Colonialism and Gentrification in a Garage Sale Find

The other day, I was visiting my wife’s old neighborhood—Silverlake—and happened to stumble upon one of my favorite things:  a garage sale.  If you’ve been going to garage sales, you know there are all sorts—all different categories:  the spring cleaning garage sale, the old person garage sale, the hipster garage sale.

I like the old person garage sale—a sale filled with the hoarded stash of a lifetime (some trash, some treasure).  You can always find something interesting that an oldtimer no longer wants and make off with it for a song.  Once I got fifteen French cut glass serving bowls for four bucks.  They came in a punch bowl, which I did not want and which I promptly donated to Goodwill.  “I don’t have any use for jello.  I’m glad nobody eats jello anymore,” said the old man.  It was a steal: These bowls normally go for 5 bucks a pop on ebay but I was never going to sell them.  I immediately saw in them a new purpose:  side dishes for all the little pickles that Asian people love to eat.


The Silverlake sale was a hipster garage sale—my least favorite sale.  Hipster garage sales are usually overpriced.  At the garage sale was all sorts of knick knacks and useless interesting-ness, artfully arranged and the hosts were busy drinking wine from mason jars and talking about their favorite bands.  It was there that I saw the bust:  A small chalk sculpture of a beautiful black woman with striking blue eyes, wearing a muzzle on her mouth and chain around her neck—a gruesome image that evoked slavery and sadomasochism.

“Look,” I said to my wife.


“Do you know what that is?” said the German man.  He seemed embarrassed to be in possession of the sculpture.  “An old roommate left that behind and I kept it on display but had to take it down.”


“That’s Anastacia,” I said.  “Anastacia is a cult figure in Brasil—a religious saint.”  I launched into the kind of Wikipedia explanation that only a one-time college professor can give:  that Anastacia was a mulata slave, a child born of rape perpetrated on her mother by a white master; that Anastacia resisted her own white master’s advances; that she was punished for her resistance through the manacles and the muzzle; that her story is one of triumph.  “Anastacia’s eyes are blue because they are testimony to her rape.  They are fierce because they signal that she can be silenced but unbroken.”

Her story and image are legendary in Brasil.

Her story and image are legendary in Brasil.

All throughout Northern Brasil—that plantation zone where slaves were worked to death under the merciless hot sun—it is common to see striking black people with blue eyes, eyes as blue as Dresden China.  I spent a month in Northern Brasil, in the city of Salvador, which was the entry-point for the slave trade and the administrative center for the surrounding plantations.  The historic center, which stands at the top of the hill, affording views of the harbor upon which ships filled with slaves arrived, is called Pelourinho:  The Little Pillory—the place where slaves were whipped as public spectacle.

At the center of the historic district--Pelourinho--stands the pillory at the top of the hill.

At the center of the historic district–Pelourinho–stands the pillory at the top of the hill.

During that time in Salvador, I bought a rosary with Anastacia’s image at one of the major white-washed cathedrals on a hill.   This is not uncommon:  throughout the region, you can buy trinkets of Anastacia to put on your home altar.  She is a major figure in Candomble–a religion that fused Catholicism with West African religious traditions.  And people do worship her.

“What is that?” I asked a young black man, when I first bought my rosary.

“Anastacia,” he said.  But he did not say it like me—with a shock of recognition.  He uttered the name with reverence, as if she were everything to him, and that everybody should know who she was, and that there was no need for further explanation—even to a tourist.

“This is just like the Antique’s Road show,” said the German.  “Do you know what it’s worth?”

“Probably not much.  The images are common and probably brought back as a tourist souvenir.”

I didn’t buy that bust of Anastacia.  I would feel weird displaying it in my house.  I didn’t even take a picture of it, because of some superstitious idea about graven images—the indelicacy of taking pictures of pictures.  Of course, Anastacia was a picture of a picture herself:  We don’t know what she actually looked like.  Her image was made by the hand of a Frenchman who visited the Portuguese colonies much earlier—a man who then created a lithograph of an anonymous slave girl as a document of his travels.  And this lithograph with the eyes later painted blue would become the de facto image of Anastacia whose eyes may have done the witnessing but who herself was never witnessed by anybody who could live to document her.

The Frenchman's image of an anonymous slave that would stand in for Anastacia. The blue eyes would be added later.

The Frenchman’s image of an anonymous slave that would stand in for Anastacia. The blue eyes would be added later.

After the garage sale, we drove past my wife’s old house—a beautiful house behind the reservoir.  Silverlake is one of Los Angeles’s first gentrification neighborhoods and has moved from the grungy to ritzy over the course of two decades.  Today, it is a status area, filled with muckety-mucks and industry-types.  Eric Garcetti, our very own mayor—a man of much wealth and status who grew up in hoity-toity Bel Air—bought his first house in Silverlake.  And monied hipsters from all over the world converge upon it.  I doubt that we could ever live there now.

Our mayor, Eric Garcetti.

Our mayor, Eric Garcetti.

And this got me to thinking about the strangeness of the life of an object—how it can move in and out of so many people’s hands and have so many different meanings, from sacred to profane.  You see:  the image of Anastacia, only a few months earlier was the object of a big internet war.  A designer in Brasil put her image on a dress and marched it down the catwalk on the body of a white Brasilian model.  And that image, much like Anastacia’s image, got sampled and instagrammed.  It took on another life in different continents and when it made its way to England and America, it became the source of outrage—an image of white people appropriating the image of black slavery and turning it into a money-making opportunity.


In none of these discussions was Anastacia named.  Anastacia was simply now a black female slave with a muzzle:  demoted to the position that the white Frenchman gave her when he first created her.  And in the outrage, the fact that Brasilians revere Anastacia—that they have even created a popular television soap opera depicting her life—was notably absent.

All this was floating in my mind as we visited my wife’s old neighborhood.  “Do you think you could bring yourself to display that thing in our house?”

“We have too many things already,” said my wife.  “You go to too many garage sales.”

“We could turn around and maybe I could buy it and put it away.  I could give it as a gift to Tracy.”  Tracy is a professor of African American Studies and I was sure she would find it interesting and not insulting.

“It’s too late.  I don’t want to turn around,” she said.  And I guess I was already thinking too much about things.  I was making too much about something that was simply a bust.

Hennessey & Ingalls: New Arrival in the Arts District

I decided to stop by the Art’s District at high noon this Saturday to check out a bookstore I’ve been frequenting since junior high:  Hennessey & Ingall’s.  Hennessey & Ingall’s used to occupy a storefront in one of the most expensive sections of Santa Monica, just a few blocks from the cliffs that overlook the beach.  Before that, it was in Westwood, near the university and the grand old theaters.  Each time it’s moved, it’s moved because the rents got expensive.  And each time, I’ve followed it… by bicycle, by bus and now…by car.  I’m a loyal customer.


The bookstore itself is that rare creature:  a specialty shop that offers a trove of Design, Architecture, Art book.  It also boasts a staff of long-time employees who know their selection inside and out.  It’s not the kind of bookstore where you buy a souvenir mug or a tote bag with the effigy of a writer that you will never read.  The only magazines on the racks are for the trade:  real designers.  And you’ll see designer-y people there with their chunky glasses, their improbable avant-garde fashions and their gaunt tans that come from being bathed in the synthetic sunlight of a computer screen.  Back when me and my artsy-fartsy friends were no-account kids with very little money, the staff at Hennessey & Ingalls let us sit and read for hours on end without chasing us out.

The irony of the Art’s District—the bohemian enclave at the Northeast border of downtown Los Angeles where Hennessey & Ingalls has relocated—is that it no longer houses artists.  The first exodus happened over a decade ago when the “revitalization” of downtown slipped into overdrive.  Before that, downtown had almost no traffic, no grocery stores.  There were homeless, indigents, artists–all of which made it feel almost like the stage set of an apocalyptic futuristic movie.  The artists took over a warehouse or factory and then they developed their make-shift lofts.

Then, developers swooped in right when I was finishing graduate school–just around 2003.  And within less than half a decade, “lofts” were no longer DYI spaces but simply mass-market condos with exposed brick and concrete floors, geared toward the prosperous professionals–the dentists and accountants and pharmacists who imagined themselves to be week-end warrior bohemians.  The rents–the thing that attracted the people who brought order to the world–shot through the roof. Many of the people who left were my friends—friends driven out by high rents and congestion.

Shingo, a Japanese Buddhist priest and painter—a holy man who was known on more than one occasion to chew a tab of ecstasy–was one such friend:  he finally realized that downtown was no longer a location that could foster true art.  So he left his impeccable  white-on-white loft, which was within striking distance of the cluster of grand temples in the heart of Little Tokyo.  Shingo supported himself for a few years as a janitor when he first came to the United States; his loft reflected that hand-built orderliness–the tidy compartmentalization–that is so quintessentially Japanese.  He moved to the jungles of Big Island, Hawaii.


Shingo seated in front of his abstracts

Just this last year, my friend Yahnoo—a fiber artist who learned his craft among the tribal people of the Amazon—built himself a house in Baja, Mexico.  Life is cheaper there and he can ply his craft, which is both time and space-intensive; he needs room to weave his gargantuan portraits.  But he will be sorely missed, not only for his great art, but also for the fact that he was a node in an ecosystem—a man whose humongous loft provided housing for hundreds of artists and hippies and drifters passing through.  A man who hosted yoga-potlucks and large-scale rave parties.

Among his many house guests, I count my childhood friend who used the space to practice the art of mime and who ultimately founded an acclaimed theatre troupe in Paris:  Pas de Dieux. I probably will see Won one day, though he will probably never be able to move back to his home town.  I will miss seeing Yahnoo–the Korean man with the dred locks and flowing African gowns.  And I doubt I will see any of his friends again–all of whom are notable artists attached to major galleries but still struggling to live small lives despite their outsize reputations.

The Arts District is now thoroughly developed.  There is a huge complex at one end that charges $4,500 dollars a month to people who like to think of themselves as “creatives”—that adjective that has somehow become a noun.  The building is designed by some noteworthy architect but it has the modular look of a futuristic prison concocted by IKEA.

One Santa Fe

There are now bus tours filled with Midwesterners who get dropped off at the very fancy new beer hall put up by a developer who must have spent close to a million dollars just to build it out.  The tourists–they try their best to look like Angelenos.  But true Angelenos don’t dress like that—their informality and studied casual is still just too formal:  a copy of a copy of a copy.  They must have spent months researching their look.

Van Leeuwen is the ice cream of the attractive alternative crowd

Van Leeuwen is the ice cream of the attractive alternative crowd

Hennessey & Ingalls finally found a storefront in that famous complex where the “creatives” reside, taking its rightful place near the Vegan Ice Cream shop with the Dutch name from Brooklyn, New York.  I hear the vegan ice cream tastes almost as good as real ice cream, despite the lack of any actual milk…but I’ve never tried it.  The press releases have championed the resurrection of the dearly loved bookstore as a sign of the artistic bona fides of the area.  But I don’t ever remember Hennessey & Ingalls ever doing a full-court-press publicity campaign ever.  And for me, the fact that there are press releases and a systematic publicity campaign makes me wonder if the bookstore is the same thing—a community bookstore—or something altogether different.

Echo Park: The Gentrification of the Eastside

I did a little detective work this weekend, visiting parts of the city I enjoy but don’t often hang around in:  the string of neighborhoods, like pearls on silk cord–Silverlake, Los Feliz, Echo Park–that sit on Sunset Boulevard.  They are all part of the gentrifying LA.

I wish I could say that this was intentional.  But basically,  I missed the movie time at my favorite old-timey theater—the Vista—so instead, I wandered through that part of town aimlessly, poking my nose into everybody’s stew pot, and finding myself at my favorite thrift store in one of LA’s up-and-coming neighborhoods—Echo Park.

For those who don’t know, Echo Park is one of those old neighborhoods in LA that fell into disrepair, gang-land violence, and slumminess.  Its main attraction is its amazing man-made lake, which anchors a park–a park that has now been revamped, conveniently, the moment a certain demographic of moneyed professionals started refurbishing the large, lumbering housing stock.

The park is a jewel.  You can feed ducks and geese, or ride a pedal boat into the spume of the fountained center.  You can fish.  There are lotuses that bloom and a yearly lotus festival that has a Chinese-y flavor.  I still remember going, once upon a time in a distant childhood, to the park and seeing the strange people and their ungodly ways.

Echo Park

Echo Park is far east from the beach communities—so close to downtown that it could make out with its towering skyline and give it a nice hickey.  Word of caution:  You shouldn’t say it’s the “eastside” because that might get a lot of true eastsiders upset.  For true eastsiders, the “east LA” designation refers to the line east of the LA river—a red line spelled out in concrete that developers only allowed brown people (Mexicans, Japanese, Blacks) to live in.

Downtown is still technically west of the river, so anything west of downtown is the westside.  This makes for a lot of high feelings among people who feel that gentrification is all around us, pushing us in all directions–taking and scattering and spitting in our faces.

Still, celebrities like James Franco, Madonna, Zoe Deschanel—they all have chosen to live on the eastside for specific reasons that have everything to do with the way the ordinal points of the city are imagined.  To live in Echo Park is to live in the Eastside as a state of mind.  It is to wear buffalo plaid and a beard and tattoos.  It is to deliberately reject the polo shirt and the Mercedes Benz.

Madonna's House in Los Feliz

Madonna’s House in Los Feliz

The French might say that it is a gesture of “epater la bourgeoisie”…thumbing their noses at the straitjacket of conventionality, often as a way to achieve an elite status–the status of the bohemian.  Many decades ago, the writer Paul Fussell described this very French provocative-ness as something akin to walking on a plane in a see-through blouse without wearing a bra.  I would update this by saying it’s like doing all that and not shaving your armpits and tattooing that hairy armpits are cool in calligraphy on the side of your neck.

The eastside self-consciously rejects the westside–with its conventionality and its prime real estate and its striving lux-ness.  And Echo Park has been the last part of the steady spill-over of gentrifying neighborhoods—each like dominoes adjacent to the other; each producing their own refugees seeking better parking, better rents and gentrifying the neighboring outskirts a bit faster.

First, there was Los Feliz where Leonardo de Caprio grew up; Madonna put it on the map and it was made.  Second, there was Silverlake where our current mayor Eric Garcetti bought a home; it was at one time the home of punk and is now the home of postpunk parents with six-figure jobs and toddlers in onesies that bear the image of punk rock icons and “fuck-the-establishment” aphorisms.  Third, there was Echo Park, which has experienced the fastest boom; the housing stock is bigger and better as you close in on the city core.  Eric Garcetti–our great mayor—bought another home here and chooses to live in this corner of the city, eschewing the mayoral mansion in staid Hancock Park, which is too historic, too stodgy, too old-money.

Whenever I’m in Echo Park, I make a bee-line to my favorite thrift store—Out of the Closet.  It’s a really great place for books, because graduate students—those bellwethers of gentrification—live there.  Academic books that go for fifty to a hundred dollars often will be available for a buck.  Also grad students are very selective book hounds, so their abandoned collections are usually well thought-through:  not only excellent titles but standard editions.  “I want to stop in here for a minute,” I said to my wife after a coffee at the fancy schmancy Blue Bottle–a shrine to cold drip coffee, subway tiling, and sleek modernist lines.

I wanted an out of print book that was already on special order for me in the mail but which had not yet arrived and I was sure that Out of the Closet would have it.  When you have that kind of lust for a book, you will search it out like a serial rapist with an uncontrollable compulsion and a wandering, wondering eye.

“You’re such a saint,” I said, as we walked past the workers offering free AIDS tests.  “I know you hate these places.” The sign on their little table–a table covered with freebie condoms and pamphlets–announced in bubble letters that if you take a test, they will give you a ten dollar Metro Pass.  Echo Park is on a major transportation line and it is the epicenter of the bike lane movement–its zero-emission sensibility somehow aligned with its trophy-veganism.  My wife takes the Metro from downtown once a day, so she could use a few extra swipes.  Still, I was on a mission.  There was no time to spare.


But no such luck.  The book selection was actually terrible.  I walked through the neat racks and did come across some amazing finds:  a Jil Sander suit that normally retails for 4K, a Brooks Brother’s special edition Women’s suit that would look great with pearls, an Ungaro Camel Hair Coat made in Italy.

I took none of it home but I did try the Jil Sander suit on.  I have that exact same suit in glen plaid, so I know how much it costs full retail.  And this Jil Sander suit fit me better than my own. Except this one had scuff marks–as if somebody had fallen off a motorcycle during a weekend heroin binge, one that would get them fired from their job as an executive in one of the glittering towers in the distance.  “If I was in a punk rock band, I would buy this suit and put patches all over the fucked up parts.”

“This would make a very stylish zombie outfit for Halloween,” said my wife, looking at the price tag.  “Even at 50 dollars, it’s a steal.”  I could hear the mockery in her tone.

So what is my take-away?  The writing is on the wall:  the graduate students have moved out.  The yuppies have moved in.  Home prices here are already past the million dollar mark.  This is the common wisdom repeated over and over again.  But a million dollars is too abstract for my little mind.

I guess I should have known all along.  But for me, this thrift shop is the tell-tale footprint by the back alley entryway.  It is the splash of blood on the hem of a skirt—the dog howling late in the late of the night.  It is the sound of crunching on gravel that startles you awake after a fitful sleep.

The Parrot Should Be the New State Bird of California

There are parrots in my neighborhood—feral creatures who were once domesticated, tamed, and now free.  If you’ve never seen feral parrots, here is what you need to know:  They are loud mother-fuckers and they fly in great packs of emerald and vermillion, like thugs from a gang with outlandish colors.  If you have ever been in the presence of parrots like these, you will know it.


There was a time when feral parrots wandered all over Los Angeles.  I still remember them as a kid on the posh Westside, making their wild unmistakable ruckus.  It is one of my earliest memories in a refugee childhood where, somehow, through the grace of God and the whim of circumstance, I ended up in a good place with great schools and clean water.  This is not always the case with refugees, something my parents never let me forget.

I still remember playing in my back yard, smelling dinner, but resisting the urge to come in–the sky still had not darkened.  When one of those birds land, all of them land—and they stake out a tree or a telephone wire and, like a meeting of Shriner’s with little red Fez plumage, hang out in the arbor of their make-shift hotel lobby, yucking it up with their chums.

Photography of 2012 July 4th Parade hosted by Shriners in Charlotte NC

Those strange birds pretty much disappeared from the Westside at a certain point—a victim of the overexpansion of the city.  The Ballona wetlands, a marshland that served as a wildlife sanctuary–now covered in concrete, probably their resting place—is now stucco condos and strip malls…despite loud protest from conservationists.   The parrots have been displaced further east and their sanctuary has become the digs of new birds of passage:  tech workers and movie industry grunts who want to build their nests within striking distance of the seagull beaches.

I’ve long since left the Westside and my gritty new neighborhood to the East–Highland Park–still has some open spaces that haven’t been bulldozed.  There is Griffith Park—the largest urban park in the nation—that still is home to rattlesnakes and coyotes and cougars. There is the Audubon Center, nestled up against the hills and bounded by the freeway.  There is Eugene V. Debs park with its man-made reservoir.  And so when I moved to this area just a few years ago, I was surprised to suddenly see, to suddenly hear, these reminders of another time, another place.

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

There are 13 species of wild parrot that were brought from South America to the United States as pets.  Some speculate, that a major fire in Bel Air—that rich part of Los Angeles filled with sheiks and movie moguls—is the genesis of these creatures who were released into the urban-scape by their owners who saw no other way to save them in the face of natural disaster.

But to the people who live in my largely Latino neighborhood, the parrots are not the mascots of the wealthy, but metaphors of the immigrant spirit—its persistence, its hardiness, its collectivity.  There is a mural on a portal to one of our iconic stairways, upon which is painted the parrots that are supposed to be stand-in’s for the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans that have come from further South to find their home.

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area. Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area. Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

I am personally tempted to see the parrot as a metaphor of immigration.  The first time I re-encountered the feral parrots–a huge convocation of them–was in the city of Orange, a picturesque little town, anchored by Chapman University in Orange County.  Orange County is the adoptive home to Vietnamese refugees and houses its largest population outside of the United States.  And it is on the bucket list of every Vietnamese immigrant to visit the Little Saigon that is only a twenty minute drive from downtown Orange.

I was also an immigrant of sorts:  I had  just returned to California after a few years in the Midwest and, to be confronted with this spectacle in such a place as Orange County, made me immediately realize that the parrots are some kind of a symbol not only of my own migrations across the continent but, also, of the migration of my people across the globe:  we are the exotic domesticated–the feral and the invasive—incapable of being caged.

But now I realize that this is just me reading into things—reading into things with the kind of chauvinism that centers myself upon the looking glass of myself.  After all, Los Angeles is not just the place where parrots thrive.  Neither is the Southland.  Rather, we find parrots all over California.  And indeed there is even a documentary about the parrots of San Francisco, which makes San Francisco parrots more famous than their thug cousins in Southern California…even though we are so much closer to the movie industry.

Cape-parrot_Poicephalus_robustus-flock_Photo-Colleen_Downs (1)

And so the parrot is really a metaphor of our great state—of migrants in general, whether they are Midwestern bohunks who come to become actors in the machine of the movie studios, or sheiks from Saudi Arabia who buy up mansions that they will demolish and rebuild in Bel Air, or Guatemalans who cross to the other side to find new homes, or Vietnamese who wheel through the world in search of a place to land.  The parrot is our great State Bird.