Yes, Vermont and Normandie Avenue. It’s not a trick to add up one more street. I just think they are kind of complementary. They run in parallel – three blocks between them – two straight lines, 25 miles long, from south to north, from Harbor City to Los Feliz Village just below Griffith Park. South of Gage Avenue, Vermont is a wide three-lane road with a wide median. My suggestion is to start this itinerary in the place where in some ways, today’s L.A. was forged. History is a tough thing to escape at the cross between Florence and Normandie. “Tom Liquor” was the shop where the big fire started in April 1992. And as I heard by many people – including Harry Bosch in “The Closers” – Rodney King was not the gasoline, Rodney King was just the spark. I wrote various posts on this blog about the riots or the uprising of 1992. Many things have changed and improved since then, especially racial relations and the approach and behavior of LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department). Others are pretty much the same, lack of decent jobs, marginality. Today, at first sight, Florence and Normandie is a quite insignificant corner of South L.A., pretty much like many others. Still, I felt something in my guts while watching “Tom Liquor” from the gas station on the opposite side of the road: three homeless people were hanging there, the three of them were African American.
Let’s move north on Vermont. The landscape is shabby, no trees, no green, the grass is yellow, brownish. It is warm and humid and polluted. Several (black) men and women push rusty carts filled with blankets, garments, tin cans. A lot of discount stores, everything at 98 cents, discount meat markets, discount tyres. Night clubs and churches are side by side, they often have a Spanish name in common: El Tiburon, Jesus caminante, El Tejano, los santos de los ultimos dias. A lot of churches, a real big problem on top of the others problems for these people.
As long as Vermont runs north, the air seems to get a bit fresher and cleaner. Stop and eat a “pupusa” (typical sandwich from el Salvador) at “Susana Cocina Salvadorena“. We get now to long the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Swimming Stadium built for the 1984 Olympics. We approach University Park, green and trees are back and on the right side of Vermont is the campus of the other big educational institution of this city: the University of Southern California which has been hosting me these months.
North of Pico Boulevard, Vermont crosses a Latino area – plenty of Panaderias Guatemaltecas – and as soon as you cross Olympic you move instanlty to Asia, better to Korea. We are in Koreatown, in Mid-Wilshire, known for its concentration of Korean American people, businesses and institutions. Home to a population of over 120,000 and covering just under 3-square-mile , it has one of the highest population densities of all neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I know I am not original, but it really feels like being in Seoul. It is a very urban area, dense, full of – guess what – Korean restaurants (too many and too similar, impossible to name one or two), markets, shops, acupuncture and dentistry cabinets. Korean is pretty much the only language here and you easily meet elderly people who have difficulties in speaking English. Koreatown was also one of the main battlefields in 1992.
Vermont goes up and when crossing Sunset we can spot the huge, light blue, alarming building of Scientology. After Hollywood Boulevard, Vermont Avenue completes its catharsis and gets to the green, beautiful, intellectual neighborhood of Los Feliz. Housing is expensive and Black or African American are 3% of the residents. Los Feliz is home to a bohemian nightlife with several bars and restaurants like the historical Dresden Restaurant (good food and jazz music) or the French styled Figaro Café. There are also many vintage clothes shops and a very interesting, independent bookstore, Skylight Books, with a section for Los Angeles regional culture and history and one for graphic literature.
We are in the shadow of Griffith Park and its iconic Observatory, and surrounded by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, R.M. Schindler, and Richard Neutra. It is time to take Normandie which up here runs across the border between Little Armenia and Thai City, maybe stop for lunch at Papa Cristo’s – a surprising Greek restaurant, market, and bakery, located on West Pico – and go back south to Tom Liquor and even more south.
“Florence and Normandie, Florence and Normandie! What about Florence and Normandie? When are y’all just gonna drop it and leave us the hell alone?“ South Central L.A. is a tough area indeed but has soul and history and you can’t pretend you know Los Angeles if you have not been breathing its warm, thick, humid, tense air.