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East Berlin vs. The Eastside

November 10, 2009

berlin wallIf you’ve had any contact with the news media over the past few days, you’ve probably heard the brouhaha over the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as is well known by anyone who has tracked other recent anniversaries – namely the 1st anniversary of Obama’s election and the 30th anniversary of Sesame street – meaningful commentary during an anniversary is as rare as short hair on a snuffalufagus.

Perhaps the most telling report I’ve heard from Berlin came not over the past two days but roughly a year ago, when NPR did a report about American artists living in Berlin. One man commented that when the wall fell, East Berlin was almost like a new city, a blank canvas if you will. Dreary GDR housing projects and abandoned communist armories quickly converted to studios and artist co-ops. The neighborhood of Prendslauerburg, once a Stasi hotspot, is now home to clothing boutiques and nightclubs, all of which play nauseating electronica in true German style.

I immediately thought of Downtown and Central LA, the areas which Westsiders refer to as “the Eastside.” While these areas were never cordoned off by a Soviet-sanctioned, rigidly patrolled 3 meter high barrier, they nevertheless were on the wrong side of a sort of cultural wall. From the 1940s to just recently, no self respecting upper-crust Angeleno would be caught west of La Cienega (or at least La Brea) unless he was fighting a parking ticket at city hall. Those existing in central LA were assumed to have no other choice. But a stroll down Hill or Main streets today reveals a scene surprisingly similar to modern-day East Berlin – older buildings with chic hangs cropping up inside.

Unlike the East Coast cities, LA doesn’t have a long standing urban tradition. But that’s exactly what makes it such an exciting place to be right now. Like a slower version of East Berlin twenty years ago, LA’s cultural wall is gradually disappearing, and the area left is a blank canvas, fertile ground for a vibrant community. All we need is a good train system (Berlin’s U-Bahn ran even during the cold war) and we’d be on our way to repeating the Berlin renaissance.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2009 11:43 am

    The Berlin Wall was not a cultural wall. It was a deadly wall, a thing of Horror. Nobody who has not spent his life in Berlin can even partly understand what it meant to people to live with it.

  2. November 11, 2009 12:46 pm

    Are you a Los Angeles Native? I was a second generation native, until I left a year ago. You are a bit mistaken in your “Westsiders” as the upper crust since the 1940″. I grew up in Venice Beach, on the “Westside” and it was considered the wrong side of the tracks, BIG time. Pacific Palisaders and Santa Monicans avoided Venice like the plague.

    The first oldest and wealthiest neighborhood was Pasadena, and the second was Hancock Park, East of La Brea stretching further east to Wiltern.

    Hancock Park was considered L.A.’s “first” Beverly Hills.

    And as far as loving the gentrification of LA, that is the reason I left. What used to be a culturally diverse, interesting and affordable city to live in has now become an overpriced, uber-white, SUV traffic and smog clogged nightmare. It is no longer “culterally rich” it is riddled with Starbucks, Jamba Juice, and white twenty something couples remodeling their “Dream House” in Silverlake, which they purchased for a paltry $495,000, and is about 982 square feet.

    All the true charm is gone from LA. I am lucky I grew up when it was charming, and thankful I no longer live in the sad, cardboard cut-out vapid joke it has become.

    Like Patricia noted, unless you grew up there (and in LA’s case, are over 40) you don’t have a clue.

    Comparing East Berlin with L.A. is, well, we all remember “apples and oranges” don’t we?

  3. Drew permalink*
    November 11, 2009 12:50 pm

    They hate me, they really hate me!

    Patricia:Es tut mir leid, meine frau. I never claimed to “understand” the horrors of the Berlin Wall, I was simply hoping to inspire my fellow Angelenos with the amazing recovery of East Berlin after the end of the GDR. If you find this offensive, perhaps you should read a different blog.

    Kelly: At first I was pleased when this article was plugged on the WordPress page, but it seems to have only brought a gaggle of haters. I grew up in Long Beach, so if you really wanted to be an ass you could play the “that’s not really LA” card. But I grew up with a knowledge of what neighborhoods were good and bad throughout the whole area. Thanks for pointing out that there was a time long long ago that Venice was a bad neighborhood, an that there is an island of old money east of La Brea in Highland Park. You’re entitled to your tastes and opinions, and it’s certainly easy to make any city (including whatever paradise you have settled in) look bad by filtering out the good. Suffice it to say that the majority of my experience here runs completely contrary to your dreary assessment. I suggest you spend more time downtown, maybe Silverlake has been gentrified beyond repair but downtown still has its edge (i know, i know, that’s eventually going to change, at which time I’ll probably move to Boyle Heights). I hope you cheer up in the future, but if giving you something to snark at has brightened your day, I’ve done my job.

  4. Chuy90023 permalink
    November 11, 2009 1:07 pm

    Drew, that comparison you make between dreary East Berlin and the parts of LA that white people avoided for many years is a bit offensive, I have to say. As someone who grew up in Boyle Heights and spent every Sunday as a kid with his family shopping, dining and going to the movies in Downtown LA, I find your implied assertion that there was no value to life east of La Cienega downright classist and ethnocentric (I’m trying to avoid the “r” word here).

    While those of us living in the central and eastern parts of the city would be the first to acknowledge our problems (all those associated with being on the unlucky side an unequal system), I strongly object to your apparent view of us as wretched, miserable or culturally poor.

    Let me break it to you: Westsiders’ “discovery” and subsequent colonization of Downtown in the last few years (with lofts, art galleries and chic restaurants) may make our neighborhoods more appealing to YOU, but it does NOT in itself constitute an improvement in life for us. Our problems were not about the absence in our precincts of white, “upper crust Angelenos”, no matter how “self-respecting” (or self-important) you may be. Our problems, rather, have more to do with our rent-paying tenant situations (for both our businesses and homes) which force us to send our hard-earned dollars to Westside landlords while rendering us powerless over our own neighborhoods; they have to do with the low wages we’re paid for the services we provide Westsiders; they have to do with an educational system that privileges rich kids over poor kids…

    Anyway, I could go on, but I realize you may find this topic boring.

  5. November 11, 2009 1:18 pm

    Yes Drew, we do hate you. How can I and other Eastsiders not when you write stuff like this:

    “LA’s cultural wall is gradually disappearing, and the area left is a blank canvas, fertile ground for a vibrant community”

    Downtown and the Eastside (east of the river) is not a blank canvas. It has always had a vibrant community & thriving on its own terms. Maybe we don’t have boutiques and cafes that use your language or meet your idea of community, but they are there serving the people who have been here on our own terms of community.

    We are the people who have utilized taco trucks without tweeting about them; we have been green, before it was cool, by recycling everything and growing our own food on what little land we can get, and by extension we are the people who made the South Central Farm. We are the LA the people you think you are above ignore as much as you do.

    No necesitamos tu dinero, tus boutiques, tus tweeting loncheras, ni tus idea de como se debe ver una communidad. We have had thriving vibrant communities here since before the english language got here.

    There are still walls up in people’s minds because they don’t know and thus can’t see what has always been here. Learn your history and show some respect is all.

    nice blog

  6. Drew permalink*
    November 11, 2009 2:25 pm

    More haters? Bring em on.

    Chuy: I suppose I deserve to be called out on that “blank slate” remark, especially in regard to East LA, which in conjunction with Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Broadway, and the “fashion” district, has always had a distinct and vibrant culture. But there were wide swaths of downtown covered mostly with underused and abandoned buildings – a blank slate. Did you hang out in the warehouse district when you were a kid? Do you take issue with whiteys setting up shop there? Does being white and living downtown make me an r-word? Yes I am white, though I never had much connection with the Westside, but the comments I made to Kelly almost certainly make me an r-word. But I don’t want to be an r-word! Help me Chuy!

    P-3000: I’m being attacked in 3 languages, awesome! It seems Chuy has basically said what you’re saying, so just read the above. But in response to your concerns, yo se que no necessitas mi dinero (which isn’t that much anyway), y no hago twitter. Seriously, twitter sucks. I’m just a dude with a ghetto laptop and a “borrowed” internet connection.

    Glad you like the blog. I’m adding yours to my sidebar.

    I’m sure the hate parade will continue until WordPress pulls the link down (or longer), but I have to dedicate at least part of this day to actual work. I’ll address the rest of your concerns this evening or tomorrow.

  7. November 11, 2009 3:32 pm

    Hey Chuy90023 and p-3000,

    Poor Drew just wishes he was not white. Maybe we should be nice to him. Nobody hates you, Drew, baby. You are just kind of….I don’t know, young?

    I am very happy to hear that someone still likes Los Angeles – I loved growing up there. I just do not recognize the amazing Los Angeles from the mid-sixties to now. And I lived in just about every neighborhood in the 213 area – back when we were just 213 stretching all the way to the beach, and 818 if you were in the Valley. But thanks for the offer to spend time Downtown and in Silverlake. Lived in both in 1985, loved them both, don’t recognize them now.

    See Drew, if you cannot understand what Chuy and P-3000 are saying, then you really do not understand what the gentrification of LA had done to the natives of the areas you mention.

    Why not stay in Long Beach? It’s pretty cool down there – why do you want to go live in Boyle Heights? So that you can say you have discovered this cool Latin district? Newsflash – Boyle Heights is pretty expensive these days. So is East L.A.

    Here’s an idea – Stay in Long Beach, go inland and start finding the cool little neighborhoods of Lakewood, Carson and Bellflower. I am sure there are many Blank Canvass neighborhoods there, where foreclosed houses and abandoned buildings are being turned into chic little shops, cafes, and coffee houses.

    Or hey, be a pioneer and be the first to start making your way inland from your LA Long Beach hometown a vibrant, culturally rich district.

    Oh, and I think you are confusing Native Los Angelino’s correcting your facts with hating you, or snarking on you. We don’t hate you, we are just trying to help you wake up little bit.



  8. Dino Abbruzzese permalink
    November 11, 2009 3:33 pm

    Drew, Noway to compare Berlin to LA!!! In Berlin people could not cross the wall for 40 years!!! I think you cannot compare this with anything you have downthere…

  9. November 11, 2009 4:00 pm

    so interesting…I shall say thank you.
    My blog is simple and safe and hope can bring it a stride in advance.
    I would love to receive your advice and suggestions.
    keep your chin up,

  10. November 11, 2009 4:03 pm

    Patricia and Dino –
    My guess is that Drew knew that this kind of title would draw people in – he has to know what an asinine comparison the two are. Just foolish.

    And Drew, if you have any doubt about how I feel about Los Angeles, here is a post for you to read:

  11. November 11, 2009 8:11 pm


    A huge chunk of my life was spent in L.A. – Venice in the ’40s – west LA in the ’50s – Highland Park in the ’70s, Glendale in the ’80s …

    I was oblivious to the “borders” you’re talking about. Obviously.

    Keep writing. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s … and it’s interesting.

  12. Drew permalink*
    November 12, 2009 12:31 am

    Okay, this post is annoying the hell out of me, so I’m going to write one more response and then (hopefully) move on. Dino and Lifeaftereighty, thank you for disagreeing without being idiots. Aziz, I’m pretty sure you’re spam but I appreciate it nonetheless. Kelly, well, you’re special. I’m not sure what has possessed you to be so uniquely unpleasant in your commentary here, my best guess is some great personal tragedy beset you while living here and you decided for some reason to take it out on anyone who you perceived as having “flocked out to L.A., to partake of the goods”.

    Your second post is really an amazing thing, it deftly transitions from nasty to incoherent to condescending. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of my whiteness, but I don’t like being a racist, and as some Latinos found my comments inconsiderate, I clarified them. If you see fit to mock that then you’re scarier than I first thought. You stopped making sense somewhere during the second paragraph… something about wanting to wake me up? No thanks, I already have an alarm clock. Then, after unloading on LA and calling anyone who happens to like the place “asinine”, it turns out the fluffy utopia you’ve settled on is (drumroll..) Pittsburgh! Well good for you, it’s supposed to be all up and coming, and environmentally friendly and stuff. Personally, I don’t think I’d like it there, a bit too dull for my tastes. But if senility sets in early for me, I’ll follow your lead. Hopefully the place won’t become “overpriced, uber-white, SUV traffic and smog clogged nightmare”, you might have to move back here!

    The weirdest thing is, I get the feeling you’re probably a decent person under normal circumstances, and intelligent, which is probably why I spent way too much time writing back. I must say, the whole “it’s over before it began” approach to LA is interesting, not something I agree with, good to hear nonetheless. But I really don’t get the anger, the name calling, the desperation to take other people’s comments (which disagree with me for totally different reasons) and somehow try to shame me with them. What’s wrong, Kelly? Does my blog bring up bad memories?

  13. November 12, 2009 1:06 am

    comparisons of the Berlin Wall and LA are ridiculous. just absurb. Those folks had no choice, no mobility, no nothing. In LALA you can go where you want and do what you want. I have never lived there and can only take the place for a maximum of 4-5 days at a stretch. To me, La is Blah! Don’t complain about the growth and regeneration of your city. That is the way of life and it is a good thing. It has made New York, where I live, a great place, always regenerating itself.

    So, good luck in La. I will come in the spring, enjoy the nice weather and return to the Big Apple, which has non-stop energy!

  14. warlock6 permalink
    November 12, 2009 1:56 am

    though this wall was the all of sorrow or something, many people will remember it to be also a cultural part of this country.

  15. Kris from Berlin permalink
    November 12, 2009 3:11 am

    Dear Drew,

    I don’t know anything about LA or its neighbourhoods, I have never been there so I won’t comment on this. However, have you ever been to Berlin?

    The Berlin Wall was not a cultural curtain (as pointed out in other comments), it divided and broke up a whole country, it tore apart families, people were captured and killed, it took away their freedom of choice/speak/thinking and believing in what they want. It was the “iron curtain”, it was part of the Cold War, it was scary. It caused JFK to say “Ich bin ein Berliner”. And it fell in a peaceful revolution – the most magical thing of all, if you ask me.
    Also East Berlin and its hotspots (such as Prenzlauerberg, Mitte, Friedrichshain) didn’t just magically appear, they were the result of eager West Berliners (artists, punks, writers…), keen to finally escape the boundaries of West Berlin; squatting houses, using them as workshops and communal areas, developing their creativity and, of course, meeting the creative heads of the GDR – so those hotspots didn’t appear 20 years later they were hotspots from the early 90ies.

  16. November 12, 2009 7:46 am

    it is a cultural part of our history and should be recognized as that but what happened to the people of Berlin is something unique to their situation, and theirs alone.

  17. November 12, 2009 8:06 am

    I neither find you offensive nor do I hate you :-). You are lucky enough to have a right to your opinion. People in East Germany were not. But as an american I am somewhat ashamed when you call the anniversary of a very brave yet peaceful bid for freedom a “brouhaha.” The families of the american pilots who gave their life during the blockade to keep Berlin (West) free might really find you offensive.
    Patricia Koelle

  18. alienation permalink
    November 12, 2009 4:00 pm

    The only wall separating the westside from the downtown and the (real) eastside were the social and psychological ones being erected by westsiders.

    Now, they’re erecting new walls and fences within the places they once avoided.

    it is too bad

  19. November 16, 2009 10:08 am

    It’s funny that I lived my whole life in LA, and you have never been to Pittsburgh, yet you have already deemed it “too dull” for you, and got a snarky little comment about how you might like it when senility sets in. Yet, you seem to like to make a big point about my ‘anger’. Not once in my original two comments did I call anyone who lived in or liked LA “asinine”.

    It is kind of odd, at first you were really excited about the perceived “haters”, and told everyone to “bring it on”. When I happen to agree with other comments who showed their displeasure, you call it a “desperate attempt” to shame you. You invited your readers to fight with you, yet now, your comments on your post are “annoying the hell out of you” and you want to move on. What is up with that? If you are so annoyed with your post and the response it has received, why not just delete it, and move on then? It is still sitting here, waiting to be commented on.

    In reading your racist clarification, you came off as condescending, which is what I was mocking. Sorry if that make me seem so scary. You baited me abut being an ass in assuming that I would think that Long Beach was not the “real LA”, which I denied. I like Long Beach, my best friend lives there. According to your response, the second paragraph, where I say I like Long Beach, is where I am “incoherent”.

    You are quick to point out my anger, nastiness, and name calling, yet you do not acknowledge your snotty and condescending attitude towards me.

    No great personal tragedy was suffered by me while living in LA, except to watch it slowly get gentrified and way too overpriced. If you read the link I sent, you can see that I still have very fond feelings for Los Angeles.

    I think you mistake my sarcasm (which, I admit, can be biting) for terrible anger, and the fact that I empathize with other peoples angry posts as trying to shame you. Such is the problem with comments. One can put any tone they wish on it. I am surprised you spent so much time responding to me, when the people who felt terribly upset were the people who did not like the Berlin Wall comparison. They are the ones who have a more legitimate issue with this post than one native Los Angelino who moved out.

    And on that subject, this is really mostly a comment/complaint about your fact checking, and your rather flip observations on both LA and East Berlin, and now Pittsburgh.

    Here are a few Pittsburgh facts:

    Incredibly culturally diverse, without the rampant gentrification and ensuing skyrocketing prices that accompany the latter, which always culminates in long time residents being pushed out of their neighborhoods, which became a huge problem in Los Angeles.

    Arts and Culture: The Tamburitzans:

    Heinze Hall – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – wild range of events.

    Pittsburgh Speakers series – From David Sedaris to Bob Woodward, and everyone in-between!



    And if you find Pittsburgh still dull and only a place for senile people to live, try this on for size.

    There is so much more, but I am afraid I would bore you more than I already have. 🙂

    On a final note, I want to tell you how great I find your black and white photography of LA to be. I am not being sarcastic, angry, bitchy, or name calling, do not misinterpret my comment on your photographs as anything but sincere.

    I would love to see you publish a book of your work. Los Angeles is (was, to me) a great city, and to many, it still is. I believe your photographs do it a great service, and would love to see them compiled into a big, heavy coffee table book.

    All of the sarcastic and snotty words that have been hurled about by both of us put aside for now, I want to apologize for my part in what became perceived as an angry invective that somehow sprung from a “personal tragedy of mine that occurred in Los Angeles. My comment was a knee jerk reaction to what I felt was a rose-colored view of LA through the eyes of a person who had not gone through being displaced out of their own neighborhoods, watched their neighbors and loved ones lose their homes, and watch the best parts of LA being, in my opinion, ruined by gentrification.

    As I said in my last comment, I am glad you love LA, it deserves people who love it and do not use it – and I think you have to admit, there is a lot of people who migrate to Los Angeles and squeeze it for everything they can, giving it a bad reputation. As a native yourself, I would think you could understand why that angers me.

    So- I hope we have cleared the air, I hope you check on other cities before you call them boring and for the senile, and I really hope you continue to take photographs.

    Take care, and I hope to read a new post soon


  20. November 16, 2009 12:14 pm

    P.s. – my own comment wore me out, lol. I meant to say there “ARE” a lot of people who migrate to Los Angeles……

    Not there “IS” a lot of people who migrate to Los Angeles….


    Too much fresh air gives me too much energy and I type too fast, lol.

  21. Drew permalink*
    November 16, 2009 12:57 pm

    Thanks Kelly, I’ll be willing to set aside your digs and barbs if you do mine. First of all, if I had had any idea that WP was going to feature this article, I would have gone to greater lengths to make it air tight. After scores of lengthy blogs falling on deaf ears, my online MO has increasingly become quantity over quality. It’s difficult to write a short, concise post without sounding generic; coffee shops and galleries are only a sliver of what it is I love about the central city. It’s good of you to point out how difficult it is to understand people from only text, but for the record, I was being a bit sarcastic myself. If I was more defensive than I should have been, it was out of frustration that my attempt to say something good was being twisted into a negative thing. A Buddhist would probably tell me I still have a few thousand lives left before enlightenment.

    The whole Pittsburgh thing: I’ll happily replace “senile” with a more inoffensive word like “sedate” or something like that, I admit I was being something of an ass. As a matter of fact, I have been to Pittsburgh briefly, stopping there during a cross country trip a year and a half ago. I think there’s alot to love about the place, you’ll notice I didn’t resort to the standard rust belt slurs. I actually think my LA area upbringing has allowed me to see the best in other cities. When I made that statement, it wasn’t to say that “Anyone who doesn’t find Pittsburgh dull is of questionable character”, it was more to say that “My own low attention span would make that city dull to me personally”, it strikes me as a place I’d love for a couple months or two, then get restless – that’s just my own taste. But if family members are any indication, I will someday desire a more laid back but still “vibrant” atmosphere. Pitts may be the place, as long as it doesn’t get over-gentrified. Frankly, I do get worried about that happening to mid-size cities at an accelerated rate; If you think LA is “uber-white” then I shudder to think of what you have to say about Portland.

    Which brings me to my next point: how can you say that the whole of LA has gone stale (for the record, I ask this not out of defensiveness but honest curiosity) ? Yes, Silver Lake has been gone for years, Downtown is arguably on its way out, though I’d be more likely to stick up for that area of town. But could you honestly stand at Central and 42nd and tell me that area was too gentrified? Even in the areas immediately west of Downtown, I get looks from people surprised to see a white person in that part of town; I say this not to be racist but to counter your claim that the whole city is “too white”. Even in Silver Lake, there are still a good deal of Latinos, a visit to Bellevue park will confirm that.

    I appreciate your point about out-of-towners screwing with LA, I think that so much of what is said about this place comes from people who show up, spend a few days, then feel like they have the whole place figured out. I’ve been here all my life and I still haven’t figured out LA.

    Thanks for your compliments on my pictures. I have more to say but I’ll probably do it later as I have to leave soon.

  22. November 19, 2009 9:39 am

    Hey Drew –
    I am sorry I have not been able to give you a full answer back to your question – I am flattened under a rather large work deadline right now, and am seriously behind on, well, everything. I will be answering your questions soon, and expounding upon some of my reactive comments that came off as racist – I really want to clarify that I am not saying that LA is ruined as it has gone “all white” – the real estate bubble was my issue, and I came nowhere near making myself clear on that point, as while a majority of white people started infiltrating and causing affordable neighborhoods to skyrocket, they were not the only ones who were taking terrible advantage of the outrageous prices in all of LA at the height of the market. I will explain, with numbers to back it up, in the next day or so.

    By the way, Pittsburgh: Steelers – Sedate??? Oh GOD man, anything BUT, lol. Between sports and politics, it is anything but sedate back here.

    Also, you have my full empathy on not expecting one of your posts to become a front page WordPress post – that happened to me during the 2008 elections – I was simply free-form musing on my blog, and it went completely insane. It was not a fact checking issue, but more of a meandering style, which is not the best realm to offer a glimpse of decent writing. It got a little wild, but it was fun.

    I will be back to answer your questions and clarify my position very soon.

    And I am so sorry we did not get to see the Gold Line finished – We took the subway all of the time, and loved it. It would have been a blast to have had the Gold Line available at that time. Ahh, well.

    Speak soon,



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