Great Art Lingers on Every Corner in LA

Los Angeles is a feast for the eyes for anyone with a flair for photography or halfway decent Instagram game. The dreamy cotton candy skies that occur in the final moments before sunset, otherwise known as #magichour, have provided an unspoken narrative for the dreamlike vibe that permeates this grand old city. An infinite blue sky punctuated with towering palms somehow never gets old.

LA’s semi arid landscape leaves me breathless every time I step outside, even while hurrying my poor little dog to poop early in the morning before work. It kind of stops you dead in your tracks, forcing you to take pause in a world that’s been visually redefined by devices.

While I take pride in showcasing the beautiful bits of my adopted city, it’s not really the purest representation of what Angelenos encounter on a daily basis. Yes, the weather is wonderful. It’s true; our city cleans up well when it wants to. Right now the jacaranda trees are about to bloom and it reminds me of all the times I visited LA in the spring and vowed that one day I’d stay for good. But there are still some seedy areas that make me nervous. There’s a massive tent city that lines the blocks alongside the Google campus here in Venice, a constant reminder of how gentrification has clashed with long time low-income residents. There are still unsightly power lines littering the skyline in the older parts of city and a few weekends ago I literally witnessed a man drop trou and take a deuce on the street in DTLA.

My point is, despite all the edited, cropped and sometimes manipulated images you see people post of Los Angeles, we still have grit and poverty and failing infrastructure and black eyes we prefer to mask with oversaturated Instagram filters. It’s far from perfect. But what makes the more unsavoury sights seem beautiful again – a defunct factory, abandoned section 8 housing or sidewalks being uprooted by old growth trees – is the ever-growing collection of street art that adds an element of sparkle that is sometimes lost on economic high and lows.

LA artists like Jules Muck, Wrdsmth, Isabelle Alford-Lago, Colette Miller and so many others have given locals and visitors something beyond your standard beach scene. Their public murals make every corner of LA County something worthwhile to explore, and photograph and marvel at.

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City of Stars

When people ask me why I moved to Los Angeles, usually the first assumption is that I came here to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. An aspiring actress, struggling writer, or indie filmmaker perhaps. Something sparkly and ambitious that translates to the silver screen.

While I didn’t move to LA to become a star it’s impossible to not be touched by the energy that exists here. The feeling of hope and hustle towards finding a place in Hollywood, should the stars align (pun absolutely intended).

I’m constantly meeting people who are quick to offer their stories of struggle or why they decided to come to LA. Some are somewhat hidden within the minutiae of everyday life, while others seem to shine right through.

Like the waitress at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice who serves me boozy cocktails, but in her spare time is a singer songwriter.

Like the would-be comedian who bags my groceries at Whole Foods while testing out his latest material on me.

Like the guy sitting next to me on a plane, clutching his armrest as we hover above LAX amidst crazy turbulence. I strike up a conversation to try and calm him down, and he introduces himself as “the actor you’ve never heard of that’s been in everything.”

Like my Lyft driver who is also the drummer in a chart-topping reggae band working towards releasing their next album.

Like Preston, the handsome bartender at the wine bar in The Landmark Theater, who works two jobs while pursuing an acting career.

Like my friend Meghan – a fellow Canadian gal – who came to LA to pursue acting and screenwriting and, 7 years later, is still plugging away. Still hopeful.

Like Melissa, my neighbour who’s a film producer and comes from a long line of entertainers and film industry trail blazers, but has migrated towards a life of philanthropy.

Like so many, I spend a lot of time outside of my day job grinding, trying to carve out a pathway to my dreams. For me that means editing and rearranging, trying to improve my screenwriting chops and refine the scripts I’ve written. And while I pound away on my laptop in my little apartment in Venice or a nearby café surrounded by other writers, I can’t help but fantasize about something I’ve written generating interest from a filmmaker.

Each year I head to the Toronto International Film Festival, for years as a fan and more recently as press. While covering red carpets, most journalists flock to the actors but I usually zero in on the directors and screenwriters. My press pass grants me unbridled access to speak with some of the most exciting filmmakers in the world, so if I’m being honest, that’s the real reason I’m there. Maybe if I dig deep enough, that’s part of the reason I moved to LA after all.

This year, I interviewed writer/director Damien Chazelle before the North American premiere of La La Land. After watching his film, I realized I don’t want to be the one feverishly capturing every comment and anecdote on my voice recorder any more, sitting alone at a bar filing my stories. Someday, I hope to be on the other side of the red velvet rope impassionedly talking about a film I’ve written. Now that I live in La La Land, among a city of stars, I sometimes feel like that’s possible.

La La Land is in theatres nationwide. If you live in LA, my dearest Angelenos, this film is for us. Whether you’re in the entertainment industry or not, it’s a reminder to never stop dreaming.

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Giving LA Foster Youth A Sense of Home

When my husband and I decided to move to Los Angeles last spring, I distinctly remember a colleague of mine asking why we would want to live there. LA, as he put it, was the loneliest city in the world. From the moment we settled on Venice as our new home base, I’ve found the city to be quite the opposite, more inclusive and friendly than I ever imagined.

It wasn’t long before we knew most of our neighbors, something completely foreign to us, despite coming from a high-density city in Canada. We immediately hit it off with one of our neighbors in particular, after frequent run-ins at our communal barbecue. Before long we learned of the not-for-profit organization she and her partner have been building for the past year and decided to volunteer. In part, to meet new people and expand our network, but also because we were inspired by what they were doing.

That organization is A Sense of Home, a movement that sparked organically when co-founder Georgie Smith reached out to her network of friends to help a foster youth who was struggling to set up his first home. After posting his story on her Facebook page, donations began to pour in and before long his home was outfitted with everything he needed along with the knowledge that people really cared. Strangers, folks he had never met before, came together to ensure his first steps into adulthood were met with the love and support necessary to succeed.

Today, their goal is to change the lives of foster youth who have “aged out” of the foster care system by creating homes for them. Using donated furniture and housewares; volunteers work with these young people to help them realize their own sense of home – often for the first time, in the process, helping them achieve self-sufficiency.

When I think back to when I first moved out on my own, away from the comforts of my childhood home, I wasn’t sent out into the world with little more than some clothing and a few personal effects. Furniture, linens, useful hand-me-downs among other items were at my disposal to help me establish my first home of my own. Things that may not seem like a big deal to those of us who were fortunate to have had this support, but crucial to someone starting out with little to no resources. Crucial to a young persons sense of self and dignity. It’s not enough to have a roof over your head if the space inside is cold and unliveable.

In Los Angeles County alone, there are 35,000 youth in foster care right now. At age 18 or 21, state and federal support abruptly ends and the youth who aren’t adopted are ejected out of the foster system, many without the support of family or any community networks to help them make a successful transition into adulthood.

Which is why the work A Sense of Home is doing is so impactful. Many of these young people are smart, driven, kind and articulate, determined to lead fulfilling, productive lives. Something as simple as the kindness of strangers getting together to set up their first pad can go a long way in helping these kids realize their potential.

We volunteered on a blustery Sunday in South Central. The subject was a young woman in her early 20s, warm and gracious, greeting volunteers as they arrived.

The fourplex she calls home has an ancient fig tree towering overtop, peppering the sidewalk with overripe fruit. Despite the sticky residue left as a result of this beautiful but inconvenient vegetation, it seemed quaint. Idyllic even. Until we stepped inside to discover how sparse the furnishings were. Nothing more than a single bed pushed into one corner and a small table with one chair.

Before long, the front walk was lined with volunteers organizing and dusting off furniture, which would be placed according to a pre-determined floor plan mapped out by Smith and her team. Everything from large pieces of furniture to dishes, bedding and beautiful cut flowers, each piece placed with thoughtful and careful consideration.

The amount of people who showed up to help and the level of their enthusiasm were overwhelming, as I watched this young woman’s home come to life while (admittedly) struggling to install a curtain rod. It was clear to me, though, that this was more than just creating a home. It was evidence that people in the community cared. Really, it was an expression of love.

I’m grateful to be living alongside such wonderful people. This big, bad city isn’t at all lonely or uncaring as my colleague framed it. From what I’ve seen so far from our sleepy street in Venice, LA is a town full a generous people who are quietly and selflessly spreading kindness among those who need it most.

Originally published in the Huffington Post.

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Old Chinatown LA

There’s something very telling about a westernized city when it comes to it’s older, heritage hideaways. Are the pioneers who were among the first to establish multi-culturlism and commerce celebrated for settling in unchartered territory and helping to define a community? Or, are they segregated into one sect of a city’s outskirts or lesser-known avenues? I can’t decide yet which is the case in Los Angeles.

You have Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Sri Lanka, Historic Filipinotown, Little Bangladesh, Little Ethiopia…it’s all a little mind-bending. But, one thing I do appreciate about these designated pockets is that people who are looking for something outside of the Hollywood hullabaloo (yes, I just used that word), the beauty of diversity is abound.

With any modern city I visit, I’m always drawn to its Chinatown. San Francisco and Vancouver top my list of North American cities with the most colourful and overtly historical examples of Chinatown done right. So after nearly a year of living in LA, I finally spent an afternoon in our own little Chinatown.

In contrast to the more modern shops and restaurants of “new” Chinatown that line North Broadway beginning at the Twin Dragon Gate, old Chinatown is a tranquil refuge from the industrial feel of this part of town. It’s small, stretching a modest 2-3 city blocks but it’s vibrant and colourful and the perfect place to chill out and people watch over a bubble tea.

I also went there with a purpose, hunting for my favorite Chinese ointments that I’ve come to rely on over the years. Kwan loong oil, tiger balm, etc. There’s a great shop heading south just off the main square. A mix of hipsters and Sunday cyclists dominated the outdoor bistro tables at Blossom, a modern Vietnamese resto smack dab in the centre of this Chinese neighbourhood. And if Kung Fu and cocktails are your jam, snap a selfie with Bruce Lee forever immortalized by a giant statue, nunchucks in hand, followed by a Honeysuckle Sling at General Lee’s Bar.

With Chinese New Year only a week away, red lanterns and celebratory banners were easy to come by, all with different variations of how to spell it. Gung Hay Fat Choy, Kung Hei Fat Choy, or a combo of both.

It’s the year of the Monkey, so here’s what you need to know if you have a child set to arrive in 2016, according to a greeting card I found in one of the shops:

Monkey ranks ninth position in the Chinese Zodiac. They are cheerful and energetic by nature and usually represent flexibility. People under the sign of the Monkey are wise, intelligent, confident, charismatic, loyal, inventive and have leadership. The weaknesses of the Monkeys are being egotistical, arrogant, crafty, restless and snobbish.

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DTLA Arts District

Downtown Los Angeles is not what is used to be – in a good way. The first time I visited DTLA was during a business trip nearly 15 years ago and I thought the place looked post-apocalyptic. As soon as business was done for the day and the banks closed their doors, it was all crickets and tumbleweeds. You could strut down the centerline of just about any side street and barely see another soul. Nothing was happening downtown other than whatever concert or sporting event was taking place at Staples Centre, now part of the LA Live monster-plex.

Hipsters had not migrated into the gritty area yet, igniting a demand for locally brewed coffee and craft beer. Very few people lived there, and even today the population of actual residents is said to be 50,000. Aside from some grand old theatres, downtown didn’t seem to offer much to tourists with dreams of Hollywood and stars in their eyes. What a difference a decade makes.

Strolling, eating and drinking your way along downtown’s eclectic streets today is mandatory when spending time in LA. But if you only have one day or afternoon to do it, head straight to the Arts District.

First, let me preface this with a safety precaution. Don’t walk there. Depending on which direction you’re traveling from, you could encounter some unpleasant streets. I thought it might be “fun” to walk from the 7th Street Metro Station across town, through the Fashion District. What I didn’t plan for was walking straight through Skid Row. I’ve gotten myself into some sticky situations while traveling over the years, but the dire situation in this part of town is not to be underestimated. My husband was actually prepared to smash his iPhone to use a weapon (in manner of Jason Bourne) if someone tried to mug the silly Canadians traipsing right through tent city. After many eerie empty lots, we finally turned a corner and spotted a bearded man spray-painting an art installation and thank fuck, we knew we had made it.

We rested our weary – and sweaty – souls in a shady alley alongside the Daily Dose café. From one block to another we were transported into a different world, suddenly surrounded by artists and creatives. I’ve never wanted to hug a hipster so hard in my life. The locally sourced food and fresh pressed juices were phenomenal and the vibe is super chill. Ivy has completely taken over the beautiful old brick walls and the garden-like setting is adorned with crystal chandeliers.

With our bearings intact we set out to explore this emerging community sprouting up from what was once mostly abandoned warehouses and industrial factories. Newly converted lofts, movie lots and bougainvillea-lined streets give the feeling of a new era, while still maintaining some street cred.

Stumptown Coffee has a café on Santa Fe and 7th and patrons can peer right into their roasting room to see their beans being churned up close. We grabbed a couple of iced Americanos and traveled east down 7th across the bridge over the Los Angeles River for a stark reminder of California’s never-ending drought. Then we spent the afternoon searching for street art and murals we had seen spattered across Instagram.

Unexpectedly, we spotted a massive wine shop so I had to take a peek. Silver Lake Wine carries an impressive selection of wines from California and all over the world. They had recently opened when we visited and were still getting set up, but weekly tastings and private parties are now available.

Plenty of shops and quality boutiques are popping up in this neighorhood as well. If you’re in the market for some handcrafted pieces for your home or wardrobe – and have a bit of cash to burn – check out Guerilla Atelier or Poketo for something truly unique.

If you linger long enough into the dinner hour, snag a table at Bestia, one of LA’s most talked about eateries, for an Italian feast you won’t soon forget. The husband and wife team behind the award-winning menu have created something really special in this part of town.

There’s so much more to explore in the Arts District, heading north towards Little Tokyo and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). But it’s easy to get stuck on a charming side street and people watch the afternoon away.

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