At first glance, Rosecrans is not awe-inspiring. Rosecrans Avenue is just over 27 miles long, running east from the beach through South Los Angeles to the Orange County town of Fullerton. As one of the city’s major avenues, it’s among the few manufactured things here big enough to span the region’s disparate parts. I’ll take a walk or drive on Rosecrans — or Vermont, or Pico — and loop in and out of side streets, watching one neighborhood morph into another, not necessarily for the pleasure of it but to absorb all there is to see. Hand-painted business signs change from Spanish to Korean. For a block or two, restaurants suddenly advertise Creole specialties, reflecting Cajun roots, only to revert the next block to ubiquitous fast-food joints. I’ll walk past squashed-together homes, families hosting driveway parties, a BBQ business tucked halfway down a nondescript alley. Amid all this a sense of low-key peace prevails, along with a shared notion of tolerance — minding your business in clear sight of your neighbor’s. Honestly, the only other way I know how to encounter so much of Los Angeles, to see so many of its diverse communities coexisting, is to go to the beach.
In 2018, after reporting on the sentencing trial of the rap mogul Suge Knight, I spent an afternoon walking the stretch of Rosecrans that passes through Compton. Often, when people from outside California know of Rosecrans Avenue, it’s because of the street’s storied place in West Coast rap history. DJ Quik and Problem named an album for it. The Game and Kendrick Lamar invoke it in multiple songs. (From Lamar’s song “Compton”: “Come and visit the tire-screeching, ambulance, policeman/Won’t you spend a weekend on Rosecrans.”) On “Bompton,” YG talks about buying guns at the Rosecrans location of Tam’s, a local burger chain — the same place where Knight struck and killed Terry Carter with his truck in 2015. But Compton also teems with house-proud residents and their tidy lawns, women chatting outside a florist’s shop, construction workers grabbing lunch at a packed taqueria. In Greater Los Angeles, the concept of “place” is always complicated. It’s similar to our weather: It may seem blandly constant, but if you think that’s all there is to it, you’re not looking close enough. Populations relocate. Businesses disappear. Gentrification is unrelenting, revising the city every day. L.A. has a stupefying number of histories, each with its own claim on the land.
In January, I walked a portion of Rosecrans in Fullerton that I hadn’t seen before. Previously, for thousands of years, this was the homeland of the Indigenous Tongva people. The yellow cliffs of the Coyote Hills were on view in the distance, but my eye was on nearer details. A 90-minute ramble revealed L.A.’s familiar extremes: big houses alongside dingbats, the shock of the unexpected coinciding with numbing dullness. But I also saw small green parks, southern views of the basin and an older-women’s jogging group all wearing sun hats that looked like huge black shells. I finished at Rosecrans’s eastern terminus and got a burrito. There was a feeling I’ve experienced only in Los Angeles: I was in the middle of nowhere and at the center of everything, all at once.