This is not Echo Beach (far away in time), although I couldn’t get that poxy song out of my head all the time I was there. Echo Park is an area near downtown Los Angeles, and it does indeed have a park. I know this because I ran around it several times. If you want a glimpse of it, see Jack Nicholson’s rowing boat surveillance scene in the film ‘Chinatown’. As the name of the film implies, Los Angeles also has a Chinatown. I didn’t go there. Having gone all that way, and paid a small fortune for flights, I thought it best to stick to all things American and get my money’s worth.
We stayed in an AirBnB rented apartment in Echo Park. This was the first time I’d used AirBnB. I’ve recently traded-up from my trusty seven year-old Sony Eriksson phone after it took an accidental dip in the kharzi after I’d taken a dump. Despite immediate mouth to mouth resuscitation, it drowned (or choked) slowly over several days. Thus, on my sparkly new IPhone, a whole new world of things called ‘apps’ has recently opened up to me.
So, as well as AirBnB, I’ve been using Moovit and Uber a lot too. Moovit tells you how to get to your destination via public transport and then Uber rescues you from it when you get stuck with the inevitable nutter on LA’s public transport.
‘Nutter’ is probably a bit harsh. There are 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles. In London we think we have a lot of homeless. Indeed out of all the people you see on the London streets 1 in 1000 will be homeless. In LA it is 1.5 in every 100. This is a statistical quirk by the way, it doesn’t mean there are a lot of double-amputees. On a mere five minute walk from my Echo Park apartment to the local supermarket I passed three of them. Considering that one of them was counting pebbles on the pavement and one was talking to an imaginary friend (or it may have been God, he’s very popular in the USA), you can deduce that a lot of them also have mental health issues.
A run around the Echo Park’s one mile lake circumference is a good analogy for LA’s relationship with its homeless. You start at the park’s southern end where you can see turtles swimming in the lake and the occasional bullfrog. If you’ve never seen a bullfrog then, in terms of size, you need to think more ‘bull’ than ‘frog’. Having just watched ‘The Shape of Water’ on the flight over to LA, I nearly asked the one I saw for its autograph.
As you start jogging you will pass other runners, families enjoying walks and dog owners exercising their pets. You can reflect on what a pleasant place it is and what a civilised country it must be that has a law that says that the sworn enemy of the runner must be kept firmly on a lead in a public park (UK take note). There are swan-shaped pedaloes to bruise your knees on and a huge fountain ejaculating into the middle of the lake. Then as you round the northern end you come to a grassed area where you see that a number of tents have been pitched. This is not in preparation for Echo-Fest (if it exists) but it is a small village of homelessness, and one of many you will see in LA. Then you are past it, and back to the comfortable middle-class promenade around the lake.
The rapid rise in the numbers of homeless in the USA is down to two things. Firstly, previously dubious parts of LA have become gentrified (we know that word in the UK) and the rising rents have forced people out of their homes. Secondly, there has been a completely shite management of a crisis by local government (we know about that in the UK too).
Naturally the homeless venture from their tents to beg. Generally it is not aggressive and given the homed to homeless ratio in LA you can assume that it is not a particularly profitable venture either. Therefore you can probably forget about our Daily Mail scare stories of bogus beggars that earn £30k a year in the UK. Admittedly I was only there a week and probably didn’t stray too much from the nicer areas but probably because of the high homeless numbers there seemed to be a general acceptance that they have to live somewhere. You can imagine the reaction of the authorities in the UK if a few tents were pitched in Hyde Park overnight.
However, the homeless being safely kept ‘outside’ also says something about America’s relationship with ‘the outside’ in general. The Angelenos tend not to use public transport, preferring to clog up the roads with their cars. Public transport is very good and very cheap in LA, but generally underused apart from the homeless taking advantage of the air conditioning and shelter. The apartment we stayed in had a double door with five locks and the pavements are strangely empty to the point that well-meaning locals frequently ask you if you are lost if they see you walking anywhere.
Hence they tend to keep the outside world at a secure distance. However, in a country where you can be one medical bill away from homelessness you can understand why they wouldn’t want to get too close to that world. You can also understand their acceptance that the homeless need to live somewhere, even in their nice parks.
For the same reason people give generously to cancer charities, it could easily be them one day.
For other less lucid insights into the USA click here.