Watts Towers

February 29, 2016

For someone of my age and skin tone, the word ‘Watts’ elicits definite feelings of unease. wattstowers7While I am probably too young to actually remember the images of the 1965 uprising, it was part of the mid-to-late 60s period when American cities seemed engulfed in fire, destruction and racial tensions. I certainly do remember the 1992 riots, living here in Los Angeles at the time, standing on the roof of our apartment building, a 10-15 minute car ride from the south-central area of the city boiling over, watching the smoke from the fires that were alight in the city again.

“But Watts is country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel,” Thomas Pynchon wrote in a New York Times essay, 9 months after the ’65 August riots, in the wake, incredibly, of another shooting of an unarmed black man, in his car, in front of his pregnant wife, by a white police officer who, unsurprisingly, was not charged with the death. “She’s going to have a baby,” was the last thing Leonard Deadwyler said. I Can’t Breath. Watts, 1966. Staten Island, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri.

To my discredit, these were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I made my way to Watts last week, wattstowers8the reasons why I never had even thought to make the trip back 20 years ago when I last lived here. This is not my part of the city. Terra vetita.

It is does such a disservice to the place and communities living here. This blinkered, limited view diminishes what Watts actually is, what it’s been, the totality of its history. How can anywhere be reduced to any one thing? I’ll tell you how. Willful ignorance.

Like much of Los Angeles, Watts was, with the appearance of the Europeans, originally farmland. Then the railroad came in the late-19th century, and Watts grew into a working class city, connected to other parts of Los Angeles by an extensive intra-urban public transit rail system. (It’s important to always make that point for people who still think this is a city built for the car.) Many of the residents, in fact, worked for the railroads. Watts was incorporated as a city in 1906 and became part of Los Angeles in 1924 through annexation.wattstowers6

Three years before that, Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant and tile worker, had begun what would be a 33 year quixotic art installation endeavour. The Watts Towers, or Nuestro Pueblo, Our Town. It was an imaginative recreation of elements of Rodia’s hometown in southern Italy, single-handedly constructed in his backyard with scraps of metal, cement and other neighbourhood detritus and found objects of broken tiles, glass, seashells.

It is a staggering work of artistic imagination and determination. And defiance. And the individual idiosyncrasy that Los Angeles is noted for.

Not long after completing it, at the ripe old age of 75, Rodia handed over ownership of his house and property to a neighbour before leaving the city to live with family in central California. He never returned, never came back to look upon his creation. Subsequent owners spent five years or so, fending off the city’s attempts to tear the work down, citing safety concerns. wattstowers5But in 1959, after it proved to be earthquake sturdy, the city backed off and the towers remained in place, now part of a community arts centre.

Today, wandering through the project, looking up at the spires which have no logical reason for still being up there, the Watts Towers seem to symbolize for me a constancy, a sense of permanence that withstands the pressures of change and evolution that neighbourhoods and communities are always subject to. Sabato Rodia chose the location, the house with the backyard facing the railroad tracks so that lots of people would see his work of art as they commuted back and forth to work. Before he was finished in 1954, the rails had been torn up, nearby jobs departed further afield, a working class neighbourhood transformed into a highly racialized one, rife with all the tensions and conflicts that boiled over into an uprising one week in August, more than 50 years ago.

Like the Towers, some things haven’t changed that much. “50 Years And I Still Can’t Breath” was an exhibition on display in the adjoining gallery, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. wattstowers7Yes, the hate and oppression and state-sanctioned violence against marginalized communities has not gone away. In many ways, it remains as virulent as ever, gone underground and re-emerged, more covert than overt.

But, in Watts, like other economically and social segregated parts of Los Angeles, the trains have returned, in the form of LRTs, re-connecting neglected and ignored neighbourhoods to the wider region. The demographics are changing too as new immigration seizes the opportunities to make a better life for themselves. There’s an amazing resiliency, a potent timelessness, as represented by the towers, to the struggle against all the malignant forces that have besieged places like Watts pretty much from the outset. Conformity, misguided city building, economic dislocation, prejudice, both hard and soft, that see places like these only through a very narrow lens of skewed preconceptions set in mind a long time ago. Preconceptions I should have known to let die a long time ago.

shamefully submitted by Cityslikr


L.A. Story II: I Hear Freeways

February 26, 2016

As the weather warms up again after a brief cold snap that inflicted daily temperatures reaching only into the low 20-degree celsius range – sorry – I’ve resumed sleeping with the windows cracked open. breezethroughawindowLast night, I was regularly stirred from my slumber by the dull roar of… what was that noise? A bulldozer smoothing out a nearby lot? At this hour? Distant, low-flying planes? The hum of a neighbour’s air conditioner? It went Mmmm, mmmm, mmn, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mm…

No, no and nope. It was the din of traffic from arterial thoroughfares and expressways that run through my daily life here although I am rarely in a car.

It’s not like I’m living right beside any of these beasts. Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards are blocks away. The 10 and 405 further away still. But at night when everything else has been put to bed, you can hear them. That’s definitely them I’m listening to, through the open window I sleep near because it is that warm out.

I imagine I’ll eventually get used to the weather if I live here long enough. The traffic, however, is another matter.

Yesterday, I spent an hour reading a book out on the patio of a local coffee shop. (I could do so, of course, because it was warm out. Did I mention that already?) whatsthatnoiseThere was no getting away from the traffic there. Motorized vehicles are loud and insistent. Their presence amplified beyond their already ample stature. I Am Car Driver, Hear Me Roar!

Los Angeles drivers love to honk their car horns. There’s a joke in there somewhere about the legendary boosterism of the Angeleno. Anything appears to set them to it. The turning of the green light. The turning of the yellow light. Any sort of not immediately obvious source for sitting idle, not stepping on the gas. Honk the horn. That should clear it up.

As I was approaching a parking garage, I watched as a car emerged from it. Still too far back from the street, the driver couldn’t possibly see the situation with oncoming traffic. That didn’t stop him from honking the horn at the car ahead of him, waiting to turn out of the lot. Get a move on. I’m here now. Let’s go.

It wasn’t obvious that once the coast was clear, this guy was going to wait for me to pass in front although I would have had to stop to let him proceed. hornhonkOur paths crossed. No one was hurt. There were no tears. No further honking either.

You don’t have to read up much about this city before hitting upon a discussion of the nature of public-private spheres. Los Angeles is famous for its emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former. The history of local architectural design is notable, apparently, for its inward-lookingness. I’m sure there’s a more technical term for it. The fun’s inside, folks, not outside. What the hell are you doing, hanging around out there?

This despite, and I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it yet in the last 3 or 4 sentences, a pretty agreeable climate for most of the year which should draw people out and into it. Yet, most patio or street level culture such as it exists here is largely pulled into courtyards or covered sections away from any sense of the hustle and bustle of daily city life. deathrace2000Wonder why that is, and I imagine you can guess where I’m going with this? The total and utter surrender of huge portions of the public space over to the servicing of private automobiles. So dominant is the car here, still, that it filters into the private spaces, through open windows, long after most of us have gone to be, our sleep disturbed by that noise, low but insistent, coming from distant thoroughfares and freeways.

sleeplessly submitted by Cityslikr


Walk Like A Pedestrian

February 24, 2016

There are lots of places to walk in Los Angeles if that’s something you really want to do, something you’ve come here with the intention of doing plenty of. walkonthebeachThere’s that big chunk of sandy, oceanfront real estate that you can make your way up and down. Parks and other green spaces are part of the urban landscape if you know where to look. Plenty of shopping malls, both inside and out, can be hit by a rock thrown in almost any direction. During the course of an average day, one does walk from one’s house to one’s car, and then from one’s car to one’s place of business. You might even find yourself getting out of your car to walk around it in order to inspect whatever damage might’ve been inflicted by that asshole backing out of his parking spot too quickly.

But walking as a matter of fact, as something done during the course of an average day, as an actual mode of getting around, seems out of the ordinary, most likely the result of an unfortunate turn of events. “I’m sorry, miss,” the driver says through a powered down passenger side window, to a passer-by on foot. “Did your car break down? Would you like me to call AAA or a family member? You probably don’t have a phone either, I’m guessing.”rodeodrive

During my short time here so far, I haven’t detected outright hostility toward me from drivers when I’m making my way around town on foot. Most of the encounters or exchanges I’ve had with them at intersections and crosswalks are greeted pretty much by the element of surprise. Oh! I didn’t see there. Walking right in front of me. Usually it’s followed by a sheepish, apologetic wave as we then proceed to go about our respective businesses.

This goes a long way to explaining why an awful lot of motorists in Los Angeles have a tendency to race to a stop at red lights and stop signs. The clearly demarcated pedestrian right of ways painted on the pavement are considered suggestions more than absolutes. If you can help it, maybe try stopping before these lines instead of somewhere within them. You know, just in case, in the off-chance, somebody might actually be trying to make their way across the street on foot.thegrove

And the rolling stops at stop signs! Oh my. STOP is roughly translated into ‘Please slow down enough to give the appearance of trying your best to obey the law. If you don’t mind. Thank you so much.’ The appearance of a pedestrian in the middle of this well-rehearsed car ballet at a neighbourhood 4-way stop brings the whole thing to a crashing halt in a frenzy of uncertainty. Can I cross with this interloper or do I have to still wait my turn? Get out the manual, Martha. Get out the manual!

Just in case, honk your horn to signify something isn’t quite right.

I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve hesitated to step into the street, even with the clear right-of-way, uncertain that a vehicle barreling down toward me will stop in time. Or felt the need to pick up the pace while in an intersection, uncertain that a vehicle barreling down toward me will stop in time. Walking in the car-dominant streets of this city involves a noticeable degree of uncertainty for pedestrians which might explain why lots of people don’t do it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

In places where there’s at least the pretense of concern for pedestrian safety, hikinglaa nod in the direction of equality for all road users, I’ve been known to give drivers who are harshing my walking mellow, encroaching on my space and making me fear for my safety, the ol’ stink-eye. Essentially, a facial What the fuck are you doing, dickhead? As a matter of fact, you don’t own the road.

I haven’t done that here yet for a couple reasons. One, most drivers in that situation would be at a loss to understand why I was making mean faces at them. You’re the one doing a weird thing right now, walker dude. Where is your car anyhow? Two, some Americans are known to pack heat and road age is not an uncommon occurrence in these parts. That’s a battle an unarmed guy on foot is never going to win.

So on the few occasions that it’s felt to me like I’m being nudged out of the way by a driver wanting to get through that stop sign or turn right on a red, encouraged to move along by a car creeping ever so slowly closer, urbanlightsI’ve employed a passive-aggressive tactic of slowing down, almost imperceptibly, until the car is forced to a complete stop, figuring a bump won’t hurt at this speed and living in this litigious mad country, I’d grab my neck, fall to the ground, screaming: YOU’LL BE HEARING FROM MY LAWYERS!! Lawyers, plural, not lawyer. You’ve run down the wrong guy, mister.

Last night, walking home, I improv’d another little pushback. As this driver was itching to get past me and turn right on the red light, i flashed a little drunkard’s one-step, two-step stagger, forcing the car to a full stop. Job done, I then made my way over the curb and onto the sidewalk, leaving the driver to whip around the corner, speeding off into the night.

I’d like to imagine that I melted someone’s heart, even just a little, converting an aggravated impatience into something close to empathy. Poor old inebriate, I bet that driver was saying to themselves or a companion in the car. He probably lost his license. Why else would he possibly be walking?

deathrace2000

saunteringly submitted by Cityslikr


Validation

February 22, 2016

Men with serious shoes and bags of flavoured pita chips present their parking tickets for store validation as their first order of business with the check-out cashier. pitachipsUshers inform the audience of the running time of the film they’re about to see, assuring them that it’s well under the 3 hour free parking limit. “If you choose to stick around after the movie to grab something to eat or do a little shopping,” the usher continues, “the validation machine is down on the second floor so drivers can get themselves a discounted parking rate.”

This is a city firmly gripped by the cult of the car.

I drove a rental car to the pedestrianized area of downtown Culver City where I paid a full $3 to park for 2 hours. If I’d taken transit, it would’ve cost me $3.50 (x 3 people) round trip. And don’t talk to me about the additional dollars for operating a motorized vehicle unless you’re prepared to also talk about the society wide externalities of automobile use.italianshoes

On my runs and walks through nearby neighbourhoods, travelling south from Santa Monica Boulevard, as the midrise condos and apartments give way to fully detached single family houses, residential streets are full of parked cards, on both sides of the road. These are areas with long driveways running up and into long lots. Driveways, many of which are already filled with two cars with space for one or two more, and yet still, drivers and their vehicles appropriate the streets, their street numbers stencilled into the curbs in front of the house.

This is a city fully engulfed in car cult madness.

“Cars are wonderful, but they’re very expensive in terms of their impact on the environment and the cost that it takes to maintain them and to keep them up,” [Dallas City Manager A.C.] Gonzalez said. “But they’re wonderfully convenient.”

Like Los Angeles, Dallas, Texas is another city trying to come to terms with its car-centricity, not just in terms of mobility but equality. It turns out the two are inextricably linked. mclaren1Maintaining the private automobile atop your transportation system hierarchy is expensive and ultimately unsustainable, the heaviest burden, unsurprisingly, falling on those individuals and communities least able to afford keeping pace. Convenient for some translates into out of reach and impractical for others.

“Cars are wonderful” if you can afford to operate them as a manageable part of your household budget. “Cars are wonderful” if you’re not relegated to neighbourhoods that are a two hour drive away from your place of work, school and every other necessary amenity to maintaining a tolerable quality of life. “Cars are wonderful” if they are the only realistic way to get about your day in any sort of realistic time frame. They pretty much have to be, right?

An enforced car reliance is an attack on equality and fairness. You might not need a car in places like Los Angeles to conduct the business of living but the reality on the ground is that it’s a whole lot tougher if you don’t drive. crowdedbus2Google ‘carless los angeles’ and you get an immediate sense of the novelty of it. Unless of course you’re looking at low income, racialized parts of the city.

There’s no question Los Angeles is currently undergoing a transformative, higher order transit build. Subway and LRT extensions all over the place! Yet there’s some question that it’s come at the expense of bus service, draining much needed operational and capital needs and resulting in service cuts and fare hikes, negatively impacting the biggest users of public transit in the city, bus riders. Some of the most vulnerable residents of the city left to fight it out over much-contested road space against the undisputed transportation kings of the road, car drivers.

A transit system that remains 2nd-class, always taking the backseat to the needs of private automobile owners, will never be a viable option to those with a choice whether to use it. fieldofdreamsAs long as car driving remains subsidized and given preferential treatment as overwhelmingly as it is here in Los Angeles, public transit will continue to be an after-thought to everybody who sees it as an after-thought already, a nuisance, something for other people. Public transit isn’t Field of Dreams. Simply building it is not enough. You have to attack the culture, mindset and privilege that inhibit its progress.

How? You start by stop validating the primacy of private car use in your transportation system.

matter of factly submitted by Cityslikr


In Memoriam

February 19, 2016

I only met former Rob Ford staffer Graeme McEachern in person 3 times, all post-mayoralty, post-2014 election, post-cancer diagnosis. We’d had testy social media exchanges previous to that although I can’t remember on what policy issues. Pretty much any and all of them, I imagine. Our most recent bit of sparring on the Twitter, a few months back, came after having been introduced in person. We disagreed – naturally — on voting reform.

The first time we encountered each other face-to-face was outside a favourite College Street haunt of his, Café Diplimatico. I was walking down the street with the Torontoist’s David Hains, having just grabbed a bite to eat. Graeme was on his way to see his boss in the hospital. “I know who you are,” McEachern informed me after David did the intros. It was said joshingly not ominously. After some pleasant back-and-forth, we asked about Councillor Ford’s health, and some other work related stuff. Graeme wanted me to know he was an avid cyclist, certainly sounding more avid than I was. You see? We have some things in common. (We also shared a dislike of the current administration at City Hall.) “I like how you write,” he told me before heading off. “I don’t agree with much of it but I always enjoy reading it.”

That was nice, I told David as we continued on. On the political level, I wasn’t sure I believed the part about him liking my writing. You assume compliments to be nothing more than smoke being blown up your ass, no matter where on the spectrum they come from, but it was a friendly gesture, nonetheless, totally unsolicited in the situation and unnecessary on Graeme’s part.

The next time our paths crossed was just outside City Hall. I was going to a Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting and was wheeling around to a bike stand when this voice boomed out from under the stairs of the southwest corner of the building. “Cityslikr!”

I, of course, didn’t immediately recognize Graeme which happens with increasing frequency these days, in my dotage. Once again he was gracious with my blank look, re-introducing himself. I apologised and joked that it was appropriately troll-like that he popped out at me from under the stairs. He laughed. We talked a little bit about the meeting that was about to begin. There was an important item on the agenda although now, I’m at a loss to remember what it was. We chatted a little bit more about other stuff. Graeme told me he was a staunch conservative raised and surrounded by a family of lefties. He again assured me that he liked to get around the city on his bike as much as I did. After some more small talk, he went back to work and I went off to the meeting.

The last time we met up was a little bit before Christmas, again on the street outside the Café Diplimatico and again I didn’t immediately recognize him when he said hi although, this time in my defense, I had had more than a little something something to drink and wasn’t operating at peak performance. It was shortly after a second tumour had been found on Rob Ford’s kidney and he was heading back for another round of chemotherapy. Graeme was upset at the news, telling me that with his illness, his boss had turned the corner on some of the other struggles in his life, the addictions, so the most recent diagnosis felt like a real body blow.

We chatted a little bit more about this and that. I suggested we should grab something to eat or drink sometime, sort through all the problems in the world. “Let’s do that,” he said.

Of course, we didn’t. What with the busy holiday season and then me heading off shortly afterwards down here to Los Angeles. You know, life, and good intentions regularly taking a back seat to… just stuff.

That’s sad because, despite our mountain of differences on just about everything, politically speaking, it would’ve been great to get to know Graeme a little bit more. We’d all probably benefit learning to understand what makes those across such a hug divide tick. Especially someone like Graeme McEachern who seemed so passionate about the causes and politicians he believed in. I could only wish to be so engaged in something so ferociously.

submitted by Cityslikr