A Los Angeles Primer: MacArthur Park | KCET
A Los Angeles Primer: MacArthur Park
"It's hard to screw up a pupusa," a friend replied when I suggested he have one for lunch. The thick, cheese-filled Salvadoran tortillas, topped generously with shredded cabbage and hot sauce, available across Los Angeles, do give their preparers little chance for grievous error. But the location of my friend's office places him especially well to enjoy a fresh one on the cheap: from the very spot where we stood, nine stories above MacArthur Park, we could see the ladies with their shopping cart-mounted griddles parked on Alvarado making them fresh. This welcoming sight hardly seems to agree with the threatening image the area spent many of the past forty years cultivating, but it contrasts even more starkly against the visions of the park's late nineteenth-century builders. A onetime high-profile vacation destination and one of the city's many formerly wealthy neighborhoods, MacArthur Park and the surrounding Westlake area has since become the second-densest (after neighboring Koreatown), and one of the poorest -- but one of the most delicious.
"MacArthur Park is melting in the dark," sang Richard Harris on his immortal 1968 recording of the song "MacArthur Park". "Jurassic Park is frightening in the dark," sang Weird Al Yankovic on his parody, capitalizing on the mid-nineties popularity of Steven Spielberg's scary-dinosaur movie. Strictly speaking, MacArthur Park must also, in that era, been pretty frightening in the dark. Legend has it that, by then, the place had become, effectively, an open-air market of vice: drugs, sex -- human souls, no doubt. I've heard "Permanent Midnight" author Jerry Stahl tell some serious MacArthur Park stories. Despite sensing little of that former menace today, I can assure you that the neighborhood retains its robust trade in fake identification documents. Walk down certain side streets, and you hear the same short question over and over again -- "IDs? IDs? IDs?" -- no matter whether you look like you have indeed just endured a trying illegal border-crossing, or whether you look like, well, me. (After turning down yet another fake ID, my friend with the office remarked that the slouchy entrepreneur offering it must have mistaken him for "the world's baldest sixteen-year-old, non-chemotherapy division.")
Whether or not they need papers, many of the locals do seem to have arrived in America not long ago, a boon indeed for the area's cusine. Quite a few businesses have painted their buildings in light Guatemalan and El Salvadoran blues, and toward them I walk when I want to consume my pupusas sitting rather than standing. I can't imagine the eating having been quite as flavorful, nor nearly as cheap, when only stately single-family homes surrounded MacArthur Park, then known as Westlake Park. The rechristening occurred in 1942, supposedly as part of a larger campaign by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst to get General Douglas MacArthur elected President. (See also also Nathan Masters' post "How a Neighborhood Dump Became a Civic Treasure".) In the decades thereafter, the streetcar service ceased, the freeways arrived, and the demolition of housing just east on Bunker Hill raised a wave of the displaced. The Art Deco mansions became apartment buildings, and the Beaux-Arts apartment buildings redefined themselves, unpromisingly, as "residence hotels."
Still, whatever problems MacArthur Park had accumulated by the eighties, life there beat life in a war-torn Central American republic. The immigrants of that era must certainly have felt the same way as they turned up to re-create the best of the small, troubled countries they'd fled. The occasional Korean proprietor aside, its malls, stalls, and swap meets look, sound, and feel indistinguishable from those I've experienced in Latin America. With the sight of wall-to-wall activewear, luggage, hair tonics, square-toed shoes, and curative devotional so central to my experience of the neighborhood, I can hardly imagine it any other way. But right there on the corner of Seventh and Alvarado, a living relic of of an entirely different time has stood since 1947: Langer's Delicatessen, home of the only hot pastrami sandwich West and East Coast food critics can agree on. And only thanks to the return of rail do we even have it. The Red Line subway, locally dubbed the "Pastrami Express", entered service in 1993, immediately bringing back the hungry workers who had otherwise long since stopped going near the place. Sitting down for a meal at Langer's, its interior so immaculately preserved that almost resembles a theme park's simulacrum of lunchtime postwar urban America, takes you back to a time when, if the park still had so many fire-and-brimstone preachers, then at least they probably didn't bring loudspeakers.
Proselytization, especially when so harsh, distorted, and constant, can get on anybody's nerves, but I try to think of it as an opportunity for valuable Spanish listening practice. I suspect MacArthur Park has for most of existence challenged Angelenos to make the best of it. You have to see the tragic glamour of that old boathouse, standing without hope in its dramatic state of collapse. When a dog corpse bobs up in the greenish water, I simply look the other way. Jimmy Webb, who wrote the song for Richard Harris to belt out against those orchestral swells in the first place, has since admitted that he didn't find it a particularly beautiful place even in the mid-sixties, but it meant something to him because he once met his girlfriend there for lunch. The night that imbued MacArthur Park with meaning for me came after a few hours of drinking in Silver Lake with the lady who would soon become my own girlfriend. Stumbling tipsily home through it to Koreatown at nearly 3:00 in the morning, I couldn't help marveling at not only the lack of any visible signs of danger, but at the absence of the very feeling of danger. Angelenos argue, with good reason, about whether and how permanently Los Angeles has changed in the 21st century, but that must count for something.
Photos by Colin Marshall.