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Steve Abee: We're All Just Waves

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?"

Today, we hear from author and teacher Steve Abee:


"Man, I am constantly tripping on the city.

It's been a great source of inspiration for me -- positive and negative. I love this crazy city. It's an amazing piece of the planet. You get up on a hilltop and the vista you are presented with is this eternal, mythological dreamscape.

I'm in my house right now, watching the sunset over the San Gabriel Valley. I see the sister peaks -- San Jacinto to the south and San Gorgonio to the north.

Those two peaks connect and mark the whole Southern California basin. You have the Transverse Ranges that end with San Gorgonio and go all the way out to the ocean. And the Peninsular Ranges end with San Jacinto and go all the way down into Mexico.

That region that they create, with that 90-degree angle, that's Southern California. I think that's just a beautiful thing. There's this gateway from the desert into -- not a Garden of Eden exactly -- but this Mediterranean climate is special.

Only five percent of the planet has this weather pattern. There's this dream that goes with that. It's an Island on the Land, like Carey McWilliams wrote back in the `40s. We really have that nation unto itself.


I was born at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica.

My family first made their way out here a generation or two ago.

On my mother's side, there's a whole lot of Southern California mythology in play.

I know that my grandmother came here from Kansas City in 1940 or so. She was seventeen-years-old and she took the Southern Pacific Railroad.

At that time the railroads were in competition. They kept lowering the fares -- I think she came out from Kansas City for five dollars. That was all part of the boosting and development of L.A. -- it was all intentional.

My grandmother already had family here -- she had an aunt living in North Hollywood or maybe just Hollywood. That aunt had a beauty parlor on Hollywood Boulevard and Western.

For my grandmother, Los Angeles was about possibility. She had grown up during the Depression. I guess Kansas City seemed kind of dull and she wanted something new. There was a big migration happening at that time, too, with all these people coming out to the west coast.

As for my grandmother's husband -- my grandfather, Grandpa Duval -- I don't know his story too well. He died a while before I was born so I never got any information from him.

I always heard that he and his brother hopped freight trains when they were young and that's how they made it out this way. I do know that he arrived at about the same time as my grandmother. Like her, he came from the Midwest -- from western Kansas.

Grandpa Duval worked as a car salesman when he and my grandmother got together. That was something he did for most of his life. He worked at Cormier Chevrolet and at Central Chevrolet.

My grandparents lived for a while in San Pedro. It was a real kind of a working class, shipbuilding community. My grandfather would drive up from there to his car salesman job in Downtown. That's a long way to go, man.

In 1941, that's where my mom was born -- Pedro. The family wound up moving all over the place. They lived in Inglewood. They lived out in Rosemead. My grandfather had some drinking problems. Sometimes that got in the way of their livelihood.

When my mom was really little, they lived in Hollywood up on Lockwood, right by Lockwood Elementary. They also lived in South L.A., at 89th and Vermont.

Then they were part of the early Orange County settlement, in Buena Park, back when they were opening up that early housing tract development and it was zero down payment.

On my father's side -- my dad moved down from Portland, Oregon with his family when he was about thirteen.

He came into Downtown Los Angeles with just his mother. His father -- my grandfather -- had moved down before them. My grandfather was a carpenter and work was seasonal up in the Northwest. He came down south because there was a more temperate climate and more consistent work.

There was a little bit of -- not a scandal -- but concern that my grandfather was kind of abandoning his family. He came down before them; he didn't communicate with his wife or anyone. So my grandmother just packed everybody up and said, 'We're going to go down there to find him.' And she did.

My father tells a funny story. They were let off at the bus depot at Sixth or Seventh and Los Angeles. The bus depot used to be down there; now it's on Alameda.

My father was this young kid from Oregon and he started walking around outside the bus depot, out on the street. A police officer asked him what he was doing?

The officer picked my father up and walked him back to my grandmother. The officer said to her, 'You know, ma'am, you've got to watch this young man. This is the big city down here. He can't just be wandering around.'

She was dismayed -- 'My poor little son!' So they were kind of country people. Los Angeles was a big change for them. I remember my grandmother telling me how she felt overwhelmed by the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard and all of the action that was going on at that time.

They lived in all different parts of L.A. They lived in South Pasadena. They lived in Alhambra later on. But initially, they lived on Vermont and Third Street.

There's a Nazarene church down there, off of Third and Juanita. I guess my grandfather was the foreman of the construction job -- he kind of built that church. So the family was living in a trailer on the grounds of the construction site.

Getting home was kind of a harrowing trip for my dad. He would talk about how he had to escape the Temple Street gangsters and run to the safety of a little tent that he had next to the trailer. At that time in his life, my dad spent a lot of time at the YMCA.

He was a student at Belmont High School. Tommy's and all the Belmont haunts are part of his story. He talks about an early drive-by shooting, maybe the first one. Early on, some gangs on the eastside came out and drove by and shot somebody at the burger stand. It must have been in the early `50s, something like that.


When people talk about American culture, they tend to bypass Los Angeles.

They go from San Francisco to Chicago to New York. But L.A. has another sensibility -- which is part of what makes it such a genius place. People come here and do crazy things, because they are here on another planet.

My own love for the city really came alive when I left for a little bit. I went to college up in Santa Cruz. There was so much Northern California antipathy towards Southern California. It really caught me off-guard.

With my own natural proclivity towards being a defensive-minded individual, protecting the underdog, I just got into it with people. And also being homesick and having a girlfriend I really dug, it made the heart grow fonder.

I remember flying into LAX from the little rinky-dink San Jose airport. Crossing over Tehachapi and then all of a sudden just seeing the carpet of Southern California; Los Angeles spread from the ocean all the way out to as far out as you could see. I was just taking in the kind of massiveness of it all -- that sense of everything coming to this.

L.A. is a funny place like that. You've got the world here and yet at times it feels completely lonely. It's a paradox that way.

The city is also about different rings of arrivals. It's kind of like tides coming in -- the different periods of arrival and how they spread out over the surface of the sand. Then the next arrival tide comes in and kind of washes the previous away. It doesn't always work that way -- there is a lot of Latino history here, for example, and that has been a constant, but at the same time it has had its waves and they have transformed each other and the rest of the city. We're all just waves, messing with each other, loving each other.

Think about Downtown, or the changes that go on in any neighborhood. Echo Park is a perfect example of how things are established and then certain waves of people come in and change a place. And then, with time, the place changes again.

Working Downtown on Bunker Hill -- or Fort Moore Hill, actually -- makes all this apparent. The history of massive change and demolition that exists in that area is really amazing. Consider what that whole area used to be and how it was completely razed to make it what it is now.

You know -- hills chopped down. Not just houses torn down, but hills taken out. I always think that's kind of impressive in its own way -- they really went for it! They didn't leave a single streetlight.

I don't know if that happens in other places. But Los Angeles is still such a transitory place in so many ways. You know what, though? I'm still here."

-- Steve Abee
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Top photo: Steve Abee at El Clasico Tattoo and Art Studio in Echo Park. Instagram photo courtesy Rare Bird Lit

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.

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