My friend Marilyn called me from the road last month. She sounded excited and a little bewildered, the way you feel when you're headed someplace for the first time.
"I'm going to Bell," she shouted. "Where is that?"
Southeast L.A. County, I said promptly. One city in a cluster of small cities south of downtown, east of South Central. I know the geography, like any conscious native Angeleno and former devotee of the old Thomas Bros. guide (which I still have in my trunk for confirmation that I'm on the right path, something that isn't always the case with MapQuest or GPS). But I knew I wasn't telling Marilyn what she wanted to know, which was: what is Bell like? What goes on there? What happens there? Marilyn lives in Westchester and was driving east on Florence Avenue, a street I know she's rarely on (it peters out in Inglewood, before Westchester) and almost certainly had not taken this far east. Florence Avenue itself was an adventure; Bell was adventure on a whole other level.
I live in Inglewood and grew up in South Central, and I think Marilyn figured I would know more about it. And of course I'm a native who theoretically knows the lay of the land. But I don't know more about this particular part. I don't think I've ever set foot in Bell, which puts Marilyn and me in the same boat, or in the same car.
I'm not totally uninitiated, of course: I am familiar with several neighborhoods east of the Harbor Freeway, including Watts. But those Southeast cities constitute a single, mysterious netherworld to me and always have. I have passed through or passed by Huntington Park, South Gate, and Lynwood, albeit briefly -- I drove along the border of Vernon accidentally once or twice, after missing a freeway onramp from downtown late at night. But I wasn't in any of those places visiting anybody I knew, or conducting any business.
Marilyn was going to Bell to look at a piece of exercise equipment advertised at a good price. She's from New York and used to traversing the big city, especially in pursuit of a good deal. That she had never been to Bell didn't faze her, and in fact piqued her curiosity. That's more than I can say for a lot of people who live as far west as she does who generally have very little interest in going south of the 10, to say nothing of east of the 110.
It's not that Marilyn was concerned with getting lost. The address she was looking for was on Florence, the street she was already driving and had been driving for miles when she called me. She was just trying to get her bearings. "I'm here, I just don't know where I am!" was how she explained it. I told her that sounded poetic. She laughed and said that just driving down the previously unobserved Florence made her want to stop and get out and walk around, which makes her even more unusual among L.A. people, who, native or not, tend to live in their own silos.
That kind of isolation is part of the reason I don't know Bell, or Bell Gardens or Cudahy. Demographic history drives the isolation: the southeast cities were all strictly white for a long time, and after white flight they became heavily Latino, but blacks never made inroads, which is the main reason I don't know anyone there. Compton and Lynwood are exceptions to that trend, though I always saw Compton as less southeast and more of an extension of Watts/Willowbrook. My father, who grew up here in the '40s, said that as far as black folks on the eastside were concerned (that's east of Main Street, not East L.A.), Bell and those places might as well have been Mars. Black people were not welcome there, to put it mildly, and so they didn't go. Bell was a non-place to my father and his generation even though he lived much closer to it than I do now.
Marilyn made it to her destination and bought the exercise machine. She was happy with her purchase and also with Bell, more or less. She said the person who'd sold her the equipment was friendly, knowledgeable, and straightforward. She'd go there again, I can tell, maybe get more stuff, maybe walk around next time. Just in that one excursion, L.A. has both expanded and gotten a little smaller for her; though Bell is its own city, it's part of the SoCal regional sprawl that includes but isn't limited to L.A., a sprawl with pockets that we all ignore or miss or actively avoid, sometimes for fifty years. But doing even a little corrective action helps a lot: in a couple of hours, Marilyn literally expanded her horizon. And I'm overdue to set foot.