It breaks my heart to say this, but the time has come for us to part. While there is a temptation to cling to this deep bond we’ve developed, I think it is best for us to pursue our dreams independently.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude for all you have taught me over the past four years. A few of your communities have brought me particularly profound insights.

Four years ago, you introduced me to Koreatown as a tutor at Young Oak Kim Middle School. The journey from your northeast outskirts to your dense interior revealed one of your bustling, culturally rich centers. Your buildings were taller, cars more clustered, pedestrians more prevalent and your signs scripted anew. The students at Young Oak showed me where to get a haircut, a soccer jersey and good Korean barbecue. They also taught me about overcrowded classrooms, underfunded schools and the difficulty of learning English at age 12 after just having crossed the desert.

I will forever be grateful to those three brilliant women — Professors Freer, Matsuoka and Maeda — who introduced us so tactfully. In the CSP Living Los Angeles, we learned about the historical, cultural and political dynamics that help explain your complexity. But it wasn’t until they took us to the Southern California Library in South Central that I was exposed to the truth — a story of marginalized people fighting for rights within you.

We really got to know each other when I got a bike. I felt more comfortable venturing into new places. I started biking to farmers’ markets and tasting the fruits of your perpetual sunshine. I biked along York and Colorado, passing into your neighbor Pasadena’s smooth streets, where I often returned for free entry into the Norton Simon, discounted student tickets at A Noise Within and a mischievous free entry through the orange groves at the Huntington Gardens.

I am so thankful that you introduced me to Boyle Heights. It was unlike any place I had ever been. For my Community Organizing class junior year, I wanted an internship that I could access by public transit. Prior to, I was quite skeptical and critical of your transportation options. But soon I found myself talking with kind strangers on the Gold Line and exiting at the Plaza where you were always fond of performing your favorite mariachi tune. Your taquerias, panaderías, paleteros, jugos y frutas vendors in Boyle Heights were a palatable dream and an experience in alternative economies. At InnerCity Struggle, I learned about the educational inequity persisting on your east side, and I fought alongside young warriors to make sure you provided quality schools for everyone.

This year, you took me downtown. I found every aspect of you here, the best and the worst, all in one overlapping dog pile. I sent you a number of applications, but I think you wanted me to go to City Hall. You’re wise that way – you reveal yourself only when I can begin to understand your teaching.

At City Hall, you revealed your contradiction: The City is inherently a colonizing force, but there are so many radical change agents working from the inside to change you. I lucked out and landed with an inspiring group of people in the mayor’s Promise Zone team. I started riding to work and will always cherish the time I spent cruising downtown on your tree-lined backstreets.

Eventually, I found out what you were hiding. The largest concentration of homeless people in the country were living in fear of constant police sweeps and abuse on your streets in and around Skid Row. Though your homeless population keeps growing, you continue to criminalize its existence, rather than treat it like human beings.

In Chinatown, you preserve cultural identity and respect great tea. In Little Tokyo, you reinvent the arts and chef real ramen. In the Arts District, you brought me to my first symphony (for $10) and blew my mind at the grand opening of The Broad. In Civic Center, I showed up in desert boots but you still let me play pickup soccer every Friday. In the Financial District, I sipped $5 champagne flutes in a rooftop pool. In Grand Central Market, you showed me your version of Pike Place. On Broadway, you reopened your art-deco theaters for a few raucous occasions. In the Fashion District, you transported me to a different country in Santee Alley.

And for my senior comprehensive project, you took me south. In Leimert Park, you showed me real jazz for the first time at The World Stage. At Sunday drum circles in The Village, I experienced what a friend referred to as “Black cultural Mecca.” In Crenshaw, I tasted real soul food, helped out at your best farmers market and observed the scars of white flight, disinvestment and the War on Crime. In Baldwin Hills, we spent quality time together at Kenneth Hahn Regional Park — the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, hummingbird-filled park in your City.

Your neighbors also deserve my gratitude. Channel Islands, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, Redwoods, Big Sur and of course, Joshua Tree, all provided me with respite from your smothering gaze and enlightened me to your region’s natural beauty.

Finally, I must confess my sincerest gratitude for Highland Park. While Eagle Rock has admirable qualities, Highland Park has been the penultimate classroom. I watched your streets transform here at an astonishing pace. Community members here taught me that gentrification is neo-colonization, but they also taught me the value of local history and means of creative resistance.

Taking your buses and trains frequently and spontaneously unearthed your true self — a bustling, multi-lingual, ultra-creative congregation of people. When I got lost on my bike, you always helped me find something even better than what I was looking for. When we marched and protested on your streets and in your buildings, we could hear you cheering us on. And when I leave, I will miss you dearly, but I know you have hopes and dreams for yourself, and you know I do too.

Los Angeles, I have grown to love you more than I ever thought possible. Sadly, these four years have also reassured me that we are not destined to be together. Your air is too toxic, your cars are too abundant and your inequality is too painfully prevalent. I am not from here and I feel that in the long term, I do not belong here. I hope you will understand my desire to learn from others places such as I have learned from you.

Forever with love,