By Ava Chin
It happened on a walk. Like most transplanted New Yorkers, I did not understand Los Angeles and tried walking every place I could around my neighborhood—a shabby, rundown section of Koreatown, perhaps five years on the cusp of gentrification. It was there that I confused the neighborhood drunk, often asleep on the next door’s lawn, for a hard-working, down-on-his luck itinerant worker seeking shade from the too hot sun. It was there, whenever it rained, and I particularly sought out any relief from the oppressively perfect weather, that I would put on a well-worn hat and take to the streets.
It was on such a gloomy day that I headed north towards the hills—the kind of day where the snails emerge from the semi-arid Angeleno soil to rest on hedges like wild mushrooms after a storm. I was depressed then, having left a boyfriend in Brooklyn who did not want to make a commitment, a recently published book that I was having trouble promoting in my new town, and having arrived to a new academic department where the politics were as confusing as the publishing circles I left back home. I had just received the news that the sublettors in my Brooklyn apartment had tipped off the landlord, and I could already visualize the machinations of the eviction process starting to roll. I was living off of a school stipend, which while generous as free money goes, had pushed me right back down the economic ladder. I was officially considered by the utilities companies as being “low-income.”
All these things weighed down on my mind. I was having a melt down, but did not realize it. All I knew was that I was unhappy and my friends felt like they were thousands of miles away, as indeed they were. I was so immersed in my own thoughts that I did not realize that I had arrived, winded, in a new part of my neighborhood, on a slight hill near a palm tree (I was continually surprised by the fact that I lived in a place that had palm trees, even if they were, like most things in L.A. imported), and when I looked up, I saw it. There in the distance, sitting on the hillside like a painted backdrop, as if pasted by the hand of some invisible god, white and coppery and luminous from my vantage point, was the mosque-like dome of the Griffith Park Observatory.
The first time I saw the Observatory was as many did, in the 1955 film, “Rebel Without A Cause.” In my mind the domed, palace-like structure, which I confused at first for a Hollywood mansion, is inextricably linked to drag racing, James Dean, and the slouching, ready to spring look that only teenagers can convincingly pull off. I was a teenager myself when I saw the movie, and I watched fascinated by the scenes with cars, guns, and a quaint, vaguely innocent kind of violence that didn’t remind me of anything I’d seen in the neighborhood in Queens where I grew up.
In “Rebel,” the Observatory, situated by itself atop Mount Hollywood, surrounded only by dense shrubs, winding paths, and the lesser hills around it, is a site of both refuge and despair. Who can forget when James Dean and Natalie Wood take on the role of loving parents for Sal Mineo as they make a home in one of its cavernous hallways? When the police, those well-intentioned, dim-witted adults, arrive and Mineo races out onto the wide steps shooting, desperately trying to protect what small semblance of family the teenagers have built, who didn’t shudder, especially a teenager who considered herself as misunderstood as the ones portrayed on screen?
So perhaps it comes as no surprise, that the very first time I saw the Observatory, years later, as prospective graduate student on a campus visit, it seemed immediately familiar to me. Familiar the way many things in L.A. seem familiar because you’ve seen the image or heard the name mentioned a thousand times. I knew of Wilshire and Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, of Burbank and the Galleria and Hollywood High, long before I learned that the Sunset Strip was on the Westside and that Ventura was in the Valley, and that the Valley wasn’t cool the way that coming from Queens wasn’t cool.
That day, my cousin and I arrived at the summit of the Observatory only to learn that the landmark was closed for renovations. We walked around the plaza in front of the wide, open face of the building, surrounded by so much sky and panoramic views of downtown, the Westside, the ocean—the majestic Old Baldy in the background. Horizontal and flanked by two smaller sentinel-like domes, the Observatory was a palace, a mythic place like Xanadu, except through the years since it was built in 1935, the city had encroached upon its perch, obscuring the sky with light, rendering it virtually useless as a place to view the cosmos. Instead, the Observatory was a site to see Los Angeles, and became the kind of cultural icon the city celebrates and is ultimately enamored of: beautifully constructed, made famous by the movies, no longer serving its original function, a relic.
We stared for some time at the bronze bust of James Dean—Dean’s face an expression of ambivalent agony. I was impressed. Only in L.A., where even the poets were gorgeous, could you find a monument to an actor at a place of scientific inquiry. Later, when I had moved to the city and I was expressing doubts about having done so, my cousin said, “But don’t you just love the weather?” “It’s so great here, you can go to the ocean any time of year,” and “But what about the weather?” Having left my boyfriend and having lost the apartment in Brooklyn, my answer was blunt. No, I did not care about the landscape and the good living and the clear skies and the good weather. I thought of Dean’s bust and my own anguish. You see, I was already beginning to understand the dual metaphors of Los Angeles, the shadow to the sunshine, which anyone who lives in the city for any length of time begins to experience. The only solace I could take was that I could visit the Observatory, like a high point in a novel, and that by the time I was ready to graduate, the renovations would be finished and its doors wide open.
Nine months into living in Koreatown, I moved, saying goodbye to the drunk on the lawn, the sidewalks that turned into weekend Plazas where women sold old clothing and half-used bottles of dish-washing liquid for under a dollar, and headed north to a Melrose-style apartment with palm trees and birds of paradise. If I walked a half block or so along the avenue of my new neighborhood, I could see the Observatory, from this perspective larger than a postcard and now shroud in black scaffolding. A five minute walk, and I could be at the mouth of Griffith Park, where Armenian men stretched in jogging outfits and Korean ladies walked by in visors and long sleeves. Things had taken a turn for the better, I could feel the veil being lifted off my depression and I was no longer questioning if I’d make the right decision to leave New York. On my walk, I would smile at Latino families. The Armenian men and Korean ladies who passed me by. I would smile at everyone.
Though the zigzagging path up to the Observatory was officially closed, like many others I would wend my way up Fern Dell Road, passed the picnic stands and the dog park, on up to the dirt path, the where the silky soil got trapped in my sneakers and the rolled up hems of my pants. On days that the sun beat down on me, I would stop exhausted, until I learned to hike only early in the morning and with a hat. I would walk alongside the canyon, under the shadow of the hills held together by small trees and tall grasses. Along the steep climb, I often saw rabbits, snakes, and lizards the size of sugar spoons. Throughout it all, the Observatory was my main goal, and it peeked in and out along the path like an architectural version of peek-a-boo, growing ever larger in my approach.
I climbed the path nearly twice a week for the next three years, the white structure of the Observatory my goal as I arrived huffing and puffing up the mountain. When I was studying for my written and oral exams, before I left for trips to New York, whenever I’d return to L.A., I’d hike up towards it, always elusive, in sight one moment, hidden behind a shrubby hill the next. It started to take on the symbolism of remoteness, a metaphor for the city itself—changing, ever-fluctuating, always out of reach.
I discovered things about myself on those walks in the shadow of the Observatory that I never could back home surrounded by family and a slew of friends and acquaintances. Whether this was because of L.A.’s famous spread-out, suburban-supersized sprawl—indeed the other side of town felt like a different state, and I rarely saw my friends on the Westside—or because I was alone so much or simply because I wasn’t at home, it is difficult to tell. In “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rilke advises writers to embrace their isolation. I had never felt so isolated as I had those early days in L.A. and it allowed all the things that I was harboring from the past, which I had carried thousands of miles from Brooklyn to the East side, to finally come to the surface.
As the years went by, and I ascended further and further up the hill daring myself to climb higher, until I finally came up the Observatory construction gate, and could hear the shouts of the workers inside, I had many experiences along that path, even some crises—most of them valuable, all hard-won.
Once, having spent a long weekend with a poet I was in love with but barely knew, we hiked up the path together, and an hour after the walk, after learning he did not want to take the relationship further, I came home and burst into tears. That weekend we had walked around Venice, watched a film at Mann’s, and had dinner at Yamashiro where we watched the city glow in a blanket of fog. That morning, as we walked towards the Observatory, he talked non-stop about how great L.A. was, about applying for a screenwriting fellowship, how much he liked my neighborhood. But when it came time to leave, as we walked down the mountain towards Franklin Avenue, he didn’t want to talk about continuing things further. The crisis I entered after he left—a relationship that was so short, so brief, and which put me in touch with a grief I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager—was so disproportionate to what had gone on that I knew it didn’t have anything to do with the poet and everything to do with me and the extreme loneliness I felt living in L.A.
That night, I met a girl at the Dresden Room, a neighborhood bar featured in the film “Swingers.” She had been studying martial arts with an old, female master who berated her over her self-esteem issues. “You need an ‘I am important’ stick,” she told me. “What’s that?” I asked, envisioning corporate executives taking team leadership workshops. She explained that it could be any found object (in her case, a stick she’d found on a walk), which you imbued with the power to make you feel important. I thought it sounded too West-Coast hokey, but this girl was a former New Yorker with a no-nonsense attitude and not to be denied, so I turned the idea over in my mind. That weekend, I hiked up to the closest I could get to the Observatory, to an outcropping that over-looked Los Feliz, Downtown and Koreatown—the kind of dizzyingly steep drop upon which television directors like to stage fight scenes. There under a tree, I found the gnarled, section of a branch, shorter than a half-pool stick but thicker than my arm. I am important. It’s been with me ever since.
In my third year living in Los Angeles, I experienced my first encounter with peyote with a group of poets from Arizona and Texas. I swallowed a ball of “medicine” the size of a bead and a quart of peyote tea that one of the poets had brought off a reservation. As the night progressed, we carried a water drum and prayer beads on our way up the now-familiar dirt path, under the shadow of the hills, the Observatory obscured in darkness.
We sat to the high rise where I had found my stick, talking and singing with the glistening fabric of the city below us, the Observatory at our backs, while coyotes howled back and forth to each other across the hills. Later that year, one of us would die. But that night, we were all young and fresh and vibrant, and very high off the medicine. Someone wished me a happy birthday, and I thought of how lucky I was to be in this strangely wild city, where people traveled in search of fame and glory, only to find canyons, skunks, helicopters, waitresses. Perhaps it was the peyote, perhaps it was knowing that I had finally grown roots, but I was suddenly overcome with the feeling that everything was going to be alright. I was a New Yorker who had discovered parts of herself in L.A., and that was worthy of any novel or song I could send to my friends back home.
I carried this feeling with me as we walked back down the mountain, where we saw a snake; a disabled man lying on the ground, who refused our help. Later, as we neared the road, there were coyotes—one slouchy and red, the other brown, fleet-footed. The reddish one looked at us—its face caught in the lamplight—with an expression of assessment and terrible acceptance, before following its mate up the hill.
I became visually closer to the Observatory when I started dating a man I grew to love very much, a “legend” in late-night television writing. Being an outsider to the largest industry that fuelled the city, I had fun with him as a couple of reluctant New Yorkers-turned-Angelenos exploring a side to L.A. that I had never experienced before. Drives up the PCH. Weekend getaways in Malibu and Cambria. “White-Attire Only” parties where we were the only ones dressed in white. Steve had a penchant for funny, anthropomorphizing voices, saying things like “San Luis Obispo” and “Albuquerque” as we drove up unfamiliar stretches of road. He had a stunning view of the Observatory that I fell in love with on the first night I saw it. From across the canyon, I watched the Observatory in the twilight, dark under its scaffolding like a chrysalis in its cocoon.
Two months into our relationship, I landed an academic teaching job in New York in an out of the way borough. I asked Steve if he wanted to come with me. He said he thought that if we did that we should be married.
“Yes, and?” I asked.
But he felt it was too soon to say.
A job is a great impetus for finishing a dissertation. That Spring, in a state of ever-panic, I worked feverishly on my manuscript, got shoulder aches and pinched nerves, and took breaks from freaking out to hike up the now familiar path to the Observatory. Some days, I drove along the winding road up to the very top of Mount Hollywood—in this case, the most direct path really was the most oblique—and parked behind the landmark, by the George Harrison memorial. I would stand against the chicken wire gate (“Construction Workers Only”), fingers looped into the wire, my nose poking through, and peer past the trucks and Port-o-Sans to the Observatory, now polished and white and liberated from all its scaffolding. For those moments, I could pretend I was back on the plaza like when I first visited L.A., standing in front of the wide façade, open to all possibilities.
The truth is, I would never get further than that gate. The Observatory never opened later that spring or even that summer. I moved back to New York and Steve didn’t come with me, staying home with his funny voices, his deck, his white parties where people didn’t wear white.
If an observatory’s function is to observe its surroundings, for me, it was important in its inverse. Each year, as I became more and more acclimated to L.A. feeling like I understood it—I once described it to the public arts director at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a city that was like a beautiful child that had gotten into its mother’s make-up and then stolen her SUV—I looked at the Observatory and saw new things, rather like an artist observing a famous cathedral. How white it gleamed in the morning. How it seemed to absorb the light in the late afternoon. How picturesque and quaint it seemed from the parking lot of the 99 cent store.
Now, from some three thousand miles away, the leaves have already turned with the weather, and I travel several times a week to Staten Island across the drape of the Verranzano Bridge. These days, when I think of the Observatory, it’s as dream-like as the Taj Mahal. I know that it has long shed its scaffolding and temporary gates, has been lauded by the Mayor and the City Council at its reopening, and visited by journalists and photographers and sightseers who take advantage of its new façade. Recently, it was nearly engulfed in one of Southern California’s famous fires. But I can only imagine it from this end of the country, and remember the person I was when I first arrived in L.A., so new to the city, looking out from my perch in front of the open face of the Observatory, wondering about the lives down below and all the myriad possibilities.