This evening with dinner, as I often do with meals, I watched an episode of the television show Parks and Recreation. As this particular episode's resolution neared, Leslie Knope and her merry band of bureaucrats gathered outside a decrepit warehouse in a run-down corner of Pawnee, the imagined small "Indiana" town where the show is set and which always seems to reveal another as-yet uncovered neighborhood.
Taking full advantage of dramatic license, the show's creators take few if any efforts to disguise the show's Los Angeles Basin filming locations as the Midwest. Anyone who has seen the show and has also visited Pasadena instantly recognizes that Los Angeles neighbor's city hall playing Pawnee's on television. Tonight, I recognized Beachview Terrace, the "armpit of Pawnee," as Clarence Street, one of the roads in the district of wholesale food warehouses on the East Bank of the Los Angeles River, beneath Boyle Heights.
It wasn't just that I recognized the pylons of the Six Street Viaduct in the shot's background from other Hollywood productions. Instead, in August 2013, I'd run down that very street on the 12th or 13th mile of a training run for the Portland Marathon. One of the best runs I've ever taken, it took me from my friends' house in Highland Park, down the Arroyo Seco, along the edge of Montecito Heights, around Lincoln Heights, through the USC Keck School of Medicine, past the 10, 5 and 101 freeways, into Boyle Heights, down into the warehouse district, across the river into the Arts District and up to its finale in Little Tokyo (from whence I returned to Highland Park by Los Angeles's Gold Line. Yes, Virginia, there is mass transit in Los Angeles).
That Sunday was glorious. The weather was perfect (Despite unseasonably cool and foggy weather during most of my visit that August), the streets were peaceful and quiet, and there was a festival with traditional drumming -- and Japanese food -- when I stopped in Little Tokyo. That afternoon, my friend and I returned Downtown for a lazy afternoon gazing at the San Gabriel Mountains and watching baseball from the glorious upper infield seats of Dodger Stadium (note: There really isn't a bad seat in the house).
Why I mention all this now is that the sight of that alley so quickly brought this memory back to me. One of my favorite past-times when I visit Los Angeles is realizing a particular building or corner or vista is one I recognize from film or television, and when I'm elsewhere, a particular shot in a movie or T.V. show will evoke some memory from childhood trips to see family, meandering dates during grad school, trips with partners, or adventures across town with friends. Some people who visit Los Angeles scan the city for stars, but I gaze beyond the stars to see the city.
Clearly, the confluence of my personal history with the film industry's is responsible for much of this. Many people are familiar with Los Angeles because it has been so many things to so many people. While I explore this phenomena from an informal perspective intertwined with memory, the city's starring role in our imagination was deftly dissected in the 2003 documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself." Recently remastered and released to the wide public for the first time ever, this movie masterfully chronicles the city and the film industry with a precision and a breadth of knowledge that I cannot approach. Yes, I am often a cheerleader for this city, but even if you don't care for Los Angeles, perhaps particularly if you don't, do give this movie a try. Director Thom Andersen composed a fantastic work. At the very least, it will inspire you to watch any number of films you may have missed, but I suspect it will also provide a new lens with which you might view Los Angeles and the stories it's used to tell.
I'm sure the sense of familiarity I felt watching Parks and Rec tonight doesn't only happen in L.A. Here in Portland people are perhaps a little annoyed, but also thrilled by seeing our city through the nation's lens for the past half-decade. Many people, no doubt, often see New York and remember great nights of their youth, or watch the West Wing or House of Cards and wonder why that summer they interned on Capitol Hill wasn't as fun. Etc.
Whether depicted on the screen, or not, what are the fragments and images that linger of the towns you're from, the towns where you are, or the towns where you've been? Which are the places woven deep into your heart? What about those places far away from towns, those places perhaps only you know? Where have you been that stirs you, and to which you can be brought back in just an instant? What are the triggers that bring you back there? What are the moments you remember from these places? Let me know in the comments.
Stay tuned tomorrow. I'll be sharing my updated personal guide to Los Angeles!