Los Angeles is a city of potential

Fifteen years old and I was pressing my head to the glass window of our minivan. Getting my eyes as close to the glass as possible, so that I could see up, up, up towards the top of the buildings. They were too tall, I never saw the tops, but the ten or so floors I did see amazed me. It was after dark and we weren’t in the safest part of town—we were Downtown after all—so the windows stayed closed and my eyes pressed against that glass just trying to get a view up higher. I was enthralled.

In reality, the skyscrapers we passed on Bunker Hill were full of tens of thousands of office workers only an hour or so ago (many probably still were), and this neighborhood was undergoing a residential and restaurant revolution. But we didn’t know that. An hour away from our South Orange County home, we were in the big city and everything was foreign.

From the top of the Bonaventure hotel, I could see city lights as far as I looked. It took an hour to spin all the way around, and we did the entire revolution, my dad and I, while drinking virgin cocktails and eating sliders for dinner. The day changed from evening to night, the sun went down, and the lights came on.

As our view came around to the east, past the futuristic elevator delivering another set of guests to their room below, my eyes came upon a building lit in blue and six large soundtages.

I’ve never been to Los Angeles Center Studios. Most people around Downtown don’t even know it exists, but at that time it linked this neighborhood directly to the dreams I had for myself. Like every other Southern California kid, I wanted to work in movies.

This stop in Downtown occurred after one of my many auditions in Hollywood—auditions that my parents graciously sat through hours of traffic to drive me to and from at a moments notice even though I did not particularly have dreams of being an actor. As a sophomore in high school, it was the only way I knew that I could work in a professional capacity on a film set, so it was the way I went after.

I wanted to write. I wanted to direct. I wanted to shoot movies. At that point, I wanted to do anything I could to be around a real production. Nevermind that Downtown isn’t the center of the film industry, seeing that studio from above, Downtown became forever connected in my mind as somewhere I could learn, grow, and begin to fulfill my own potential.

Los Angeles has always been about potential.

Forty four people walked for miles to found the city near the banks of a river where they saw potential. They planted their stakes across the street from my apartment. One man saw potential for the city (and his finances) to flourish with a dedicated source of water. He dug his trench across the state and brought water to this growing ranch town. When the railroad reached Los Angeles, thousands of travelers arrived by train, reaching the point where they could go no further west.

Today, thousands still come here every year hoping to reach their potential. Hoping to “make it” in one way or another. It’s been called the city of broken dreams by more than one burned-out out-of-towner whose dreams Los Angeles failed to fulfill. For mine, it redirected them.

I was standing on the roof of an apartment party near USC. It wasn’t long before graduation, and I was staring out at the skyline just a few miles away. Over my four years in college, I literally watched the city change before my eyes. The skyline was different now than it was when I moved into my dorm—the latest addition being the bright outline of the Ritz-Carlton tower, but there were plenty of others.

I changed too. Making films, for me, was about changing the world. By the time I finished film school, I knew I probably wouldn’t get the chance to do that. I’d be changed before I changed anything else, far too many people were. Dreams narrowed. The world is a funny concept. It’s so big, where do you start? I decided to start with what I could see in front of me.

I spent that night on the roof talking to my wife. I didn’t know it then, but it would only take a few more years to become so. I was just sharing my changing thoughts and changing dreams with a friend who somehow seemed to understand. Looking out at the ever-evolving skyline of Downtown Los Angeles, I talked about being part of that city. My dreams weren’t about making movies anymore, they were about making communities. They were dreams of seeing potential, welcoming change, wanting to be part of something bigger than myself, and working to make it better.

I should have known that conversation was about more than a city. In more ways than one, I’m now part of something bigger than myself, better than I could be alone. That night, it started with potential.

Trucks rumble up and down Alameda. Across a major freeway—and the cars trying to get to it—past a federal prison, and through an active construction zone. This is what you have to brave if you want to bike from Union Station to the Arts District. Get a couple blocks to the east, however, to Santa Fe Avenue and Mateo and you’re a world away from the exhaust pipes blowing smoke. Government offices sit empty on the weekends. Old warehouses seem to sit empty always. Construction zones are still common as this area’s in rapid transition. The biking is rather swell. If you want my advice, take a left on Commercial Street to get off the main road as soon as possible. You’ll find Center Street, which becomes Santa Fe. You can thank me later.

Heading south we suddenly reach buildings full of beautiful, if overpriced, lofts. We smell lattes, a couple walking dogs turns the corner and looks at us through new Warby Parker glasses. The area could be considered hipster, if that’s still a thing, but it’s pleasant. In fact, every day it seems there’s more people. The breakfast spot we thought was just ours is apparently not a secret anymore.

A few more blocks and a few more empty warehouses down, there’s a small street—a little one-way affair—that has wide sidewalks with bike racks, a pub on one side and an acclaimed chef-driven concept on the other, a small outdoor garden about half way down. This is what I see when I bike among the warehouses. I see potential.

Of course, I didn’t create any of this. I’m just a grateful neighbor. I’m grateful for the vision of those who looked at this area and saw something beautiful. I’m grateful for those who spent days painting the sides of the buildings and those who fought for years, working to make those paintings legal. I’m grateful to those in the city who are currently working on plans to link all of these areas together. It may be a few years, but someday I’ll be able to bike from Union Station to this little hideaway on a protected bikeway. To really look forward, there may even be a subway stop at the 6th Street Bridge, on the banks of the revitalized Los Angeles River, and only steps away from these restaurants.

One of many great images from the “Connect US” linkages study.

By then, I’m sure, it won’t be a hideaway any more. But I think that’s the point. There are great things happening all across Los Angeles—great things have been happening here for hundreds of years—but this is still only the beginning. A simple bike ride will show you that the area is more full of potential than anything else. These kinds of changes aren’t limited to the Arts District or Downtown in general. They’re happening all over this great city. Los Angeles is only just beginning.

It’s crazy, really, when I look back. I remember being younger and craning my neck to see those skyscrapers, never actually seeing the top. Now I spend my weekends walking around them, sitting on their steps with a new book from the library, watching the view from my roof. I remember thinking this place held the key to my dreams, when what I’ve found here is a different set of dreams altogether. Dreams of community and friendship. Dreams of a place where anyone can belong.

Of course, there are problems. Homelessness. Affordability (even for those who are relatively “well-off”). If we don’t build more housing—low-income, market rate, luxury, all of it—we’ll find it harder and harder for anyone to belong. When I look at these neighborhoods, I see potential because I’ve been welcomed into it. I see potential for others to be welcomed in.

I see a place where children can live with their parents in wonderful little town homes, where they can play at a park with their dogs. Where artists can live and work in the same studio, and even display their art for sale to the businessperson who lives down the street. Where those with mental illnesses can get help and support, but where it’s not the only place for them to go. It’s incredible really, when I walk around, how much I see that does not yet exist. I see potential.

I see a center of commerce, where the largest companies and the creative firms hold court side by side. I see a center of art and culture, where you can take a free dance lesson outside the opera house before seeing a performance in one of the world’s greatest concert halls. Afterwards, you can walk through a park, dip your feet in the fountain to cool off on a warm summer night, and then continue on for a late night bite to eat. These things do exist, and yet there’s still potential for so much more.

It seems my life has always been linked in some way to this place. Looking at those skyscrapers reminds me of my childhood dreams. Reminds me of my college years. Reminds me of my wife and my marriage. Reminds me of my first job, my first apartment, my second apartment, my roommates and my friends. Reminds me that I’m part of something bigger.

I don’t know if I’ll always be in Los Angeles—the way life works in the 21st century, there’s a good chance I won’t. But while I’m here, as long as God allows me to call this collection of neighborhoods my home, this collection of people my neighbors, I’ll be incredibly grateful. I’ll be always looking forward. Where can I help? What can I do? How can I speak up to show support—or not, if that’s what’s necessary—for the latest project?

As long as I’m here in Los Angeles, I’ll want to help this town reach its potential. It gives me great pleasure knowing that so many of my neighbors want to do exactly the same.

Making Transit Work at Syncromatics

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Steven White

Steven White

Making Transit Work at Syncromatics

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