Death As A Way Of Life

tcan.jpgI live in an area of Los Angeles where trashcans urge us to love one another, obituaries are scrawled in spraypaint on the steps of public stairways, and every sidewalk stain has a sad story left untold.

I walk with my dog Shadow along the seemingly peaceful streets around my Silver Lake neighborhood and I’m shown danger all along our two-mile route that takes us from Occidental below Sunset down to Bellevue over to Silver Lake Boulevard up to Vendome and the Music Box Steps to Descanso to Micheltorena and then her long stairway back down to Sunset and eastward back across Parkman and home. I find that danger in the smashed window of a Honda down the block from my house, shattered glass on the curb and a gaping hole in the dash where its stereo used to sit. I see it in the fresh gang tags applied to the days-old city paint that covered up the old ones. And I learn about it with the cautionary news delivered by a dog-walking neighbor that a woman was vicously attacked by a roaming pitbull near Vendome and Marathon last fall. A day later I confront two loose beasts who advance full of wicked territorial intent out of a yard toward me and Shadow with heads low and ears back, yet somehow they halt when I put myself obit.jpgbetween them and mine, raise my hand and scold them for being away from home. Miraculously when I tell them to get going they turn tail and trot back up the sidewalk, stopping once to look back at us with tongues lolling in their massive open jaws. “Go on!” I command, and they do through an open gate into their yard. I don’t dwell on the little victory and turn tail as well to detour a block around them.

I’ve lived here just shy of a year and a half. But I’ve known these streets since my early teens. By day I may have attended high school in Beverly Hills with uppercrusties who had no idea what a Tommy’s burger was or that there was life east of La Cienega, but by night I worked the streets of Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park delivering the old Herald Examiner newspaper for my mother who was the distributor for the area. Before I even had my driver license I could often be found negotiating the steep and winding roads in the dark hours before dawn either in my mom’s old ’65 Mustang or my little 50cc Yamaha, flinging papers onto yards and driveways.

Times may be better or they may be worse, but back then as a punk-ass whiteboy far from home and daylight I had to rely on a combination of prayers and good humor in the beginning when I was confronted by groups of gangsters up to no good in the ‘hood.

What would usually begin with some variation of “You lost, puto?” usually ended with me giving out some “complimentary” newspapers and them letting me go about my business. The one time money was demanded I laughingly asked them to look at my old, beat-up ride with its reverse gear long broken. “If I had any money do you think my car would look this way or that I’d be out here doing this?” Perhaps that logic appealed to them, but I think it was my lack of fear and pretension that kept them at bay… not unlike the dogs mentioned above. Hell I hit it off so well with one of them, a kid my age named Francisco who preferred to be called Snoopy, that he became something of my guardian, spreading the word around the way that “the salty gringo in the ‘Stang was cool.” Giving him a ride one morning to his home north of Scott Avenue, he invited me in for some of his grandmother’s homemade tamales… and yes, to my eternal shame I had to be stopped at first bite and told that you don’t eat the cornhusk wrapper. “Looooook,” Francisco said, “he thinks he’s eating a burrito!” Much laughter ensued.

So while I’m no native to these streets I’m no newcomer to them either ‚Äî and only too well aware that evil rears its ugly mug all too often around here. I do my best not to let it weaken the embrace I have for this place. But every gunshot is a question mark and I die a little with every death, of which there have been several in my immediate vicinity since I moved here in August of 2004. The most recent one was Tuesday evening.

http://blogging.la/archives/images/2006/02/birdseye-thumb.jpg
[click to biggify]

Blood Alley? 1) Sept. 1, 2004, in the parking lot off of Parkman behind Tom’s Burgers a man is shot and killed. 2) Barely a month later on Oct. 3, 2004, in the Los Globos club parking lot, a security officer fires his gun into a vehicle with three occupants when one of them draws a weapon after the guard has asked a second time that the vehicle be moved. The driver flees east down Sunset. Two of the occupants are found dead in the vehicle near Union Station. 3) Not even three months after that on Jan. 25, 2005, is the attempted armed robbery of the hair salon in this minimall in which the 20-year-old suspect is shot and killed by an off-duty LAPD officer who happened to be inside waiting to get a haircut. 4) And most recently is the apparent gang-related murder Jan. 31, 2006. Do the math: 4 shootings, 5 deaths, 16 months.

tape.jpgSean posted here wondering about the street closures. I was home at the time and heard what may have been two gunshots shortly before 6 p.m. They seemed much farther away than half a block and I didn’t pay any mind other than to glance at the clock to mentally mark what time it was. Oddly I don’t recall hearing any sirens afterward and as a result had no idea until Sean’s post that Sunset Boulevard had been cordoned off between Parkman and Benton. But why it was shut down was a mystery until yesterday when I found the LAPD’s vague news release stating that a young man had been gunned down somewhere within the “2800 block of Sunset Boulevard.”

UPDATE: According to CBS News website, the body was found at 2807 Sunset, shot several times in the head.

stain.jpgSo on our walk this morning Shadow and I went looking around. We found remains of the police boundary tape tied off to stop signs and fencing and trashcans. Lines of ashes on the asphalt pointed to where flares had been struck and put down. And suddenly every dark stain we passed on the sidewalk instantly had the potential to be where the person died. But it wasn’t until I stopped in the hole-in-the-wall liquor store next to the Sun-Park pharmacy and asked the owner what he knew that I learned the shooting took place over by near the Olive Motel.

“It must be drug related,” he offered. “That motel is a very bad place.”

I didn’t disagree, but I did quickly shrug off a silly sort of solace I found in the killing taking place across the street, as if being farther away over a few lanes of roadway was some sort of relief that the killing was over there and on the other side. So Shadow and I walked over there. Crossing at Parkman we passed through the same space that a car sped through Oct. 3, 2004, carrying two men either dead or dying away from Los Globos. Heading east on Sunset we walked by Tom’s Burgers where the first death occured Sept. 1, 2004, then past the hair salon where the robber collapsed outside mortally wounded, Jan. 25, 2005. Continuing past another minimall and a garish red and black building we were in front of the motel, first checking the walls for any bullet holes, then the sidewalk for telltale stains. But it was as if it never happened. As if I don’t live half a block away from a whole bunch of death.

olive.jpgBut I do. And it’s getting sadder to see my immediate surroundings become increasingly covered with blood. No matter how quick the clean-up crews wash it away they can’t scrub it from my memory.

So do I have a point to make? Not really — and certainly no solutions. I can go on all day (and apologies if I have) about how I can readily face danger, but the fact is L.A. can prove a tough place for courage when it seems death is going door to door.

ADDITIONAL: A Flickr photoset of my Feb. 2 walk around the neighborhood and the crime scenes mentioned can be viewed here.

29 Replies to “Death As A Way Of Life”

  1. This was a great, informative post. I’ve lived up the street for six years and I could never seem to find any information on these shootings in the local news. Thank you.

  2. Fine post, Will. It’s living memories like these we try to revive in 1947project.

    Does anyone else remember “Standing Guy,” who got on a bus with a gun and then stood in front of that rocky wall near Akbar for hours while helicopters and cops circled?

  3. It’s a pity California disarms its law-abiding citizenry with restrictive and ineffective gun control laws. Gangs move in when citizens are made helpless.

  4. great post. I live in Venice, CA (not too far from you) and there are choppers and gunshots frequently. I have always wondered exactly where the shootings have happened – we can hear them, but we’re always “safe” in bed, it seems. The US needs gun control. Hand guns should be illegal. I don’t know how we’d do it now that there are so many guns already out there, but this is a crappy, neverending problem in this city and in this country.

  5. Here is the problem with you people: You insist on living in the trendy neighborhoods you’re told to. Problem is, anyone with common sense would realize that many of these areas are not safe to live in. Silver Lake has been bad since my mother grew up there in the 1960’s. We both find it highly amusing that this gang-infested area is now full of latte-sipping, iBook-browsing, angsty-blogging, “hipsters” in bowling shirts. You’re paying out your nose to live in a neighborhood that I wouldn’t live in no matter how many Armenian-Canadian-Peruvian-fusion chicken shack/tiki bars/trattorias there were on the same block. You’re supposed to move OUT OF areas where people get murdered… not INTO them, Einstein.

  6. Well geez Angeleno, where do you live where life is perfect? I don’t live in Silverlake either, but just because it was the hood back when you were in short pants doesn’t make every person who lives there now an asshole! And do you really think people who live there were TOLD to do so by some newsletter, or by reading SCREENWRITER MAGAZINE, or some damn thing? There’s all types of folks who live there. Last week, a guy was shot in his home in La Crescenta! Sanctimony is not common sense.

  7. It’s a pity California disarms its law-abiding citizenry with restrictive and ineffective gun control laws. Gangs move in when citizens are made helpless.

    Which is why we have such massive gang problems here in Australia..

    oh wait. We dont, in fact we have very few gun deaths on a population scale – guns are not something you will find on the streets here easily and have serius resttictions on their use and ownership – a handgun is virtually impossible to have unless stringent permits and regulations are followed.

    And yet we dont have gangs shooting people on our streets despite out very restrictive gun laws.

    Your gun problems have nothing to do with gun laws, they have now become ingrained and cultural and not simply fixed – the concept that you can solve any problem with a gun has become ingrained into the US psyche and you are killing yourselves faster than any other country. Depressing.

    Great blog post.

  8. Well written, Will. I have friends who show me pictues of people that they grew up with. When they point out all the young men who never made it out of their teens or are now in prison I get an ugly feeling my stomach.

  9. Angeleno… while it disappoints me to be shown that there are smooth-brained pathetics like you in the world, I take a small measure of satisfaction in knowing that at least you aren’t my neighbor.

  10. Wow, thank you for that very eloquent post, Will. I came across your blog via BoingBoing when I realized with a pang of horror that the map image you show barely misses showing my house by literally a block or two. I’ve lived in Silverlake for the past two and a half years, so your post hit particularly close to home- I love this neighborhood, but it is true that it still carries a lot of sadness and danger on its streets. Thank you for illuminating some of the murders that are so often swept under the carpet….

  11. Great writing Will. Some areas of inner Melbourne are similar, but there are far fewer guns in the mix. We have similar problems but I think the vast majority of Aussies are thankful we don’t share US gun culture with its 12,000 accidental shootings a year. Available firearms turn an argument into homicide.

  12. I, too, was stunned by Angeleno’s posting. What side of LA did he wake up on? I moved to Silver Lake about four years ago, not to escape the city but to get closer to it. The neighborhood has a rawness and vibrancy that casts a spell over many of its residents, which is partially why Will‚Äôs original posting resonates with so many readers. Despite the area‚Äôs crime (murder has no rightful place in society), vandalism (graffiti is increasingly problematic throughout Silver Lake) and lousy utilities (my electric goes out 3-4 times annually!), many of us would not want to live anywhere else in Los Angeles. And, as more like-minded people move into the ‚Äòhood, I‚Äôm sure we will see less and less of the seediness and more and more of the area‚Äôs better side. Will’s posting forces many of us to examine our urban landscape through wider eyes. Thanks!

  13. Angeleno insists that Silver Lake isn’t safe to live in? Does anyone think that’s true? I was without car for 3 months and walked by all 4 of those spots on a near daily basis, sometimes at times like 3 in the morning. Not once did I encounter any trouble, nor was I ever put in a situation where I feared for my safety. The closest thing to danger I’ve run across is when someone set a christmas tree on fire near the Epitaph Records office when I was driving by. It’s not to say that bad things don’t happen, but there aren’t exactly bullets just flying around at random. Maybe if Angeleno was a real Angeleno they’d have a bit more of a clue?

  14. A FEW MORE [RELATED] THOUGHTS TO SHARE:

    As a news junkie weaned on the NY Times, I was surprised to discover upon moving way out West at how isolated Californians are from any news outside the leather interiors of their squeaky-clean BMWs and period-perfect Craftsman homes. No one here can be bothered with the news when the surf is up, another dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts are “hot now” and the next A-list party is about to kick off. I mean, the news – real news with real and often unhappy endings – just sucks the wind right outta our care-free California lifestyles.

    Of course, that’s not true across the board (some of us still devour the news, whether it’s from the online edition of the NY Times, the entertainment-laced pages of Variety or KTLA’s Hal Fishman), but in many ways Californians – and Angelenos in particular – are able to seal themselves off from the world at large, perhaps because we live in such a self-contained and wannabe-perfect society. We can shield ourselves in UV-protected plastic bubbles and never leave ‘em.

    But, life seems different in Silver Lake, where the gritty real world and the hope for a more idyllic life seem to collide. On leisurely strolls around a glimmering man-made lake, with eucalyptus trees and great blue herons soaring overhead, you can almost forget that you’re in the middle of one of America’s largest cities – but drive a mile or two in any direction and you’ll pass gang graffiti, homeless encampments, urban squalor and, once or twice every few weeks, the taped-off scene of yet another violent crime. Luckily, you can step on the gas pedal and most of those sights will disappear behind you, like magic.

    The dirty truth of our urban world, however, remains uncovered for all to gaze upon whether in a fleeting glance or in a fixed and mesmerized stare. It’s more a question of what you’re prepared to deal with on that morning jog, drive to work or afternoon errand. Do we look at what’s around us or feign disinterest and run/drive away?

    In Silver Lake, and many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the reality of the world we live in is not hidden behind ivy-covered gates or newly built multi-use business centers. Instead, residents, business owners and the area’s many other stakeholders go about their lives right next to the unsavory characters (e.g., gangstas, homeless, drug dealers, etc.) who tend to tarnish the “silver lining” of an aging, perhaps gentrifying, neighborhood that’s still proud enough to show itself in the bright afternoon sun, warts, blemishes, scar tissue and all.

    But, hey, it’s nothing a good make-up artist or marketing professional couldn’t fix. And one of them is probably sipping a latté next to you right now.

  15. Will-
    I’ll post this in my comments section as a response to your comment as well. No offense meant by the latte jab. I’m the Hoover Street Prince of Lattes. My concern is that, while they are abhorrent, murders are not prevented or absolved by secondhand consolation. A majority of the homicides on the East Side are gang-related, the result of poor living conditions and perceived lack of opportunity. While it’s commendable to sympathize with the deceased and their survivors, illustrating a homicide rate that pales in comparison to our adjacent neighborhoods contributes to disenfranchisement of the type of young men and women that might end up involved in deadly situations.

    The Rampart Division is already the most densely populated precinct in the country (if you include illegal residents), and these young men and women who are tagging and hurting each other are desperate to retain control of their tiny patch of property. By the “real gentrification” I mean the massive redevelopment of the Sunset Corridor, that will not only compress these residents even further, but displace the hipsters and artists as well. And what happens then? I would guess that the grasp on home turf becomes tighter and more defensive. The way to allay that potential for disaster is not to lament the existence of violence but to dig up up its roots. It’s not gangs that are the problem. It’s desperation. It’s lack of hope and a feeling of impotence.

    I don’t generally have a problem with mourning, but, as you can see in the comments, we shouldn’t presume people know of this violence and its context. Saying things like “death is going door to door” misrepresents the East Side, the residents most affected by these incidents in particular. The more people are made to feel afraid, the more they will embrace the kind of change that will ruin the things we all love about this neighborhood.

    I don’t know, Will. I’m no activist. I’m just saying that now is the time to start empowering and embracing the positive aspects and potential of all our residents instead of drawing specious divides.

    And for the record, whipped cream is Westsiders. Keep your mochas real.

  16. Thank you Peter, for your comments here and in your blog, I think they add so much to the discussion. I’ve lived in SL for about 8 years and it’s sorta funny I suppose how I feel about it. To my Westsider co-workers who think it’s dangerous, of course it’s not. I feel that it’s very safe overall. However, I’m not naive. And whenever a blogger posts about hearing gunshots and acts surprised, I always ask myself, “Well what the hell did you expect when you moved here?” So I suppose SL is a little of both, you have to understand the neighborhood, it’s people and it’s history, and I’ve tried to do that and to be a good neighbor and not some lame-ass white kid moving in here sipping lattes, driving a VW and blogging about gunshots (how shocking!).

  17. PART I — A Few Related Thoughts: As a news junkie weaned on the NY Times, I was surprised to discover upon moving way out West at how isolated Californians are from any news outside the leather interiors of their squeaky-clean BMWs and period-perfect Craftsman homes. No one here can be bothered with the news when the surf is up, another dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts are ‚Äúhot now‚Äù and the next A-list party is about to kick off. I mean, the news ‚Äì real news with real and often unhappy endings ‚Äì just sucks the wind right outta our care-free California lifestyles.

    Of course, that’s not true across the board (some of us still devour the news, whether it’s from the online edition of the NY Times, the entertainment-laced pages of Variety or KTLA’s Hal Fishman), but in many ways Californians – and Angelenos in particular – are able to seal themselves off from the world at large, perhaps because we live in such a self-contained and wannabe-perfect society. We can shield ourselves in UV-protected plastic bubbles and never leave ‘em.

    But, life seems different in Silver Lake, where the gritty real world and the hope for a more idyllic life seem to collide. On leisurely strolls around a glimmering man-made lake, with eucalyptus trees and great blue herons soaring overhead, you can almost forget that you’re in the middle of one of America’s largest cities – but drive a mile or two in any direction and you’ll pass gang graffiti, homeless encampments, urban squalor and, once or twice every few weeks, the taped-off scene of yet another violent crime.

    Luckily, you can step on the gas pedal and most of those sights will disappear behind you, like magic. (To be continued in Part II.)

  18. Not sure what Hexodus is inferring here, but I was unable to complete my post. Part II will appear after the blog owner releases it.

  19. PART II (continued from above): But, you can’t get away, not really. The dirty truth of our urban world remains where you left it, uncovered for all to gaze upon whether in a fleeting glance or in a fixed and mesmerized stare. It‚Äôs more a question of what you‚Äôre prepared to deal with on that morning jog, drive to work or afternoon errand. Do we look at what‚Äôs around us or feign disinterest and run/drive away?

    In Silver Lake, and many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the reality of the world we live in is not hidden behind ivy-covered gates or newly built multi-use business centers. Instead, residents, business owners and the area’s many other stakeholders go about their lives right next to the unsavory characters (e.g., gangstas, homeless, drug dealers, etc.) who tend to tarnish the “silver lining” of an aging, perhaps gentrifying, neighborhood that’s still proud enough to show itself in the bright afternoon sun, warts, blemishes, scar tissue and all.

    But, hey, it’s nothing a good make-up artist or marketing professional couldn’t fix. And one of them is probably sipping a latte next to you right now.

    SORRY ABOUT THE TWO-PART POSTING, but my first few attempts at publishing the full article were held for review (err, held hostage?) by the owner of this blog.

  20. Sorry for the delay Andrew. I’m not sure why the second part of your comments were kept in limbo.

  21. WILL: No problem. I have long enjoyed reading your blog and others, and felt it was time to share a few thoughts of my own. Thanks for the spirited discussion.

  22. Wow … how have I not come across your blog before this? I live on Benton Way and had heard a murder went down on Sunset at the base of our block. But no one seemed to know anything about it. Excellent post.

    Look, I’ve grown up in cities and lived in ’em my whole life. My partner and I moved to Silver Lake because *it was what we could afford* … without heading out into the far reaches of the valley. We didn’t know SL very well, but we *love* this place. All of the neighbors are very close and we all look out for each other — whether we’re latte-sippin’ gay folks, baby-toters or original Mexican homeboys (oh, and a whole lot of Filipinos). I don’t love some of the grittier aspects and would cheerfully run down the freakin’ tagger a******s who insist on screwin’ up the local businesses and houses, but … it’s home.

    I wouldn’t trade it for the west side, for WeHo, for “Grove adjacent” or any other area in Ellay.

    This is home. Nuff said.

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