Walk on the Wilshire Side

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The early-morning sun glints off the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles. Mar’cel Stribling, a 19-year-old senior at gritty Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, stands on the steps of a gleaming white office tower, making up rhymes. “I don’t wanna be nothing like Kanye West,” he shouts. “I just want to tell you I’m the best.”

Muthoni Gaciku, 14, rolls her eyes and goes back to chatting with her friend Wendy Velasco, 15, about her future career. “I want to be a food connoisseur,” states the tiny Gaciku, a recent Kenyan immigrant, shifting back and forth in her pigtails and cropped pants. “That way, I can eat all the time.”

A couple of steps behind them, Renee Kelly leans against the office building smiling, talking to no one. With her square-tipped, French-manicured fingernails, bejeweled sunglasses, and thick black hair twisted and tucked neatly under a black baseball hat, she looks poised and glamorous–but hardly prepared for the journey ahead: a 13-mile hike along Wilshire Boulevard, the avenue that splits sprawling Los Angeles down the center, connecting downtown to the Pacific Ocean. I ask her if she knows what she’s in for. “I did it three years ago,” she says, “so let’s see if I still got it. I’m middle-aged now.”

Kelly is 19.

She and 17 other students and recent graduates of Crenshaw High School got up before dawn for this biannual event for the school’s Eco Club/Venture Crew. Other outings, like the five-day backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park, may offer more in the way of communion with nature. But traversing the all-concrete length of Wilshire Boulevard has its special allure–especially in a city where no one walks. “Three years ago, we did it in the rain,” says Bill Vanderberg, the Eco Club’s adviser and Crenshaw’s dean of students. “I said, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ But the kids never stopped talking about it. They just never stopped bugging me.”

From its downtown source to its terminus at the Santa Monica Pier, in its meanderings through Koreatown to the eight-lane swath it cuts through swanky Westside, Wilshire connects Los Angeles far more than touristy Sunset or Hollywood Boulevards do. Walking it is a proclamation of freedom for kids from the neighborhoods that surround Crenshaw. Because of the strife and stray bullets of warring gangs, few venture far from their home turf, and fewer still do so on foot. It pains Vanderberg, who grew up in the suburbs of New York City. Most of his early outdoor adventures, he recalls, were urban ones: “We’d get up and hit the street and walk as far as we could just to see where it went. These kids can’t do that, ever.”

Crenshaw’s dropout rate is twice the already high L.A. average, and violence in the communities surrounding the campus is common. “I saw these kids with their worlds closing in on them,” Vanderberg says. “I wanted them to see what else is out there.” Trips to the mountains offer access to open space; the Wilshire hike gives teens access to their own diverse hometown.

“Here are the rules,” Vanderberg declares as the group assembles. “No CD players, no iPods, and no headphones. We’re out here to hear the sounds of the city and talk to each other, not to check out and get through it.

“And learn how to cross the street,” he adds. “In California, people just walk and don’t bother to look. I’m from New York. In New York, we look, no matter what the light says.”

Our starting point is the Metro Red Line rail station at Western Avenue. A little after 8:30 a.m., we set out. Gaciku and Velasco walk arm in arm, running to stay at the front of the squad, where Stribling continues his high-decibel rap, now boasting of his unflagging energy. “I’m in JROTC,” he tells me. “I can walk for days.”

I’m feeling the same. I happen to live on Wilshire Boulevard and considered myself on intimate terms with its landmarks. But now distances familiar to me from long, dull drives shatter into scores of small discoveries. I spot storefronts and building facades I never knew were there, and the blocks melt away. When we hit Highland Avenue at 10:00 a.m., Vanderberg calls for a break. We’re smack in the heart of Los Angeles, just shy of the historic Miracle Mile–a segment of Wilshire designed for early automobile traffic, replete with art deco high-rises and streamlined moderne office towers. I’m astonished: I’ve never walked from Western to Highland. It never occurred to me that I could.

Lumbering Escalades and Excursions are trapped in asphalt between traffic lights. We blend in easily here, but a few miles west, where Wilshire intersects the fabled retail fantasy­land of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the stares begin. It’s not often, in this deeply segregated city, that a small crowd of black and Latino teen­agers traipses through these moneyed streets. Women with Botoxed foreheads and surgically stretched cheeks perch at sidewalk café tables, blinking bewilderedly like some odd species of bird. I half expect security guards to roll up and ask what we’re doing here. Stribling stops rapping long enough to stare in a window at a $3,000 pair of socks. “They better have a lifetime warranty!” he declares.

By noon we clear Beverly Hills, and what was a pleasantly cool day becomes oppressively hot. Vanderberg takes out the map: three long miles to the sea. “This is going to be the tough hour,” he confides to me. “It’s been four hours already, and we’ve got some complaints coming in about feet.”

In fact, except for Vanderberg himself, the only one who looks undisturbed by the journey is Renee Kelly. As I limp along next to her, I notice that her hair remains smooth and neat, her lips still glossy, and her smile as fresh and relaxed as it was when we began.

“You know, when I first met you, I didn’t think you could finish this hike,” I confess.

Kelly shoots me a look of mock scorn.

“The bangles threw me,” I explain, pointing to the jingling column of gold on her wrist.

“Oh,” Kelly says with a laugh. “I do trail work with my bangles on. I forget that they’re there.”

Kelly, the daughter of Jamaican parents who never took her camping, earned her outdoors credentials three years ago on a camping trip to Death Valley. She was in tenth grade and not doing well. “I was fed up with school and about to drop out,” she says. “I was going through things.” The trip wasn’t easy. “It was freezing cold. The wind was snapping in our faces, our tents blew down, and everything broke. All our cars got stuck in the mud.” But she got to throw herself off the high, forgiving slopes of the Eureka Dunes and saw the precipitous, snow-capped Panamint Mountains rising high above the salty flats at Badwater. A world apart from fast-food drive-ins and strip malls opened up, and Kelly saw a future for herself in it. “I realized that if I wanted to go on more trips, I had to show up at school more,” she says. “So I did.”

Kelly graduated last year and now studies nursing at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, with plans to be a park ranger.

As Vanderberg folds up the map, he looks down sternly at one girl’s slip-on tennies. “Where are your socks?” he demands.

“I’m not answering,” says 18-year-old Maria Diego, batting long, mascara-coated eyelashes. Diego was last year’s Eco Club vice president, and she’s spent the whole day walking with her friend Karla Rivera, 17. The two have known each other since elementary school but only became friends on a club backpacking trip. “And now we’re ‘Diego-Rivera!’ ” chirps Rivera.

“I got close to Mr. Vanderberg because I wasn’t a real good student and I had to go and talk to him a lot,” says Diego. The Yosemite trip was her first, and she found it exhausting. “And at the end, I looked back and realized I’d done something I thought I could never do.”

Did it improve her schoolwork?

“For a while,” Diego says, looking down at her inadequately shod feet. “I got off track again this year.”

In fact, Diego had dropped out of school the previous year and only squeaked out a diploma in December after completing a series of courses in night school. Sometimes a walk in the woods–or a walk down the length of Wilshire Boulevard–is just what it is; it’s not a panacea, and it’s not going to turn every teenager around. “We’re here to introduce kids to the outdoors,” Vanderberg says, “not to perform miracles on everyone.”

Lots of kids come to Eco Club events but don’t attend the meetings, Vanderberg says. Others come out once and never return, with no explanation. “But they still had an experience they never had before,” he insists. The Eco Club shouldn’t have to justify itself, Vanderberg argues, by saving every academic career. “It’s enough when we just get one,” he says.         

At 1:30 p.m., we hit Lincoln Boule­vard, which divides the rest of Los Angeles from what everyone knows as the Beach. With nine blocks left, Diego and Rivera start running into the ocean breeze. Vanderberg shouts at them to slow down, but it’s no use. When we cross Ocean Avenue and hit the soft dirt of the walking path, Gaciku jumps into the air and lets out a whoop. Stribling announces loudly that he could walk the whole thing again. Kelly, gold earrings sparkling, camera swinging calmly from her wrist, just beams a broad, quiet smile.

Judith Lewis is a a freelance writer specializing in the environment and the arts. Excerpted from Sierra (May-June 2007). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (6 issues) including Sierra Club membership from 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105;www.sierraclub.org/sierra.

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