Around the world in 52 suburbs: New York and LA

Welcome back to the US of A. While millions of Americans deal with the vexing questions of who to vote for and what to wear on Halloween, I've been struggling with the issue of where to next? New York was meant to be our last destination, but as much as I love it, it was time to move on. With four more months of travel needed to finish my project, I needed at least three more cities.

After much demurring — lots of 'What, five hours of daylight only; no way, can't go there' or 'It's too hot/cold/expensive' – I finally settled on Los Angeles, Tokyo and Mexico City. (Yes, I know, it seems crazy to fly over the Pacific and back again. But there were cheap tickets to Tokyo from Los Angeles and then we needed to head back to LA to continue using our original around-the-world tickets. One thing is clear: I will need to plant many trees once all this flying is over with.)

Before we headed west to LA, we had one last NY hood to explore. For something a little different, we hopped on a water taxi instead of a subway and went to Brooklyn's Red Hook, a fascinating little pocket of NY that feels remote, like a fishing village but a fishing village that's 10 minutes from Manhattan with a huge IKEA.

Once a buzzing maritime hub, then the ''crack capital of America'' in the 1980s, the neighbourhood is now slowly gentrifying, with artists and entrepreneurs moving in. But unlike bustling Williamsburg, where it's wall-to-wall hipsters, Red Hook still feels kind of empty and sparsely populated. For good reason; not only is it a bugger to get to – aside from the IKEA water taxi, there's no subway and just one bus – Red Hook ain't cheap any more. The smarties all bought years ago. Now you need a million-plus to buy something half decent.

While it's not for everyone, you can understand why people are paying the price. The feeling of space and freedom in Red Hook is pretty wonderful, and yet Brooklyn and Manhattan are just there on your doorstep should the need for, well, anything, arise.

It was a great way to end our time in New York, a city that may have lost some of its edge but still pulls at my heartstrings.

From that most vertical of cities to one of the most horizontal, Los Angeles.

Considered by many to be merely a stopover on the way to somewhere else, I wondered if there was more to it than that.

I was also interested in finding out a little more about Mexican culture before we hit the real thing; LA was once Mexican territory and still has an enormous Mexican population. Considering I know zilch about their world, I thought by visiting LA I could avoid landing in Mexico City in a few months time completely clueless.

Hence my choice for week number one in LA – a very Mexican neighbourhood called Boyle Heights, just east of LA's downtown.

While NY felt overwhelmingly black to me, LA's population of almost 4 million (18 million in the Greater Los Angeles area) is almost half Latino – and getting more so by the day. A huge percentage of those live and work in Boyle Heights and East LA, including the musicians we met on the main drag, Cesar E Chavez Avenue.

They were the first thing that caught my eye on our first drive there – men in Stetsons sitting on a bench surrounded by accordions, guitars and double basses. From what I could gather, they were waiting for people to drive past and hire them for between $150 and $200 an hour. Either that or they would hit the local restaurants at lunch and dinner, playing for loose change from those enjoying their enchiladas.

While these guys were immigrants, recently arrived from Mexico, we also met American-born descendants of Mexican immigrants – some of whom call themselves Chicanos. While they speak fluent English and sound like any other Angeleno, Chicanos are hugely proud of their Mexican heritage and are aware of the struggles their families have been through and still face.

One such Chicano – or Chicana – was Yisel. She was in Boyle Heights to see Hortencia for a “cleansing” at one of a handful of "spiritual shops".

“Yesterday I came here to see Hortencia for a tarot reading 'cos someone busted my car window and I wanted to know who it was," she explained.

"Then Hortencia told me I needed a cleansing for bad energy that's blocking me in my life. I had to rub my body with lemon, egg, a white candle and flowers, then wash with this nice-smelling oil. Then you write your name and birth date on the egg, lemon and candle. Now I'm back for more.”

Cleansings? White candles? I didn't have a clue what it all meant but I loved how this tough born-and-bred East LA Angeleno, tattooed to the hilt and proudly gay and Chicana, was so into ancient Mexican spirituality.

For week two in LA we headed just north of downtown to Echo Park, a neighbourhood that before World War I was the Hollywood of LA, the place all the film studios called home.

Following the "white flight" after World War II, Latinos and gangs moved in, but in the past decade artists and hipsters have arrived, seeking a cheaper alternative to neighbouring uber-hip Silver Lake.

Everyone we met – the non-Latinos at least – were writers, musicians or actors. But by “everyone” I mean, ooh, maybe 10 people. As the guy in the bookshop explained, LA isn't a “sidewalk culture”. (OK, maybe Venice Beach is, but not here.)

Given the lack of bods and the fact we are in the land of make-believe – and that Echo Park has a relationship of one kind or another with various LA writers such as Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski – I invented a character, Irene; a passionate landscape architect and vintage collector from Arizona, who had arrived in LA to pursue her dream of becoming a famous actress.

Instead of my usual approach, I had Irene narrate her story through the photo captions. I didn't have the idea until after I had shot 99 per cent of the shots, so it was like piecing a storyboard together, albeit with limited images. Kooky but fun. Kind of like LA itself, I'm starting to think.

We're here for another week and then it's off to Tokyo. See you there.

Follow Louise and Coco weekly at 52suburbs.com or read their next instalment here on the last Friday of November.

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