Polaroid Essay: My L.A. in Eight Exposures

Jonathan Labez captures the east side of his childhood one pack of Impossible film.

Jonathan Labez was born and raised in Echo Park—a neighborhood on the east side of L.A., where he still lives and works today. Over the last couple of years, Labez has been documenting his human experience and creating images with a Polaroid SX-70 instant film camera. The KIND bought Jonathan an 8-pack of Impossible film, and asked the photographer that cut his teeth shooting action sports all over the city, to show us his version of Los Angeles.

MacArthur Park: The Paletero

If you’ve ever spent more than a few minutes on the east side, you’ve likely seen these ice cream carts, being pushed by immigrants. Some are new to the game; others have devoted decades to pushing popsicles along the cracked pavement, no matter the time of the year. They traverse the same routes daily. You can go to any of these paleteros and find the frozen treats of childhood.

Historic Filipinotown: Temple Street Market

Filipinotown was the L.A. landing point for people recently arriving from the Philippines. Of course I didn’t know that when I grew up here. I did know, however, the plaza at Temple and Coronado was where to go for Filipino goods and food and other reminders of where we came from. The wafting scent of fried fish comes to mind. My dad would take me here on weekends to buy sweets, in his own way, yearning for the life he had growing up in the Philippines. In the past couple of years, the storefront has expanded into the street. Come on a weekend around 9 p.m., and you’ll see the sidewalk buzzing with teams of Filipinos looking for a taste of home. In my own way, I was too: This photo was taken on a recent trip to the street market to satisfy a craving for turon, a sweet spring roll made with bananas.

Echo Park: The Bridge at Alvarado and the 101 Freeway

Growing up a block away from the Alvarado/101 underpass, I was keenly aware of homelessness in Los Angeles. A transient population comes and goes here, under the freeway. The makeshift encampment's most notable resident is probably “The Birdman,” a homeless man who trains and performs with pigeons. He is a ubiquitous character I’ve seen for at least 20 years at this landmark. With the advent of social media, his story has reached a new audience, even outside of Echo Park. In the past three to four years, we've watched this underpass grow into a modern-day Hooverville. While the recession wanes nationwide, passing by daily is a constant reminder of the poverty that many in this city choose to stay deaf, dumb, and blind toward.

Chinatown: Live Fresh Poultry

Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mom would drive to Chinatown and into this uneventful, unassuming building. The inside is lined with navy blue tiles, and you can hear the distant murmurs of chickens cooing. Mom would point to one of many pictures of chickens that hang above the window. Fifteen minutes later, we’d be on our way. It didn’t occur to me until I was much older, that in this wait, a live chicken was pulled from a pen beyond our sight, killed, and cleaned. It's pretty cool that even now, amid the health-conscious, farm-to-table food movement, there exists a traditional Chinese meat market in the heart of Los Angeles, that’s been at it for nearly 30 years.

Echo Park: Gigi’s Bakery

Gigi's is the last Cuban storefront left near Temple Street and Alvarado. Across the street stood what I always thought of as Little Havana. Five stores, all Cuban run—A dimly lit shop with old men shouting, a yellowing diner you could never see into, an overpriced mini-market run by a bickering Cuban-Korean-husband-wife-duo, a hair salon peddling $5 haircuts, and a botanica that sold home cures for various ailments. Most all of this was demolished five years ago to make way for a private school. All that remains is Gigi’s Bakery. The inside has been updated: Hardwood floors, proper seating, wifi, lattes. Yet you can still score a guava-cheese puff pastry for 89 cents. 

Echo Park: Ice Cream Truck

There are many things in Echo Park that have changed in the past few decades. This ice cream truck is not one of them. I was 4 years old the first time I bolted out the door, barefoot, running after it. Today, the same driver makes his way around the neighborhood in the same truck. I’m 31. A scoop of cheesecake ice cream used to cost a quarter. A dollar would get you a sundae. Somehow, I thought either the man or the truck would have retired by now, after serving thousands of children for years. I’m not sure how I'll feel when I can't go outside in the evening, and hear his scratched serenade rolling down the street.

Westlake: Produce Trucks

If you didn’t grow up in East L.A., you’ve likely never seen a produce truck. Or at least didn't know what it was, if you did see it. Some set up shop on street corners, others cruise neighborhoods, selling door-to-door. There used to be one that came to my mom's apartment building. She'd buy common produce items you’d always seem to need in a pinch: carrots, cucumbers, apples, oranges, mangos, jicama, bullion, eggs. People think this is very revolutionary now, with Instacart or Amazon Fresh delivery trucks, but services like this have existed on a small scale for years. It's crazy that in America, in cities like L.A., that food deserts still exist. Life changing legislation takes time; food trucks could be mobilized tomorrow.

Echo Park: Shoe Repair, Sunset and Logan

Next to where Pioneer market once stood (now a Lassens and Walgreens) is an old Chevy Astro Van you’d never look twice at. The paint is peeling, its luster is weathered and dull. A popup sign that is just as battered blows lazily on the sidewalk, and reads: Shoe Repair. You look inside the van and find troves of shoes piled on top of one another, shelved, or ready-to-be shined. Rafael Lopez has been stitching and fixing shoes from this van for longer than I’ve been alive. You can see it in his face: Lines of concentration come from within his soul while he works to save your soles, just off Sunset.

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