It’s a hot summer afternoon and Rob and I are walking the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Vendors display their goods while tourists stroll past, bodybuilders sculpt their torsos on Muscle Beach while musicians catch up with the sound of the ocean. It’s Hollywood at its most picture perfect: Venice Beach as it is known around the world. Like in Hollywood, though, nothing is as it seems.
We are reaching out to homeless teenagers, many of whom flock around this small strip of land by the sea. Although some of them clearly live on the streets, for the untrained eye most of them are unrecognizable as homeless people. “Shame and pride,” Rob explains. “They don’t want you to know, they just want to be like you.” One of his many lessons that day.
A little earlier Rob had sat me down. When a man like Rob speaks to you, you listen. “A bad case of hood disease,” he says. He got caught up in gang life and street culture. That was then. He healed. Now he works to keep teenagers on the right track and off the streets he knows so well. He fires questions at me, testing his waters. Am I streetproof? I pass. “One more thing before we go out”, he says. “We are on gang turf. We are being watched. Play by the rules.”
“Wait, what?” My image of gang turf is not compatible with musicians and tourists. It turns out this little stretch by the sea belongs to not one but three gangs. Need a place to rest? Sell your stuff? Conduct business? Sure. Quid pro quo is what it means. Rob deals with the OG’s – Original Gangsters – so the kids can be safe. That afternoon, while I hand out water and information to the teenagers in need, Rob works a turf of his own. I watch the unspoken exchange of looks, fist bumps, signals. I watch him eagle-eying everything that goes unnoticed by the instagramming flock of tourists.
Last week I returned to the Boardwalk. It was the first time since that summer afternoon. The magic is there, it’s easy to tap into and forget about the worlds underneath. Strolling around it hit me, though, that California is exactly that: a fantasy on the outside – something for everyone, the place to make your dreams come true – but when you scratch the surface, you see an uncomfortable truth.
It is the capital of homelessness and income inequality. The richest state in the country also has the highest poverty rate. Middle-income families are moving out in high numbers, simply because they cannot afford the rent anymore. The cost of living is higher then anywhere else in the country, yet affordable housing is 3 to 4 million units short in California. The list goes on.
It has been almost a year since I landed in LA and California has been generous to me: there were many adventures, stories and encounters that I cherish. But at the end of the day, there is this aching feeling that something’s off. That California is broken. The state where you could once be poor and happy has become a state for the happy few. Ironically the resistance state, home of progressive Democrats has become the national symbol of income inequality. If that is not uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.
Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.