Los Angeles

Simone Martin-Newberry

I spent the first half of my life in Los Angeles; forehead pressed against the passenger side window, watching my mirrored face blur with the sights of the city where I was born.

I remember the sun and the heat, in all their various incarnations; the sweltering interior of a car parked out under a cloudless sky, the sizzling red blaze of the sunset piercing through the windshield. I knew well the long lean of the afternoon sun as it slipped through the living room blinds, staining white plastered walls with deep orange stripes. Those same stripes turning blue in the evening, reflecting off of passing cars and gliding across the stems and leaves of my mother’s houseplants.

I remember the manic landscape. Giant, smooth trunked trees with lollipop canopies, always pruned into odd and fantastic shapes. Jacaranda flowers bursting bright violet and floating like confetti onto the wide boulevards. Miles of sidewalk littered with fallen ficus berries and spiky sweetgum seedpods. I remember the fourplex apartments dwarfed by towering cacti, and yellowing snake plants sliced in half to show the plastic surgery advertisements behind them. I remember the gravel crunch and the earthworms that only crawled above ground during the winter rain, turning the sidewalk into a writhing, glimmering minefield.

I remember falling in love with the twisting mountain trails and clumps of chaparral, the smell of desert dust and sweetgrass that rose in the cooling air after sunset. How I could get so close to it all, to the seeds taking root and the insects buzzing in the brush. But then there was the distance. How long it took to get to those areas that were green and growing, and how none of it felt like it was mine. That painfully brief love affair with open air, dew-fresh, gloss green — always punctuated by the inevitable ride back to smog-locked, asphalt-ridden, and dusted gray. How far from nature I felt in the parts of the city I could call my own, where my sun-dark face matched those of my neighbors and abandoned lots blossomed wildly with weeds and litter.

I remember how, near the beach where my white friends lived, I could completely disappear into lush patches of strelitzia and agapanthus. How the sound of my breath dissolved inside the cool westside breeze. How the old tree branches merged into a heavy green canopy, covering and cooling the streets below. But back home, deep inside the landlocked city, tiny succulents squeezed through cracks in the cement, and my mother and I spent afternoons ripping dead and dried morning glory vines from balcony rails.

I remember how exposed I felt there. How giant the sky, and how lost and tiny I was beneath it. Back home, where the parks were sharp and geometric, bordered by busy boulevards and shorn for optimum surveillance from the insistent helicopters overhead. Where the biggest trees on my block were spindly palms, a million feet tall and too thin to offer more than a cruel strip of shade on the gum-stained sidewalk. Where the palm leaves, strands of green glittering in the harsh sun, reflected the glare like wet glass.

At home, I was safe. My mother’s giant collection of houseplants stood as a lush and leafy buffer between us and the clatter of the street. Home and nature were my two green sanctuaries, and chaos held sway in between. But nature, it seemed, was meant for a specific kind of person: the person who could afford to live near it. It was the prize for people who made enough money to segregate themselves from the disorder of the city, from the neighborhoods where the rest of us lived. It was impossible not to notice how the greener the area, the whiter its resident population. How often in upscale tree-lined neighborhoods, the only sizable groups of people of color were hurtling down the street in a city bus. How some of the most verdant areas of the city weren’t even accessible unless you had a car and the money to fill its tank to capacity.

So the game was set out before me early on. Every day I saw it with my own eyes; everything I could never afford but knew was possible, extreme opulence on constant parade. But it wasn’t the physical things that I felt myself yearning for. It was the space, the land, the plot of dirt to push a seed into and the time to watch it grow. I saw the elements at play: Money, Access, Privilege, Race. Three of the four I could find a way to get, but I was black and would always be, so the version of L.A. that I came to know was bound by limitations that felt impossible to break through. My dreams would have to be realized somewhere else. The seeds saved for another landscape, one that years later, I think I’m still looking for.

I recently went back to Los Angeles — my first time in nearly a decade. The city showed me that it’s still vast and incomprehensible. It’s still a strange, jumbled grid of green and gray and white and black, an intricate puzzle of well-tended parking lots, sun-curled vinyl, and faded ink. New train lines cut through old intersections, though most people remain tied to their steering wheels, high beams searching through an endless cloverleaf. The city still wheezes, choking out hot, smoggy breaths, struggling to hold onto whatever water it can find, and pump out whatever oil it can still generate.

And yet, it is still beautiful. During my visit, L.A. felt foreign, and just like home. Loose shapes in my memory rushed into focus. Emboldened by age and experience, I reclaimed old spaces for the younger me, the one that was desperate for a place to hold onto. I set foot back on familiar ground and came unhooked from the way I used to perceive the city. Wide avenues in black neighborhoods with their towering rows of pine trees helped me remember that nature is not just one thing. It’s not just the brush beyond the trailhead, or the lush landscape lining gated cul-de-sacs. It’s the heavily fruited crabapple tree in the yard of a Watts bungalow. It’s the sound of the palm trees on my old block, their fronds softly sweeping when the warm Santa Ana winds blew.

During my visit, I saw the looming San Gabriel Mountains burn orange and pink at sunset. I watched the familiar lull and crash of the waves of the Pacific. I retraced the curve of ancient oak branches in sandy canyons. And my eyes followed the immense chain of brake lights, so many lanes wide, disappearing in the distance. I awoke to a new realization: that nature permeates the city just as much as stoplight salesmen peddling bags of oranges, as much as poured and cracked cement, as much as sunlight.

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