Have Roots, Will Travel | Smithsonian
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Have Roots, Will Travel

Like the four generations of Angelenos who preceded her, the best-selling author likes to get around

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Many people are lured to Los Angeles because they think it has no history and they can escape their pasts and reinvent themselves. That's not me. My great-great-grandmother—a single mother with an entrepreneurial spirit—came here from Washington State to start her own business. My great-grandfather came from a small village in China and became the patriarch of Los Angeles' Chinatown. This makes me a fifth-generation Angeleno, and I'm pretty confident you won't meet many people like me. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was born in Paris, where my parents were students, but I don't count that six-week aberration.) My sons are sixth-generation Angelenos—as rare around here as snowflakes.

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As a girl, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and other relatives in our family's antiques store in Chinatown. My grandparents used to take me to a restaurant we called "the little place" to have what was then called cha nau (and is now more popularly known as dim sum). Later we'd go shopping along Spring Street: to the International Grocery for preserved turnip, fermented tofu and sesame-seed candies; to the Sam Sing Butcher Shop, with its life-size gold-leafed pig in the window; and to the Lime House for Chinese custard pie.

But visiting my grandparents was about much more than things Chinese. One block south of my family's store was El Pueblo, the city's birthplace and home to Olvera Street—a tourist destination in the guise of an "authentic" Mexican marketplace. Since 1781, El Pueblo has been a place where art, culture, politics and rabble-rousers of every stripe have congregated. But what most people don't know is that in addition to the original Yagna Indian, Spanish and Mexican settlements, Los Angeles' first Chinatown stood here; not only did the whole city ripple out from El Pueblo, but my family did as well. My great-grandparents had a store here, and my grandfather's restaurant, facing the original "Spanish plaza," was only the seventh family-style Chinese restaurant in the city. I used to think my grandmother liked to take me to El Pueblo for "Spanish" food—the "polite" name for Mexican food in those days—but now I understand that she liked to go there to remember her past.

Sometimes we'd continue on to Little Tokyo, where my grandmother would buy interesting fabrics or pretty stationery. Other times we'd leave the family store and head a couple of blocks north along Broadway and then cut over to Hill Street to visit someone at the French Hospital, one of only two vestiges of what had once been a vibrant Frenchtown. (Philippe's restaurant, self-described home of the original French-dip sandwich, was just across the street from my family's store.) Much of the property along Broadway—today the main drag of Chinatown—is still owned by Italian families; that area used to be Little Italy. Today, the descendants of those pioneer families rent to immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China. I sometimes wonder if this single square mile or so has more layers of people, cultures and food than any other in the country.

It seems that once my relatives got here, they just had to see, do, eat and play their ways across the city... in good times and bad. My Chinese great-grandfather loved cars and bought a new one every year, although he never learned to drive. (His sons drove him around, and he let others borrow his car to advertise their businesses.) My great-grandmother Jessie and her husband, Harvey, were itinerant workers who followed harvests and whatever other work they could get from Alaska down to the Mexican border. Jessie's diary, written from 1905 to 1937, describes how, once she moved to Los Angeles, she loved to get behind the wheel of some beat-up jalopy or other and drive hither, thither and yon to find bootleggers, go dancing or bail Harvey out of jail. (He ended up "on the nickel," living and dying homeless on Fifth Street.) All this driving—crisscrossing the city—took a long time back then, between breakdowns, dirt roads, flat tires, scarce gas stations and run-ins with the law. But this didn't stop them, nor did it stop my mother's parents after one came from Texas, the other from New York State. So I guess my desire to explore the city is genetic.

By the time I came along, in 1955, my parents lived on a "walk street"—a street reserved for pedestrians—off Hyperion Avenue between the enclaves of Silver Lake and Echo Park. Once when I was a toddler, I sped out the screen door, zipped down the walk street, made a left at Hyperion and ambled along the sidewalk until a policeman spotted me. He took me back to my mom, who was horrified and embarrassed, but to this day she remains amused and bewildered by the fact that my nature was evident at such a young age.

I still feel the need to see what's out there. Like my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before me, I love to get in my car, roll down the windows, turn up the radio and drive. (By now you must be thinking: No wonder Los Angeles has so much traffic! No wonder it has so much smog! What about global warming? And you'd have a point, although in my defense, I drive a Prius and explore a lot on foot too.)

My first memories are of a truly decrepit downtown tenement; now I live in lush, celebrity-studded Brentwood. In all, I've lived in more than ten different parts of the city. Along the way, I've endured fires, floods, earthquakes and landslides. I've met surfers and hippies, seen a neighborhood turn into a ghetto and encountered deer, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, every kind of rat and a mountain lion. I've crossed the city in search of the best Korean bibimbap, Salvadoran pupusas and Ethiopian food I eat with my fingers. I'm old enough to remember the Watts riot, and my sons remember what happened after the Rodney King verdict.

Here's the thing: all this diversity comes at a price, and it hasn't always been a black-and-white, rich-and-poor or north-and-south-of-the-border issue. Los Angeles' first race riot occurred in Chinatown in 1871, when 19 Chinese men and boys were stabbed, hanged or shot to death. In 1945, on the day my aunt Sissee got married, my great-great-uncle was driving to church on the recently completed freeway. The kids got rowdy in the back seat, and one of my cousins (so many times removed) fell out of the car. It was fortunate he only broke his arm—the French Hospital wouldn't treat him because he was Chinese. In 1957, when my great-grandfather died, the City Council honored him as a Los Angeles pioneer, but one cemetery refused to bury him because he was Chinese. My parents were only the second mixed-race couple in my family to marry legally in this country; California law banned marriage between Chinese and Caucasians until 1948. And that's just one family's story. I like to think we can learn from the past, but as the film Crash illustrated, we're constantly bumping into each other, and on any given day anything can happen in the City of Angels.

I'm a city commissioner now and serve on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, which twice a month brings me back to my family's and my city's roots. Lately, after commission meetings, I've been walking to the block where my family had their store when I was growing up. Philippe's is still in business, and the double-dipped pork sandwich there is still the best. But these days I feel compelled to wend my way around the world by circling that single block, where I have the choice of takeout from Mexican, Filipino, Peruvian, Thai, Chinese or Texas barbecue restaurants. Then I get in my car and head home.

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