When I was a teenager I had a girlfriend that lived in Pasadena and every Friday night I would drive out to see her. I remember the first time I made the trip because I had to borrow my dads car and my dad got out the map book to give me directions. He made a point of telling me not get off the highway at any point until I was in Pasadena. I was to especially avoid Highland Park a point he made clear by circling the area between Downtown LA and Pasadena on the map.
A few weeks earlier my friends and I were cruising Sunset Blvd and ended up in Echo Park where some gang bangers threw a glass bottle at the back window of our car. They ended up chasing us through the side streets around Echo Park and Downtown LA. At one point they got close enough to let us know why they were chasing us- apparently one of us stared at them too long. Funny thing is after we managed to lose them we all interrogated each other to find out who it was. So Highland Park sounded close enough to Echo Park. That was good enough for me. And besides, Dad said I didn’t want to get off there and circled it in his map book. And Dad loved his map book so yeah fuck Highland Park.
So for the rest of the year I never got off the Highland Park exits. I don’t think I would have even thought about getting off there anyway if Dad hadn’t mentioned it . I didn’t even know what Highland Park looked like. The off ramps were dark and looked dangerous. They weren’t like other off ramps. It was the unknown. What if I pulled off and the same gangsters from Echo Park were waiting for me? “ We knew you’d come back guero, You should have listened to your Dad with the maps “, they would say.“But you are echo park, not highland park!” I’d say. But it would be too late. I would be forced to admit to staring them down in Echo Park(yes it was me).
Coming out of the tunnels on the Pasadena 110 freeway I always felt like I was entering some strange wonderland. At home there were rules but on the road the only rule was not to get off at the Avenues. This stretch of freeway called the Arroyo Seco Highway always had a romantic feel. I would hit that first curve before the highway opened up and turn up the music and it would be bliss all the way to Pasadena. Knowing that there might be something sinister waiting in the darkness as I barreled down the highway made it even more enchanting.
Even today when I drive through those tunnels I think about the old days. Images pop into my head- Dad and his map, my girlfriend and I in Old Town, the feeling I would get driving down the Arroyo Seco Highway.
Highland Park has changed. A lot of LA has changed. I’m not sure Highland Park ever lived up to the narrative that I built of it in my mind. When you’re young there’s danger everywhere - always someone eager to step in front of you and ask where your from. The dangers I saw in my youth might still be there , I just don’t see them anymore.
( asada, al pastor)
I was actually on my way to Pasadena this night to meet a friend in Old Town. I came out of the tunnels and hit the first bend on the 110 and thought about those old days and how I avoided Highland Park. I didn’t have a lot of time so York blvd was out of the question, instead I got off at the Avenues and headed for the taco trucks that park in front of the Food 4 Less on Figueroa. I chose El Taki Taco because of the al pastor spit even though another truck nearby had a larger crowd. The al pastor was soft,tender, and a little crispy at the edges. The asada, greasy and delicious. When it comes to tacos Highland Park rarely disappoints. The squeeze bottles of salsa, always a nice touch, came in handy as I peppered my tacos and chugged down a cold bottle of Mexican coke. Sometimes a plate of tacos puts one at ease.
I got back on the 110 and got the nostalgic feeling again. The 110 North always does it to me. The 405 puts me to sleep, the 10 makes me nervous. But with the Arroyo Seco Highway it’s always bliss.
Figueroa St and Ave 51
Highland Park, CA 90042
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