Walk on the Wilshire Side

Los Angeles teens find freedom in a 13-mile trek from downtown to the beach


| January / February 2008



Wilshireside-Photo

photo by Gregory Bojorquez

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.”