I grew up in L.A.’s Pico-Union district of Central L.A. just two miles north of the campus, north of the I-10 freeway and a block or two away from Hoover St. The I-10 also serves as the border between Pico-Union/Central L.A. and University Park/South L.A. where USC is located.
Pico-Union is known for being the home of one of L.A.’s most notorious street gangs and for its large, mostly Mexican, immigrant population. Despite living in a crime-ridden, low income area, most of my memories of life in Pico-Union are happy ones.
Many of these memories involve weekends spent at USC. Head South on Hoover St. from Pico-Union and the first area you’ll hit will be University Village just before the campus. The area contains a grocery store, a small movie theater plus a few shops and places to eat. I spent most of my time either at the theater, the arcade or the bookstore. Sadly, the bookstore and arcade have been replaced by a bicycle shop and military recruitment office. Could anyone ever have imagined hipsters and military personnel occupying the same business space? Never!
The movie theater is still there and just as small though it seemed much larger to me back then. Out of all the films I watched there, only a handful stand out: Batman, Batman Returns, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and Super Mario Bros. My priorities as a kid should be obvious by now.
Many of the games at the arcade were the classics everyone remembers such as the original Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. There was a Popeye game I played often.
The bookstore is where I spent most of my time with my dad as book-browsing was always free unlike the movie theater or the arcade. Superman, Batman and Calvin & Hobbes were always there in the Comics section waiting for me to read and re-read many times over. My dad was elsewhere nearby probably in the science/science-fiction area of the store.
Just south of the campus are the Rose Garden, the Natural History Museum, the California Science Center (formerly the California Museum of Science and Industry) and the Memorial Coliseum. We didn’t go to these places as often but it was always a treat when we did. The Air & Space exhibit at the Science Center fueled my ambitions in aeronautics and astronomy. Upper-division mathematics in high school destroyed those ambitions.
My parents and I were at the Memorial Coliseum when the city hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics. My parents took a picture of me with official mascot Sam the Olympic Eagle outside the Coliseum. I was too young to remember any of it but, oddly enough, I do remember the 1984 Olympic theme.
To add to my USC bias, there were times when USC came to visit me. My third and fourth grade classes in elementary were, for a short time, taught with the help of students from USC. Some of the guys even played basketball with us during recess.
University Village is scheduled to undergo a large-scale renovation in the coming years. The plan is to update and modernize it into a more Westwood Village-style shopping area, which is pretty swanky. The renovation would probably put U.V. in direct competition with with the L.A. Live area next to the Staples Center less than three miles away.
The disparities between my neighborhood and the world just two miles south of me didn’t strike me until many years later. There I was, a boy born to (former) undocumented immigrants, living in an area where gangsters and thugs marked every wall and street sign with a black “18″ (sometimes in broad daylight), robbed (also in broad daylight) and murdered people (hopefully not in broad daylight), spending a significant portion of my childhood at a prestigious university and famous museums. The images of students eating ice cream at U.V.’s Baskin-Robbins was a stark contrast to the images of police officers arresting gang members at gunpoint outside my junior high school.
Some of my relatives still live in Pico-Union and still visit University Village. I’ve visited U.V. a handful of times in the past few years including a trip to the Baskin-Robbins with someone I was once close to. My family and I weren’t able to live in a safer neighborhood but we were lucky enough to live close to one that inspired me.