Category Archives: Writing cities

Pachucos in LA: Beatrice Griffith’s American Me

Beatrice Griffith American MeBeatrice Griffith’s study of the Mexican ‘colony’ of LA in the 1940s is actually quite an extraordinary book. It’s written by a white and quite liberal woman–and I’m not such a huge fan of white liberals when they are writing about poverty and race. But in spite of the resulting prejudice and stereotyped ‘otherness’ and belief that Americanization is the answer that creeps in from time to time (and there is far less of that than most things I have read, especially from that time), this book manages to transcend a lot of that through its format.

Look at this cover, if only it were the version I read.

I need to look more into it, but what I’ve read so far claims for this a kind of pioneering role in sociology and ethnography in terms of combining typical sociological studies of a community (health, education, labour etc) with what she calls ‘fiction’. I am saddened, but not surprised really, that there is almost nothing on Beatrice Griffith herself to be found on the internet, though there exist a number of reflections on her work. Each topic is fronted with a story, and while she calls them fiction, they are essentially the stories that youth in the community have told her, and much in their own words. And they are rather wonderful. Because she was able to listen to them, there is a much deeper understanding here of racism and exploitation and the realities of things like police brutality and child mortality than I have seen in any white-authored book of the time (or today, sadly).

And the period she is in and studying? The period of the zoot suits (the retelling of the mobs of soldiers and sailors and regular white folks going after kids in drapes is rightfully horrifying, I hadn’t know before quite the extent to which it happened and the complicity of authority up to the mayor’s office). It is the period of pachuquismo, and while she doesn’t quite get it, man those kids can tell stories. I loved loved loved the stories. I loved too, how much of the slang is still around! And curious about some of her explanations, as to whether the slang has changed in meaning or whether she just got it wrong (and sometimes there are some things that I think she spells wrong because she doesn’t know what they mean), but mostly it’s all the same. The barrio names were awesome too, some of them are still around, but a lot of them are gone…

Definitely a great read, some wonderful illustrations (though so sadly no photographs), and the glossary in the back of slang is cool. Some good statistics too, this will definitely give you a great sense of the community in ways that other things can’t given the racism and active erasing that has been such an integral part of defining California and Los Angeles.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

381359Jane Jacobs (1961)

One of the books that all planners are supposed to have read, I know it’s a bit shocking that I have only now read it. And regrettable. It deserves every ounce of it’s status as a classic (if such status were to be measured in ounces). It’s eminently readable (and isn’t that a pleasure in a book of this kind), but also incredibly insightful and of course I love how it resonates so brilliantly with my experience living in many different cities while toppling most accepted planning theory. The more diverse cities are, the more people love them. The more people on the street at all different times of day, the safer and more enjoyable those streets are. High foot traffic allows a glorious flowering in the kinds of local businesses to spring up, and those in turn provide stability and attraction to the street. The longer people stay in neighborhoods and the more they feel pride and ownership and love for them, the better those neighborhoods become. It’s brilliant to be able to walk out of your door and buy what you need within a few blocks, getting to know the shop owners as you do so. Kids growing up in this environment feel a sense of civic engagement and helpfulness, and are accountable and supervised by a multitude of friendly and known adults. And who could know better the improvements and changes needed for a neighborhood than those who live there?

And yet planning over decades has worked to destroy all this.

This is a practical and eminently sensible account of what makes city neighbourhoods work. I think its weaknesses are highlighted by the fact that it is a rare popular book read by those who are not planners, and accepted as a classic amongst urban planners themselves, and yet, although written in 1961, has had remarkably little effect on how planning occurs or how urban development takes place. This points to the questions that Jacobs answers only superficially — why exactly planning and development have taken the shape they have. That is truly a tragedy for it is full of brilliant and insightfully practical suggestions on how to improve both. It does look at the process of redlining, it has some analysis of racism and classism and prejudice, but not enough. And ultimately the driving forces of profit and capitalism are left unquestioned. To find those you have read David Harvey and Neil Smith and a host of others. I don’t think that makes the insight offered by Jacobs any less, simply incomplete, and highlights the fact that a more fundamental change in how we develop and plan our cities is required, one based upon need and increasing vitality rather than the greatest profit.

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The politics of my street

I walked down my street today, past the thick smoke of Bernie’s, fragrant with teriyaki chicken, past the house slowly collapsing on itself (its porch the latest casualty of neglect, and boasting a new chain link fence compliments of the city, a stopgap measure to deal with a 10 foot retaining wall straining to comply with gravity). The owner of the Korean store was outside, smoking on the corner.

Diamond Street has tagged up many of the walls, con safos, I live within territorial boundaries and contested terrain. Physically I am here, they are here, but our worlds don’t overlap except in the pounding of their subwoofers at random times of day and night. Their peeling out of tires. You take these things for granted. But today I wondered at these small wars, fought entirely by youth of a certain age. For corners. For drug sales. For machismo. For friendship and family. And it builds fear in everyone, but if you are not young and from the hood, it is simply of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I live in the zone, yet it has nothing to do with me unless I make it my business. Modern warfare, an attempt to hustle money and respect from these streets. To be big here and fuck everywhere else. Everywhere else doesn’t exist, it is nothing more than an ill-defined fog of a world that hates, rejects, exploits, locks up.

I think about the shooting that just happened on my street, violence seems impossible on a day like today. The birds are singing for fuck’s sake. And the flowers fill well kept gardens with gorgeous color, in front of well-loved houses full of kids. And here are generations defined by race and geography who simultaneously believe that they are invincible, and that they will be dead by 25. They make me angry for the absence of critical thought, but nothing compares to the rage against the system.

I sat at the bus stop and watched one of them (pelon, huge white T-shirt, baggy jean shorts, white tube socks pulled up to his knees) crossing and re-crossing Temple just below the ridge of the hill on an electric scooter. High. Or just feeling the need to defy death. Or waiting for someone and bored. I don’t know. Families walked past me, pushing strollers. A father and his beautiful daughter eating cheetos, flaming hot for him, regular for her. Some old pilipinos were playing tennis across the street. The sun shone through the marine layer, I wondered what the haze was until I suddenly remembered that LA is actually on the ocean. It is so easy to forget, because without a car? You almost can’t get there from here, it is a trip of hours. The paletero walked past ringing his bells and I wanted an ice cream, but then the bus came.

This is my world. I love it and hate it, some days it is enough. Some days though, some days this is just the reflection. Some days hadas laugh around the edges of my vision, and the world of my imagination takes the fore. My street takes on a spanglish personality and rhythm in her fall down the hill; the collapsing house hides an interior full of strange creeping life eating dust and tendriling up walls with lazy sentience. Some days history walks, ghosts whisper from the shadows and lurk in old doorways or peer from dirty windows. Some days words turn upon themselves and writhe and wriggle into new configurations, channeling  along the lines of the cracked walls in spraypaint and reflected heat. But always con safos. Some days the dogs forget to bark at me, and I wonder why. Some days I think thoughts I have never thought before and I see things I have never imagined. The street is my inspiration.

And the world of my imagination is part of my neighborhood, part of its richness.  I ride the bus away into other L.A. places farther removed from this street than my imagination could ever be. And they are removed on purpose. By plan. They are walled and made safe by cops, not terrorized by them. My imagination could never come up with that. The way we treat each other. Some days just going from street to street is a struggle.

Downtown Los Angeles at night

I suppose this could be the title of a number of posts…

It’s the end of January. The night was cool but not cold, I rolled up the sleeves of my sweatshirt and felt the air sweet against my naked skin. The streets between Mals bar and home are my streets. Along Olive I rode through the darkness, glad I didn’t go home with the car salesman. I turned on Pico, passed the corner where I always used to find Mark, before we lost the Morrison, before he lost his home, before he died.  He’s been on my mind a lot, his county issue wheelchair sits empty at Saje now, right by the back door. I see it and think of him, feel a little of the despair and loss and…I don’t even know what you feel about someone you love who died an alcoholic on the streets. And I passed the Morrison and it’s still boarded up, Hope has never been well lit there. Hope. I don’t want to hope any more, I want to see my way to winning.

I headed towards the convention center, all brightly lit, welcoming people with degrees like mine to network and shmooze and score business deals. It offers shit jobs and shit treatment to all those I work with, stand beside. I belong to neither world, though I look to be part of one, and have chosen to stand in the other. For my job, I became part of the first for a couple of days earlier this year. It made me feel split into two people, uncomfortable in my skin as I walked down carpeted corridors and flashed my badge and talked books. And wished I were chatting to the janitors instead. I felt traitorous. And lonely. I wanted to know someone who understands these things.

Down Figueroa I passed the Staples Center and the new L.A. Live, it is like another city. The other day I was biking down Olympic and suddenly didn’t recognize where I was. I can’t tell you how strange it is to feel that way about a section of street you have worked off and on for 8 years. The Baker Building is gone, all of the families I knew there gone. A skyscraping hotel rises to the left unfinished beneath its giant crane. The cold clean unwelcoming space of LA Live bristles alongside it, over 200 families used to live there in 1998. They tore the buildings down to turn the land into parking lots. And now they have created something that Narnia’s Ice Queen might have built. Though she probably didn’t know enough about surveillance cameras. It’s yet another of LA’s quasi-public spaces, easily controlled for the right kind of people, easily managed with its up-scale chains that represent conspicuous consumption without taste or orginality. Figueroa was crawling with cop cars as the great searchlights proclaimed it the place to be against the night sky. Superficial glitz and implicit violence dominate this city.

I biked through downtown, Orishas on my i-pod, every traffic light against me. Office buildings towered into the sky, their patchwork of lights replacing the stars. The spatial inequalities of this city, the pain and displacement, the contrast between ultimate wealth and ultimate poverty, all of these things carved into my heart. I like biking through the darkness, even though it hurts. It is time and space to think, a way of experiencing LA like no other, a physical release of stress and memory. And it is nice to come home at the end of it. To write.

Alleys of East downtown Los Angeles

Every now and then people ask me what I do for fun…I enjoy life quite thoroughly and I could knock out a long list, but today I’ll just look at one…riding my bike through the garbage-filled alleys of downtown L.A. and taking pictures. And writing about it. I believe I am allllmost alone in this, which is why Jose is one of my favourite friends.

Riding through this sort of place is not so fun on your own. I don’t mind the smells, or the rats of course (though I do sometimes worry about the bubonic plague, people still die of it every year in Arizona)…the east side of downtown is industrial, it holds the remnants of skid row and  sweatshops. Its alleys are the city’s margins where everything is swept to keep it out of sight and out of mind, to me they are a strange beauty curled around a dangerous sliver, they are all that is fucked under urban capitalism and the bright face of rebellion against it. They are full of rats, syringes, deals, desperation, drunkenness, art like you’ve never seen it before.

Don’t get me wrong, I like nature too. But there is something about it here…

We went down an alley alongside a burned out garment factory, stark brick and charcoal against the sky

As I was taking pictures two men came up to us, one white and one black, the same hollowed cheeks, dull eyes, brittle frames. They were arguing, voices rasp-edged and angry. They came closer, voices smoothing into friendly calm, they said that the fire had started in the blanket warehouse and spread, an electrical problem. They said they did not beg, they would sing. And they did. And it was beautiful, perfect harmony, perfect rhythm, clearly the fruit of long practice. We gave them some money, Jose mocked me for enjoying it too obviously, and then we passed them again on our way out, their voices rough with edges anew.

We passed rottng fruit, and a shrine to la virgen in a triangular parking garage hung with last years Christmas decorations, we passed shops full of cheap clothes, vendors selling hotdogs wrapped in bacon and tiny live turtles. We passed people hurrying home. We passed a sweatshop awning for a label once called Affluence…but the Affluence had been scraped off and it’s ghost painted over with Shanna K. Beside it was the label Felicity and the alley in front strewn with trash. We passed L.A. Babe…

We passed the extraordinary row of shops that sell everything you could possibly need for a Mexican fiesta

There are fashions in pinatas, superheroes come in and out of style, barbie is replaced by bratz, seasonal variations mean Frankentein and green faced witches are followed by santa claus, there are usually huge corona bottles that can only be for adults…I would admit I would have a great deal of fun swinging blindfolded at a pinata once again.

We found an alley guarded by its own figurehead, or screaming a warning

I suppose if Jose hadn’t been there this just might have scared me a very little bit. From here we reached a couple alleys full of the most extraordinary graffitti art I’ve seen in some time, worth stepping into rotting garbage with my flipflopped foot, and fending off the advances of a very drunk Indian (see what I mean about the importance of traveling companions!).

and this

and this

And it got darker and darker and so we went faster and faster. We passed more solitary walkers in the dusk, more working girls, we passed this place

There are some dive bars even I won’t go into, and this is right up there with el Chubasco. We ended up at Olvera Street and hung out and looked around and ate, and then back home. I made Jose come back through the Terminator tunnel because I wanted to take pictures of that, but all of the damn lights were working! I don’t believe I have ever seen that. Ever. Perhaps that alone was worth taking a picture. But I love it when all the lights are off, when the tiles shine with the reflections from the white of headlights, the red of brakelights, the green of the semaforos. But not tonight. So we rode past the long line of homeless folks already sleeping.

And two last images to finish, this of amazing skill and art and terror

and this:

A face of suffering or sleep or resignation somehow emerging unbidden from a painted-over, tagged-up street sign. This world is full of such awful, terrible, beautiful things.

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