California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Little Armenia

California Fool's Gold

In the Los Angeles neighborhood poll, right behind Morningside Circle is Little Armenia.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of Little Armenia, available on art prints and a variety of merchandise

When I first moved to Silver Lake from Chino I got a job in nearby Burbank. I drove through Glendale and noticed that the population of both cities was largely Armenian. The signs were written in that unique Armenian alphabet that kind of looks like broken bits of elbow macaroni glued to croquet hoops. I think that, at the time, I had only the vaguest notion of where Armenia was. (For the record, at Amoeba we file it in the Middle East, to the consternation of many since it’s a Christian nation in South Eastern Europe).

Anyway, Armenia is where Noah crash landed his Ark full of all the world’s species at the end of the Earth’s brief oceanic period. Armenia is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It was founded by Noah’s great-great grandson Hayk. Armenia, situated between Turkey, Iran and Russia finds itself ideally situated for invasion from some of history’s biggest imperialists so it’s pretty amazing that they still exist as a people. Perhaps that’s partly due to the fact that Armenians seem to be willing to live anywhere. Like Australians, Lebanese, and Israelis; Armenians are one of the the nationalities you’re seemingly most likely to encounter in any country as tourists or part of the diaspora.

A typical block of Little Armenia

Back to Burbank then. Many of my customers were Armenian and I noticed that a lot of them really liked Tupac and film Scarface (I think that may still be true). A lot of the guys wore Sean John tracksuits, which I thought looked pretty damned comfortable (especially the velour ones).

Me in my Little Armenia-purchased Sean John

Both the guys and (less often) the girls had a high incidence of synophrys, which I also thought was cool because I have that myself (like many Anglos e.g. Hugh Grant, Damon Albarn, and the Brothers Gallagher).  Whereas in England they have been linked to criminality, some Eurasian peoples consider them beautiful. I let mine grow in, for the first time in years. But then a friend from college visited me who’d only experienced the groomed version of my eyebrows. Right away when he saw me he said, “Jesus! Whoa! God!” and I returned it to its cage.

When I noticed the signs in the East Hollywood neighborhood for Little Armenia I was surprised, given the more undeniable  and overwhelmingly Armenian character of Glendale and Burbank. But what I wasn’t realizing then was that Glendale and Burbank are their own cities whereas Little Armenia is the main Armenian neighborhood of Los Angeles. When you’re new to the city and you drive around on the freeway you see many little clusters of downtown skyscrapers and it’s hard to tell which is Los Angeles, which is Century City, which Downtown, &c since they’re all roughly the same size and seem to just pop up like random termite mounds around the sprawlscape.

St. Garabed

Little Armenia doesn’t really have a downtown. It’s roughly quadrisected by Normandie and Sunset; bordered by Hollywood Boulevard to the north, Santa Monica Boulevard to the south, Vermont to the east, and the 101 Freeway to the west. It is neighbored by Los Feliz, Sunset Junctions, Virgil Village, Melrose Gateway, Melrose Hill, Hollywood proper, Franklin Village, and Thai Town.

It’s very diverse. On my bike rides through the neighborhood to and from work, I always see Mexicans, Scientologists, Salvadorans, Guatemaltecas, Russians, Thai and Pilipinos on any day of the week. And all of my co-workers that I know of that live in the neighborhood are Caucasian (in that they’re white, not that their people are from the Caucasus Mountains, as Armenians are).  But Little Armenia acquired its titular character in the early 1970s when significant populations of Armenians started moving to the area and opening businesses.

Pizza Man and Zankou

Aside from the storefronts, which often have signs written in Armenian, Little Armenia has few physical aspects that reflect its Armenian character. Physically, like most of the Hollywood lowlands, it’s actually a fairly ugly neighborhood, dominated by drab apartment buildings, small homes with concrete lawns, and indistinguishable strip malls. There is, however, a mural depicting Armenian history on the south face of the building at 1203 E Vermont Ave (update: it’s been painted over) and several art deco buildings, and a couple of attractive churches, including St. Garabed Church (an Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church) and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church
Mural: The History of Armenia (Image: Clinton Steeds)

If you’ve ever looked at the crosses on Orthodox churches, you may wonder why they look like old fashioned televisionantennas more than the cross most non-Orthodox Christians are used to. The explanation I’ve heard for the diagonal bar is that Jesus’ legs were unequal lengths. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion so they probably know what they’re talking about.

Hollywood and Western Building

The Hollywood and Western Building is a nice Art Deco building that was built for Louis B. Mayer in 1928. It was featured in the film, Hollywood Shuffle and used as a rehearsal space by bands including Guns N Roses and White Zombie.

Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church

The Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church on Fernwood is rather striking. I once emailed them asking if they were holding services whilst the church was being restored. Disappointed by my experiences with Vatican 2, I hoped to get some old-fashioned ritual. They didn’t write back.

Hollywood Star Lanes (now demolished)

There used to be the famous Hollywood Star Lanes. I loved that place, despite my indifference to bowling. Built in 1962, it was famously featured in the Big Lebowski. Sadly, it was demolished to make way for a school.

In the neighborhood’s only significant green space, Barnsdall Art Park, there is the Hollyhock House and other buildings atop Olive Hill, which were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1910s during his Mayan Revival phase. This probably makes me sound like a philistine, but I’ve always thought of the architect as “Frank Lloyd $h*+3” because his designs, from his various phases, always seem like such pale reflections of his influences. The Maya and the Japanese were architectural gods. Frank Lloyd Wright is like the Disney version in my mind.

Back in 2005, on Labor Day weekend, the park was the sight of Arthurfest where I saw Sleater-Kinney, The Black Keys, Lavender Diamond, Wolfmother and a whole slew of others that I’ve can’t remember.

There’s also the Scientology Church, located in a former hospital. There are actually a lot of Scientology buildings in the neighborhood. On any given night you might see a bus unloading the unfortunately-attired enemies of Xenu who then parade morosely into a nondescript building for a night of niacin tripping and psychiatry-bashing.

I ended up buying a tracksuit at Little Paris, which isn’t a neighborhood, but a store that serves most of the neighborhood’s tracksuit needs. I heard the words “baby blue” amidst the Armenian several times. I often observe older Armenian men’s uniform of consisting more often of waistcoats, jackets, dress shirts, and flat caps. They often walk with their hands clasped behind their backs and hang out in their yards with friends drinking libations and playing board games.

Every 24 April, Little Armenia is flooded with luxury cars adorned with Armenian Flags, both real and sometimes painted. The streets are choked with Armenians marking Genocide Remembrance Day. This is probably the main thing non-Armenian Americans know about Armenia. The other big celebration in the neighborhood seems to be 1 June, which marks Armenian Independence Day.

I’ve never read any Bukowski because he seems like a writer for bros, but I guess a lot of his stuff took place in Little Armenia. Also, I hear that a lot of The Shield is filmed there. I tried watching The Shield, mistakenly confusing it with the massively-hyped The Wire (which both sound like they’re for bros) and got nauseous from the camera work to the point that I couldn’t follow what was going on but it seemed to mainly concern the misadventures of a bald, henpecked Bruce Willis-type bickering with his wife and was very unpleasant physically and spiritually.

As a glutton, I’ve got to mention Armenian cuisine. Most non-Armenians probably don’t even know when they’re eating Armenian because so many places take the incognito strategy of calling themselves “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean” joints — as do a lot of Lebanese and Persian restaurants. I guess naming yourself “Beirut Palace,” “Star of Iran” or “Baghdad No. 1” might not make good business sense in the Near and Middle East-hating USA. Anyway, to be fair, Armenian cuisine is kind of a mix of Assyrian, Balkan, Mediterranean, Caucasian (the region), Eastern European and Middle Eastern influences. If you live in Los Angeles County, you’ve probably eaten at a Zankou Chicken. After being started by a Lipananahay in Beirut, Zankou opened its second store in the Little Armenia location on Sunset before spreading out. Other oft-spoken of restaurants of Little Armenia include Marouch, Arax, Carousel, and Panos; and there are a lot of highly-praised bakeries in the area too.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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