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Behind the Hollywood sign

staff note

It wasn’t until I was some twenty-thousand feet in the air that I realized how green North Carolina is. The constant green, to me, was dull. Living in both rural and suburban North Carolina at points in my life, I longed to drive by illustrious mountains like those out west, see the grand Red Rocks in the arid parts of the United States or take a walk through an endless cityscape, as if I were instinctively cosmopolitan. Finally, I had the opportunity to dive headfirst into one of the nation’s highly-regarded centers of culture.

I had transcended the westernmost boundary of North Carolina only once before in my visit to Park City, UT just months prior, (my family tends to stick to small cities along the eastern seaboard) so my experience with the western frontier was still relatively uncharted. Packing as much as my backpack could hold, I set off – alone – into my vision of Los Angeles. 

Walking out into the terminal at LAX, I was surprised that the airport was so underwhelming. It was just a dull airport, albeit crowded, and sprinkled with a few overpriced gift shops and duty-free outlets. Stepping out of the airport was of course, a different story. I had never visited a city so large before, and immediately the pungent odor of marijuana wafted my way while the turbulent LA airport traffic made me wonder exactly what I had gotten myself into. 

During my stay I learned a few things. Least importantly, I finally understand why there are people out there that actually enjoy summer. Even at a peak of 95 degrees, the humidity that always soaks my shirt and plasters it to my back was missing and a cool Pacific breeze accompanied me at every turn. The gravity of the drought was also apparent – a view of the LA River near Marina Del Rey revealed the city’s desperate lack of water – the once steady waterway now reduced to puddles.

But one issue pervades the boundaries of the infamous Skid Row, whose encampments stretch for blocks, with high rates of crime, sexual assault, drug abuse and disease that, contrary to popular belief, disproportionately affect the homeless individuals that reside there, rather than the “innocent” passerby. This extends from Venice Beach, to Echo Park to the inextricably wealthy Beverly Hills. 

From an outsider’s perspective, homelessness has become so normalized that its landscape of suffering is no more out of place than a flock of pigeons gathered on the sidewalk. As I was advised by a fellow pedestrian wandering the expanse of downtown Los Angeles, the general attitude surrounding homeless individuals is to “ignore them,”  as if the issue would simply go away, providing a staggering reminder that people are willing to turn their backs on a fellow person in need.

It feels wrong to briskly walk past those seeking assistance or to casually step around over the men, women and children who must endure nights huddled up on the sidewalk. Even for local establishments to put locks on their bathrooms to keep out homeless individuals without access to public restrooms. 

Of course, this is not to say that I have been ignorant to the issue of homelessness within my own state, until my visit to LA; North Carolina, especially near urban centers, has long since been struggling to curb rising rates of homelessness and unemployment, with over 12,000 displaced people across the state. It is a matter that reaches far beyond Southern California, but this is the first time I had ever seen it to a substantial extent. 

Los Angeles has made and continues to make strides toward reducing the number of displaced and homeless individuals in the city. With votes to increase taxes for the construction of homeless facilities. I directly encountered activists petitioning and collecting donations for the betterment of poorer LA neighborhoods, (although few locals stopped to hear them out) and billboards advertising NGOs that work with these communities were scattered about the city. It has worked to an extent – the number of homeless individuals has decreased slightly this year – but the number of homeless individuals 62 and older has seen an increase by 22 percent, indicating shortcomings within the political sphere. 

It’s funny that Hollywood should portray Los Angeles as an oasis for art and culture, a carefree wonderland where residents are always hitting the beach, living it up at the hottest club or restaurant, and reveling in the art, film and music the city churns out in excess each year. Even some of the films that do portray life in the “slums” of Los Angeles tend to glamourize gang life and crime that are a result of an oppressive cycle of poverty while downplaying what it actually means to be poor

I realized during my time in Los Angeles that to propose a definitive solution would be a tall order. But it is important to be aware of the roots of poverty: systematic racism, inequitable policy, flaws in the education system and even the mindset that the poor are somehow “deserving” of their situation. Upon my return to North Carolina, I could not stop thinking about what I had witnessed. Los Angeles, the City of Angels, was beautiful – so full of life, opportunity and vibrant scenery. I am anxious to return, but behind the vision of palm trees dotting the Hollywood Hills lies an ugly truth that we must be ready to confront. 

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