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A Los Angeles Primer: The Fairfax District

"I AM THE FEDER," read the banner above. The feder? Oh no, I thought: another Jewish tradition of which I've gone through life ignorant. Maybe it has something to do with seder, which, as I understand it, involves a ceremonial meal. Or maybe it doesn't; all I know about it I inferred from an advertisement for "The Last Seder", a production at Fairfax Avenue's Greenway Court Theater. The banner, too, appeared on Fairfax, though further south, and only when I moved a few steps to the side did I realize that the message continued on another segment of which a tree had blocked my view. "I AM THE FEDERATION," went the full declaration, as in the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which I like to think validates the spirit of my first assumption. The other banners along this stretch of Fairfax, known as the Fairfax District, promoted the Anti-Defamation League. For a moment, but only a moment, the neighborhood's character seemed easily understood.

A San Franciscan friend of mine has a saying: "Everybody in San Francisco is a little bit gay. Everybody in New York is a little bit Jewish. Everybody in Los Angeles is a little bit Mexican." We might thus call the Fairfax District (which, strikingly and almost uncomfortably by the standards of Los Angeles, comes off as not Mexican in the least) a little bit New York, albeit a version of New York that never rises above four stories, and reaches that height only grudgingly. Kosher sandwich shops, challah bakeries, diamond dealers, something called the "Diamond Bakery": this texture comes from an enduring density of traditional Jewish businesses, not to say stereotypical Jewish businesses. (I imagine the Anti-Defamation League themselves would have something to say about The Bagel Broker, were it a fictional location on a television show and not a real one just down Beverly.) Over all this the formidable Canter's Delicatessen has presided, all day and all night except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, since 1931.

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A stream of rock-and-roll luminaries have more recently found their Los Angeles portal in the Fairfax District at The Kibitz Room, the bar at Canter's. The place may trade to this day on how far back it goes with, say, Guns N' Roses -- you can buy a book about the just-formed Axl Rose and his just-formed coterie right there, as you pay for your tongue sandwich and pickled herring -- but a new history of the neighborhood's musical consciousness begins with the rise of Odd Future. The still surprisingly young black hip-hop collective, labeled "the world's most notorious rap group" by the Guardian, had its story told early on by the New Yorker's Kelefa Sanneh, who describes them as "a loose confederation of like-minded young people from various high schools who hung out together on a stretch of Fairfax Street [sic] that was home to skateboard and street-fashion shops." I daresay it would have taken an astute observer of Los Angeles indeed to predict such an emergence from Fairfax, not that Odd Future marks the first time the street has incubated an operation regarded as both "willfully repugnant" (in the words of the New Yorker) and "the future of the music business" (in the words of Billboard).

Odd Future now has a boutique on Fairfax; you can just walk in. Not that I do, since I have my suspicions that I fall some distance from the group's target demographic, though I admit to regularly browsing the shelves at the handful of the not-quite-galleries-but-not-quite-bookstores that have sprouted nearby over the past dozen years, all of which maintain what look like actively low profiles. It can't hurt, I figure, to keep up with the latest limited-run periodicals, either maddeningly vague or specific of subject (I usually can't tell which), printed out, stapled, and sent to Los Angeles from places as far-flung and exotic as Berlin, Tokyo, and Brooklyn. Even as the internet has steadily displaced glossy, mainstream publications, these makeshift, obscurantist magazines have undergone an unlikely renaissance, and the Fairfax District offers some of the city's most tolerable venues in which to collect them.

It also offers, in this era that hands us a carte increasingly blanche to watch whatever we like whenever we prefer to watch it, one of Los Angeles' most robust revival movie theaters. The Cinefamily, run out of the old Silent Movie Theatre just below Melrose and just across from the aforementioned Greenway Court, screens films of all genres in all formats, dating from all eras and produced by all countries. In its constant striving for cultural universality, the Cinefamily gave me both a convincing reason to move to the city and a way of thinking about the city itself, which often seems more broadly aimed toward the same impractical (but for that reason admirable) goal. Besides, it simply got to where I'd have to make trips to Los Angeles nearly every weekend for all the John Cassavetes, Mikio Naruse, and Werner Herzog, pictures I "needed" to see, giving weight to the argument, advanced by Anthony Lane, another of the New Yorker's, that there is no such thing as watching a movie at home.

"As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema," Lane writes. "Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. [ ... ] Carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion." Described differently but no less adamantly by a well-known broadcaster friend who lives in the neighborhood, the Cinefamily evokes "the sixties, the last time life was unquestionably good." The very subject of goodness and the sacrifices we make for it must come to mind at Oki Dog, a fading, partially overgrown orange shack which, though possessed of a varied-enough menu, deals mainly in the Oki Dog itself. This unholy object -- "good" in the moment, yes, but ultimately good? Good for society? -- takes the form of a burrito, but its tortilla encases pastrami, chili, cheese, and at least a pair of sausages. A walk through the Fairfax District on its eponymous Avenue necessarily ends here, with you staring down the barrel of a comestible at least as flavorful, even less predictable, and no more easily explicable than the cultural journey just taken.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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