A huge part of what I love about traveling and living in a new country and city is exploring – discovering the cultural differences, the never seen before, having my senses brought to attention by images, sounds, smells and tastes that are different to what I know, experiencing a new style of life, finding excitement and inspiration. It’s both rich and rewarding to thirst for the new, to weave colorful pathways and vivid stories into the life journey. This to me is worth its weight in gold.
Harvard Heights – the little pocket of neighborhood with roots back to the turn of the 18th century where I live, speaks my language for this very reason. Located in the deep south of Korea town, near downtown LA, the area is like a mash up of Central America, and then just up the road, Korea.
Once, one of the wealthiest districts in Los Angeles – it was an area that in the early 1900’s was home to a large Greek American population. A little east of here they now call the Byzantine-Hispanic district and there is still some distinct Greek presence. ‘Craftsman’ homes and a grand variety of architectural styles were built – beautiful double and triple storied, lofty, detailed looking gems. So many of the surrounding streets are a vision, like West Adams, another little pocket (formerly known as Sugar Hill) a few blocks up the road. From the 1920’s – 50’s this area became the hot spot for the wealthiest of African-Americans; many entertainers and celebrities lived here, including Ray Charles. Seduced by the stunning mansions and properties. Interesting huh?
This influx of residents seemed to really establish the neighborhood, until the second world war hit. Post war the Greeks started relocating to West LA, a large working-middle class African-American population came and went, and over the decades the Hispanic community developed and never left.
Harvard Heights is definitely not Beverly Hills! It has a somewhat dilapidated feel, but then so does a lot of LA. Beautiful old homes in need of a lick of paint or some that have been separated into 2 – 4 apartments.
Sometimes when I walk around my neighborhood I feel like I’m in another country, somewhere south of the US border. The largest billboard for McDonalds at the end of our street is in Spanish. There’s a huge cemetery close by with rolling lawns and some interesting pyramid like catacombs. A beautiful Jesuit school (the oldest of it’s kind in California) is a local highlight, as well as a great Greek Orthodox cathedral with an incredibly ornate interior named St Sophia. Tom Hanks and his wife have donated huge amounts of money to this church I discovered recently at the local Greek Festival. During the day Mexican traders wheel by with food trolleys ringing bells or honking a horn selling corn, drinks and other Mexican goodness. It’s such a novelty!!!
The ice cream truck cruises the streets daily playing tinny electronic sounding theme songs (La Cucaracha is the main stay), men on the corner at the Uhaul truck hire gather outside whistling, hissing and greeting you as you pass by, mobile food sellers hang at the bus stops with bacon wrapped hot dogs sizzling, fruit sellers can be found on random corners, with mangoes and avocados stacked neatly, or there are those that have ice chests with a range of peeled and ready fruit to be chopped into a bag with a sprinkle of chilli on top.
On Friday nights and the weekend there’s Mexican style bbqs outside the stores, delicious aromas wafting down the street, the sound of Pentecostal prayers, whooping and congressional praise and cars honking, the Hollywood sign hangs like a halo from the hills and some days there’s a great mist that rolls in from the ocean and clears the vista to grey. Nightly great lights beam into the sky from the Staples centre, Downtown, and when there’s a game on there’s a great blimp that hovers above with a gigantic movie screen on it’s belly! On weekends Latino dance music pumps from neighbors yards, often jumping castles are erected for celebrations and glimpsed between houses, young and old hang out on their stoops chatting, drinking, smoking, listening to the radio and bbqing. Packs of young boys skateboard and fixie bike it around the streets with studded and plugged ear lobes and great Bieberesque sweeping fringes. I practice my basic Spanish greetings daily and have a number of trader friends that share a wave when out and about. I love the sense of community.
I am an avid lover of Mexican food and have been all my life. Everyday in LA is like paradise because I know, should I need a taco fix, I won’t have to go far, no matter what area I’m in. My local Tacos Loco serves up delicious $2.50 chicken tostadas with salsa so good I’d write home about it. There’s an amazing Greek Tavera/Deli with Papa Christo running the ship – a man knee high to a grasshopper with a moustache so great it’s wider than his very own face. The cheese and olive selection alone in this joint results in serious salivation. There are Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, Ethiopian, and Japanese restaurants, plus the regular plethora of take out outlets all in a ten minute stroll – burgers, chicken, donuts, burgers, donuts, smoothies, bagels, etc.
The minute you start heading north from my area the gallerias as they’re called – small to large style malls – start popping up everywhere in between Korean bbq houses, Pho kitchens, Korean style cafes with interesting names like ‘Cafe Toe Bang’, massage places, acupuncturists, and a distinctly Korean population. The streets that span off from the main street hold some of the most beautiful art deco and French chateau style, mouth opening homes. The architecture draws me off track, just for another little look or to show a friend whilst I ooowoo and ahhhh, isn’t it beautiful?
A trip to the local Korean mart is almost a weekly outing. Since my recent time in China I’ve become TOTALLY obsessed with dumplings! Thank goodness I can feed my devotion so easily! Aisles of foreign produce, frozen goodies, pickled fern fronds and exotic looking delights tempt me. If you time it right at the end of each aisle some days you’ll find a lady cooking daily specials – steaming delicious parcels or wee cups of broth with chopped fishballs. Inspiration for the next meal!
Welcome to my hood, Harvard Heights and it’s wonderfully diverse surrounds. Come pay me a visit some time… I’m a superb tour guide!