I travel through the Historic Core, walking on its filthy, uneven sidewalks, and admiring its old buildings in a constant state of renewal and neglect. I share the sidewalk with feathered pedestrians, who seem to act as if they have the same right to be on that sidewalk as any Los Angeleno. Here in the heart of downtown, the sights and sounds remind me less of sunny southern California and its abundant palm trees, and more of a metropolis simultaneously frozen in time and hurtling past it. Hollywood was born here, but one cannot tell anymore. Its movie palaces are mostly gone, converted into trendy bars, swap meets, and an Urban Outfitter. On Broadway, one can still find the Orpheum, and the theater at the Globe just recently reopened, but Hollywood has long since fled this neighborhood. The smells, however, they remind me of Los Angeles. The smell of stale piss, car exhaust, and the aroma of carne asada cooking, they hint of the California I know. And then I cross 9th Street and suddenly it’s modern-day Los Angeles again.
A famous denizen of Los Angeles, Caitlyn Jenner lived her life—all 65 years of it—as an exemplar of American masculinity. Jenner could have remained silent and continued living her past as her present and future until the day she died, but she chose something else for herself. The world’s greatest athlete lived in front of the cameras, and Jenner could have easily allowed that span of time, and what had transpired in it, to dictate who she is today. The renovated buildings in the Historic Core say that a past does not define who you would be in the future. The United Artists building became a church; decades later it became a beautiful renovated hotel with an almost-too-hip brunch crowd on the weekends. Even a building can come out and finally live its authentic life.
We know people who are content with the identity others have constructed for them. We also know those who have consciously rejected expectations and norms, and who have gone on to both live and love to live.
I see a little of Los Angeles in Jenner’s experience, and a little of Los Angeles in me. Like the old buildings that still retain the signage of their past—for example, the Ace Hotel—Jenner still retains some vestige of her past in her choice to keep her last name. The name I’ve adopted for myself—Jayel Aheram—also retains a vestige of my own past, a childhood nickname to differentiate me from my biological father whose full name I shared. I think about the people who are burdened with names they’re unhappy with, names they have no emotional connection to, names that are used as short-hand for who they are, and I am left thinking: “But why?” It’s easy for me to think that way: I grew up in a family that considered names to be as interchangeable as the clothes one wears and just as disposable as the novelty wears off. I remember my mother trying out Tracy for a while, before going back to Nancy. Her last name changed, too, when she decided she no longer wanted to be my biological father’s wife, for names are also short-hand for relationships we value. And some names just endure.
As I walk south past Olympic Boulevard and into South Park, I’m immediately greeted with the sight of many construction cranes towering above half-built buildings and newly dug pits. There’s no renewal here, no reinvention, only unadulterated destruction and subsequent creation. The giant block-sized holes are what remains of the past, excavated and loaded onto trucks and into oblivion. Here, the future is not content to merely ignore the past; here, the future is at war with the past. I sometimes find myself watching the activity in these construction projects and imagining what used to be there. Was it a warehouse? A factory? And always, why wasn’t it good enough? Like South Park, there are parts of us, parts of our past we are actively destroying and replacing with something better. They might be relationships, ideas, even ideology, and our own names. All of us take on roles and try out new identities in the course of our lives, sometimes multiple ones at once. I was “an artist” for a while until it made me unhappy; I dutifully fulfilled the “motivated Marine” role for four years until my contract run out, and then I couldn’t wait to get out of Twentynine Palms; and I was “the boyfriend” for 10 months until I realized I was making him cry too often.
I like to think that in order to feel like you belong in a place, that you must first see yourself in it. Or see the place in you. Los Angeles is like that for me. But Los Angeles for me isn’t cars, or its famous traffic, or its beaches. It’s not even Sunset Boulevard, the Hollywood sign, or its countless wannabe starlets. Los Angeles is dirty sidewalks, fearless pigeons, and dilapidated buildings. It’s immigrants looking for a new identity, whether it’s Uber driver or burgeoning politician or owner of a spacious downtown coffee shop. It’s young souls looking to transition into an exciting adulthood; it’s old souls looking for a new purpose in life; and it’s pained souls looking for a new lease in life. Los Angeles is me, as well. I am its neglected buildings, its coffee shops, its holes in the ground where the past was carted away. I say sometimes that I “accidentally” ended up in Los Angeles—I moved here for work in 2012—and somehow along the way discovered my new home.