"Used syringe," she said with pursed lips, pointing.
"Drowned rat," she said, stooping to observe a very large rodent lying dead in the gutter.
"Gang graffiti — EAT THE RICH," she continued, reading aloud.
"Good thing I’m not rich," I joked.
My idea was backfiring. Instead of changing my sister’s idea about my neighborhood, she was changing mine. I hadn’t wanted to leave my last apartment, an amazing little pad oozing with charm, but I’d had no choice. Ironically, I was producing a radio piece on affordable housing in Los Angeles at the time. Guess what I discovered? There isn’t any. So when I scored what seemed to be the last affordable place in L.A., I jumped.
A few days after my sister’s visit I went for another walk, determined to recapture the appreciation I had for my hood. At the base of the sprawling staircase, I took a few preparatory breaths, then huffed my way up two at a time. Heart pounding, cheeks flushed, I stopped at the top to take in the view. Like a perfectly balanced painting, the scene was divided into thirds — bright blue sky, billowy white clouds and green, crushed-velvet hills.
I strolled down Park Street, lined on one side with houses where dogs were sunning themselves in front yards, and massive eucalyptus trees on the other. Ducking under a low branch, I made my way toward the wide dirt path that runs above the park. Surrounded by nature, I hoped to leave the city and my worries behind. Then I saw some clothing strewn under a tree and my mind began to spin an elaborate tale of murder and worse, with imagined attackers leaping out from behind bushes.
I followed the path for about half a mile, trying to shake my head free of these thoughts, the sound of rustling leaves soothing and quieting my mind. After a few minutes, I reached a lovely, manicured grove — an unexpected bit of human intervention blooming with fragrant lavender, white and yellow daisies, flowering succulents, and red bottle brush buzzing with bees, all framed by curved tree branches resembling driftwood. I sat on the solitary green bench facing the downtown skyline and closed my eyes.
"Hello," I heard.
I had to strain to see him, sitting on the ground with a plastic bag, gathering leaves with his bare hands. He was short and squat, like a garden gnome. He had a bald, dome-shaped head and a face like a beaten-up pumpkin.
"Oh, hello," I said tentatively.
"Catching some rays?" he asked in a coarse voice.
"Just enjoying the day," I replied sincerely.
"It’s a great spot, isn’t it? The best in L.A., I think," he added.
"Definitely one of them," I answered.
His scraggy dog came over demanding attention. I gave him a scratch and noticed that his tag said "Lucky."
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Just cleaning up leaves. I help out here."
He told me that the garden had been planted 25 years earlier by a group of retirees.
"Gradually the women started dying off, and now there’s just one of ’em left. I saw her one day and asked if I could help. I’ve been volunteering for about 14 years now."
With that I knew my sister had been wrong. Echo Park was a warm and welcoming community of diverse people who create beauty for beauty’s sake. I was grateful I had found such a place to live. Any reservations I’d had about the garden gnome and my new neighborhood dissipated.