FIGHT TOWNS—Detroit: The Resurrection of the Kronk Gym

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A visit to a legendary spot in the boxing community as it fights, once again, to hold on to tradition.

When I say it’s good that the Kronk is open again, one of the fighters shrugs his shoulders.

“We’ll see,” he says.

In Detroit, nothing gets taken for granted. And why should it? This town was the engine that drove the American economy, a city as grand and unstoppable as the massive finned machines it turned out of its numerous auto plants. This is where Joe Louis trained. Sugar Ray Robinson. Where Barry Gordy formed a tiny record label called Motown, whose driving, joyous sound blasted great music by great artists onto trans-oceanic airwaves.

Then, in July of 1967 the city burst into flame. Long simmering racial tensions exploded, then exploded again. Mitt Romney’s dad ordered in the National Guard and President Johnson called out the 82nd and 101st airborne. There were tanks in the streets and some 2,000 buildings burned. For five days a near state of war existed in this great city, and when it was over forty-three people were dead and over 1,100 were injured.

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National Guard troops and firefighters during the ’67 riots. (photo: Reuther Library)

The story for years has been that “white flight” from Detroit began with those riots. The reality is that, while the riots were certainly an accelerant, the process  was already underway in the years after World War II. In  1950, the population of Detroit was nearly 2 million people, with whites making up about 84 percent of that. By 1960, seven years before the riots, nearly 350,000 whites had left the city limits. By 1980, that number was over a million.

When people say Detroit was never the same again after the riots, it’s true. It’s also a way of deflecting the ugliness of what was already going down here long before 1967. 800px-White_sign_racial_hatred.What happened in Detroit that summer didn’t come out of a vacuum. Suburbs with “White Tenants Only” signs. Police carrying out indiscriminate raids in black communities. The long-standing segregation of northern cities did not escape Detroit, and despite the success of the auto industry, the city was already losing jobs to the suburbs. As the moneyed classes of the city moved into the outlying areas, they took pieces of the city with them. The suburbs remained affluent, and Detroit became a national punchline, an example of a city where everything was and would always be wrong.

So the noncommittal answer I get when I talk about the Kronk being back makes perfect sense. Detroit has been declared dead. Detroit has been declared reborn. Neither are really true. The city survives, just like the gym that produced one of its greatest trainers and one of its greatest fighters. And as for what comes next, well, we’ll see.

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The third incarnation of the Kronk is located in the basement of the Fountain of Life Church on Mettetal Street, and from its fearsome reputation, it’s a surprise to walk into such a modest little space. You don’t get the sense of what’s going on in here until you look around at the walls, taking in the posters and the photos of famous champions. This gym wasn’t just a proving ground for the great fighters of Detroit, it was a beacon for champions from all over the country.

There was a reason for that, and his name was Emanuel Steward.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Detroit, Steward was a fearsome young fighter, winning 94 of 97 fights as an amateur and taking the national Golden Gloves Championship in 1963. After passing on the chance at a professional career, he became an electrician for Detroit Edison, and might never have gone back to boxing if it hadn’t been for his brother James, who convinced Emanuel to take him to the nearby Kronk Recreation Center and show him some moves.

The original Kronk boxing gym was located in the recreation center’s basement. Built in 1921 and named after city councilman John Kronk, the old building sits abandoned today. The windows are knocked out and the brick is sprayed with graffiti. A playground behind the building is covered in overgrown grass. I stopped there to look at it and, to my own shame and discredit, I took a few photos. I’m not sorry I went to see the place, but it was wrong of me to take the pictures and I erased them minutes later. It’s not my place to show pictures of abandoned temples like this. I watched people do this for years in New Orleans, riding through the neighborhoods in air-conditioned busses with tinted windows, snapping photos of the New Orleans they saw on TV, taking home souvenirs of devastated neighborhoods as their driver droned on like they were doing a tour of the zoo.

The original Kronk Recreation Center is destroyed, and will likely never have the funding to get fixed up. If you’re a disaster pornographer, you can go take photos of it and post them on your Instagram and call them art. If you’re a boxing fan, stay away. Read about it. The old place, I’m sorry to say, is gone.

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Six months after Emanuel Steward’s first session with his brother, James was a Detroit Golden Gloves champion. Shortly after, Emanuel was asked to be the head coach of the Kronk’s boxing program. He took the job at a salary of 35 dollars a week and began one of the most impressive runs of success of any trainer in history. He was named U.S. National Coach of the year in 1977. In 1980, he coached Hilmer Kenty to a title shot in the lightweight division, where Kenty became the first world champion boxer from Detroit since Joe Louis. Over the years, Steward would train a multitude of champions, from Lennox Lewis to Michael Moorer to current linear heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitchko.

But of all the champions Steward worked with, none was more closely associated with him, or with the Kronk, than Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.

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Thomas Hearns with Emanuel Steward. (photo: Boxingfutures.com)

Tommy Hearns. The Motor City Cobra. The Hitman. A tall, wiry kid who didn’t look like a fighter when he first entered the gym. He came in because he wanted a way to fight back against bigger kids who kept stealing from him. His first day in the ring, a better fighter broke his nose. Hearns straightened it out and came right back. Eight years later, he won his first professional title.

He was an extraordinary fighter, preposterously tall and thin, with long arms that gave him a reach advantage over almost anyone in his weight class. A fighter with those natural advantages often develops as a pure boxer, a quick moving dart thrower who depends on outpointing their opponents and keeping them at bay with their jab. What separated Hearns was that, in addition to his boxing skills, he possessed a right hand punch that could separate any normal human being from the planet. It was brutal, demonic. He would hit good fighters, even great fighters, and they would fold like a tent. He scored one of the greatest knockouts in history when he floored Roberto Duran in Las Vegas with a punch you could feel through the TV screen. At the time, Duran (one of the five greatest fighters ever to put on the gloves) had never been knocked out in 82 professional fights. Hearns totalled him in the second round. The knockout punch is impossible. It’s the only punch I’ve ever seen that looks just as fast in slow motion as it does at regular speed.

The knockout punch comes at 0:35. It is not for the faint of heart.

It was the partnership of Steward and Hearns that made the Kronk an internationally recognized name in the boxing community, but it was the conditions that made the fighters who came out of it so strong. Steward liked to crank up the heat in the basement of the building to over 90 degrees. Fighters would pour sweat as they trained. Steward would move through the haze, offering encouragement, dispensing advice. It was the kind of place that fighters would call magic, and mean it.

And, as noted, the original is gone. Like the old 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach where Muhammad Ali cut his teeth, like Joe Frazier’s gym in North Philadelphia, the original had to be replaced when the situation became untenable. In 2006, thieves stole the building’s copper piping. With no money coming in to replace or repair what needed replacing and repairing, the building closed, and the gym moved to a storefront in Dearborn, continuing with the original Kronk name.

That the Kronk survived its original shutdown was largely due to the force and reputation of Emanuel Steward. But when Steward passed away in 2012, the second location went with him.

It took three years to find a new home. Then, this past Memorial Day, with Tommy Hearns on hand, the Kronk quietly reopened in its new location at 9520 Mettetal Street.

When I walk in, four months after the grand opening, there are about five fighters working in the ring, including Lanardo Tyner, one of Floyd Mayweather’s top sparring partners. I ask Tyner if I can snap a photo of him at work for my blog.

“Yeah,” he says. “You come all that way you gotta get that shot.”

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Lanardo “Pain Server” Tyner works the bag in the new Kronk gym.

Also in the gym are a pair of brothers, Brandon Cayce and Tobias Wiggins, both of them fighters since they were kids. Cayce gets in the ring against Lanardo Tyner, and holds his own against the pro until he takes a big shot that puts him to one knee. He comes out of it fine, with a little blood on his nose, and a desire, like a lot of great fighters, to get back in the ring. He’s an amateur fighter, but here at the Kronk he gets to step in the ring with an established, title-winning professional who has sparred regularly with Mayweather, which puts him just one degree away from the man many consider the best fighter of his generation.

His brother, Tobias, is in the gym for the first time. He tells me he’s been fighting a long time, but never took it seriously. Today, he feels, is the beginning of a change in that mentality.

“My brother said he was coming out today,” he says. “Well, I wasn’t doing anything. So I came out.”

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Tobias Wiggins on his first day at the Kronk.

Sometimes it starts like that. Then the first day turns into the fifth day, which turns into the fifth week, and pretty soon you’ve built up a habit. Every one of the greatest fighters to ever put on the gloves had their first day in the gym, and something about that day made them keep coming back. They get beaten up and beaten down, and they walk right back in.

It’s impossible to separate the story of Detroit from that of the Kronk, but that story has taken on a familiar tone among the tellers. People like to espouse the popular narrative of the city that surrounds this gym: that it’s the tragic center of a tragic story, a once great city that will never be great again. But great cities like Detroit have much in common with the fighters they produce. They take their shots. They get off the mat. They straighten out their nose and they come back swinging.

This city, and this gym, have greatness in their bones. Only a fool would count them out.

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The Kronk Gym is located at 9520 Mettetal Street on Detroit’s west side. They have a website here and a Facebook page here.

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On Becoming an Uncle (and a Better Brother)…

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The phone call came at one in the morning, just as I was leaving the High-Hat Lounge. My brother-in-law never sounds frantic, and he didn’t sound frantic now. But he was calling me at one in the morning, and that was a first.

My sister was going to have the baby, and they needed someone to watch their toddler. Right now. A car was already on the way.

Two years ago, I became an uncle for the first time, but I’ve hardly spent any time at all with my niece. My sister Meghan and her family live in Chicago. I live in New Orleans. But my summer travel plans had put me, partly by design, in the right place at the right time. They were going to have baby number two, and they needed someone at the house while they went to the hospital. I barely had a chance to say hello to my sister or my brother-in-law before they were out the door, leaving me with my two-year old niece.

“Lulu’s asleep,” they told me. “Just look out for her if she wakes up. She probably won’t.”

And as it turned out, she didn’t. I sat on the couch and dozed off for a while, and around 2:30 in the morning I got the text that my sister had the baby. It had been an emergency. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the little girl’s head and they had to do a Caesarian to get her out. My sister bled a lot. Everyone was scared. All of this while I was lying on the couch, there in case of an emergency at the house that never came.

If there’s one thing above all others that I’m grateful for on this trip, it’s that I was in Chicago for that moment. I didn’t do much. I slept. Ate some ice cream. And after a few hours my brother-in-law showed up and I went home. He looked a little shaken, and it wasn’t until later I found out that he went almost 30 hours without sleeping. My watch had been an easy one.

But it’s the simple fact that I got to be there. That I had a chance to be present for my sister at an unbelievably important moment and contribute something very small at just the right time. I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t been traveling, and it’s one more notch on the column of reasons why I want to be on the road more. I’ve long thought of travel as something that took me away from old familiar places into new and exciting ones. But I’ve had a sizable paradigm shift over the past two months. This trip has been made up, primarily, of visits to familiar places to reconnect with familiar people, and the old places have become exciting because of the relationships I’m able to nurture when I’m there.

The afternoon after the birth, I went to the hospital to see my sister and the baby. It was, to say the obvious, a special moment. I’ve never held a newborn, and here was this tiny creature, not even 12 hours old, in a little crib right next to my exhausted and smiling sister. I looked at the baby and I started crying. I couldn’t explain it. She was beautiful, but there was something else that I have yet to identify, and have given up trying to. Everything in me wanted to protect this child. Every part of me was ready to face down an army to do it.

I went to Meghan and kissed her on the cheek. She thanked me for being there for them.

“Meg, I sat on your couch and ate ice cream,” I told her. “If that’s helping you out, I’ll help you out every day.”

She laughed it off, but I don’t know if she knew how much that meant to me. In all the years I’ve known her, I honest to God can’t think of a time when I really got to be there for Meg. Of the four siblings, I think we’ve always been the least alike. But when I sat in that room with her husband and her daughter, and I held my brand new niece in my arms and cried while that little creature slept, it all felt just right. This was a gift for me, to be there and get to hold that child.

We’re family. This is how we look out for each other.

Life on the Fringe: Apache County, Arizona

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Heading deep into the desert with a friend who has made a forgotten piece of the world into her new home.

“It’s a drive,” Patricia told me, then held up the map. About an hour down the highway, we’d take an exit, drive for twenty minutes, then turn down a dirt road. “It’s another hour from there.”

I told her she was giving new meaning to “off the grid.”

It was late, so I did my best to follow her in the maze of taillights along Interstate 40. Near the New Mexico state line, we took an exit and stopped for gas, then continued down to that first dirt road. I didn’t quite believe her when she said it would be another hour, but as the road twisted and wound, as the lights of everything except our two trucks disappeared and the increasingly high weeds started to whack the undercarriage of my Ford, I started to realize how completely screwed I would be if my truck chose that moment to break down.

This is where Patricia has chosen to build her life.

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The road to Patricia’s land, as seen the following morning.

There are few places in the country more isolated than this area that Patricia has set up. It’s not just the geography. The weather has a bone to pick with anyone who decides to make this place home. Temperatures soar over 100 degrees in the summer and plummet below freezing in the winter. The wind gusts, at times, over 50 miles per hour. There are few trees for shade. There are critters aplenty (I saw a couple coyotes in the morning), minimal rainfall, and few opportunities for growing one’s own food.

Patricia loves it.

This isn’t just about going off the grid for her. There’s a higher purpose at work. She sees the land as neglected, degraded. She wants to put her time in and help it regenerate, grow, and bloom. Ideally, this eventually becomes land she could live off of full time.

We hit her property at around midnight and I looked up at the Milky Way scattered across the sky. Among other advantages, places like Patricia’s spot offer some of the greatest stargazing in the world.

“You take the Yurpee,” she said. “I’ll sleep in my truck.”

“I can’t take your house, Patricia.”

“You take it. You’re the first houseguest I’ve ever had.”

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The “Yurpee.”

Patricia bought this land two years ago. A little over a year ago, she raised the Yurpee (a combination yurt/teepee). It’s a small operation, just big enough for one person to sleep in. Many nights, particularly when the wind is howling, she sleeps in her truck. But the structure is solid, standing up to the brutal winds that roll uninterrupted across the Colorado Plateau.

Little by little, she’s putting her home together. It’s a pioneer existence, though the Yurpee makes me think more the nomads of Mongolia than of any settlers of the American West. For money, she works as a copy editor, driving into town to use the Internet, post her work, then head back to the middle of nowhere.

I’ve known Patricia for around eight years, and what makes her existence so astounding to me is that she’d never done anything like this before. Sure, she learned a lot of permaculture work while living on a farm before she moved out here, but she was working with a team of people, many of whom had been living this way for years. To suddenly snag twenty acres of land far away from anything she knows and attempt to homestead on it takes a staggering amount of guts.

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Morning view from inside the Yurpee.

In the morning, she takes me around the property. Over here, the future orchard. Over here, the strawbale. And right here, the greenhouse.

She tells me the land already looks different than when she first arrived. She heats some water on a Coleman stove, pulls out a couple of oranges, and we have a breakfast of fruit and tea in the middle of the endless sagebrush.

“I like it out here,” I say.

“You’re welcome anytime,” Patricia tells me. “I don’t get a lot of visitors.”

And from the way she says it, I gather she’s just fine with that.

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Patricia is keeping a blog of her progress on the land. It’s called Fringed Sage, and you can find it here.

The Hourglass Point: Arizona in Three Parts

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A return to a former home, my old college campus, a show I started 15 years ago, and the years when I started to grow up.

I tell my grandmother, over the phone, that this is where the pivot happened. This is where I began to shed a lost, confused, directionless adolescence and move into something resembling adulthood. When I say this, I’m standing in a plaza in Flagstaff, Arizona, and I am referring to the town itself. I went to school here, earned a degree, started a poetry reading that continues fifteen years later with no help from myself, and began to move toward a life that would fall apart, and the next life I would build from the wreckage.

There are points in our lives like an hourglass. Everything we have ever done seems to come together at one extremely narrow aperture. We sense that we were always moving in the direction of some decision or some movement forward where everything would be clear, where we would step through an invisible barrier and, on the other side, encounter a limitless sense of possibility.

If I paint that transition within myself as an arc, and if I lay that arc down on a map, it would look something like my drive through the state of Arizona.

PART I—PHOENIX

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I like to quote the David Ives when anyone asks me about Phoenix: “It’s like death, without the advantages.”

The Phoenix Valley, which encompasses the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Chandler, Mesa, and a dozen or so other municipalities, is a wasteland with all the cultural amenities one could ask for. There are nice restaurants, beautiful golf courses, and the other comforts of a city where people with money who have fled other states have brought their comfort with them. And all you have to do to access these things is to live inside a convection oven with all the personality and charm of a root canal. The streets are too wide. The houses are too big. The dominant architectural style is strip-mall. Everything is stucco. When Henry Miller’s wrote of “the air-conditioned nightmare,” this city could very easily have been what he was talking about.

I lived here for two and a half years.

One of the problems with going to college right out of high school is that many people simply aren’t ready yet. I fell into that category: an immature, confused, horny tennager (is there any other kind?) so bad at making decisions that I decided to spend my first two years of school in central Pennsylvania, surrounded by racists, homophobes, and a social life that centered around drinking until the lights went out with people I had nothing in common with.

So when I moved out to Arizona at 19, it was a relief. For a while. I went to school on a sprawling campus and continued to have no idea what to do with my life. When my mother visited me and commented on how ugly the city was, I got very pissed off at her for being right.

I only went to school here for a year and a half before dropping out and delivering pizzas while I figured out my next move. I know there are jobs way more depressing than delivering pizzas at three o’clock in the morning to drunks. I’ve had a few of them. But I’ve never worked one that left me more physically and mentally drained every day, which is not how I expected to feel at 20.

One very good thing came out of my life in Phoenix. I got started in this art form called slam poetry, and within weeks of attending my first slam, it became the center of my existence in Phoenix. I was suddenly surrounded by people who took writing seriously, and who forced me to take it seriously. I’d always enjoyed any class that involved writing, always wrote stories in some form. I was always building worlds in my head. What going to the poetry slams taught me was that this wasn’t enough. You had to sit down and do the work and do it consistently. You had to put it out there, good or bad, and if it failed, you had to learn why and come back stronger.

If I hadn’t discovered this form, I doubt I would have returned to school. At least not for a while. But I did. I enrolled at Northern Arizona University, moved to Flagstaff, and started a poetry slam in a bar called The Alley. Fifteen years later, that show is still running.

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Brent Heffron, one of the first regulars at the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.

Now, I’ve said all of this awful shit about Phoenix. But the reality is that my 24 hours there on this trip was one of the best days I’ve ever had in the city. I still have a community there, and it’s a community that has built up over the years in a strange fashion. I started off having lunch with my friend Kris, who has been through a divorce and a marriage since last I saw her, and a walk though Old Town Scottsdale. It was so good to see her I didn’t even mind that we were surrounded by chain stores and a strange little canal that only serves as a reminder that this entire water-burning megalopolis has no business being where it is.

From there, it was on to a coffee shop to see Brent Heffron. Brent was one of the first readers at the very first Flagstaff Poetry Slam 15 years ago, and I can’t recall him ever missing a show in the year and a half I ran the thing. He was one of those people that gravitate to this art form seemingly out of a vacuum. He’d never been a writer, was still trying to figure out how to express something building up inside him, and suddenly had this forum where he could bring all the strange energy boiling under his skin and give it a home. He worked harder than just about any other writer in those years that I first knew him, and we would run into each other at the National Poetry Slam for years afterward.

We spent about three hours talking, and the overwhelming impression I had was of a man very comfortable with his life. I’d seen the same thing the previous days, visiting my friend Logan, who also came up with the slam. He and Brent had competed together when they were still in school, and there was something reflected by each of them in the other. They’ve become grown men, fathers, homeowners. They’ve settled close to where they grew up and are working to improve their communities. And seeing the two of them on consecutive days, I had a revelation about travel I’d never had before. It came when I suggested Brent come to New Orleans for a visit.

“If I can,” he said. And I knew he meant it. But I realized that when he could was going to be a long time from then. He’s got responsibilities, good ones, that he is tending to. I thought about Logan, working in his garden, teaching high schoolers, raising his daughters. I hadn’t seen either of these men in five years, and it hit me that if I hadn’t come out to see them, it could easily have been another five years before we saw each other again. If I want to maintain a face-to-face relationship with them, and with the dozens of other friends and family members I have scattered around the country, that will necessitate travel. And if they can’t do it (and many of them can’t), then I will. Because I can.

Travel as a means to community.

And for all the venom I spit at Phoenix, for all the sarcasm and disdain I unleash in its direction, I find it interesting that it is the place where, fifteen years ago, I began to take my writing seriously, and the place where, all these years later, I realized there is something deeper in my need to travel. Sitting there with Brent, I stumbled upon a new reason for being on the road. It’s about family. The family I was born to, as well as the family I’ve chosen. I love both of these families, and I want to keep them together.

PART II—MEMORIES ON HIGHWAY 89A

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It’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country, a snaking road through Oak Creek Canyon and the impossibly red rocks of Sedona. It starts from the former territorial capital of Prescott, where residents once responded to a hotel fire by picking up the hotel’s bar, carrying it across the street to the grassy area around the courthouse, and continuing to drink at the displaced bar while the hotel burned down (and yes, the bar is still there). From there, it’s up to the strange little artists’ colony of Jerome, once a billion-dollar copper mine, then a ghost town when the mines when dry, and now a home to retirees and artist types who’ve made a new community thrive in this town pressed into the side of a mountain. It’s a vertical town, and you change streets by climbing stairs up to the next one. If you’re in a car, you wind down the switchbacks, then make your way to the tourist Mecca of Sedona, famous for it’s beautiful red rock mountains and its weird, overproduced, pseudo-hippie downtown, where you can find everything from fringed leather jackets to stands where a mystic will photograph your aura.

I could write a great deal about that road. But right now, I’d rather write about Christopher Lane.

When I started the Flagstaff Slam in 2000, a poet from Dallas who’d recently moved to the area became a regular, and eventually became a member of the first Flagstaff team to compete at the National Poetry Slam in 2001. When I left town in 2002, Christopher helped take over the show, then took it in directions I never dreamed of.

He founded a group called NORAZ Poets in 2003, and used it to to help facilitate workshops, run shows and, most impressively, to create the Arizona branch of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. He became one of the most important poets and community organizers in the state, performed hundreds of times for people of every age range. He’d been through extraordinary hardship in his life, and had somehow emerged as one of the most generous and thoughtful artists I’ve ever met.

One day in 2012 I got an email from Brent Heffron. Christopher had died. He lay down one day to take a nap and never woke up. He was only 40 years old.

We hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years. Not on purpose. Nothing had happened. I’d just moved into a different life and didn’t see him or talk to him much for a while. Then not at all. We simply lost touch.

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Christopher Lane (photo: Janise Witt)

When I first met Christopher, he was living in a trailer on a ridge in Oak Creek Canyon, right above a general store that sold jewelry and served impossibly good sandwiches. It was a peaceful place, both secluded and close enough to the main highway to take his motorcycle out on long rides across the state. We used to sit under the awning of his trailer and talk about writing. I was always blown away by his sensitivity, his incredible ability to empathize. He became a mentor to a lot of people in the poetry scene almost from the beginning, and it came as no surprise to me when I heard about the world-shaping work he was doing in the time after I left the state.

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Christopher lived on the ridge just behind this store.

I stopped at the old general store and walked around. I kept looking up that ridge where Christopher had his home. I’ve spent most of my life trying to learn how to write, to share what I’ve picked up, to have some small impact on the people around me. I want people to know about Christopher Lane, and I hope that talking about him and writing about his life is a small way of continuing what he did. It’s astonishing what this guy put together in Arizona in less than a decade. I’d like to have even a share of the impact on the people around me that Christopher had on me and everyone he touched. Maybe I can do that. I hope so.

PART III—FLAGSTAFF

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Flagstaff. The center of the hourglass. The pivot point. One of the most important places in my life.

And if it wasn’t for Justin and Erin, a place where I would no longer have anywhere to stay.

A couple years ago, my dear friends Justin Bigos and Erin Stalcup moved to Flagstaff. Our paths have had an interesting way of winding around each other over the years. They both teach at Northern Arizona University, where I went to school. They met each other the same place I met them: at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. And, I didn’t realize until years later, Erin  used to come out to the shows I ran while she was growing up in Flagstaff. Small world.

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Justin, Erin, and a lot of tamales.

I used to stay with these two in Brooklyn on my swings through New York. Now, they were establishing themselves in a quiet mountain town that couldn’t be more different from their last residence. We spent the evening catching up, eating dinner, and making plans to attend the Flagstaff Poetry Slam, which is still running a decade and a half after I thought it would be a good idea to start a reading there.

The Flagstaff Slam, after years of moving around, is back in the same location it started in. The location houses a completely different business in a completely redesigned room, but it was kind of beautiful for me to come back and see the show running in the same spot as it was in my early twenties. Deep down, I sort of hoped I’d see some of those old faces at the show. Brent. Logan. Dom. Julie. Frank. Josh. Suzy. Christopher Lane. But it was a brand new, very young crowd, and it all felt very far away. There was no one I knew there, and no one who knew me. Maybe that’s how it should be at this point. I’m thrilled the show is still running, but it would be foolish to say I have any real connection to it now. I started something 15 years ago, but it has taken dozens, maybe hundreds of people to keep it running this long. The show is theirs. It belongs to the city.

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Looking into the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.

The following day, Justin invited me to talk to his class about writing and traveling. I spoke for about twenty minutes, and all I really remember saying was that the best part about being a writer was the relationships you develop. Everyone I’d visited, and everything I’d done in Arizona the previous week came out of a decision to take my writing seriously 15 years ago.

We travel these strange arcs. We drop stones along the way. We hope a few of them hit the water and ripple out.

 

The Camp Verde Bugle published a nice piece on Christopher Lane’s life. You can read it here.

A local affiliate did a good piece about Christopher and the Alheimer’s Poetry Project. It’s not enough of him, but it’s something. Watch it here:

 

Tucson and the New West

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The real shock was seeing Spring again.

The last time we saw each other—the only time we saw each other—was nine years ago, in Spain. I was still married, still in my twenties. She was still a rumor until that trip, the girlfriend of my good friend Logan. They were traveling in Ireland. I was living in France. We made plans to meet up in Spain, and during that trip we shared one of the greatest days of my life. A hike through the Alhambra, dinner of wine and cheese and bread on a plaza overlooking the city of Granada as, below us, two hundred thousand people roared their support of the Spanish national soccer team.

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Me, Logan and Spring—Granada, Spain, 2006

Since that trip, Logan and Spring have moved to Mexico, broken up, moved back to the States, found their way back to each other, fell back in love, and now live in Tucson where they own a home and, less than a year ago, became the parents of two beautiful twin girls.

When Spring came out and hugged me that first morning I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Been awhile.”

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Spring and I playing chess in Spain, 2006.

There’s a kind of sadistic delight older people take in reminding young people that they, too, will age. Having grown up with my grandparents, I considered aging to be a good career move. You get old, you retire, you spend the day telling stories to your grandkids and having cocktail parties at night. My grandparents remain the most fun people I’ve ever met.

The part I never anticipated was that, as I got older, my friends would get older too. That they would get jobs, have children, and settle into lives you couldn’t have imagined when you were in school together. In the fourteen years Logan and I have known each other I’ve watched him grow from a grinning 19 year-old skater who dabbled in poetry to an internationally touring performance artist, teacher, and activist with a deep spiritual connection to the land he lives on, and the idea that everything he can change, and everything the kids he teaches can change, begins with a relationship to the land.

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Logan Phillips in his Tucson neighborhood, 2015.

Logan and I have always been voracious travelers. We’ve both lived abroad (he in Mexico, me in France). We’ve both embraced nomadic existences for most of our lives, occasionally crossing paths in far flung points on the map. Now here we were on the back porch of a house he owned and had every intention of raising his family in. He motioned inside with his hand, referring to both his partner and his daughters. “I don’t want to do anything but work in my garden and spend time with my girls. That’s what’s most important to me now.”

For Logan, life now is all about this kind of tender care. His major concerns—raising children, gardening, running a youth poetry organization, teaching in schools—all share the common thread of helping living things grow with care and attention. In his garden, he takes me through an introduction to permaculture, a word he uses with a wink.

“It’s not like this is something new,” he says. “People have been using these techniques for centuries. We’ve just forgotten most of it in the last hundred years.”

A garden in the desert of the southwestern United States is a dicey proposition to begin with. The sun is merciless, water is scarce. Yet Logan has managed to take his garden completely off the city’s water grid, primarily by using rainwater caught off his roof, which collects in a few pots around the house, and one very large water tank that he uses to irrigate several parts of the garden.

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The water tank. Gravity is used as the water’s primary delivery mechanism.

 But rain doesn’t just hit the roof, so Logan dug ditches throughout the property to manage the flow of water during the worst storms of the year. And for the times of year when the rain isn’t falling, there are old methods of keeping the plants alive.

Perhaps the most unique method—at least to IMG_1527anyone outside of the southwestern U.S. or northern Mexico, is the use of ollas. Ollas are ceramic pots that can be used as slow release watering systems inside of larger pots. What Logan has done—and what has been done for centuries—is to place the olla inside of a larger pot so that the lid is still exposed. Then he pours water into the olla, and the soil leeches the water out through the clay in the pot. Keeping a lid on the olla also prevents water from evaporating too fast, a major concern in this climate.

The idea, Logan tells me, is to get the land back to green a little bit at a time. If he can make these plants grow this year, he can make some more grow next year. There’s no better storage vessel for water, he reminds me, than the soil itself.

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Logan uses sunflowers as trellises for climbing bean sprouts.

But for Logan, this idea of permaculture has a flaw. “I think there’s too much focus on the land and not enough on people.”

We are walking through his neighborhood, the oldest one in Tucson, to see the shrine of El Tiradito. Roughly translated as “the castaway,” this is reportedly the only shrine in the country dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. The buried soul was reportedly one part of a love triangle, and whether it was the woman involved or one of the men she loved depends on which version of the story you read. Regardless of the shrine’s origins, it has become a symbol of the neighborhood of Tucson Viejo. In part because of the garlanded flowers and votive candles that surround it, and the prayers written on paper and slid into openings in the stone wall. More importantly, however, this shrine has become symbolic because its very existence is the reason the neighborhood exists today.

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El Tiradito shrine.

In the early 1970’s, the city of Tucson began construction on a massive project that would have plowed under the oldest part of the city to make room for a convention center and a freeway. The first phase, which cleared the way for the convention center, was completed, but the neighborhood held on to what was left by getting the shrine of El Tiradito listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As buildings on the register cannot be torn down, the city had to abandon its freeway plans, and the neighborhood managed to live on.

When we get to the shrine, Logan immediately sets about picking up candles that have fallen over and stacking them against the far wall. I join him.

“A lot of people think some places are too holy to touch,” he explains. “But holy things need just as much care as anything else. Maybe more.”

He invites me to leave a prayer in the wall, and I do. I tear a sheet of paper from my notebook and write a prayer for my mother and stick it in the wall. It’s not lost on me that the last time I saw Logan, and the last time I saw Spring, my mother was still alive.

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Prayers left in the crevices of the wall at El Tiradito.

We walk the neighborhood for a while longer. Logan tells me about the plans for his youth poetry workshop, Spoken Futures. Almost by accident, the group has become a torch bearer in the fight to keep Mexican-American studies alive at the high school level in Tucson. This is important, because in 2010 the state of Arizona banned Ethnic Studies classes in all public schools. The decision, particularly because it seemed to specifically target the Tucson Unified School District—which has a very high number of Latino students—was seen as racially motivated. This perspective was upheld recently when a federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit against the law could move forward.

This is not the first law to generate accusations of racism in the state of Arizona. In 2010, the state also passed a law called SB 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” the person might be an illegal immigrant. Despite accusations of racial profiling (the law is known locally as the “papers, please” law), SB 1070 remains on the books.

For many of the kids Logan teaches, these laws feed into the sense that there is a new southwest, and that they are not welcome in it. They are the castaways in this new vision of America, and their isolation is a byproduct of the fear and paranoia that surround debates about immigration. Maybe it’s no accident, then, that Logan envisions the Spoken Futures program being headquartered next to the El Tiradito shrine. Symbolic of the forgotten and abandoned, the shrine still had the power to turn back powerful forces. More importantly, it exists as a reminder of what this city was in its past, and of who laid the groundwork to make much of the state what it is today.

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Eventually, Logan and I wind our way back to the house. Spring is there, and the three of us sit in the kitchen, talking and reminiscing over a life that seems a million miles away on this bright day. Or maybe not. We all shared a moment in a sunblasted country nine years ago, and today we share another moment in another sunblasted country where these two old friends of mine have made their home, and make their stand.

A garden. A writing program. A family. These are people who grow things where people tell them nothing can grow. In the evening, we go to the back porch and watch the sun go down, the light playing on the leaves of the small trees in the garden. They look impossibly green.

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To learn more about Spoken Futures, visit their website right here.

Logan’s website, for all of his multi-media work, is right here. His book, “Sonoran Strange,” is available on the site.

Around Koreatown with Tommy Kim

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I took the red line down to Koreatown on L.A.’s still brand spankin’ new mass transit system. I was advised not to take it at night because “nobody uses it.” I can’t say whether or not that’s true. I rode in the evening, and the train was full, though the idea of how to use a train doesn’t seem to have settled into the collected consciousness of Angelinos. People wait until the doors of the train are open before getting up to get out. They fail to make room for new passengers by moving into the aisles. Rookie moves. They’ll get the hang of it.

I was on my way to see my old friend Tommy Kim. For five years, Tommy’s been promising me the Grand Koreatown Tour, and I was finally in a position to take him up on it. We met up in front of Ham Ji Park, a local eatery that’s gained some national attention in recent years, thanks to Anthony Bourdain stopping through. Even so, when we sat down, I was pretty much the only non-Korean in the place.

Ham Ji Park, like most Korean establishments, sets out banchan when you sit down: little appetizer plates of things like cabbage kimchee, fish cakes, and mung bean sprouts. They are delicious, they are complimentary, and you’ll hear from a variety of sources that the quality of an establishment can be determined by how serious they are about their banchan.

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Tommy said something in Korean to the waiter.

“What did you order us?” I asked.

“Pork spare ribs and beer. We’ll start with that.”

The major Korean beer is called Hite, and it’s customary to pour for others but not for yourself. If you want to get super proper with it, hold your glass in one hand and hold that wrist with the other hand.

“It’s real submissive,” said Tommy.

The pork spare ribs came out sizzling hot, and the waiter brought a bowl of rice and a pair of scissors. The idea is to cut up the ribs with the scissors, then eat the pieces with your chopsticks. We started cutting, started eating, and started talking.

When Tommy and I made plans for this evening, he sent me a picture from his wedding. Both of us have been through divorces, so it was nice to see him landing on the good foot. I asked Tommy how married life was treating him.

“Good. I’m going to be a dad.”

I put down the scissors. “We got some catching up to do.”

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Koreatown covers almost three square miles of Los Angeles, but much of the activity centers around West 6th Street. Just one block down from Ham Ji Park sits Dan Sung Sa, an exceedingly dark bar and cafe with wooden tables set against walls covered in graffiti, which you are encouraged to add to. Tommy ordered us a kimchee pancake, tteobokki (a gnocchi-like pasta-ish thing) and a thick rice wine called makgeolli, which is much like sake, but a little sweeter and with a lower alcohol content.

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One of the first things you notice once your eyes adjust to the dark is that the waitstaff are all dressed in military fatigues. I asked one of the waitresses about this. She just shrugged and said it was the owner’s preference, then bounced on to the next table.

Military service is compulsory in South Korea (two years, in most cases), and there are stories of people raised in the United States, but still holding Korean citizenship, being pressed into the army the second they return to the home country, even if they don’t speak the language. Such are the consequences of living on the border of the most attended-to demilitarized zone in the world. But that history of military service has carried over to Koreatown in other ways, most notably in the reaction the community made to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

“You just saw everyone snap into that military mode,” says Tommy.

As Los Angeles burned, Koreatown organized. Patrols were set up, stores were guarded, command posts established. Koreatown was left to fend for itself by an overwhelmed police force, and many stores burned. The riots left a permanent mark on the country, the city, and the neighborhood, and a lot of longtime residents moved elsewhere. But the neighborhood survived, on the backs of both longtime residents and new arrivals, many from different cultures.

Still, despite the smorgasbord of cultures that call Koreatown home today, it keeps its name for a damn good reason. Everywhere you go, signs are in Korean. English is occasionally non-existent, often an afterthought. It seems like such a different landscape that it can be a bit jarring when you get a piece of history you would never have associated with the area thrust right in front of you.

“What’s that thing?” I asked Tommy, referring to big white monolith.

“It’s part of the Ambassador Hotel.”

I stopped in my tracks. There it was. The old Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy, a man who might have been the greatest president of the century had he lived, was gunned down as he cut through the hotel kitchen after a speech. That was May of 1968. The Summer of Hate. Cities burning, panic in the streets. Twenty-four years before four L.A.P.D. officers walked away from trial with not guilty verdicts across their faces and this same neighborhood nearly went up in flames.

We stood in front of that monolith for a while. Neither one of us had anything to say.

*     *     *

Located near the old Ambassador is The Prince, a bar right out of a Rat Pack film. The difference is, everyone in the room is Korean.

“This place looks like an old Hollywood place,” I said.

“It was,” said the bartender. IMG_1478“Then we took it over. You know how you know it’s a Korean Bar?” I shook my head and he pointed to a buzzer next to our table. There was one at every table. It’s used to call for service.

“Koreans are real impatient,” he explained. Tommy just nodded.

We ordered a bottle of soju, a Korean liquor made from rice and/or wheat and sometimes potatoes. The taste is a bit like vodka, with a hot finish on the throat. A piano player ran through a series of jazz standards as we sat there.

“I love this bar,” I told Tommy.

“Wanna hit another one?”

“Yeah. I’m into bad decisions tonight.”

Our fourth landing was a bar called Cafe Bleu, and it’s about the hippest bar you’ll ever find tucked into the corner of a mini-mall. I immediately felt out of place. This was high end territory. A fashionable place for fashionable people. Everything was polished and shimmering, brushed metal and reflective wood floors. Tasteful lighting on the bottles behind the bar, and not much lighting anywhere else.

“Gentlemen, what can I get you?” said the bartender.

Tommy and I both got bottles of Hite and grinned like a couple kids who found themselves at the grownups table. Me in my ridiculous Hawaiian shirt and Tommy in his getup like he just came from a volleyball game. This was another side of Koreatown. A home for those who are killing it on the market. This was the Koreatown that looks up at all times, because it knows that’s where it’s going.

Still, Tommy reminded me, this was nothing. It was only 10:00 p.m. “Wait until it’s late. Then things really get going.”

At this point, we’d had plenty to drink, and plenty to eat, so the only reasonable thing to do was walk around. And because we walked around, we ended up in an alleyway behind the shops on 6th Street, walking past a loud, bamboo strewn bar called Toe Bang.

“We need to go here,” said Tommy. “Yeah. You need to go to Toe Bang.”

“What’s at Toe Bang?”

“Military Soup.”

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This is Military Soup. Don’t knock it til you tried it.

They seated us in a corner booth and Tommy, because he speaks Korean, ordered the Military Soup. And I, because I speak Hangover, asked for more food than that. When Tommy told me the soup would be more than enough, I ignored him. He clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. He eventually relented and ordered us bo ssam, which consists of strips of cabbage that you pick up with your hands, then layer with pork belly, fermented shrimp, and hot chiles, then wrap in the cabbage and eat. It’s finger food on another plane.

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As you can probably tell from this photo, we had entirely too much food.

Both dishes were delicious, but the Military Soup intrigued me. I asked Tommy to give me the history.

“Okay, so, during the Korean War, when the Americans were occupying—I mean, when they were helping the South Koreans…as the deuce-and-a-half, three-axle trucks would roll by, the Americans would throw these cans of Spam off the trucks, and the villagers would take them and throw them in their stew. Back in the day they used to have tire pieces in there, but they took those out. We’re more refined now.”

“So it’s Mulligan Stew, Korean style.”

“Exactly.”

It’s also delicious. Ramen, jalapeno, veggies, bean sprouts, cut up hot dog and Spam. It doesn’t sound like it should be awesome, but it is. As much as we’d had to eat, we still managed to put away the entire bowl. There was still some left over on the bo ssam, but I had Tommy take that home. I couldn’t look at food anymore. If I ate another bite they would have had to roll me out.

Tommy gave me a lift back to my sister’s house. It was the first chance we’d had to hang out in five years, and I thanked him for guiding me through a stretch of the city that would have been impenetrable for me without him. Sometimes you go out for a meal with a friend. But when you have someone you haven’t seen in a long time, you want more than that. You want an experience. You want to create a memory to share.

“This was good,” I told him. “I’m gonna be full for days.”

“Me too.”

He dropped me off and we hugged and exchanged promises to see each other again soon, which I hope we’re able to keep.

“Great to see you,” he said.

“You too. Let’s not let five years pass before we do this again.”

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Ham Ji Park is located at 3407 W. 6th St. They are open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and stay open til 11:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. They are open on Sunday from 4:00-10:00 p.m.

Dan Sung Sa is located up the street at 3317 W. 6th St. They are open from 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., seven days a week.

The Prince is located at 3198 W. 7th Street. They have a website here.

Cafe Bleu is at 3470 W. 6th St, inside a strip mall. They have a website here.

Toe Bang is officially at 3465 W. 6th Street, but it’s actually in the alley behind the other places on 6th. Enter the alley on Kenmore or Alexandria. They have a Facebook page here.

 

Welcome to L.A.

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My sister gave me a good primer on how she learned to live Los Angeles:

“Just accept that you’re always going to be in traffic and that everybody’s a tool, and you’ll be fine.”

It’s a bit harsh, but that’s my sister. The truth is, she loves L.A. And after a few years of coming here, so do I. It has a great deal in common with Miami (another city I love), in that both seem all about their surface shimmer and are, therefore, easy to dismiss. But if you’re willing to dig a little bit, you can find some amazing treasures.

My sister lives in Hollywood, near a convent that supports itself by baking homemade pumpkin bread. This is not the kind of establishment one expects to find within shouting distance of the Walk of Fame, but that’s L.A. Strange, lovely, phony, vain, and profound. An incongruous place. A city that has no business being where it is, and remains there just the same.

Some of that incongruity is on display on Fairfax Avenue, a strange combination of Jewish delicatessens and hip shoe stores where people stand in line for hours before opening so they can be the first to grab the latest kicks. One of the beloved spots on this street is called Cofax (Coffee on Fairfax), which intentionally shares a sonic similarity with baseball legend Sandy Koufax, possibly the greatest left-handed pitcher in history, as well as a nice Jewish boy who called his mother.

And, in typical incongruous fashion, the main attraction at an L.A. Dodger-themed coffee shop named for a Jewish legend is the breakfast burrito.

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Do not try to steal my sister’s burrito.

I’m not quite sure what they put in the burrito at Cofax. Maybe opium? In any case, the flavor just pops out of it, and the line can get pretty severe. They also have bacon-topped donuts. I had one. It tasted about like you’d expect.

My sister has made this town her home for about seven years now, and seems to have found a lot of corners, great and small. As you drive around L.A. one of the first things you notice is the sheer immensity of it. There’s the city itself, and then there are the dozens of metropolitan regions that it overlaps. In fact, Orange County, to the south of Los Angeles County, has pretty much become a sprawling suburb of the city. Even its sports teams can’t let go. In 2005, the former Anaheim Angels (who were the California Angels before that), changed their name to the ridiculous Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, thereby taking a share of the L.A. market while also not-so-subtly acknowledging the insanity of their name, seeing as how  they live in a completely different city  with a population of almost 350,000 people.

I’ll say this for the Angels: They have beautiful ballpark. And if you are willing to brave the huge amount of freeway traffic to reach the park, you will see more than a few over-the-top L.A. touches, such as the “volcano” just over the center field wall and gluten-free beer and hot dogs. That’s right. Gluten free ballpark staples. Only in Southern California. Thank God “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” wasn’t written in Los Angeles.

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Buy me something other than peanuts because I have a nut allergy and tooooofu chips!

Another study in the clashing of cultures sits downtown in the city’s financial district, where the Grand Central Market still goes strong after decades. Long a hidden gem, it’s now become a home to the kind of superhip coffee counters and food stands that might be too cool for you in a lot of places, but somehow seem kind of charming when they’re stashed in between the dried pepper stand and the Chinese chop suey joint that’s blasting salsa music.

The surging popularity of the spot means, of course, IMG_1435that the rents have gone up, so it remains to be seen how long the current balance will last. For now, there are an increasing number of newer spots wedges in with old standbys like China Cafe and La Casa Verde produce stand. You get both versions of downtown L.A. here: the one that hung on over the decades while everything but the business center emptied out, and the one that’s rediscovering the downtown and wants to be part of it. One hopes the new coexists with the old rather than forcing it out.

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A short drive from the Central Market, one comes to a dessert place called the Pie Hole. Built into a warehouse, this little spot makes its name on a rotating list of pies, some of which have their recipes hanging in frames around the tables (with red lines through key bits of information, of course).

“They have Earl Grey Pie,” said my sister.

No, I thought. Not possible. Earl Grey is my drink of choice since I was in high school. How could anyone make it into pie form? But there it was. Sitting right next to the Mexican Chcoolate Pie.

“Oh man. I don’t know what to choose,” I said.

“Take both,” said the woman behind the counter, because she was Satan.

“Okay,” said I, because I am susceptible to temptation.

There are people out there who tell you not to overindulge. Who tell you that eating two slices of pie as rich as that cannot possibly be good for you. That, at a certain point, decadence becomes a punishment itself. Those people have a very valid point.

Also, I hate those people.

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I am a sinner. I’m good with this.

Full of dessert and eager to get one more side of downtown L.A. before returning to Hollywood, we made our way to Olvera Street. Called “the birthplace of Los Angeles,” this little stretch of food stalls, restaurants, clothing shops and leather goods stores is the oldest part of the downtown area.  In danger of being razed in the 1920’s, the street became a cultural preservation/tourist site in 1928, when the city agreed to have it made over into a section of stalls that would, it was hoped, recreate the essence of old Los Angeles, and provide a link to the Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican-American communities that built the city.

It’s a strange little slice of the city. On the one hand, it creates what could be considered a sterilized version of the town’s Latino past that is intended to appeal directly to tourists. On the other hand, it keeps a foothold of some of the city’s culture in place even as the downtown looks to “renovate” and “revitalize,” two common buzzwords that generally mean that a working-class population in a a neighborhood is about to get screwed.

Perhaps it’s no accident, then, that one of the street’s centerpieces is a painting by the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.

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Mural detail inside the interpretive center on Olvera Street.

Unveiled in 1932, La America Tropical was as controversial at the time as its painter. Siqueiros, an avowed Marxist who would later lead an assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky in Mexico City, had already painted one controversial painting in the city (Street Meeting, which showed a group of workers listening to a speech by a labor organizer). That painting was washed over within a year. But if Street Meeting made the downtown elite uncomfortable, La America Tropical scared the shit out of them.

A ferocious attack on imperialism, which used the image of a young, crucified Indian as its centerpiece, the painting did not vibe with the nice, quiet version of a safe Mexican village that Olvera Street’s financial backers wanted to portray. The painting was whitewashed (both literally and figuratively) within a year. After the whitewash began to crack in the 1960’s, the mural started to reveal itself. In the 1990’s work began to preserve and restore the original mural, which today has a visitor center where anyone can come to study and learn about the work.

There’s something about the totality of Los Angeles in that story. It’s a city that, if you only look at the surface, can seem unbelievably sanitized and fake. But there are beautiful things happening just below the surface. In all of my visits, I still feel I’m only just scratching below that surface, and that’s enough to keep me coming back for everything I keep missing. The street culture. The high rises. The lovely hidden corners. And everything weird that sits below the bland perfection of that Hollywood shine.

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Tickets to Angels games can be found on their website, right here.

Cofax Coffee is located at 440 N. Fairfax Avenue. They are open seven days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m. on Sunday). They have a website here.

Grand Central Market is located at 317 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. They have a beautiful website that profiles each of the vendors, and you can check it out right here.

The Pie Hole is located at 714 Traction Avenue. They are generally open from around 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning until 11:00 or midnight. They have a website here.

Information on Olvera Street, including the Siqueiros mural, can be found at their website here.