In DTLA/37, authors Yennie Cheung and Kathryn E. McGee consider the “human temperature” of the ever-changing landscape of Downtown Los Angeles. From larger-than-life murals to burlesque to a historic hotel, these 37 stories along with full-color photographs capture the unique character of a place in which the City of Angels was born. An excerpt and Q&A deeply exploring Downtown Los Angeles between the authors and AFLW Senior Letter to L.A. Editor Jian Huang.
by Yennie Cheung
In the lobby of the LAPD’s Central Community Station, a despondent woman shows the officer at the front desk a missing persons flyer. The photo is of her elderly uncle, who’s likely here in Skid Row. The stoic officer takes her information, but the best he can tell her is this: Find Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph patrolling the streets. He can help.
A minute later, Deon himself steps into the lobby, but it’s too late; the woman has already left, and someone else approaches him. At the start of a typical work day, Deon is often met by people seeking his help or hoping to help him. At times, he’ll work two hours before he’s able to even change into uniform.
This scenario defies conventional wisdom about both the police and Skid Row. The homeless helping cops? The cops helping the homeless? But little is conventional about Deon Joseph.
An LA native, Deon joined the LAPD in 1995, wary of the police but in need of work. After two months in Skid Row, his outlook changed. Surrounded by violence, filth, and despair, he drew inspiration from his parents, who not only raised him and his three siblings, but cared for forty-one foster children. His father gave work to rehabilitating convicts. His mother was so devoted to feeding the needy, she was late to Deon’s wedding.
Their selflessness has informed his interactions with the people of Skid Row, whom he sees not as civilians, but as friends in need. Many are mentally or physically ill—easy prey for gangs and pimps. Often, Deon wakes women on the pavement and gently reminds them not to sleep on the sidewalk. This is not about law enforcement, but protecting them from rape.
Through his grassroots, compassionate approach, Deon helps others get clean, seek shelter, and find veterans’ assistance. He has even started a youth outreach program and an event called Ladies Night, which teaches women on Skid Row about self-defense, assault, and legal rights.
For his efforts, Deon has earned more than Skid Row’s trust. As he leaves the station and walks east on Sixth, the people he sees take turns saying hello, expressing their gratitude, and seeking 1-on-1 counsel. Near San Julian Street, a driver leans out the window to jokingly ask for an autograph just as a homeless man stops Deon for a hug. And as he turns around, the woman from the police station approaches.
“Officer Joseph?” she asks.
She hands him a flyer and retells her tale. When she’s done, he asks about her uncle’s health and promises assistance. The people of Skid Row, he tells her, often help him find the missing. He then gives her his phone number and tells her to call anytime. But when she does, she can forgo the titles.
“Call me Deon,” he tells her. And he means it
Yennie Cheung is co-author of the book DTLA/37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside-Palm Desert, and her work has been published in such places as The Los Angeles Times, Word Riot, Angels Flight • literary west, The Best Small Fictions 2015, and The Rattling Wall anthology Only Light Can Do That. She lives in Los Angeles.
by Kathryn E. McGee
It’s said that the Alexandria Hotel is haunted. Here in the Valentino Room, ghosts are easy enough to imagine. You can see them silhouetted against remnants of red and gold velvet wallpaper, floating over ruined furniture that was once the very best. The hotel was indeed the finest of its time, a turn-of-the-century wonder with luxurious ballrooms and ornate coffered ceilings—spaces suitable for the prosperous and elite.
Walking through these rooms, a visitor here can’t help but wonder: Did Rudolph Valentino really wander these halls? How often did he sleep here during the hotel’s early life, in the twelfth floor room that bears his name?
For reasons that have been speculated but remain unknown, the original hotel was sealed off from its 1911 addition. Concealed behind a wall are 8 floors — the upper four having remained undisturbed since the late 1930s, prompting still more questions.
What relics of the past endure behind these walls? Do the early occupants remain as they once were, ghostly forms perched on upholstered furniture in gowns and coattails? Does the scent of cigars linger, or the faint taste of champagne?
We know what the ghosts would see on our side, should they pass into the main building. While some of the original fabric remains, much has changed. The upper floors have been converted into affordable housing units, with longtime tenants having lived in these apartments for decades.
The grand areas on the lower floors are being renovated to house high-end restaurants and event spaces, which, despite their half-finished state, already feel alive with energy. When asked for access to the historic ballroom, one of the owners grasps his keys and proudly says, “Oh, you mean King Eddy? He’s this way.”
Inside the King Edward Ballroom, you can close your eyes and imagine the early days coming back — coved plaster ceiling repaired, broken ornaments recast, and gold leaf gleaming. The tall mirrors that adorn the walls reflect wraithlike images and conjure visions of the past.
Valentino would certainly have enjoy himself here, bathing in the splendor of the renovated ballroom space. A piano waits at the center of the room.
No one sits at the bench, but you can still hear the music play.
Kathryn E. McGee is co-author of DTLA/37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in Gamut Magazine and anthologies including Dead Bait 4, Horror Library Volume 6, Cemetery Riots and Winter Horror Days. She has an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert and is a member of the Horror Writers Association. She works as an architectural historian. For more information, please visit www.kathrynemcgee.com.
Jian Huang: Downtown is a part of Los Angeles unlike any other. What is your personal connection to this specific place and the genesis of this book? What drew you to this place? To these people? To these stories?
Yennie Cheung: I’m a native of Los Angeles, and I’ve always rolled my eyes when people describe this city as vapid and cultureless. L.A is only superficial to those who insist on looking superficially. For me, this book was a chance to show people the L.A. that I grew up in. My family spent many weekends in Chinatown when I was a kid, eating dim sum at Empress Pavilion or noodles at Sam Woo. My godmother used to own the flower shop on Alpine, across from Cathay Bank, and my uncle was such a popular waiter at Young Chow that KNBC put him in a commercial. So for me, DTLA has always been a place full of culture and community.
Kathryn McGee: I grew up in a suburban community in northern California and have always been intrigued by the opposite type of environment. Dense urban centers fascinate me with all those people, places and things tucked away to discover. I remember exploring Downtown when I first moved to Los Angeles in 2008. I had just started a job working as an historic preservation consultant and a handful of the buildings I was working on were located Downtown, giving me orientation on the history of the city and the magnitude of the change that was happening. That was an interesting time, when the neighborhood was really just beginning its renaissance. I remember touring new lofts in old commercial buildings with my uncle and looking across the street into vacant buildings, remarking on all that unused space.
Jian: Why 37 stories? Why not 50? Or 22?
Kathryn: The book is part of the “37” series about different neighborhoods around the world. The publisher, EnVille Publishing, has previously put out books about neighborhoods such as Ginza, Tijuana, La Jolla and Hillcrest. Thirty-seven is the human body temperature in celsius, and the concept behind the books is to measure the “human temperature” of a given neighborhood. Stories count down from one to 37, with each story incorporating a number tied in with the narrative. The goal is a kaleidoscopic view of the neighborhood–images of thirty-seven people, places, events, things that add up to a larger whole.
Yennie: Being given that parameter was good for us, actually. There are so many great stories to tell about Downtown L.A. that we needed to be told when to stop writing. It could’ve easily have been 50 stories. It could’ve easily been 66.
Jian: DTLA/37 captures a kind of Downtown that’s somewhat unusual in the sense that you capture people and places mostly overlooked, or maybe not looked at enough. What was your most difficult obstacle in unearthing this pulse of a quickly changing DTLA? What were some of the most memorable places you’ve found because of this book?
Yennie: We had a lot of delays between our days researching the book and publication, and the journalist in me worried about some of the stories becoming irrelevant. But because we focused so much on people, it didn’t end up being a problem because people don’t become irrelevant.
Kathryn: We thought a lot about how to balance the content of the stories. The book was always intended to be a “snapshot” of Downtown during a particular moment in history–the months during which we were writing the stories. There was so much we could say, so much that was happening, and figuring out what to cover and what to avoid was challenging. For example, we were very interested in The Broad, which opened while we were working on the book. We wrote a story about the museum, but ultimately replaced it with something else, realizing the topic was something that had been covered in so many articles already, that we might provide a more unique portrayal of the city by writing about a smaller, more idiosyncratic art exhibit. I think by having a large percentage of the stories focus on specific people we were able to give a sense of the energy of the neighborhood, and hopefully capture the pulse of its human element.
Downtown is a place of extreme opposites–there are the corporate buildings and the weekly rate hotels all within a few blocks from each other. Can you share some insight on this community? How do they function with each other? Is there a community?
Kathryn: Yes, there’s absolutely a strong sense of community.
Yennie: I think Downtown is a lot like L.A. as a whole: one community made up of many smaller communities. There’s a definite community in Chinatown, and it’s different from the one in the Historic Core, which is different from the one in Piñata Alley. Some communities interact often and well together, and others less so.
Kathryn: I think Yennie hit the nail on the head. I recall when we were interviewing tenants of the Pacific Electric Lofts building, one tenant noted that he had so many friends in Downtown and so much to do in the immediate vicinity, he often doesn’t even need to leave the block!
Yennie: Right. And I was surprised to learn about how much of a community Skid Row has. It has its leaders and its politics and its own social dynamic that I don’t think most people would think exists. At the Downtown Women’s Center, we met a formerly homeless woman who encouraged us to talk to the people outside and listen to their stories. She even showed us a book of photographs that a friend in the Arts District made for her. We were told that months before, when she first moved into the DWC, she would’ve been too guarded to talk to us, but we could see that with the support of her Arts District friends and the DW–her community–she had become more open and more confident.
Jian: Homelessness and gentrification is a theme that comes up in talks about Downtown. Did anything else surprise you when you explored these themes in your book?
Kathryn: I’d never spent much time on Skid Row prior to working on the book. Touring the Downtown Women’s Center was eye-opening and fascinating. It was heartening to see the good work that’s going on in attempts to help women who are homeless, though also deeply upsetting to drive and walk around that area and witness the extent of the homelessness problem. The tent cities have spread far beyond Skid Row and are increasingly visible throughout the city. While the ongoing renaissance is exciting–with new businesses opening up, underutilized historic buildings being preserved and converted to housing, new buildings being constructed–the gentrification that accompanies this change is a massive, widespread problem.
Jian: What were some of your favorite stories in this book and why?
Kathryn: I really enjoyed interviewing Carl Baldwin, one of the owners of the Velveteria, a velvet paintings museum in Chinatown. Carl’s story of coming to own thousands of velvet paintings and putting them on display was so personal and unique. A one-of-a-kind series of anecdotes that did a great job of establishing a strong sense of place for this relatively small part of the city. I also really enjoyed writing the piece about Hotel Alexandria, which focused some on the ghost stories associated with the closed off portion of the building known as the Phantom Wing. This part of the building had been untouched for decades at the time I wrote the piece. I assume it will eventually be opened up, if it hasn’t been already. It was cool to be there while there was still that bit of mystery.
Yennie: The two I always think about are of clothing salesman Big Larry and of Officer Deon Joseph. Big Larry always strikes me as a man who loves his job not just because he enjoys fashion but because he loves taking care of people. We talked about his customers, the homeless, the police, and the stores he worked in. He even showed me the scar he got when he, a black man, tried to defend his Korean bosses during the L.A. Riots. He has compassion for everyone and genuinely roots for everyone’s success, so it was great to discover that since interviewing him, he has gone from an employee to the owner of a store just a few doors down from where he worked.
Jian: One of the stories that really struck me came later in the book. Officer Deon Joseph and his unconventional approach to working in Skid Row. Can you talk a little bit more about this? How does this affect not just DTLA, but the city as a whole?
Yennie: It was hard capturing Deon in so few words; his life could be an entire book. I heard about Deon through a DTLA Facebook community, where he’d sometimes post selfie videos of himself and talk to people about his day or about issues affecting the community. Usually when people in this city talk of the LAPD, it’s with distrust, but the people in the group mostly expressed gratitude for his honesty and his hard work.
In the book, there’s a part of his story where he stops at a street corner, and several people interrupt him. We were actually stopped there so he could tell me and Tim Ronca a story about some portable toilets that were placed there a few years back, despite the LAPD’s protests. The toilets seemed like a good way to help people in an area with few public restrooms, but they were quickly taken over by gangs who used them to hide drug deals and kill people.
I think about this story a lot whenever people discuss the homeless situation in L.A. Remember those tiny, colorful houses that used to dot the overpasses on the 101? When they were removed, a lot of people protested and claimed that the city was being cruel to the homeless. I thought about Deon’s story about the toilets, and I realized those tiny homes carried a similar danger. I get that it’s something that would never cross most people’s minds, but I also get that the city can’t openly explain this without scaring people, so I appreciate that Deon is able to tell his story. The more we see and hear about the experience of the people on the front lines, the more we can see when our assumptions are wrong.
Jian: How do you see what is happening in Downtown fit into a larger conversation of what is happening with the City of Los Angeles? Or of our country as a whole? Is DTLA a microcosm of something bigger?
Yennie: I think DTLA is a fairly good representation of the diverse L.A. populace. Pretty much everyone exists here: every race, every economic status. [Poet] Chiwan Choi told me that he likes putting together events in and around DTLA because he doesn’t want people of color to feel excluded because of location; DTLA is more inclusive. I can see that. Both he and Big Larry have noted, though, that gentrification tends to put that sense of inclusiveness at risk.
Kathryn: The issue of rising housing costs came up repeatedly as we worked on the book. We interviewed such a wide range of people, speaking with residents of a high-end loft buildings and also those who work with the homeless on skid row. During the few years we were writing the book, the tent cities grew larger. The disparity between the rich and the poor is impossible to ignore. I can only imagine this mirrors regional and nationwide trends. While our book is in many ways a celebration of the positive things going on in the Downtown neighborhood, the recent renaissance has also brought with it rising housing costs that have made it difficult to find reasonably priced places to live.
Yennie: It’s great that we are building more housing Downtown—we need it—but it’s not helpful when it’s all expensive and the homeless and low-income tenants get pushed out and have increasingly fewer places to go.
Jian: How did writing this book change you? Are you now more committed to volunteering, for example? How did it affect your own relationship with the city?
Kathryn: Most of the time I’d spent in Downtown prior to working on this book was for work and focused on architecture of historic buildings and plans to rehabilitate or do something new with various properties. Being on the ground actually talking to the people who live and work in the buildings was a wildly different experience, one I’m very happy to have had. It was wonderful having conversations with people who run the historic Bob Baker Marionette Theater and learning about how they’ve made puppeteering part of their lives to ensure the artform endures. It was fascinating walking through the historic Pacific Electric Lofts building and meeting the people who live in trendy lofts that used to be offices. We learned all about what goes into production of a musical in a warehouse-turned-theater where the producers have to bring in all their own lighting, sound, seating, and other equipment. We got to sit down with someone who follows street artists around and documents the painting of murals. In short, the experience of working on the book focused me more on the people that inhabit the places than simply on the places themselves.
Yennie: Kathryn and I have definitely talked about finding ways to help the Downtown Women’s Center’s efforts, but I’m also working on readjusting my attitude in everyday discussions. Last year, I rode the Metro to the Women’s March, and there were so many protesters that we clogged every train compartment. At one point, a woman became angry because the overcrowded trains were making her late for work Downtown. She started arguing with people, and it got to the point where she threatened to call Officer Joseph on the crowd. Only I recognized the name. It occurred to me later that dropping his name suggested a lot about her background, and as I considered the possible consequences of her being late to work, I realized she was justified in being angry with us protesters. I’ve been making an effort to remember this whenever tensions flare, and I try to be more compassionate. It’s not been an easy effort lately, given the political climate, but I owe it to people like Deon Joseph to do better.
Jian: What are some of the current and future projects for you both?
Yennie: I took a lot of time off from fiction to work on this book, so I’m glad to get back into writing short stories. I’ve also been working on a book about my family’s history, which spans three continents.
Kathryn: I’m writing a novel that’s a thriller set in Los Angeles.