In the geographic imaginarium of Los Angeles real estate, where you rent is your own business, where you live is important, and where you move to the ultimate test of character and ambition. Our civic bible is the Thomas Bros. Guide, with its wildly illogical page numbers and its blocks of gray and green and its red letters that casually mark where Oz ends and the great hells of social indistinction — South Gate, Harbor City, the inexplicably named Hawaiian Gardens — begin. There is no greater public declaration of private ideals than buying a house and planting your flag near Sepulveda or Pico or one of the San Vicente boulevards, which can be thrilling, but also overlays a certain stress upon the usual stresses of home buying: You are what you buy. That bright qualifier adjacent (as in Hancock Park, Sherman Oaks, Silver Lake) subtly warns that your thoroughfares and neighborhood of choice had better be choice, or at least headed in that direction, otherwise in five years you might be stranded in the permanent twilight of La Habra.
And then there are the places that you’re never supposed to move to, neighborhoods that dropped off the A-list potentials and became dead zones about the time Carter took office. My husband and I just bought a home in Inglewood, news that has prompted more small but pregnant pauses and momentary blank stares than I care to recount. It’s not ignorance so much as incredulity: People know the city but don’t know anybody with any fashion sense living there, so they valiantly strive to make connections (has Magic Johnson moved to Inglewood recently? Kobe?), and can’t, so they hastily break their silences with “That’s wonderful!” I hear the de facto critique and find myself, against my will and better political judgment, on the defensive. “It’s a gated community,” I say, and immediately regret what must sound like an explanation as to why I would choose to live in a historically black and increasingly Latino town, a place half-jokingly referred to even in my youth as “Inglewatts” because of its preponderance of colored folk. I have my own quibbles with Inglewood — its comfortable per capita income seems criminally at odds with the poor performance of its schools, and its once-bustling downtown has long been mired in the doldrums. These are ostensibly issues of civic accountability and not of race, though the two are intertwined often enough for people to be as wary of a colored town’s government as they are of its color.
Of course it’s possible that some people have paused in their congratulations because they can’t place Inglewood any more than they can place Rancho Park — not because of its complexion but because it simply isn’t their neck of the woods. But hardly anyone can deny that real estate has much to do with race; its presence or absence virtually assures desirability or stagnation, nods of assent or groping for words. My husband says residents on the Westside and in other A-list areas pay more for their property in the form of a “white tax” — the more whites who live in an area, the more people pay simply for the privilege of being there. But there is also a black tax — a psychological toll of unease and uncertainty pressed upon people living in ethnically endowed places like Inglewood, however grand a house or good a deal they got. Never mind the convenient location, the proximity to the airport and the marina, the friendly Christmas-decoration competition that erupts on certain blocks and draws visitors from miles around every year. Inglewood is not L.A.’s “It” girl, and what does that say about you?
I don’t exactly know what it says about me, but I do know what it speaks to. The prospect of settling in Inglewood is indeed a thrill, in a homey, déjà vu kind of way. I grew up in South L.A., moved to the wilderness of West Covina in the mid-’70s for a year, then moved again to Inglewood when I was 15 — very close to the L.A. border and mere blocks from where I’d spent a very contented childhood. Inglewood ended up being where I spent a very contented adolescence. Ours was doubtless the only black family that moved from the urban core to the ’burbs, only to find the promised land so removed from what we really wanted that we moved back to the theoretical point of no return. But it was only theoretical: Inglewood became a spiritual base, the place I’ve always visited on holidays, birthdays, Sundays.
For the last nine years I’ve rented an apartment on the outer edge of mid-Wilshire and enjoyed the blend of rough and hip, watched shops and boutiques venture farther and farther south along La Brea before hitting a wall at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles at Pico. I enjoyed being equidistant from Roscoe’s and Flora Kitchen on La Brea and savoring all the contradictions therein. But Inglewood has no such ironies or ambivalence, no tensions of identity, which is the way I prefer home. When my husband and I first walked into the place we bought, there were no second thoughts or considerations about how far away Campanile was, or the Beverly Center, or what exactly Inglewood might be adjacent to. We described the place, not the other way around, and that truly felt like the end of the matter.
To much of the L.A. planet, however, it’s not the end at all. People react not only to the social assignations of neighborhoods, but to streets. Our main drag to the east is Crenshaw Boulevard, which the public mind associates with Boyz N the Hood, not Palos Verdes, the tony peninsula that lies at its south end. I would hardly be surprised if one day P.V. quietly renamed its portion of Crenshaw something more genteel, the way Redondo Beach and other South Bay enclaves changed their portions of offending Compton Avenue to Marine. The main street to our west is Prairie, which runs alongside the Forum and has proved useful only to Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who owes at least some of his iconoclastic vision to many of L.A.’s least-thought-of locales. (In Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson observed with some disdain that he didn’t have many partners in 818 as he drove through the pleasant but featureless San Fernando Valley.) But Inglewood has also been filmed idyllically. Several years ago, while sitting through the guileless comedy Wayne’s World, which is set in a sleepy, largely white Midwestern burg, I was startled to recognize Fairview Avenue as Inglewood’s own. I felt vindicated, then peeved — why couldn’t Inglewood just play itself? I knew the answer as I asked it: because it, and other places like it, are significant only as the buffer, the undisputed end of Oz where we know to stop or make a detour or proceed with caution. Such is the axis on which the world of L.A. real estate turns, and any amount of Inglewood boosterism is not likely to change this redlined global order.
But none of these realities can prick my bubble of excitement about moving back home, or the triumphal, at-last satisfaction of becoming a homeowner and a certifiable adult at 39. My husband and I have no plans to lobby for street-name changes to suit any lurking social aspirations. We are not interested in breaking away from the city to become a new little stigma-free but oddly stranded republic, which is how North Hills came about when certain Panorama City residents started looking askance at certain others. Yet, sociological analyses notwithstanding, our motives in moving here are about as middlebrow as anybody else’s — we wanted the small but jewel-like lawn, the hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window, the luxuriant quiet. We got all that. I’m getting it twice. The stuff of dreams, and of home, ranges all over the Thomas Guide map. Probably on those missing pages.