Opulence and Poverty

A week in California

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I’m writing this through bleary eyes after a rubbish 2-3 hrs of sleep due to jet-lag. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – getting to spend a week in Los Angeles and Huntington Beach in the February sunshine has been a treat and a half.

My husband Matt is the producer of the ‘Lakes International Comic Art Festival, LICAF‘ – held annually in Kendal, Cumbria. As a fan of comics, graphic novels and comic art, I am more than happy to volunteer at the festival and help run the guest liaison desk, which I have done since the festivals conception 6 years ago. Alongside Matt and the festivals director Julie Tait and guests/special projects co-ordinator Carole Tait, we were recently invited to California by ‘The National Cartoonist Society’, who are hoping to run a similar festival in Huntington Beach. The purpose of our visit was to reccy the area; look at hotels, art centres and any other spaces that would be potentially suitable for such a festival and offer advice about the model that has been developed that has made LICAF such a success – I know, it’s a hard life!

So, I thought I’d give you a brief run down of what we got up to on our trip…

Our first two days were spent in downtown Los Angeles. I visited LA many years ago as a teenager and only have edited highlights as memories. This time, I was immediately struck by how utterly huge and opulent many of the buildings were. We stayed in the Luxe Hotel in the heart of a sports complex (ESPN). The hotel itself was lovely – spacious and clean with an open-air bar looking down onto Figueroa Street. On arrival we had a chilled evening in a local chain eatery bar called ‘Yardhouse’. We loved it here and came back twice on our trip. The bar offered a huge variety of options from a drink point of view and had a great selection of food that was very welcome to us weary travellers – nachos, sweet potato fries, a tower of onion rings, a trio of desserts. Great food for sharing (I promise I’ll have a salad tomorrow!). We were served by a fabulous waiter called Juan-Diego who was just wonderful – attentive and funny. What a difference great customer service makes, something the yanks do really well!

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Luxe Hotel Bar on Figeuroa Street

We spent the first day exploring the area near where we were staying. Taking in the enormous and impressive architecture and checking out a few shops and places to eat. We walked up to the Echo Park area; an up and coming part of LA full of thrift/vintage/book/record stores and cool coffee shops. You could get your self a soy sweet potato and maple syrup latte in this part of town – I kid you not! That evening we were invited to attend the Los Angeles ‘Rock Lottery’ – a charity event:

‘The Rock Lottery premise is simple, but effective. Twenty-five hand picked musicians meet at 10:00AM at the evenings performance venue. These volunteers are organised into five groups through a lottery-based chance selection. The five separate groups are then released to practice at different locations. The musicians have twelve hours to create a band name and three to five songs (with a one cover-song limit). The groups will then perform what they have created that evening in front of a waiting audience.’ Taken from Rock Lottery Facebook Page.

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Patty Schemel setting up her drum kit at the Rock Lottery Event at The Echo.

Included in the 25 musicians were Patty Schemel (Drummer from Hole), who is a heroine of mine from my teenage years and Mike Watt, a bassist and vocalist (Minutemen, Firehose) and a bit of a legend in the hardcore/punk scene. We were also there to support Joe McGarry, one half of the duo ‘Pop Noir‘ and the son of our host for the week. The show was really impressive, given that the musicians had only met hours before. They performed like pro’s and had the audience eating out of the palm of their hands. A great experience. All money raised from the show goes to a local charity encouraging musicianship in young people.

The following day we explored downtown LA further. There is so much impressive street art…


In contrast to our opulent surroundings, I was also struck by the extreme level of poverty here. The exits to the freeways were littered with tents, trollies and make-shift communities for the homeless. It was an uncomfortable sight, like nothing I had ever seen before and made me question my privilege that can so easily be taken for granted; there are 58,000 homeless people in LA, one of the largest homeless populations in the US.

I’m haunted by the families in South L.A. with kids wandering around with no place to stay.

– Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission –

The oddest thing about this was that it seemed so ‘normal’ to everyone here. Dozens and dozens of homeless people lined the streets and were ignored by almost everyone that walked past, not even a glance or a smile. I watched for sometime. They had become invisible. There is something very wrong about that.

Day 3 of our visit saw a change of location. We were picked up by our host and driven an hour out of LA to Huntington Beach – a picture postcard location with its perfect beach lined with palm trees. I have never been anywhere quite like this. We were lucky enough to be staying for a couple of nights at the Paséa Hotel on the Pacific Coast Highway – PCH  (as this was a potential venue for the festival) in a room overlooking the beach. I stood on the balcony of our room and could feel the 24 degree warmth (not bad for February) on my face. I watched the surfers (this area is also known as ‘Surf City’) bobbing up and down in the pacific ocean. I felt overcome with emotion. The contrast from yesterday, watching the homeless families on the streets of LA to the absolute lavishness and affluence of today’s surroundings was a little too much. I mentally scolded myself for indulging in a mini ‘pity party’. I also decided that I would make the most of this amazing opportunity/trip and when I get home find out what I can do to help support our local homeless charity, who I have some connections with from a previous job. A small offering, but better than nothing.

So the rest of our week was spent looking around the Huntington Beach area, including various hotels and the Arts Center (which is an amazing space run by wonderful creative people) and the local library. Without giving too much away, this project is very exciting for us all and will create international links with some of the most prolific cartoonists/comic artists in the world. How cool is that? We were shown around the local area by Chris and John representatives from the city council, both of whom had excellent knowledge of the area but were also extremely enthusiastic about collaborating with us.

Huntington Beach – Views from the pier

We managed to sneak in a trip to Universal Studios in Hollywood, which to be honest felt rather weird as my girls weren’t with me and I know they would have had the best time. But, we soldiered on and had a blast on ‘The Mummy’ Rollercoaster, the Jurassic Park ride, the Simpsons ride, the studios tour and last but not least The Walking Dead Experience – I’ve never been so terrified as I walked through an abandoned hospital with ACTUAL zombies trying to get me. #nearlypeedmypants

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Universal Studios, Hollywood

This really is an exceptionally beautiful part of the world. The next few days saw us continue our exploration of the area. We visited some great restaurants – shout out to ‘The Long Board’ on Main Street, Huntington Beach – great food, great service, cheap beer and copious amounts of raspberry iced tea! We travelled down the coast to Newport Beach one evening to visit a restaurant called ‘Sol – Mexican Cocina’. This place was very busy and had a great vibe. We also took a 20 minute car journey in land to Costa Mesa where we visited the Segerstrom Centre for the arts – what an incredible building!

Our last day was spent back in LA. We took the Metro to Hollywood to indulge in a little sight-seeing. We quickly found the Hollywood Sign and the Chinese Theatre and took the obligatory million photographs. We wandered along the walk of fame looking for some of our favourites – George A Romero, Alfred Hitchcock, Dr Seuss…


Hollywood Boulevard

There are LOTS of shops here selling plastic tat, which we found rather off putting. However, they were rammed with tourists willing to part with their cash, so I guess there is a market for it. We were able to take a tour around the Musicians Institute (a College of contemporary Music) after my husband Matt used his ‘gift of the gab’ to get us in.

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Matt is Head of School for the arts, media and heritage campus back home at Kendal College and is also a musician/sound engineer by trade – so he had a vested interest. This place was very impressive – with state of the art sound desks and numerous recording/practice booths. They run degree programmes in drums/vocals/guitar/bass amongst other things. Past students include John Frusciante and Chad Smith from Red Hot Chili Peppers!

 – Musicians Institute, Hollywood – 

Our flight home was 8pm that night, so we head back to our hotel to pack and freshen up before our journey home began. The trip had been a great success and we are all looking forward to collaborating with The National Cartoonists Society in developing their own comic art festival, and I can’t think of a better place to do it!


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