History. It’s a strange, wonderful thing.
I like to think of it as a combination of the two words “his” and “story.” We have a story. The person next to us has a story. The person 5,000 miles from us has a story. That tree behind your yard has a story. The place, the city, the country you’re sitting in right now has a story.
Every single day, we’re making history. Every single day, we’re standing and living in history.
It’s kind of chilling and empowering to think of that, isn’t it? Not that we do. Well, I for one never think of it that way. I mean, it’ll be kind of weird, you know? To be sitting in the bathroom taking a particularly relieving dump, and suddenly tell yourself: “Ah ha, this here, is a historical moment!”
But there are times when you really take a look around, and realize what a historical moment and place you’re living in right now, and you get these Goosebumps all over.
Recently, I’ve been getting those more frequently, ever since I’ve starting writing on my school’s weekly column, “Cross Bites.” The subject of my column is the interaction of different cultures in relation to food.
At first I had planned to write about the cultures in all of America, but so far I’ve not had to go that far beyond my circle in Los Angeles. I’m so darn lucky to live in Los Angeles, the city of criss-crossing cultures. And I’ve been having tremendous fun writing my columns, because I’m getting that extra incentive to explore all the little ethnic niches in this exciting, rich city.
One of the little ethnic enclaves I’ve discovered is MacArthur Park, and it happens to be situated half a mile away from my apartment in Koreatown.
No, it’s not Korean. It’s Guatemalan, Jewish, Honduran, Salvadoran, Mexican, Korean and yeah, a whole lot of ethnicities bumping and straddling one another in one historically fascinating spot.
It’s not the most beautiful park. It is divided into two parts; a path encircling a man-made lake, and a recreational field where there’s daily soccer matches. It’s also in a pretty rundown neighborhood, where there is a permanent putrid odor and grey splotches of pigeon poop splattered on the pavements.
I drive by the park every week on my way to church, and I never really gave it any more attention than a cursory glance.
And then one day I walked across it. It took me about eight minutes to walk across it, which is about seven and a half minutes longer than it would take me to drive past it, and in that amount of time, I saw things that caught my interest.
For example, these evangelists.
They’re on the megaphones for hours and hours, passionately evangelizing about Christ and salvation.
And then oooh look! A vendor selling raspados—Mexican snow cones!
And more raspado carts!
Like a good curious journalist, I went back home and started googling this place. MacArthur Park. Who knew it was such a flavorful area?
Named after the great General Douglas MacArthur, this park is actually one of Los Angeles’ Historic Cultural Monument. It was built in the 1880s, a time when the neighborhood, Westlake, was a vacation destination for the upper-crust people. In fact, it’s still surrounded by those old buildings that once used to be luxurious hotels and theaters. The lake was a posh picnic spots for families that could afford mink coats and tobacco.
But by the mid-1900s, the lake was littered with trash, broken beer bottles, disposed weapons and unsightly remainders of murders.
By the late 20th century, MacArthur Park was a bloodbath. Gang fights, grisly shootouts, shady drug deals, all that crabby underworld dirt. Apparently there were one too many bloated corpses fished out from the stinking, opaque lake. And of course, who can forget the riots and police brutality?
Thankfully, sometime in the early 2000s, the LAPD and neighboring businesses like Langer’s Deli and Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe cooperated to revitalize the area.
Now, when I walk past here in the mornings, I’ll see Korean grandmas and grandpas brisk-walking, or a retired couple just sitting and watching the sky.
In the afternoons, I’ll see a mother pushing a stroller along the lake, sending a flutter of birds into the sky.
And in the evenings, between 4-8 p.m., just half a block down from the park, I’ll see street carts selling homemade Guatemalan food.
They don’t speak English. I made the mistake of bringing my flashy DSLR around my neck, strutting with the ignorance of a foreigner in my Old Navy flip flops. “Hola,” I said in Spanglish, smiling my most brilliant smile.
The woman and the man selling the food just stared at me, not sure what to do with this silly girl pretending she can speak Spanish just because she skipped a Spanish class level in high school.
My smile got a bit less certain, but I persisted. I asked them if they could explain to me what they were selling. The man gave me a brief description of each item in broken English. I tried to take more pictures, but the lady said something to the man, and the man turned to me and said firmly, “No mas!”
Well, I knew what that meant. Sigh. I wish I had paid more attention in high school A.P Spanish class, so that I could convey to them that it was for a harmless little school column.
I told them I wanted one of everything, and they gave me this:
Fried chicken, Guatemalan chow mein (interesting!) and pacaya relleno (battered and fried palm flowers) with chili sauce.
So I finally get to try the alien testicles! It had a really curious texture, and kind of a sweet-bitter taste, but rather tasty.
The fried chicken had a nice spice to it, surprisingly juicy and tender considering that it came from a plastic container in a grocery cart.
And the chow mein was soggy, but the flavors were great. Guatemalan chow mein. Oh the Chinese leave culinary footprints everywhere in the globe.
Not bad for $3.50. I took it to the park and took the pictures there because I didn’t want the food vendor couple to yell at me.
Home-style Guatemalan food isn’t the only cuisine you get around MacArthur Park. There’s also a Honduran place that sells conch in coconut broth; a tamale place that sells all sorts of Latino tamales; a Salvadoran pupuseria; a Mexican cafe that sells tortas; a Jewish deli that sells the most famous pastrami sandwich in all of Los Angeles; and also a Korean restaurant that sells deadly blowfish (to be posted!).
It’s a different kind of picnic at MacArthur Park right now. There’s layers and layers of stories here. Some that are fun and heart-warming (like the one about the two swans), others that are grim and grisly. And today, there are new stories that are being collected in that park, stories that the lake will swallow up and never tell.
Oh, if only MacArthur Park could talk. It’ll be a sea of gossip.
Question of the Day: Any historical parks or monuments in your neighborhood?