Los Angeles can be a hard city to get your head around. It welcomes us each morning with its ready sunshine and clear skies of baby blue, then proceeds to mystify with its distances and fragmentation. What kind of a city is this? I’ve asked myself more than once. Maybe not a city at all, I’ve come to think, but a collection of beach towns, tony villages, neighborhoods and urban sprawl.
And yet the longer I’ve been here the more Los Angeles has come to fascinate me, this not-a-city city. It hides itself within the bleached-out sunshine and endless strip malls, but then you turn a corner at just the right time of day and a block you’ve been down a million times suddenly dazzles. Or the lush blacks and blues of a neighborhood at night make you realize why so many great stories here take place after dark.
But if there is anything that connects the disparate parts of this town, it’s a street like Sepulveda Boulevard. Blocks from LMU, Sepulveda winds its way through West Los Angeles into the San Fernando Valley almost all the way to Santa Clarita; to the south, it descends beneath LAX, then up and down through the beach cities before cutting east all the way to Long Beach. Spanning 42.8 miles in length, Sepulveda is the longest road in both the city and county, more than three times the length of the island of Manhattan.
So, I drove it, top to bottom, day and night, looking for a story of the Southland. What I found was many stories, and a road like a poem, with rhymes and allusions, fragments and refrains, and death entwined with life.
On its journey through L.A. County, Sepulveda passes through or abuts more than 20 communities where people work, live and raise families. But its starting point is nothing like that. One moment I’m driving through sleepy western Long Beach; people wander back and forth across side streets as mariachi music rolls from a passing car. Then I pass under a steel-girder bridge, the kind small-town kids walk along in coming-of-age movies, and suddenly I’m in a desolate landscape of massive refinery storage cylinders, geodesic domes and eerie cubes of snaking steel
Sepulveda’s southeastern-most point is heavy with trucks coming and going from refineries, the roads ragged from their constant passage. But driving through I see not a single person, just that endless terrain of concrete and steel. It’s like an area built for some other life form entirely, something huge and hidden and utterly incomprehensible. A blue pyramid squats in the center, like a temple to the inhuman gods of this strange and haunted world.
Then at the intersection of Sepulveda and Wilmington Ave., a patch of delicate pastel flowers reaches for the sky. And tentatively out of this dystopian nightmare, life begins to emerge: a nursery beneath looming transmission towers. On a corner lot, a faded red plastic truck lies tail over top in a front yard, waiting for a child to come ride it.
A strip mall. Names of the stores float by like words in an incantation: China Bowl. Staples. Game Stop. At the mall’s far end, large open-backed pickup trucks sit along the roadside advertising demolition, hauling and removal services. Some are filled with junk, others sit empty; almost none provide a business name, just phone numbers painted on the side
Each truck seems to be an independent business, staffed by immigrants. I wonder why they started parking here on Sepulveda. It’s the Home Depot in the mall, I’m told when I start calling them. People are always going there to do work on their house. What better place to advertise?
“I try to help people,” a former handyman tells me. It might mean cleaning up a backyard, throwing away trash or demolishing a garage. “I try to do the best for the customer. And if I can’t do it, I explain it to them.” As we talk, he keeps mentioning his three daughters. One of them works for the city, he tells me with pride.
I drive on, Sepulveda a parade of chain stores and corner malls. Some seem to thrive; others are like dead tree limbs no one has taken the time to snap off. One whole strip sits abandoned but for a Pay Day Loan and a Subway. You can still read the names of the departed businesses from the way the sun bleached the stone around their signs. Cleaners. Check and Go. Skin and Nails.
Beside a small fenced-off abandoned plant, a sign announces the Mulligan Family Fun Center. Turning in, I’m surprised to discover behind the factory a complex of batting cages, bumper cars, a go-cart track, two 18-hole mini-golf courses and a paddle boat pond no deeper than a wading pool where two toddlers bob about in tiny tugs grinning like bandits who’ve gotten away with a big score. On the weekday evening I visit, there seems to be few people around. I ask about that, thinking an amusement park located behind a deserted cement factory may not be a recipe for a thriving Southern California business. It turns out the staff is relieved to have a slow night. On weekends they can have 15 children’s birthday parties, with as many as 25 kids each, all you can eat pizza and unlimited rides.
It’s nice to be here when it’s quiet. The dusky sky glows lavender and purple around us. It’s like I’ve somehow left the city and wandered into a summer country fair.
As it moves into Torrance and Redondo Beach, Sepulveda shifts again, from crowded malls to quiet neighborhoods with pretty gardens. Each home seems to sport a different variety of well-trimmed tree; some soar like Italian villas, others are more modest. The hills give the area a storybook quality, each home its own fairy tale castle.
The Beach Cities stretch is by far Sepulveda’s prettiest section. Through Manhattan and Hermosa Beach, side streets to the west descend to the Pacific, the buildings before the ocean like sets on a stage. But also seems to be most contentious part of the road. It’s crowded, for one thing. Like swarming beetles, cars crawl the hills at rush hour, their elytra flaring in the setting sun.
But side streets descend to the Pacific, where the light glimmers gold and gauzy on a field of endless blue. Then Sepulveda gets hard to follow. Without warning it changes name, then dead-ends. To pick it up again, you have to know to cut west to the Pacific Coast Highway. And once you do, are you still on Sepulveda? The custom seems to be yes, even though in Hermosa and Redondo the street’s official name is PCH. In El Segundo a banner over the road announces the name’s change to PCH as well. The theory is, tourists are more likely to visit a town with an address on the Pacific Coast Highway than one on a city street with a name that’s hard to pronounce. (I spent my first six months in L.A. having to train myself from calling it Seh-pull-VEE-duh.)
Driving north at night, the area around the airport spreads out like diamonds on black satin. The tall glowing tubes of the LAX Gateway Pylon Project are not everyone’s favorite. But I find their muted colors calming, an unexpected island of peace amidst the craziness of LAX.
It’s funny the patterns you notice as you drive for miles — the number of dollar stores, for instance, including Daiso Japan, where the walls are pink and backlit like a cosmetics counter, and every product seems to have a cute animal face.
Then there are the glimpses of an older L.A., peppered amidst the modern signs and architecture, that suggest a time when the city was simpler, less an urbanopolis. In Westchester, the Abdi-Loyola Medical Building sports a graceful swan’s neck marquee you can see for blocks. Once this was the exquisite art deco Loyola Theatre, its name sculpted in gorgeous cursive neon. The last film to screen there was “Forbidden Planet,” set in a world where nothing remains of its life forms but random bits and pieces of their technology.
Farther up the road, the hip commercial district of Culver City buzzes with the dreams of young people imagining a life every bit as magical as the one a young Judy Garland sang into being at the nearby MGM (now Sony) property. But one also finds the kind of Main Street USA that both Dorothy and Judy came from. Many businesses have been here 40, 50, even 60 years. The street is decorated in a handsome, playful nostalgia: the bubble gum pink and vanilla lights of the Johnnie’s French Dip Pastrami’s neon; a silly-looking diver above the scuba store; the sky-blue standard of the Culver Ice Arena, which had been in business 52 years when a massive rent hike put it out of business in 2014. Today Harbor Freight Tools occupies the arena’s space, but the rink sign continues to soar above with gold stars and a white snowflake.
There’s a local print store, a bike store with faded rainbow trim, a shoebox-sized Cuban restaurant that opened in 1969. Few of the businesses are showy. The garden shop is a rabbit’s warren of clippers, blowers and landscaping equipment; Apex Aquarium’s rows upon rows of fish tank, and a koi pond at the front. The cabinets at Steve’s Camera are piled with old equipment. Meanwhile owner Steve Choi is known internationally for his work with Leica cameras — people come from all over the world just to meet him.
“People love living here,” someone from one of the local papers tells me. As she talks she casts a happy gesture at the Tanner’s coffee shop on the corner, where people chat and play chess outside. I notice the ubiquitous roar of L.A. traffic is so distant here that it’s like the sigh of the ocean.
I think of Los Angeles as such a young city, a post-World War II city. But up the road from Culver, the Los Angeles National Cemetery has been around since 1889. Many veterans buried here fought in the Civil War, some in the Mexican-American War 20 years earlier.
Every gleaming white grave here seems almost to have the same shape, and each sits equidistant from its neighbor. Rather than observing the graves of 92,000 individuals, I feel as if I’m looking at a memorial for an entire community.
In one corner I come upon a group of graves unlike the others. A tall, rust-brown stone memorializes Major F.K. Upham, a Civil War vet who served as quartermaster and treasurer to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, a precursor to the Veterans Administration.
Nearby Upham’s grave and those of his family, a flat pale gravestone remembers Howard Prince Keene, born July 5, 1905, and dead just 20 months later. I assume he must be related, but the California Birth Index, which began in 1905, has no record of Howard, and neither does the cemetery. He is an infant buried in a veterans’ memorial, his gravestone is the longest by far of any I can see, and no one knows his story.
There’s a lot about Sepulveda in this part of town like that, forgotten or remaindered. The area around the Sepulveda Pass is the road’s oldest part, and one of the earliest streets in Los Angeles. The 1769 Spanish Portolá expedition took it through the Santa Monica mountains. Long before, it was a route used by the Tongva people. In the ’20s, it was named after the Sepulveda family, who had once owned 30,000 acres covering much of what is now Santa Monica. Within 40 years of acquiring the land, debts and drought forced them to sell.
In earlier times the road had been proposed as the best way to get wheat to the pier at Santa Monica, and as the solution to the San Fernando Valley’s traffic problems. It never succeeded at either. Today, while the 405 freeway rises above San Fernando, Sepulveda snakes manically up and down, back and forth, beside it offering glimpses not of grandeur but detritus — the twisted remains of a speed limit sign someone has ripped through; a tire rim hung for some reason on the freeway wall. As I drive through one Sunday, the only sign of life is a man standing beside a car, looking forlorn at the oil dipstick in his hand.
As my ears pop driving over the Sepulveda Pass, I come upon futuristic houses perched on cliffs, while stately cypress trees signal the area’s old money affluence. Each turnoff announces its prestige with names like Royal Woods. A few blocks farther, the road shoots out into Sherman Oaks, and the neighborhood quickly fades from Arclights and gastropubs to Van Nuys strip mall blight. There is no sense of a community here, no concern for aesthetics. You stop here when you have to, and otherwise you pass through, ideally without even seeing it.
But amidst the grit of gas stations and dirty box stores, faded rainbow umbrellas shelter women selling fruit. Rosa has worked at her cart near a Petco for four years. It’s not a great job; she earns just 70 dollars for 10 hours’ work. She has elderly parents, four kids, two still in high school, and no husband helping out. At night and on weekends, she cleans offices and homes. “Seven days a week I work,” she tells me. “Siempre trabajo. Siempre.”
Rosa moved here from El Salvador 23 years ago. These fruit carts are a Mexican thing, she explains, dicing up watermelon, mango and pineapple with the precision of a chef. “In Salvador, we sell hot food, rice and beans.” Her boss owns all the carts on Sepulveda, and she suspects he does a good business. She gets lots of customers, and of all kinds — gringos, Latinos, “todos.”
Once more at the 405, now just short of the 5, Sepulveda finally ends. Fittingly, two cemeteries sit side by side here. Eden Memorial Park serves the Jewish community; Groucho Marx is buried here, and Lenny Bruce.
Across the street San Fernando Mission Cemetery has its own old-timey celebrities: Bob Hope and Jane Wyatt. But what stands out most is the way the cemetery is used. All around on a Sunday, people walk, talk, visit, tend graves, pray. Some come alone, like the 50-something man in a white T-shirt sitting with his thoughts under a tree. A middle-aged woman in a pink, sleeveless top stands quietly before a grave. Before she leaves she stops to blow a kiss to whoever she’s visiting.
Elsewhere, whole families sit under umbrellas, in lawn chairs and on picnic blankets. One family is gathered around an old man; clearly, this is when everyone comes with grandpa to visit grandma, who has passed on.
Compared with the National Cemetery, this is a mess — cars parked everywhere, graves of every shape and size, flowers sometimes arranged, others askew. There, a memorial; here, a neighborhood, lived in and layered. In a city and on a street where history and decay are part of the fabric of things, here death is an occasion for community, an opportunity for life.
Jim McDermott, S.J., is the West Coast correspondent for America Magazine. He has written extensively on California, pop culture and God. He also is a screenwriter and has worked in the industry, mostly recently as a staff writer on the AMC show “Preacher.” McDermott earned a master’s degree from UCLA and lives on the LMU campus. Follow him @PopCulturPriest.
This article is an extended version of a story that appeared in the spring 2019 issue (Vol. 9, No. 1) of LMU Magazine.