Alissa Walker is the model Los Angeles resident. She is the living embodiment of the the city’s spirit. She works hard to be the voice of the city. Whatever you want to call her, Alissa Walker is Los Angeles’ biggest fan, best friend, bride-to-be: Alissa Walker is Los Angeles.
You’d think such fandom would come from someone born and raised in the city–but that isn’t true Angeleno. Like most in the city, she is a transplant , coming by way of Saint Louis, Missouri. “I always knew I wanted to leave Saint Louis but I always thought I’d end up in New York,” she says with a smile. She attended University of Colorado Boulder, where she attended their journalism school with a focus on advertising.
She later relocated to Atlanta to attend Portfolio Center. “Everyone the year before me had gotten amazing jobs and, the year I finished, the .com bubble burst. No one got a job,” she says, noting that classmates were taking jobs in Alabama and Kansas since there weren’t positions available in New York. Instead of staying in the South, she looked West to Sacramento, where she worked freelance. The location wasn’t ideal, but she did learn that she loved California.
Then, an opportunity to move to Los Angeles popped up in 2001 and she snatched it up: “I had an opportunity to move into this crazy house in Hollywood. It was a big Craftsman house and I thought I’d just try it. There were always things to do here and everyone was unemployed, so it wasn’t a big deal to not have a job. I moved here and thought it was the most surprising and amazing place I’ve ever been to. I never considered leaving from that moment. The move was supposed to be for fun, temporary, but I immediately found friends and a great community.”
She’s been here ten years since this past August. She never questioned her being here or was concerned she wouldn’t “make it” in the city like people say. “You hear people say that, ‘If you last three years, you can make it,’” she explains, “Everyone was telling me that but I never felt like it was this horrible scary place everyone talked about. I kept waiting for something bad to happen. But it’s kind of my dream city.”
Alissa also wasn’t a writer when she arrived in Los Angeles: she was still hoping to pursue advertising. But, the city spoke to her and nearly demanded she speak for the city. She details: “I felt like there were so many great stories here and so many great opportunities to almost set the record straight about what was going on here.” Moreover, Alissa took it upon herself to be the city’s biggest champion: “I felt early on that there were really interesting stories and not that many people writing in a way that wasn’t stereotypical, negative LA stories. I felt a responsibility as a writer to say things about people riding their bikes and really generous creatives. I definitely had that responsibility here, where I might not have had that in other cities.”
“Things are possible here,” she says of the opportunities in Los Angeles, “We’re uniquely positioned where people do have money, of course. But, we are also able to make a very distinctive change in what’s happening. It’s not a finished city or an established city. It’s not like where you go to New York and everything is done and you feel like, ‘Well, I’ll insert myself here.’ Here, I really do have a voice that is able to create a different environment, by the way it looks or how people connect with each other: the opportunity is much different.”
Alissa certainly has a voice in the community and is very vocal: she is a freelance writer who works with GOOD magazine, Fast Company’s Co. Design, and Dwell magazine, maintains Gelatobaby, and even hosts de LaB, Design East of La Brea. Doing de LaB seems to be the most exciting thing for Alissa, as it really connects people with creatives, spaces, and the city. People are starved for that, too: “Right away when we started doing [de LaB], people were so hungry for real life events. That was the one thing I noticed about LA: people want that interaction and they want to go to a physical place in a different neighborhood they’ve never been to before.”
This all ties into her work as a journalist, which is no longer a job that is just writing or just reporting or giving news to an organization: it is about sharing things directly with your audience. “I feel that is my responsibility as a journalist,” she says, “The next step besides writing about it is giving people a place to come and talk about it. I think that’s my job.”
Similarly, Alissa is a design writer by trade. But, like journalism, that does not mean you just share things of interest: you have to share things that matter. “At the beginning, being a design writer meant you wrote about cool stuff,” she said, then explaining a job she did for GOOD where she mapped the process of getting clean water to people in Alabama who were not connected to the municipal water supply. She mentioned the situation in Alabama was “ridiculous” and that her piece being in GOOD changed the situation there. “All of the people who donated said they read about it in GOOD Magazine, because you could mark that down when you made a donation,” she said, “It made me think, ‘I actually can be a part of the solution instead of writing about cool stuff.’ I decided then that I need to be the one out there, writing about only important things. I always wanted to a part of the solution, picking something that would make a difference.”
This all happened at her halfway point of living in Los Angeles. “I think I took some ownership,” she said, remembering this point around 2006. She told herself, “I’m not just going to be an observer: I need to focus on changing things for the better.” This is how Alissa has gotten to where she is now. This is why she doesn’t own a car, she only walks, she takes the bus, and rides her bike: she is changing Los Angeles for the better. She is being the activist she wants her readers, fellow Angelenos, to be.
But, being an advocate for change does not mean that a design writer has to forget her interest in art and design: Alissa is incredibly involved and a part of the LA art scene. Speaking on the art scene, she asserts, “There’s always a million different levels on how you can access it.”
Having just written for Details at length about the subject, she knows Los Angeles and art. “I always say that LA is the biggest artists’ district in the world,” she states assertively, “You have a group of people who are all here trying to make money with their art, which is even more admirable. I don’t think people think of it that way: we are the biggest creative community in one place on the planet. We need to embrace that.”
She’s exactly right: Los Angeles is a city founded upon the idea of creation. Regardless of what you think of the movie industry, it is a business now that started from a need to create, to tell stories. Now, there is a gap between the city, the “industry,” and the creatives. Alissa wants to see that gap closed: “I wish there was a better connection. I always get really upset because the studios employ so many people and have such a presence here but you don’t really see them do great community work. I met some people from Paramount and I asked them if they knew about CicLAvia, which takes place a couple of blocks from the studio. They didn’t know anything about biking and it really made me sad. I wondered how many of their own employees ride their bikes to work. They have no perception of being citizens of this city. I feel like there should be some connection. I wish every celebrity would take on LA as their cause. Of course, it’s great for them to be doing great work in Africa, or something–but, I want them to look at the problems here and take on education, for example, and have a presence in the schools. Here, that would have a bigger difference, for where they live.”
Alissa is a very wise woman, who knows what the city should be and could share ideas on the city’s future that would inevitably pass. She idealizes that if she weren’t here she’d be in Italy or maybe France, working as a lounge singer, biking everywhere, and able to eat gelato all the time. But, she’s in Los Angeles doing what she’d always hoped she would be doing: writing and helping others, in a city she adores.
As far as her future, she wants to keep on doing what she can on her trajectory. “I’m working on a book now of a series of essays on Los Angeles,” she announces, going on to explain, “If it was up to me, I would write book upon book of curious stories I come across and observations I have walking around the city, which I’m sure could fuel me for the rest of my life. Hopefully I’ll be doing more writing about LA and more events, connecting the creative industry with people in government who are in need of help.”
As for the future of Los Angeles, she knows if it keeps on its course, it will become the Los Angeles she’s always wanted it to be. “In ten years, we’ll have all the bike lanes and the light rail line hopefully all the way to Santa Monica. I envision everyone will be taking public transit and be really excited about how easy it is and, if you need to drive somewhere, you can actually get to it. We’ll all have really amazing farmers markets and urban farms and people growing all their own vegetables in their own backyard so we’ll hardly need to go out to restaurants anymore. We’ll have cows and chickens.”
Alissa laughs, as she finishes up her thoughts on the city’s future. “We have the space and it’s a huge interest,” she says, “I think here we have no excuse: our growing season is endless.” She’s absolutely right. You could even apply that to the city’s creatives as well in relationship to the city: we have the space to create, it’s a huge interest to everyone, and the growing season is endless. You heard it hear first–and from the voice of Los Angeles herself.
For more on Alissa Walker, be sure to follow her on Twitter and on her website. You can also look forward to Alissa involved with GOOD Ideas For Cities, her project on transportation with the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship Program, new events from de LaB, and a series of essays she has written to celebrate her ten years of being in Los Angeles.