Letter from Los Angeles

I remember my first morning walking my dog when the shutdown began, while a batch of hipsters continued their daily—questionable—hangouts outside of a neighborhood coffee shop on a culdesac at the end—or beginning—of Santee Street. The rest of the city was shuttered. Storefronts looked primed for customers, but there was no one inside. Life as we knew it was on pause. And I, like many others, was naive. I thought things would resume in a few weeks with capitalist interests being too strong to really put lives before the economy—that part proved to be mostly true anyway. 

Things did shut down, with the privileged, like myself, getting to work from home, relishing the relief from daily corporate-tinged interactions, while already underpaid and largely black and brown workers lost their jobs entirely, or were forced to risk their lives and their families’ lives so that those able to work from home could do so without losing access to necessities like groceries. And with each attempted reopening, black and brown communities have been disproportionately affected. as they’re forced to go to work in service of individuals who are not taking the virus seriously, convinced that their personal comfort outweighs efforts to protect their fellow citizens and themselves. 

The beginning of the shutdown was a shock, but it was nothing in comparison to what followed. As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, Skid Row began to reclaim the downtown streets that had cast its residents out. Cops were no longer clearing encampments regularly. First, I noticed an extra tent or two. Within weeks, entire blocks were reclaimed. Living-room furniture was strewn over sidewalks. Some tents blasted “Baby Shark,” of all songs, on repeat, with the homeless community being more adept than the rest of us at creating a sense of normalcy in very unusual circumstances. 

Driving down a formerly posh block, I saw a homeless couple engaged in a violent domestic dispute. Triggering. 

My daily walks with the pup got shorter as dodging the mentally ill became a necessity, and as a result she now needs to lose two pounds—doctor’s orders. My pup’s quarantine pounds, and the dreaded quarantine weight of so many people who are turning to expensive home exercise equipment like the Peloton bikes, standing in stark contrast to those who are suffering from extreme food security as a result of jobs and income lost. 

On one walk, a man with a broom ran into the middle of the street, sporadically shouting at the demons that plagued him. I didn’t want to be mistaken for one. On another late-night walk, I exited my building to find an intoxicated homeless gentleman smashing glass bottles onto the sidewalk and—per the frantic call to security of another resident—at anyone he deemed a worthy target. Luckily, I didn’t interest him. 

The inconveniences grew, but I felt a bit like it was only right for Skid Row to reclaim its territory defiantly. Los Angeles’s habit of pushing this homeless community further and further away to accommodate luxury buildings and sky-high rental prices is disgusting, and it isn’t a real solution. The homeless people are simply deemed eyesores and moved out of sight and out of mind. Block by block. Do people silently hope that one day they’ll push them far enough away that they’ll fall off the edge of the Earth, eliminating the actual problem, which is that over five thousand people have no homes? 

One morning, heading in from an early walk with my pup, I stood and watched a Porsche, an Audi, a BMW, a Mini Cooper, and a Mercedes exit the garage in quick succession, driving past the homeless bodies littering the street. Who belongs and who doesn’t? Who determines that? What does it mean when your existence is in conflict with the identity a place and people are trying to assume?

And then, there were the protests. Necessary. And in parts of downtown LA, violent—no thanks to the National Guardsmen who patrolled the streets with rifles, ready to protect America from … Americans. Protests stemming from the bleeding hearts of people whose ancestors were stripped of and denied land, denied the right to be seen as people, denied the power to determine their own futures from a position of power, still reeling generations later from this all-too-human hatred and cruelty that’s now morphed into the more palatable systemic oppression. 

Skid Row receded just a little bit during the worst of the protests, probably in an effort by residents to avoid becoming collateral damage in what felt like a war against the broken systems that prop this country up. Slowly, the residents moved back and settled in more comfortably, with many storefronts boarded up, as though prepared for a hurricane. 

Whose land is it anyway? So much of Southern California is really Mexico. So much of the world colonized by people who tossed existing cultures to the side in favor of whitewashing identities and histories. 

We use land as a measure of wealth. Owning land—why? Is it ours to own? Who gets to decide that it is mine/yours/theirs/ours? Who sets the conditions and determines who belongs? What gives those people the right to do so? Military and financial power?

Ironically, if more people were able to own anything in these coastal cities filled with absurd wealth and devastating properties, the visuals of this pandemic would have played out differently. With fewer people able to own land and space instead of leasing it from the more wealthy and powerful, could there have been a mass exodus? Would there have even been a desire for one? Or would more people have felt the weight and relief of being rooted, willing and able to ride out the storm? 

Most of us lease our existences. We lease our lives. We lease free time from the companies that employ us. We lease our homes from those able to own. Our right to belong somewhere is as fragile as it is for the residents of Skid Row. We own nothing, so we control nothing. But maybe that’s the point. We spend so much of life fighting to control the things that we can, when perhaps our purpose is to accept that we are not meant to be in control. Of the land, or of each other.

Mae Cromwell