Race in Arlington Heights
For Los Angeles Magazine, April 2012
He looks Latino, sounds British, and has a name no one can pronounce. His neighborhood is even more muddled.
When I tell my white friends that I’ve moved from Fairfax/Melrose to Pico/Crenshaw, a couple of things happen. Some make a face, and I have to explain, “not Crenshaw Crenshaw.” Others just look baffled. They try to be polite: “Well at least you’re near the 10.” And then we get to the truth: “Dude, that place is diverse. What’s the matter, you don’t like white people anymore?”
“Diverse” used to have a positive ring—like “melting pot,” with its suggestion of warmth and dinner. But so did “hipster.” Sometimes good words go bad. Now, “diverse” is code for “no white people,” “quotas,” or “don’t leave your valuables in the car.” I take this stuff personally. Because I’m diverse. I have been my entire life.
My parents are Indian and I grew up in London (which as cities go, is plenty diverse). By moving to LA a decade ago I added a whole new layer. Now I’m the Mexican-looking guy with the BBC accent and the complicated name. I’m a jumble of stuff, and as it turns out, so is the street I live on.
Fourth Avenue between Venice and Pico is a sparse and sleepy corridor of battered craftsmen homes and small apartment buildings. As soon as I moved in, I figured it could do with some more trees, so I joined the neighborhood council and went door to door suggesting the idea. In one afternoon, I met Koreans, Jamaicans, African-Americans, Oaxacans, Guatemalans and Salvadoreans. I met the last of the early Japanese community, some doddery Armenians and a random white mom who makes jam - and that was just the people who came to the door.
It struck me that this unassuming street, the kind you drive through and forget at once, is probably the most diverse I’ve ever lived on. One reason I moved here was because it was central—equidistant from Watts and Westwood, Venice and Silverlake, Boyle Heights and Beverly Hills - and judging from the ethnicities, it’s as though it has gradually accrued, like a filter, a trace of every major racial current that has passed through.
A model of harmony, however, it is not. Over the next few months I would listen to my neighbors gripe about the parking, the graffiti, and the people who don’t pick up after their dogs. Every now and again I’d glimpse the racial resentment beneath the surface. “He’s black, but he’s a good person.” “Those drunks on the stoop are Mexican. Salvadoreans are more cultured.” “You can tell they’re Korean by the way they concrete over the lawn.” “They’re Japanese, they don’t talk to anyone.”
Maybe they told me these things because I was safe—a new face and potential ally on the council who didn’t fit into any of the local tribes (there aren’t many Indians in Arlington Heights). Maybe it was the accent. While in England my accent might expose me as a Londoner, vaguely middle class, in America it’s a mask – a flattering one, but a mask nonetheless. It bestows intelligence and charm, and women seem to like it, but it also preserves my strangeness and distance.
Whatever the reason, I learned that for all of 4th Avenue’s apparent diversity, there isn’t much actual mixing. The neighbors hardly know each other and many couldn’t talk to each other if they tried—at least a third of the people living on the street speak no English at all. It’s the story of L.A. writ small. In ethnic terms, the city has long been known as a collection of enclaves, adjacent but separate, and it seems that model prevails even in this “diverse” neighborhood.
In London the ethnicities seemed less segregated and more of a soup. We were Londoners first and in it together - we shared the same burdens like the weather and the public transportation system. Forgive me – I’m doing the expat thing and getting all misty-eyed about the old country, as though those London riots last year never happened. But somehow the alienation here in LA feels more pronounced.
That said, I do have a list of scribbled names and numbers of my neighbors on my wall. They might not like their neighbors so much, but they do like their trees. It’s a start.