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September 8, 2010 / elodie kaye

Glassell Park

I chose the location because of its proximity to Pasadena, where I worked as a graduate student and then a postdoc, but mostly because I could afford the rent.  The surrounding neighbourhoods were undergoing varying rates of gentrification.  On my second day, I went for a run around my new home.  On the sidewalks, I greeted families with young children, nodded or smiled at clusters of teenaged girls and boys.  Older men and women looked on from their front porches.  The roads were quiet with tidy rows of small adobe houses, and smaller gardens in front.  I liked that.  I’d be able to run on the asphalt instead of the concrete sidewalks.  I learned that afternoon that I was a person of suspicion.  As one of a handful of non-Latino residents, they were sizing me up.

After the first few weeks, my running made me invisible.  My habit identified me, but having determined it a harmless peculiarity, my neighbours took no further notice.  I took to exploring the corners of my habitat from my running shoes.  I ran up residential hillsides which had new construction and glossy SUVs parked out front.  I ran to Griffith Park: instead of the paved park paths I’d grown used to in the east, I stumbled onto a wilderness of dirt single track rendering me thoroughly lost.  I ran down alleys I hesitated to walk in the daylight: broken bottles, clusters of cigarette butts, the odd latex glove.  Over time I saw a struggle waged there in paint, graffiti markings versus homeowner whitewash.  I’m not sure what I expected to find, maybe I wanted to test my vanishing cloak.

I discovered a street bordering the freeway where families slept in cars, trucks, and dingy RVs.  More than once, a boy about 8 years old, called out from a curtained window to ask me the time.  I started carrying cookies or candy bars along with my water whenever my route took me there.

During an exploration of Forest Lawn cemetery, I circled through a series of quiet streets which bordered it.  I included them on my regular route, until a coworker told me about the Drew Street gang headquartered there.  I met only two other runners during these excursions within my own neighbourhood.  Both of them had enviably powerful, swift strides.  The second time, I knew to run the other way.  Close behind him, there would be a car or a motorcycle, someone in pursuit.

The worst gang activity wasn’t on my street, but at night helicopters whirred overhead, and cast light shows down on us.  The sound of gunshots wasn’t rare enough.

In the morning, earnest men and women, some wearing uniforms, some holding their lunches, stood patiently at the bus stops.  Conscientiously backpacked kids walked to the nearby school, and back again in the afternoons.  Mothers herded their toddlers to a small daycare on my street.  Eventually, they allowed their children to return my greeting and met my eyes.  Children figure large there.  A birthday celebration for any age demands an all-day-into-the-night feast of food, drink and music that spills out of tiny kitchens, yards, and streams down the street.  In more affluent areas, it might be an imposition on your guests to ask them to attend for that long, but in Glassell raucous energy lights the darkness.  After some months of residence, my neighbours began a ritual of offering me food or beer, whenever I ran past a party.  They were not warm, but they were trying.  I couldn’t blame them.  Though we all lived there out of necessity to varying degrees, I knew I would leave.  This was a chasm we could not bridge.

I routinely saw slashed tires, and shattered windows, a thoroughly burned out car once or twice.  My car was never touched to my knowledge, though I habitually left it empty and the doors unlocked.  The most aggressive gestures I received were a hard look, the occasional obligatory catcall, nothing worse than I’ve experienced anywhere else.  There were reputable news sources which reported not just harassment but outright assault, against innocent residents and hapless joggers who wandered into mysteriously designated ‘wrong places’.  I have no answer for this.  When the ten or twelve square blocks around the pillow where you lay your head is under claim by a gang, it’s difficult to guess which corner of it could be more wrong than another.  If I’d felt threatened, I would have changed my behaviour.  Or maybe this was simply the clearest mark of my transience.  As long as I didn’t make a nuisance of myself, it wasn’t worth exacting my submission to the ruling influence.

Pasadena, where I drove every morning is a gracious, manicured suburb with broad, thick lawns between ample houses.  It’s a plush, comfortable place to work and study.  I appreciated it more because of where I lived, but it was rather like being shot with Novocaine.  Perhaps that’s why I lived in Glassell Park much longer than I had to.  It bristles with electric tension.  It has its shadows, but in the light it is perhaps more vital, thrumming with more force and urgency, than contented Pasadena.

*This is the first of two pieces which I owe to the work of Geoff Cordner.

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6 Comments

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  1. Anne / Sep 10 2010 8:40 am

    I love this post. Makes you remember to appreciate your surroundings, even in areas of blight and poverty and high crime. I’ve seen that part of LA but, truthfully, never thought to run in it. Maybe because for me it wasn’t home, like it was for you.

    • elodiekaye / Sep 10 2010 2:28 pm

      To be honest, there are huge swathes of my childhood neighbourhood I’ve never seen because I didn’t run until college. I wouldn’t explore my surroundings as thoroughly if I didn’t run. It’s strange the unexpected ways that running changes us, isn’t it? When I lived in LA I ran for stress relief (from my thesis! not crime rates), but I’m much more open now to determining for myself how safe, or unsafe a particular situation is.

  2. Geoff Cordner / Oct 4 2010 9:15 pm

    I was at the bottom on a hill in Echo Park one night, taking off my cleats because the hill is too steep to climb on the bike. A gang banger pulled up next to me in a truck. A few days earlier, he was wasted and took out a chunk of the wall that I was leaning on. Somehow the cops got involved, and somehow he managed to evade them. He told the story well, and I laughed with him. And then he drove on.

    Another time, outside my old corner store on Coronado, a tough, middle aged cholo struck up a conversation. It was a beautiful spring day, he’d just been released from prison, and he was loving his freedom. I agreed it was an awesome day and told him I hoped he stayed out of prison so could enjoy more of ’em. He said he was gonna try. I don’t know if he did, but at that moment he was absolutely sincere about wanting to. He told me about his lady and his kid. And then we got to the corner, shook hands, and went in opposite directions.

    Sometimes, like when you were running through Glassel Park, we’re not us and them. Sometimes we’re just two people enjoying a laugh at the expense of the police or maybe a beautiful morning. Those are exquisite moments, and they never seem to happen on the sidewalks of rich Pasadena with its manicured lawns. You capture that in your post.

    • elodie kaye / Oct 4 2010 10:02 pm

      That comment is beautifully evocative, thank you. And you’re right, I never did grow the same affection for Pasadena, but the daily juxtaposition changed me.

    • elodie kaye / Oct 5 2010 3:33 pm

      One of the nuances I didn’t get into in this piece was the fact that some of the cars and trucks on the street by the freeway were an annex to houses nearby, like spare bedrooms. The people living in them often had jobs. Their friends or relatives might be living in a house down the street where they’d go to bathe, get water, or cook. And of course, lots of families straddled the legal/illegal immigration line.

      At the first street party I actually stopped to go to, instead of running past, there were people I’d never seen before who looked at me like they recognised me. I think a lot more people saw me running than I was aware of. One of my neighbours, out of a family of 5 sons, had a gangbanger, a construction worker, a school teacher, a banker, and a kid on a basketball scholarship.

      Another of my neighbours seemed to be loaded on something every time I saw him, which was every couple of days, because he would chat me up before or after my run. It was funny, he had to start by leering or making a lewd remark, like it was his duty as a male to acknowledge if I bared my legs. Then he could go on and have a normal conversation about the weather, or his cat.

      I have all kinds of wonderful memories like this of Glassell Park, too many to coherently lace together in a single piece of writing. It was in every sense one of the most violently alive places I’ve ever known.

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