An ever-present past

LATELY, I’VE BEEN thinking a lot about my neighborhood because I know that I’ll be moving soon. I live in Pico-Robertson in a house slated for demolition, along with the two houses next door. Together, these structures represent three of the last four single-family residences on my block, a block that, when it was developed in the 1920s, must have been the very epitome of Southern California middle-class charm.

There is nothing fancy about the neighborhood, nor, I imagine, was there ever; my house, built in 1928, is the most elementary of single-story wood-frame constructions -- spare, compact, nondescript, about the length of two city buses parked end-to-end. But like many houses of its era, it has some oddly genteel touches: a modified cathedral ceiling in the living room, a built-in bookcase in the hallway, a mirrored sideboard along one breakfast room wall.

I love this style of Los Angeles domestic architecture, love its grace, its implied democracy, its promise of a better life. I love that as the neighborhood has changed, this democratic sensibility has lingered, this notion that here we make ourselves anew. I’m not talking about the old Southern California cliche of reinvention, which tells us that in moving west, we leave our pasts behind. No, for me, Pico-Robertson is where my past has caught me, where I have settled, raised my children and, improbably, found a home.

When I say that Pico-Robertson is where my past has caught me, I don’t just mean in a personal sense. I’m also referring to the collective past, the cultural past, to my heritage, to my roots. This is, after all, a Jewish neighborhood, orthodox, immigrant-based, where the streets flow thick on Friday nights and Saturdays with families walking back and forth from shul. “Shabbat shalom,” I say as I pass on the sidewalk; although I also may be Jewish, I was not raised to participate in that way of life.


My parents grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s, in middle-class Jewish neighborhoods like this one, and from the outset, all either of them wanted was to move to Manhattan, to put their history behind them in favor of a more cosmopolitan life. It is this life into which I was born, a life of private schools and Christmas trees, where assimilation was the key. Yet even as I once embraced that, I always longed for Brooklyn, for the stoops, the streets, the cacophony of language, the idea of neighbors who might make some common ground. Not long after I moved to Pico-Robertson, during a visit from my parents, my mother turned to me in shock and recognition and confirmed that I’d arrived.

“My God,” she said. “You’ve moved to Brooklyn in the 1940s. You’ve moved to the neighborhood where I grew up.”

Of course, the idea that Pico-Robertson is like the Brooklyn of my parents’ childhoods is nothing if not an illusion, an overlay, a strategy for making sense. It’s the kind of fiction we all construct to give our lives a narrative, to find our place within the world. What isn’t fiction, though, is the way I feel walking in the neighborhood, my sense of engagement, of becoming part of something larger than myself. I want to be careful how I say this, for it’s not as if I actually fit in here; sure, my wife and I light Shabbat candles and celebrate Passover and Hanukkah, but except for a handful of family funerals, I haven’t been inside a synagogue in more than 30 years. I wear an earring, drive my car on Saturdays; I eat meat and cheese together, enjoy shellfish and pork. Still, for all that, living in the midst of Jewish culture feels like a strange kind of homecoming, if not in a geographic then in an ancestral sense.

The closest I’ve ever come to an understanding of my background are the stories my grandfather used to tell me, stories about the precarious process of becoming an American. In my grandfather’s edenic Brooklyn, neighbors looked after one another -- they said hello, kept an eye out, as if their common heritage were the only bond they’d need. Each time I talk to someone on the sidewalk or nod at the families going to pray on Saturday morning, I feel my grandfather’s ghost at my shoulder, like a plumb line has been dropped down through the generations, linking me irrevocably to him. Factor in the seven or eight times a year I go to see the Dodgers, a team my grandfather once cherished beyond reason, and the identification is complete.


Now, I’m at the end of my tenure in Pico-Robertson, which makes me think about my history in another way. Walking through the neighborhood, I notice every detail -- the crumbling stucco of the Jewish day-care center on Whitworth Drive; the old men with their beards and side locks; the kosher markets on Pico Boulevard, their Israeli products both exotic and familiar all at once. I recall a similar feeling during the last days I spent in New York before moving to Los Angeles, the pressure to memorize everything, as if only in that effort could experience be preserved.

The difference is that, despite having been born and raised in Manhattan, I found my existence there always seemed precarious, whereas in Pico-Robertson, I feel as if I belong. On summer weekends, I take my kids to the video store to rent a movie; I walk to the 7-Eleven or the local sushi bar. Heading back, I greet my neighbors and smile as they respond in kind. This may not be my world, this urban shtetl, but it is a community of which I’ve come to feel a part. And when I get home, I revel in that sensation, which roots me in a way I never would have guessed.


David L. Ulin is the editor of the books “Another City: Writing From Los Angeles” and “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology.”