MacArthur Park: Unraveling Hidden Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a city of hundreds of neighborhoods and hundreds of languages, and the cultures that go along with them. From Venice to Garvanza to Shadow Hills to San Pedro (and everything between), we live within a plethora of diversity. But one thing that is missing from this polyglot metropolis are the stories coming out of all these places.

Often, neighborhood-specific blogs and websites draw out tales that help us understand the fabric that makes up a community. One example is blogdowntown, which covers the ever-growing city center's politics, development, people and culture with depth and professionalism. Not every neighborhood is so lucky. Take the subway one stop outside downtown to MacArthur Park/Westlake and you'll be in a neighborhood everyone has heard about—Mama's Hot Tamales, the large illegal immigrant population, Donna Summer's disco hit, LAPD's May Day Melee, the new band shell, fake I.D.s and so much more—but it's also a neighborhood seldom understood.

That's about to change.

Meet Devin Browne and Kara Mears. The two self-proclaimed white reporters—"maybe the whitest people we know," as they say—have embedded themselves with a family of eight undocumented Mexican residents to, in part, "learn Spanish so that we can better report our native city."

The project's name, The Entryway, not only reflects their current living situation of a mattress set up in the front room of the rented Westlake home, but also as an entry into their hosts' world and viewpoints. "It's our entry point into their world," Browne explained over the phone. "Our project is mainly about access: how do we go about accessing a totally different L.A., another America? It's quite a secret--they don't have their papers and there are very few people living in the light. They are secretly selling tamales and fake ID's. How do we access that and how do they access us?"

The Entryway is not published like your typical blog. Instead, it's photojournalism (Mears) and words (Browne) poetically laid out to tell a story. Launched only a couple weeks ago, eight page-turning entries are already up, dealing with contrasts from the old and the reality of the new. They fully admit they embrace that Los Angeles ethos of yoga, hip hop, quinoa and cold soba noodles--"it feels like ours"--and how different it is within their new neighborhood--"MacArthur Park does not feel like ours."

"This is part of the point," they write. "For it is only MacArthur Park, a place so starkly and distinctly absent of anything white, that we take note of what is missing."

The first-person narrative is only one portion of the project. Another core goal will be proper neighborhood news reporting for various outlets. Browne, who also runs MacArthur Park Media and has reported for LA Weekly, KPCC and Marketplace, plans stories with Mears on the fake ID economy, storefront churches, panaderias and the prostitutes who work in them and mobile dental clinics.

It's their hope that this project will last a year, but that will depend on funding. While they do hold humble day jobs--tutoring and substitute teaching for Browne and babysiting and freelance family photography for Mears--they still have rent to pay to their host family. Part of the funding will likely come from Spot.Us, a website dedicated to publicly funded investigative journalism in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The concept is that reporters pitch a story to the reading public, who in turn fund the stories they are interested in. It's not about one big funder, but a mass of people who support it through small donations of $10 or $20 each.

"This is powerful, evocative storytelling. It's a necessary mirror to how some significant populations of Los Angeles live," said Anh Do, L.A. managing editor for Spot.Us. "We hope it will gain deep support as it creates greater insight for its audience." And Do means that. Spot.Us often lends a hand and makes the first donation. For the Entryway, she gave $500, a rare amount for the company to give (if you believe in the project yourself, you can check out their pitch on Spot).

One of the most interesting stories told so far is when the two woke up in the middle of the night to a heavy police presence on the street. The LAPD was on the bullhorn asking everyone inside the house to come out with their hands up. Brown and Mears complied, but no one else did. Not Maria, her boyfriend Juan, or her daughter Leslie. Nor Maria's other daughter Maria and her boyfriend Hilario and their daughter Ashley. Nor Juan's son Rafael or Rafael's son Joshua.

Once outside, hands up and all, Browne and Mears realized the police announced the wrong address (with no apologies) and were actually after the next-door-neighbor gangmembers, who happen to promote their gang on MySpace. The whole situation, however, got them thinking about why they were the only ones out there with the police: "We were standing out there and we were like: there must be some core part of us, on some subconscious level, that really believes the police are here to protect us. Whereas everyone else in our house seems to be completely divorced from that notion."

As the weeks and months go on, today's story of MacArthur Park will continue to unfold. The Entryway is one of Los Angeles' most important journalistic efforts at the moment and as immigration policy begins to take center stage, it will be one of the country's, too.