For the past three and a half years, I have spent my Wednesday mornings at the Midnight Mission located on the corner of 6th and San Pedro streets in Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row. I teach a class geared toward achieving an eighth-grade reading equivalency for adult students who are recovering from a variety of issues including substance abuse, incarceration, homelessness and deep poverty.
My route to and from class takes me along streets that couldn’t feel more alien from the campus where I once studied.
The immaculate landscaping in Alumni Park disappears in favor of heaping piles of waste that connect a warren of tents where humans live. The spirit of collegiate joviality withers beneath an imperative for survival that is tinted with the jaundice of drugs, violence, insanity and exploitation.
This is a conundrum familiar to anyone who has ever studied at USC. Beyond the university walls, there is another Los Angeles. Indeed, another California. One that is difficult to reconcile with the reality we Trojans have enjoyed.
Late USC University Professor, State Librarian Emeritus and all-around titan of the craft of history Kevin Starr devoted his life to a study of the Golden State and the City of Angels. He couched his work in the language of dreams.
For a man who loved wordplay, the exploration of dreams was more than an enduring pun. Starr drilled into his students a sense of paradox inherent to this place. If a city like Los Angeles can support dreams of abundance and prosperity, surely it is also capable of hosting equally potent nightmares.
From Skid Row to Santa Monica and Calabasas to Compton, there is a remarkable pessimism in vogue today — a sentiment Starr might have called “doubting the dream.”
Ours is a crowded city whose larger metropolitan footprint creeps steadily outwards to accommodate nearly 20 million. Gone are the orange groves and the bucolic imagination of a sleepy rancho past. The rivers have been cemented into place even though the rain has given way to drought. There is a shortage of housing and a long-standing desperation among those who are beginning to believe that the dream was little more than a botched sales pitch.
It is interesting to note that USC was created in an era of similar pessimism. In 1880, the country was reeling from a crushing economic recession. Los Angeles was still a fledgling city with newly minted railroad access and a reputation for acts of unsavory brutality that make today’s City of Angels look tame.
Our alma mater was chartered less to enshrine eternal prosperity than to create a bedrock of citizens who would be equipped intellectually, emotionally and spiritually to bulwark and uphold Los Angeles itself.
As alumni, we are the proud recipients of an inheritance of fortitude that demands as much of us as it gives. There’s a reason why the inscription on Tommy Trojan instructs us to be faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, ambitious. The university’s founders understood the core truth — that dreams of life in Los Angeles were only as potent as those who worked to render them into reality.
It is a remarkable gift and a tremendous responsibility. We are expected to give of ourselves with resolute consistency as an article of faith that the dream of this place can be reconsecrated in our own time.
Not long ago, a wayward student who disappeared onto the streets a year ago returned to the Midnight Mission. He was overcome with a need to change his life. So, he walked 20 miles overnight to arrive in time to get a bed.
The student appeared in my class desperate to find out the name of a book we had read together: John Fante’s L.A. classic, Ask the Dust.
He couldn’t forget one literary riff that haunts him as it haunts me.
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!
Dan Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in history from USC Dornsife in 2008. He is the creator of the Skid Row Reader, an adult literacy textbook oriented toward homelessness recovery. His first anthology of L.A.-based short fiction — Brea or Tar — is due to be released later this month. You can read more of his work at FreeDanJohnson.com.