Earlier this week we had a shed installed in our back yard, which I am hoping to convert into a play area or camping hut. In order to install it, we had to cut back some trees, including a jade plant that seemed out of place sticking out of a bed of ivy. I cut a large section off the plant to clear the way for the shed and decided it replant it in another spot in the back yard, but yesterday I realized it looked awkward there. Then it hit me. I knew the perfect place for the plant. I cut it into sections that could each be planted individually, put them all in a plastic plant pot, which I loaded into my car. With my son Theo in town, I then headed for Atwater Village.
For a year and a half, while our house was being rebuilt after our fire, we rented a home in Atwater Village, a charming neighborhood across the 5 Freeway and LA River from Silver Lake. Right at the intersection of Glendale Blvd. and Glenfeliz Blvd., there is a median where for years homeless people have stood asking for money from drivers waiting at the left turn traffic light. Because this is the only way to get into Silver Lake from the 5 Freeway North, thousands of cars a day pass alongside this median and most of them stop at the light, their drivers generally trying to avoid eye contact with the men and women standing on the median. Over the last few years, however, the median has been transforming from a dusty, untended piece of dirt into an increasingly elaborate garden made up of neat terraces, rocks and a variety of attractive succulents. The designer of this lovely garden is Jeff, a 40-something homeless man who lives in the woods close by and has made it his mission to turn this bland space into something special. When we lived in Atwater Village, we saw him regularly standing by the road talking to drivers, holding a sign saying “Needy not Greedy.” For a while, he sat on a stool painting pictures at the tip of the median, with a bucket next to him reading “Coin Toss,” which invited drivers to test their aim while waiting for the lights to change or when driving by. It was clear that he was a very creative fellow, but sometimes we saw a darker side of him. Some evenings, I would drive by the intersection and hear him yelling at a driver. Whenever I caught what he was saying, it would be something along the lines of, “You are all a bunch of micro organisms!” But there was no mistaking the aggression in his mannerisms. Friends of ours said he had been rude to them and had scared their daughter, so at that time we mostly tried to steer clear of him.
However, since we moved back to Silver Lake a year and a half ago, we have noticed quite a transformation. In both the space and the man. With garden tools, plants, rocks and garden ornaments donated to him by local residents and found around the neighborhood, Jeff has been landscaping the space beautifully from the traffic light is, to about 6 or 7 cars’ length along the meridian. Now more drivers seem happier to roll down their windows and chat with him, he has been featured in the LA Times by Steve Lopez, who has a knack for honoring the tremendous creativity among LA’s homeless population, and he doesn’t seem to be shouting as much as he used to.
Today, I drove over to the intersection with Theo and the bucket full of jade plant cuttings in the back of my car. I pulled up close to where Jeff was working, creating some steps between several arrangements in the garden. I had never talked to him before but I wasn’t worried. Theo stayed in the car as I heaved the bucket across the road to where he was working. I gave him the plants and a little cash, thanked him for his wonderful contribution to the neighborhood and shook his hand. He accepted the plants and immediately starting planning where he could plant them. He very humbly explained how he was just figuring out things as he went along with the garden.
When I got back into the car, Theo remarked, “He seems much calmer since he started making that garden.” He does indeed, and I’m sure that his gift of a garden to the neighborhood and to all the cars passing through will help spread calmness and creativity beyond this one tiny Los Angeles intersection.