The Center of the World

I was born and raised in the South Bay, a region just 15 miles south of Downtown Los Angeles. Culturally, it was across the country. The South Bay is its own world, with its own concerns and identity. LA lived in our minds as the distant big city, and while it loomed large, likening ourselves to Angelenos was as alien as likening ourselves to New Yorkers. People in the South Bay (and the Inland Empire, and the San Fernando Valley, and all of LA’s castoffs and satellites) don’t really take up LA as their flag. By and large, we go to school in the South Bay, get jobs in the South Bay, and retire in the South Bay.

Where I grew up is very much not the Southern California depicted daily on television. I knew this at a young age. Our houses were different shapes, our buildings never got that big, and white people were few and far between. The buzzed about restaurants were remodeled Coco’s and the best ethnic food was either at home or your friend’s birthday party.

Because of this, the myth of the city has always had roots in my mind. If I had ambitions to be a member of not just a community, but the community of the center of the world, then I was imagining life in Los Angeles.

On the rare occasions we would drive up the corridor of the 110, I would stare at the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill and imagine a fancy office job above the clouds. In college, newly empowered with freedom of movement, we made drinking in downtown a marquee event. People moved from other countries to be in LA, and here we were, lucky enough to be born in its shade. We could take tastes of it at our leisure. It had the decadence of being hand-fed grapes.

Eventually I got there. I lived and worked in divinely named cities like Miracle Mile and Century City. I crammed into apartments and neighborhoods at an almost once-a-year pace, building wisdom on a variety of LA’s quirks and thoroughfares. I even got that downtown job, spending 2 years on the 45th floor of a tower near Pershing Square.

Transitioning to a true blue Angeleno, you hear a lot of incongruent things from transplants of another kind. There’s a lot of talk about its fakeness, its new age fad-chasing, and the pervasive vanity. Really, they’re talking about The Industry, a term packed and loaded with the hopes, disappointments and condescension of everyone trying to claw their way into music, film, and entertainment. The Industry is LA’s greatest animating spirit, the reason we think of it as one of the world’s centers, and as such it has been granted outsized influence over the city’s character.

But the transplants who speak about The Industry’s character would be surprised at the very existence of the South Bay. “No one’s from here,” I would hear from people who have never traveled below the 10 freeway. In fact, there were hundreds of thousands of us from here, but other than the occasional Dodger game, we had no intent of making the trek to the land of The Industry. “I hate driving in LA,” I would hear, because they were unaware that you could live in Gardena and drive to the supermarket like a normal person.

As a full-fledged Angeleno with a viable claim to roots in the area, I always felt like I had special insights I could impart to the transplants I met at work, or in bars, or on first dates. This was, of course, just me puffing up my chest and trying to make something, anything, special about me. It was less secret history of the world and more a different angle to view the same events.

The single image outsiders and newcomers love more than anything is the beach at mid-day. The hot sands and roaring Pacific Ocean. A cursory look at the Instagram of some blogger or singer that just relocated to West Hollywood confirms this. When they capture the light of a summer sun, they’re doing it in Santa Monica, or Huntington Beach, or Venice.

In the South Bay, our beaches were Redondo or Dockwhiler. They were industrial, urban, dense. Men were fishing off the pier, cigarette butts and broken glass were a constant problem in the sand, and they weren’t flanked by quaint beach towns. Newcomers used images of the wide open Pacific as a symbol of optimism and boundless futures, but for a long time, I thought of the Pacific Ocean as seen from Redondo Beach. I looked at all the garbage and seaweed collecting and bouncing around the wooden pilings. A smell like seafood that was simultaneously fresh and rotten filled the air, a stench you just got used to. Most of all, I think of the water, its dark green color, and its murky consistency that did not reveal anything. It did not inspire dreams or youth in the sun. It looked best on bleak days, under overcast skies, serving as the dour edge of the world.