The West End
The West End
Living was easy in the West End, but life was hard—always dark and hidden beneath its surface, yet stirring like the presence of a restless, unborn child. Downtown petered out into the shabby district, before rising into the lush neighborhoods on the hillsides to the west. The sky there was never silent. Around the time that men had first stepped onto the virgin moon and my parents had first stepped into marriage through a black-and-white ceremony preserved in pictures that have been all but packed away since their divorce, a freeway was sliced through the short Victorian blocks to circumnavigate the city center. The sound of tires on concrete always filled the ear like invisible rushing blood beneath a scar.
At night, the West End was as bleak and hard as I had imagined the Soviet Bloc had been in my childhood. With the exception of a crisp marble telecommunications building at the edge of the district, the blocks were patchy—a faded smile with missing teeth. Old buildings had been torn down and replaced with paint-striped parking lots to service professional commuters downtown. There were abandoned hotels that had been converted into studio apartments, small businesses that did poorly and changed names frequently, and a handful of churches that had been built in the flat land between downtown and the hills before the wealthy above had outgrown them generations ago. But unlike the Iron Curtain, the invisible wall on the asphalt foundation of the freeway still stood, dividing the haves in the evergreen western hills from the have-nots below.
There were other neighborhoods between that invisible curtain and downtown. Students lived to the south, near the museums and university buildings that lined a long promenade of elms of the Cultural District. Refugees from real estate booms in Manhattan and San Francisco lived to the north in the Pearl District, where they converted warehouses into lofts, galleries, and trendy restaurants with menus that shunned English captions. But the pulse of the freeway kept them all away from the West End, where the biting odor of hops and steam filled the streets downwind from the brewery.
The apartment buildings filled up with ex-cons and punks when they weren’t subsidized by the state to house residents either mentally ill or socially neglected. The rent was cheap in the old converted hotels. The locations were convenient to downtown if title and pretense weren’t of concern. A few of the apartment managers screened tenants well, kept the lobbies tidy, the elevators safe. Enclaves of young people accumulated—bartenders and waitresses, artists and baristas, retail clerks and office workers, dancers and musicians, hairdressers and cooks. It was an invisible society there behind the curtain of the freeway, in the nameless buildings above the commuters.
▪ ▪ ▪