Ramon is behind the bar counter, his arms locked hands leaning against the edge of the old worn teak wooden counter. In front of him, his faithful companion Annie moves her slight frame back and forth serving drinks to customers. Annie is from Thailand, was from Thailand. An immigrant steadfast and committed she has been living in Los Angeles for most of her adult life. Tonight this old haunt the HMS Bounty on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Koreatown seems more warm that usual. The crimson red walls, the quiet kaleidoscopic glow from the 1930’s jukebox, familiar faces, old faces, regulars, urban hipsters in skinny jeans and checked shirts, all huddled together. I used to live in the building were the HMS Bounty is, the Gaylord a handsome 1930’s art deco building.
Like with most places in Los Angeles the history is hidden to the visitor, across the road from the HMS Bounty was the Coconut Grove Hotel which was the night club in the Ambassador Hotel. The club paid homage to countless celebrities and artists. The Ambassador Hotel carried the tragedy of the death of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968. The hotel was subsequently demolished, and for the two years I lived in LA, from 2006 to 2008 the site was a very large sand pit. I returned in 2011 to find a K3 school and Kennedy Memorial Park built on the site.
I am on the edge of the counter sharing a beer with Nicholas the taxi driver, his thick black moustache, dark eyes and hair and that unmistakable 1970’s sense of style lingers. A veritable real life character playing a staring role in a Quentin Tarantino movie, it was Nicholas who taught me most about the City of Angels. More than I could have learnt from books, he had seen the city grow from a relatively large city in the 1960’s to a mega-city by the time I had arrived in 2006.
I was a student at the time doing my Masters in Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles. I was a ‘foreign student’, South Africa, Johannesburg born and bred. I knew the streets of Joburg too well and now, with the help of Nicholas I was getting to know the invisible stories of this city. Nicholas had lived his entire life in the city, as cab driver, navigating the highways and byways, traversing some of the longest boulevards in the world and speaking to everyone who happened to find themselves in his cab.
For forty years he moved through the city, and the city moved through him. He watched as the city gave birth to itself, through successive waves of immigration, English, Polish, Chinese, Mexicans, Guatemalans. Through economic highs and lows, through tragedy and siege, intolerance and injustice- the urban history of Los Angeles is sweeping and deep and can never be captured as vividly on the screen as the real life drama plays itself out. Cities are the stages through which our human dramas unfolds… It is here where we will have to make a stand, and discover whether we will be able to innovate out of of current crisis of consumption. The answers if any will come from those who are closer to the streets. But we have to make sure we listen…