When Kevin Roderick invited me to contribute to his "Native Intelligence" blog, he asked me to identify my neighborhood in my bio. The problem is my neighborhood isn't part of any immediately recognizable or distinguished locale. What to call this mundane, non-descript area of Los Angeles?
Okay, technically I live in "Faircrest Heights," though that doesn't do much to identify my neighborhood. "Faircrest Heights" is one of those bastardized names thought up by realtors and neighborhood associations to give their zones a sense of "place." "Faircrest Heights" speaks of landed gentry, a craggy peak overlooking a windswept moor; it connotes a whiff of gentility. But really what you're sniffing is particulate matter, ground up bits of tire from the millions of cars burning rubber through our neighborhood to get onto the 10 freeway and to places beyond.
Faircrest Heights is one of those weird, in-between, neither/nor neighborhoods you find scattered around Los Angeles. It's neither Mid-Wilshire, nor Culver City, it's not Beverlywood, nor Carthay Circle, although it is spitting distance from all those richly historied and colorful locales. We can't even lay legitimate claim to being "Beverly-Hills adjacent," that tissue of distinction that so many Westside neighborhoods cling to. We're neither mid-city nor Westside. My husband calls it "Midwest L.A.". We're one scant block away from the 310 area code dividing line.
Travel one click to the north and you're on Pico Boulevard, with its thriving Jewish community and bustling street life. Nothing would be nicer than to ankle over there and pick up a bialy at the Far East Bialy Bakery, maybe kibbutz with the locals at Nick's coffee shop. But from my house, frankly, its too much of a schlepp.
A little east of that is the sweeping, majestic mid-Wilshire district, with its many venerable institutions and all the delights of the Farmer's Market. But it is for sure too far to walk. It's not far as the crow flies, and I'm sure that many of the crows roosting on our block flap over there for donuts at Bob's, but the jammed traffic on Fairfax makes it a drag to get to by car.
I suppose I could hop on my bike and make it to Culver City for a movie once in a while, but I have kids, so I'd have to take them with me, and I can't risk them getting creamed by a silent but deadly Prius speeding down Venice Boulevard. Sometimes we get on our bikes and pick our way down La Cienega, past the Warehouse Shoe Sale, under the freeway, and through the squat, little neighborhood lining La Ballona Creek. The eastern end of the bike path starts there, and after feeding my kids' bikes through the chain link fence, we hop on, pedaling past dead rats, shopping carts dripping with shredded grocery bags, the dreary backs of people's houses, patched with tattered blue tarps. Once in a while along the path, there is a knot of bright orange poppies bursting out of the asphalt like good luck. It's about a mile to Overland where you can catch the first whiff of ocean.
Sometimes we try to walk in our neighborhood. Only last night I took my youngest daughter Georgia out for a stroll. We ambled up our street, which is pleasantly suburban. The houses were mostly built in the early '40s and have that era's amiable predictability. The lots are modest and well-kept, the neighbors friendly. Our area used to be vibrantly Jewish, then slowly became a solidly black, middle-class area that once boasted a thriving kid-community. A friend who lives nearby and now has children of her own remembers our streets when they buzzed with bikes and double-dutch teams. She even remembers playing in our back yard as a tyke. But those kids have grown up and moved away leaving their parents here in quiet retirement.
Nevertheless, Georgia and I were feeling happy to be out walking in our neighborhood. The day had been hot and dry as a fart and we were enjoying the cool of early evening. We challenged each other to skip races and admired the mighty roots of the Carob trees pushing up huge plates of sidewalk. A couple blocks from our house we came upon a tawny dog sniffing in a bunch of fountain grass. Thinking it must be someone's lost pet, we approached it to say hello and read its tags. It withdrew its head and snarled at us, dripping foam from its quivering maw. We screamed and ran home, Georgia sobbing all the way.
Because there are so few kids here, it almost doesn't matter that there's no good schools—except of course, to us. Once upon a time the local kids went to Louis Pasteur, the neighborhood school just up the street. But busing came along, and Pasteur was transformed into the super-achieving LACES, one of the city's best magnet schools. The odds are stacked against my girls ever getting in there. We walk up there to vote, exporting our kids to Beverlywood and West L.A. for their schooling.
There are a few exciting destination spots in our neighborhood. There's Fallas Paredes (or Falaffle Palaffle as we call it). Sometimes, when me and the girls are feeling bored and spendy we walk over there for a shopping spree. We can blow twenty dollars in a single binge, impulse-buying loud shirts that snag our hangnails and melt in the dryer. There's also a Toys R' Us, and a Smart & Final and mercifully, on Thursdays, a farmer's market. There's the batting cages and Bikram's Yoga College of India on La Cienega. I often see Bikram doing sixty down my street in his white Bentley.
Our little stucco abode is situated halfway between a low-rent apartment complex and a liquor store and this is what creates a certain amount of foot traffic on our street. In most areas pedestrians are desirable, but here they loiter and litter. I have witnessed many things through my kitchen window: couples engaged in Ripple-fueled break-up fights, shade tree mechanics slurping beers and swapping out mufflers, bands of boys hopped up on after-school candy bars bragging and tossing pop cans into my Wooly Blue Curls and Ceanothus. One night a stretch Hummer stopped in the middle of our street and disgorged a half-naked prom queen who flailed around on the asphalt, shrieking and puking until she was finally dragged back into the Hummer by her friends. Another time I saw two brothers on one bike, the younger perched on the handle bars, they were singing a hymn together in lilting harmony.
There's not a lot of fauna, but the air is thick here with ghetto birds, either tracking shooters or reporting on accidents on the 10. The helicopters buzz us nightly, drowning out my TV shows (though my babies have always slept right through the roar), and once one hung directly over our house, beaming its light onto our front lawn. Police cars rushed in from all directions and pulled up, officers surrounding the perp with guns drawn, handcuffing him under my daughters' swing.
In spite of all this, realtors seem to think we have a hot property here. They are constantly knocking on our door to let us know what our neighbors' houses are selling for. I don't mind telling you we paid $240,000 in 1998. It's quadrupled since then, but in unreal L.A. dollars that would only mean anything were we to move to St. Louis or Cleveland.
One such realtor, dressed in Dockers and a crisp, white, Coldwell Banker polo shirt pointed to our swing (essentially a plank on a rope hanging from our Brazilian Pepper tree) and said, "I like the swing... it's a nice touch," as if we had hung it there to enhance our curb appeal.
The swing is a nice touch, as it draws the few children in our neighborhood up onto our lawn. That's how we met Maia and her parents Steve and Gabrielle, who moved in up the street a couple of years ago. We keep copies of each other's house keys and pool our fridge resources for impromptu dinners every so often. They have increased our property value more than anything else in the last nine years.
Our neighborhood got its fifteen minutes of fame in the Northridge earthquake. It was our chunk of the 10 that collapsed, taking the luckless motorcycle cop with it. We didn't live here then. My husband and I clung to each other in a rented apartment four miles west in Culver City. Pregnant and house hunting a few years later, the massive crack down the center of the garage slab was a major selling point for me. The house had straddled the bucking fault line and ridden it like a blue ribbon cowboy. I felt we would be safe here.
I try to imagine the history beneath the sidewalks. Up at Pico and La Cienega Lester Young blew jazz at the Capri club, and Crescent Heights sported the famous Carthay Circle movie palace. But all bets were off down here, especially once the Santa Monica Freeway was completed in 1966, condemning our nook of L.A. to a drive-by existence. Faircrest Heights is technically part of the slightly more noteworthy Pickfair Village, a place whose Wikipedia page is but a mere stub. There's just not a lot to say about this little area. I'm amazed I've made it to 1600 words.
Really the best thing about our street is what's beneath it: the soil. If I can reach back far enough in my imagination, I can see the land the way it must have been once, an eon ago, when wolves and sloths roamed the land. It must have been pretty lush compared to the hardpan of other local areas. Faircrest Heights, though you wouldn't know it to look at it today, is bottom land, subject to periodic flooding (La Cienega being Spanish for "the swamp") and absorbing centuries of runoff from the Hollywood Hills. A hundred years ago this was rich farmland, the staple crops being mostly cabbage and soybeans. The dirt here is black and loamy and any plant you stick in the ground will quickly grow to five times the size designated on its nursery tag. Only a few of my neighbors take advantage of this boon, most of them prefer the safe monotony of lawn. But I am staging my own little restoration project with native plants, luring in birds and butterflies, encouraging them to stay a while and make a home here with us, while everyone else rushes off to someplace else. This little patch of dirt has also been good for growing my two girls, who stand tall and hardy, their roots planted firmly in Faircrest Heights. I know they will always remember our little plot of L.A. warmly, even after they too hop onto the freeway to drive off into their futures.