Penniless painters piled into the blighted Arts District decades ago snapping up big chunks of skylighted concrete, brick and beam on the cheap. The juggernaut that is the buying a piece of California is a fiery moonshot on an ever upward trajectory. The chic industrial ruins that enterprising creatives occupied were too soon discovered, word got out, then, the sorting of souls, the coming and going, the artists lost, gone, another kind occupies this space today. Fifty thousand newly anointed Angeleno’s have been drawn here to seek a less grinding commute, to live closer in, to be nearer the work they’ve found.
Living close to 3rd and Santa Fe within the terminus of the artistic yesteryear I’d take walks, crossing the Los Angeles River to explore Boyle Heights. On East Cesar Chavez I found the dandy Evergreen Auto Body Shop where I received superb Tijuana trained service, rock bottom prices, and first class repairs. I’d cross back over the 4th Street Bridge. If near quitting time I’d slide into the reclaimed repurposed warehouse district to indulge at LA’s perennial top ten restaurant, Bestia. Clientele, aerobically lean and hair styled with flash, urgently connected, tanned, pierced, skin inked, this joint jumped with an upward thrusting trajectory. Upward and thrusting meant to characterize social ambitions, LA’s up and comers are found here. You landed at Bestia because you had finally ditched the dead end life in West Covina.
Zinc Café allowed cooler no less amorous heads rule. Café Gratitude on Santa Fe was peopled by an oasis of vegans, a veritable sea of principled eaters, all a rioting mob of promiscuous plant based diet enthusiasts. Love may be rationed by signals from the heart, but in the Arts District, as Mr. Cole Porter observed, “if you want the thrill of love, I’ve been through the mill of love, old love, new love, every love but true love…” Love was available to the meat eaters, given for free to those who have become whole food plant based kind hearts.
Twenty miles south of the Arts District is the Port of Long Beach, then abutting this behemoth is the even larger Port of Los Angeles. Nobody has time for long talk, if you are trucker you are going to Long Beach (LBC), most will be dropping their load at a business somewhere between LBC and DTLA- downtown Los Angeles.
Big rigs park bumper to bumper on the Harbor Freeway rotting. It’s a hit or miss game, hell are the unpredictable all too common traffic jams. Spewing stinking diesel fumes, stuck in misery, on the infamous one-ten waiting to crawl into the terminal where International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union workers load the rigs.
Two transcontinental railroads, Union Pacific, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe haul freight up to switching yards near the Arts District.
Port of Long Beach to downtown LA, this is the belly of the beast. If this chunk of enterprise were a nation unto itself this region would rank 18th most productive out of 218 other nations. Not Saudi Arabia, Switzerland or Sweden generate as much wealth. Just this one piece of California’s gross domestic product measures well over a trillion dollars.
I got off the freeways and drove the boulevards to get a feel for what this wealth creation machine looks like. Much of what passes for architecture comes disguised as low-rise concrete warehouses. Nondescript, more than unremarkable, I saw buildings marked by nothing but their number, the street address. Capitalism’s creative destruction runs at such velocity, that the name of one building is coming off while a hopeful new entrant of another is being plastered on. Startups are measured in the thousands, failures are tallied by eviction, repossession and bankruptcy. Going out of business is frequent.
I’m driving the lean mean streets of Torrance, Gardenia and Compton. Hawthorne, Vernon and Commerce too, the list is longer, call it what it is, this is LA.
Texas is always talking smack about California, and Houston is productive, but here in Southern California is the best of the best, the grand national champion of the gross domestic product world.
Here’s an example of the dynamism you’ll find. NewChef manufacture’s prestigious uniforms for many of the top restaurants in the world, they supply the American Culinary Federation, handle embroidery for the World’s Association of Chefs Societies, and notably the executive staff at NewChef is all women. I stumbled upon an interview of how they’d gone from startup to break even to established multimillion dollar success. Located in Vernon NewChef is surrounded by blocks of fishmongers, logistics companies, food distributors, flower wholesalers, restaurants, saloons, and every other size and shape of enterprise known to the working stiff.
Traffic in LA masks the what and where of all this economic magic. Way too big to walk, to spread out to travel to work by bus or train, you’ll be hard pressed lost among the miles and miles of commerce and industry to see another human being. Desolation Rows cinderella’s are rumored to be sweeping up here.
Nominally the Fashion District is a tiny fraction of this behemoth, and their merchants and merchandise spill out onto the sidewalks with fashion designers and seamstresses bustling from kiosk to kiosk hunting down buttons, zippers and fabric.
California is electrifying everything. The South Los Angeles air basin one day soon will be safe to breath. Asthma, emphysema and heart disease will decrease. Railroads will use electric trains to get freight out of LBC. Container ships will arrive from foreign ports powered by fuel cells. Trucks traveling within this region will be electric, rigs running longer distances likely will be powered by hydrogen. Cleaning up LAX will take longer, but shorter distanced commuter flights will be powered by electric engines. Our high speed trains, yes we need to travel from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles nonstop at the speed of lightning, business types will disembark at Union Station for work here in California’s cauldron of capitalism.
Aerospace is here in a big way. There is Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Space X, Hughes, Boeing, Relativity Space, Wright Electric Planes, Rocket. Lab, Smartplane, and Slingshot Aeronautics. There are countless companies working on every aspect of artificial intelligence, from basic research to real world applications.
Herbalife, Neutrogena, and Ralph’s corporate headquarters are here. Shooting a television show, going into production on a movie you are likely to send your makeup artist to Dermalogica NYX to get the whatever is needed.
The American West isn’t all horses, ranches, farmers, and sagebrush. Here is a patch quilt of places. The most populous state in the Union, the economic crown jewel of the nation, diversities best and most vivid example, a place that has long been a destination for people from across the world coming here to find some way of squeezing in, to participate in the process of becoming a Californian.
Five hundred and ninety-two miles north and east is Baker, Nevada where all of 56 citizens have come to scratch out a living, spend nights resting beneath a canopy of twinkling stars. I’m acquainted with some of Baker’s citizens, a good many having gone there because their life in California had taken a turn, that there were just too many damn people, too many damn cars, too much traffic, that there was nothing and no place to escape where they could feel a sense of solitude, a sense of peace, relief from the astronomical cost of the cracker box of a house they toiled to pay off.
Citizens across the American West are knit tight. We agree on almost nothing and that’s the one and only thing we have ever been able to agree on. Water, electricity, highways, railroads, airports, all those indispensable crucial supply chains we all spend so much time concerned about, linking us into one interdependent organism.
I can feel Baker, Nevada in my bones walking down the sidewalks of the Arts District, can’t help thinking of one place while I’m there caught up in the midst of the other. The frequency of becoming sentimental, regretting what you’ve done, what you had to give up, California can call you back, drive you away, all at once or never again. Wishing you were here knowing as a practical matter you need to get back so that you can get work done there.
I’m through and through, born and raised, spent most of my life chasing a life down these streets, I’m a Californian. This last stint in LA, this searching out what makes a place tick, how all these fragments of LA work, what’s the same and why is that different, it is an unanswerable curiosity as to what is required to come here and want to stay. Your can-do attitude will determine the pain and pleasure you create.
Traveling into the heart of the belly of this beast, where capitalisms chaos makes and breaks a thousand different lives, to takeaway some scrap of insight how this piece of LA fits into that puzzle we call the world, how this part, distinctive when compared to all of the state’s other parts, is unlike anything I had imagined until I looked. Even as garish as this hood appears, cracked windows, faded paint, chain-link fences, the untrained eye adjusts, we learn to set our judgements aside, this place, here turns out to be hidden in plain sight is the living and breathing economic colossus of the nation’s most productive part.