Tag Archives: Los Angeles

The Watts Uprising: Sears & McConahay’s Politics of Violence

In The Politics of Violence, Sears & McConahay offer a detailed and academic study of the Watts uprising, sometimes known as the riots. Their goal in their own words:

This is a book about the political and social psychology of the Los Angeles Watts Riot of August 1965, an event that changed the course of American race relations. We shall attempt here to formulate, and to subject to rigorous empirical test, a comprehensive social psychological theory of urban mass violence. Two basic questions will be addressed: (1) Can riot participation rightfully be interpreted as a political act? (2) What were the major political effects of the riot? (vii)

The framing of this isn’t quite the way I’d go about it, but what it comes up with is very interesting. They follow these two main goals up with additional questions they believe are important, and that in themselves are insightful into the ways that the Watts uprising has been understand and the questions that it has raised for the wider society:

(1) Why did the riot happen in 1965, of all times, in the midst of what was apparently an unprecedented national civil rights effort, with the most sympathetic white public, President, Congress, and judiciary in history, and in the midst of great prosperity? (2) Why did it happen in Los Angeles, of all places, generally thought to be among the most pleasant, open, and egalitarian of American cities? (3) Was the riot politically meaningful in origin; that is, did it grow out of no longer tolerable social conditions that had to be reformed if further riots and miseries were to be avoided? Or was it a politically meaningless explosion, generated mainly by criminals, malcontents, or a few agitators, who managed to dupe hapless innocents? (4) What were the political consequences of the rioting? Did it lead whites to further sympathy for black people, and at long last spur them out of lethargy into remedial social action, or did it create a massive backlash that abruptly terminated the sympathetic consensus and thrust for civil rights progress? Did it horrify and terrify decent black citizens into a renunciation of all forms of confrontation, or provide for a general uplift in black pride and black solidarity, or fuel the advocacy of militant action and racial violence? Did race relations move into a more mature and realistic era, or regress into greater suspiciousness, hostility, and distance? (viii)

I liked this especially:

For simplicity’s sake, though, we have decided to use the term “riot” because it was used overwhelmingly in the media and by most of our respondents. Our data indicate, as will be seen, that it was more of a “rebellion” than a “riot,” but we will let our data speak for themselves and not try to prejudge the case by selecting a less commonly used word (ix).

Also this:

Blacks in Los Angeles had been angry for a long time, perhaps since first Negro arrived and the Los Angeles Times began printing a column (c. 1880)entitled “News From Nigger Alley. Nevertheless, most whites were unaware of the extent and depth of black grievances until after the rioting of 1965 (55).

But their findings on whites are more interesting really. They write:

One consequence of these mild peculiarities of the early settlers, and of the life style they created for themselves, was a profound degree of black invisibility–both before and after the mass immigration of blacks to Los Angeles. By “invisibility” we mean an absence of blacks in the perceptual world of white Southern Californians. Whites were (and are) physically isolated from blacks (134).

In analysing the reasons for this, Sears & McConahay come up with a list of explanatory factors: ‘The Naive In-Migrant’, often from the Mid-West and unused to Black folks and believing the West was free of such problems; ‘Racial Isolation’, a disperse urban pattern and segregation kept them apart and interestingly this: ‘the uniquely retreatist or privatistic life style of today’s new American suburbs has flourished in Los Angeles for many years, further diminishing the opportunities for interracial contact (135); ‘De Facto Segregation’ both in residence, but also shopping patterns and lack of public transportation causes greater isolation; ‘Invisibility in the Media’ (there is an amazing graph on this).

I’m not sure I buy their analysis that L.A.’s version of racism was primarily symbolic–having researched and read enough horribly vile leaflets and letters against integration, and given the Klan’s popularity. This sort of nastiness most associated with the deep South (from whence many whites moved to L.A.) was alive and well alongside more puritanical judgements, fear of the unknown and etc. I don’t believe much tension arose from whites attempting to impose traditional puritanical mores onto different cultures, alternative values and lifestyles — Douglas Flamming’s work, for example, on African Americans in L.A. seems to show at least a large portion of the community were just as believing in hard work and striving for middle-classness as anyone else. Where it does make sense is this world view demanding belief that each individual is what they make of themselves with no allowance for racism’s structural features.

So it’s a interesting line they take, mostly using ‘Black invisibility’ to argue that whites just didn’t know what was happening. I’d say more that they didn’t want to know, but this is really interesting:

Finally, it is this combination of invisibility, indifference, and ignorance, on the one hand, and the moralism of symbolic racism, on the other, that evoked, we believe, one of the oddest and least expected aspects of the riot; namely, the widespread feeling among blacks that the riot was a demand for attention more than an effort to redress specific and concrete deficiencies in their lives (144).

And again, they refer to this spatial aspect in which L.A. is a prototype rather than exception for sprawling development:

In the near future, at least, it appears that the dominant suburban pattern will be traditional values and privatize life styles in an ethnically homogeneous retreat from blacks who are isolated in the central city (even when the retreat is homogeneously populated with Roman Catholics espousing Protestant virtues). In this sense, then, Los Angeles differs from the rest of America only in that it is the most American of all (146).

So responses:

The racial polarization of local black and white leaders was duplicated almost immediately in the responses of the black and white publics, These descriptions of and feelings about the riot were as different as night and day and they formed the basis for a broad initial polarization over the issue of the riot, with blacks joined by a few liberal whites on one side, against most whites on the other….Most blacks perceived the riot as (1) a purposeful symbolic protest (2) against legitimate grievances, (3) designed to call attention to Blacks’ problems…When asked directly, a majority felt the riot did have a purpose or a goal, felt that the targets deserved attack, and agreed that the riot constituted a black protest. Also, when given a free choice of descriptive terms, a surprisingly large minority [38%] chose to talk about it in revolutionary or insurrectional terms… (159).

It continues: ‘Most though Whites had become more “aware of Negroes’ problems” and more sympathetic to them as a consequence of the riot’ (161). Also that ‘The blacks’ sympathies generally were with the rioters, not with the authorities. Disapproval of the rioters was not as common as it was of the riot itself’ (163).

It breaks my heart to read the contrast:

The story told by whites and Mexican Americans was quite different. Many (especially those close to the Curfew Zone) felt fear for their own safety or for their families’ safety during the disturbance. The Mexican American respondents in our sample (all of whom actually lived in the Curfew Zone) were particularly frightened: 52 per cent reported feeling a “great deal” of fear. Fear among whites was greatest in Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, two integrated communities on the edge of the Curfew Zone (35 per cent reported a “great deal”) but, even in affluent Pacific Palisades 20 miles from the riot, 12 per cent reported “a great deal” of fear.
Accompanying the fear was much serious thought about obtaining guns for armed counterviolence. Forty-two per cent of the Mexican Americans and 29 per cent of the whites said “yes” to the question, “Did you at any time consider using firearms to protect yourself or your family?” Also, 5 per cent of the whites and 7 per cent of the Mexican Americans reported that they actually had bought firearms or ammunition as a consequence of the riot (164).

Almost all Whites and Mexican-Americans supported the tough, uncompromising stand toward the rioters that chief Parker and the other California law enforcement authorities established. Both groups almost invariably praised the authorities or criticized them for not being even tougher…Whites and Mexican Americans did agree, in general, that it had been a black protest but they were extremely unlikely to describe the riot in revolutionary terms…Finally, then, it should come as no surprise to learn that whites and Mexican Americans thought the riot would have quite unfavorable effects for blacks (165).

The impact this had on perceptions and strategies for struggle in teh Black community are also revealing:

Thus, our hypothesis was that the junction of the New Urban Blacks and “Watts” would leave the younger generation (irrespective of background) more drawn to imaginative and unconventional strategies, particularly those emphasizing protest and violence.

Participation in the Watts Riot itself was one key indicator of this effect. We have seen in Chapter 2 that youth was a critical factor in riot participation and in Chapters 6 and 7 that it was not merely “animal spirits” that led the young into the fray. Rather, they engaged in the riot from the same sense of grievance as older rioters.
Willingness to engage in future protest demonstrations and preference for the use of violence in the future both showed the same effect. The young were much more drawn to both protest and violence than their elders.

Malcolm X, the continuing rise of the Nation of Islam, U.S. and the Black Panthers…hardly a surprise. The authors tie the riots into a rise in Black Pride:

‘a new and more positive conception of what it meant to be black emerged in the aftermath of the violence. The riot ideology was intimately involved with this post-riot increase in positive black identity. Specifically, it seems to have occurred as part of the interpretation of the riot as a collective symbolic protest.

And this is beautiful really, in spite of painfully moralistic language and class expectations:

We have seen repeatedly that local grievances, riot participation, and the riot ideology were not to be found merely in a few deviants, isolates, political “kooks,” or half-socialized idiots. They were to be found at least as often (and frequently to an even greater degree) in the best educated, most sophisticated, most completely socialized, most modern blacks in Los Angeles. And the same is true of positive black identity: it was, in the aftermath of “Watts,” truly a mainstream value in the black community (189).

The conclusion actually does recap in detail the entire argument, and contains this nice summary of the various theories also put forward to explain the Watts uprising–and demolished quite convincingly by this book:

We constructed and then rejected empirically one formal nonpolitical alternative to our politics of violence theory, “the random outburst theory”…We also presented the far less formalized “theories” offered by authorities and by the general public. We described the conspiracy, contagion, riffraff, underclass, family life breakdown, and southern newcomer “theories” and indicated that, with the exception of unemployed males, who were quite active, they did not fit the data…The most systematic alternative formulation we considered was Banfield’s (1970) “fun and profit” theory. We described and refuted empirically his three main propositions: that the rioting simply reflected greater propensity to violence among lower classes, southerners, and the young; that it was merely a rampage or foray for pillage, rather than being motivated by identifiable and genuine discontents; and that the riot ideology merely represented post hoc rationalizations. (201).

And then in a fairly damning indictment, they list all of the recommendations made by numerous commissions on violence and rioting beginning in 1919, that are almost word for word the same:

The recommendations invariably called for a reduction of unemployment, opening of the job structure to blacks, reform of education and of programs to improve the scholastic attainments of blacks, reform of the welfare system (to cut costs) and to give the recipients “who wanted to work” assistance in getting a job, improvement of housing quality and availability, and, finally, suggestions for future police strategies. With the exception of this last [Kerner Commission], none of the recommendations made since 1919 has been pursued with any vigor and most have remained entombed in the bound official reports to be resurrected after the next series of riots (292).

The authors go further than these ‘liberal’ formulations. Ones I think the course of histor since 1973 has challenged (along with their theorization of ‘symbolic racism’) but here they are:

Jobs, housing, education, anti-discrimination laws–all of these are necessary, but insufficient answers to mounting black disaffection. In addition, symbolic gestures are called for, to deal with symbolic discontents. That a presidential candidate or a mayor would walk through the streets of Harlem or Watts or that a President would use the phrase “we shall overcome” in a message on civil rights has a profound positive effect….
With these cautions we conclude our “recommendations.” It is obvious that America does not lack for recommendations. What she lacks is equally obvious and very simple: the will to implement them. Since we doubt that white America is on the verge of suddenly acquiring this will, we feel little compulsion to add further to the list of recommendations (205).

My Blue Heaven: South Gate and White Working Class Identity

My Blue Heaven - Becky NicolaidesBecky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.

I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.

It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:

In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” [27]

But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:

When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.

and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s

In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE [302] and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”

It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.

[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

A meditation on bridges

Bridges.I love them.

I heard a fascinating lecture by David Gilbert (London Holloway University of London) the other day, on London’s Hungerford Bridge. Also known as the Charing Cross bridge…it was a look at the symbolic significance of the prosaic, not the splashy and fanciful architectural feat. In fact, Hungerford was long considered the eyesore of London, there’s an amazing little illustration from Punch magazine showing a devil staring at the bridge titled ‘The Spirit of Ugliness’. The name of the talk in fact, but I don’t want to steal the thunder. Here is an image of it as it is today, the prosaic and ugly metal railway bridge now hidden by the pedestrian walkways:

It is beautiful. And even its ugliness was painted many times, its metal disappearing into the mist of the Thames…

What I loved most about the lecture was how it made me think. Bridges are fundamental elements to the city, but often unsung (with the exception of those towering examples of technical steel and beauty, or history). They are spaces of connections, flows, and movement, as opposed to walls which contain. They are a kind of unique public space, a meeting place of difference, they have constantly changing rhythms depending on the time of day, and they open up vistas of the city in ways nothing else does. And I’ve always loved bridges, so I went to my flickr page to pull photos and meditate on this love.

Apparently I primarily love what is found under bridges. How extraordinary.

Perhaps it’s the years in LA where bridges are somehow none of these things, but have been distorted and twisted into something entirely different. Here many of them are built so that you can never cross them on foot. It is true that you can cross one or two of the bridges that span the river, but that is the division between East and West, one of the hardest LA divisions to step across in every sense. For most bridges, their function is to move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible through a landscape controlled and despised by its occupants.

Here poverty and resistance send people under the bridges. Into spaces that fill you with rage at what can be done to a city, spaces that give you that undeniably pleasant feeling of mixed tragedy, beauty and danger, that thrill of the photographer that I always try to keep a close watch on…

These bridges built over the pulverized skeletons of a destroyed community, and supporting freeways that divide L.A. into its terrifying sections of racial segregation and despair, it is underneath them that new communities grow, communities that break your heart

And the beauty?

Where everyday resistance has taken them back, reclaimed them, like Chicano Park in San Diego

And this

And so even when I lived in Glasgow I seemed to keep my eyes down, though the view was untouched by pain

Maybe I shall think about trying to photograph what is on top of bridges, and what can be seen looking outwards…without ceasing to spend time underneath.

Living Architecture: The Bonaventure Hotel

If you sit very still and stare at downtown L.A. from the window of the Bonaventure Hotel’s cocktail lounge, this is what you will see:

The slowly revolving floor shifts the gorgeous view before your eyes. But apart from saving up for the drinks, how do you get here?

It’s public of course, but that does not make it easy to find. There are three entrances to the Bonventure, but none of them are your traditional grand salon entrance. And two of them are from those secret sky bridges of LA, the one we took joins the hotel to Hope Street past the YMCA. You enter what feels like a back door onto the fifth floor of a dark and massive tower with spiraling stairs and pillars, and street signs to direct you to where you want to go:

Not all elevators go to the top you see, neither do the escalators. In fact, I don’t think there were any escalators on this floor. You have to find the red elevator, the red one! (The vertiginous ride in the glass elevator up the outside of the building for 35 floors and all of Central LA laid out beneath you? Highly recommended.) Any other colour and you will be lost in this vast echoing space.

It has its own stores, its own running water far far down below, it even has its own track and exercise machines where you can sweat in full view.

Built by John Portman and opened in 1976, it is an iconic building. And wandering through it, I couldn’t help but think of Frederic Jameson’s comments in an essay called Postmodernism and Consumer Society. He writes that the Bonventure has no main entry because it does not wish to be part of the city, it wishes to replace it. That it puts you into such a vast space so full of stuff you can no longer get a measure of just how big it is, you lose just how much emptiness is enclosed by these enormous walls of glass. The building toys with your perspective.

He writes that this is a space that takes vengeance on those walking through it, one that forces you to lose your bearings. It transcends us as human beings, and makes it impossible for us to find ourselves within such a context.

Me? I thought it an incredible building, but it did make me feel very small, very lost, very much in desire of a nice drink. So I set off in search of the red elevator, and thought about architecture and its impacts on how we live and see ourselves in the world. And this one almost cathedral-like in how it humbles you, God replaced by wealth, retail, and facilities for showing off while working out…

[also posted at www.drpop.com]

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Frida Kahlo on the streets of LA

Frida Kahlo is an amazing figure, and has become an icon of feminism and revolution… so a quick review? Born in 1907 as Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon in Coyoacan on the outskirts of Mexico City, she was  3 when the Mexican Revolution  broke out. She suffered from polio, and then had her body almost entirely broken  in an collision between trolley and a bus. She wrote “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Yet she lived her life in almost constant pain, of body and I think mind, you can see it in her paintings…

frida-kahlo

She married muralist Diego Rivera, and they had an incredibly stormy marriage of passion and mutual infidelity, with Frida a lover of both men and women. Of him she said “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Their politics were radical, and I think almost everyone knows that Trotsky stayed with them after he left Europe for Mexico. They are a couple found everywhere on LA’s streets

The above is off of Glendale just round the corner from my house, one of Diego Rivera’s most inconographic images alongside Frida’s… her face.

Frida Kahlo

During her lifetime, Frida was too often known simply as Diego Rivera’s wife, but she has come into her own, and her face is found everywhere.

Frida Kahlo

I found these three images of her in one day of biking the city to a distant meeting and back, the above is on Venice Blvd, and below on Pico (though the city has painted over almost all of the graf on Pico…sadness! Still, I’m glad they left this one)

Frida Kahlo

My favourite I think. It is nice to look up and suddenly see her…there are many more of course. And the quote I’d like to leave off with, having known the feeling?

“They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore….I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.” [on Andre Breton and the European surrealists]

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Homicide in L.A.

I rode my bike to the gym last night, and passed the little park just two blocks away…my friend Jose helped plant the trees there. I had to stop for a minute, confronted by the spectacle of more cop cars than I have ever seen in one place (outside of the DNC when it was here). 10 or 11 of them, and crowds of neighbors clustered on the corners…I remember hearing the sirens earlier, because there had been so many. But I always hear sirens.

And then I rode on without finding out what was up, feeling a little guilty about the huge spike of curiosity that tragedy always seems to evoke when it is not tied to people I love. When I came back a few hours later there were only two black and whites, and a handful of others with the city crest on the doors. Homicide. Kidnapping. I wonder.

I looked it up in the Times today and found nothing…I shall have to go back I suppose, looking in the list of homicides for next week. I found that John Ortiz, 46, was beaten in the head with a planter and killed only a block and half away from me on May 2nd. While I was sleeping.

And there have been 13 homicides this week in L.A. County, all shootings but the hit and run, and the drug overdose that apparently was not suicide. Almost all young men of color. Almost all in the ghetto. Even when the young men of color leave the ghetto they still get shot, the big story of the week being the rapper Dolla getting shot in the parking garage of the Beverly Center.

There are a structural reasons of racism and inequality and hopelessness that help explain why we kill each other. Mixed in with drugs and alcohol, passion and anger, the flood of guns. Mixed in with frustration turned on the wrong people, and life and death struggles over things that should never be life and death. It makes me angry and sad in equal measure. And sometimes I even despair just a bit. Each of these violent deaths has rocked a family to its foundations, and filled the markets and liquor stores of their neighborhood with old coffee cans, complete with pictures of the victim (usually with their kids or family) and a plea for money to pay for the funeral…I have helped pass those around. It breaks your fucking heart.

I wish the LA Times would print those photos, as none of us is an island… But people from our neighborhoods tend to be treated so, just some more fucked up kids.  They’re online with something that looks like a mug shot. Their names appear in a long list of other murders that is almost impossible to comprehend. One murder is news, 13? In a week? Two a day? Too much to follow up on, though the reporter on the crime beat does try.

Homicides: May 11 to May 18

The Los Angeles County coroner has confirmed the following deaths as homicides. The Times will report more details later this week:

Roberta Romero, a 24-year-old Latina, on May 11. Romero was shot near the intersection of Glenpark Street and Bellevue Avenue in Pomona.

Michael Moore, a 20-year-old black man, on May 13.  Moore was shot in the 1100 block of south Chester Avenue in Inglewood.

Erika Balayan, a 27-year-old Latina, on May 13. Balayan was shot in the 8300 block of Van Nuys Boulevard in Panorama City.

Robert Rodwell, a 28-year-old black man, on May 13. Rodwell was shot in the 1400 block of 105th Street in Athens.

Courtney Adams, a 24-year-old black man, on May 13.  Adams was shot in the 6800 block of Atlantic Boulevard in Long Beach.

Victor Moreno, a 19-year-old Latino, on May 14.  Moreno was shot in the 1700 block of East Vernon Avenue in Central Alameda.

Jose Chavez, a 30-year-old Latino, on May 15.  Chavez was involved in a hit-and-run near the intersection of Huntington Street and Third Street in Pomona.

Ly Tran, a 45-year-old Asian man, on May 15.  Tran was shot in the 13100 block of Lakewood Boulevard in Downey.

Alejandro Perez-Robles, a 25-year-old Latino, on May 16.  Perez-Robles was shot in the 2900 block of Hyde Park Boulevard in Hyde Park.

Javier Gonzalez-Cordero, a 19-year-old Latino, on May 16. Gonzalez-Cordero was shot in the 2900 block of Hyde Park Boulevard in Hyde Park.

Oleida Robinson, a 40-year-old white female, on May 16. Robinson died of an apparent overdose in the 10600 block of Soledad Canyon Road in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Danny Quijada, a 30-year-old Latino, on May 16.  Quijada was shot in the 6300 block of Milton Avenue in Whittier.

Marcus Smith, a 31-year-old black man, on May 17.  Smith was shot in the 800 block of Osage Avenue in Inglewood.

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.

Muay Thai and the Museum of Death

Thai festival today! There was absolutely no parking at all anywhere, but it was worth it when we got to Thai town. The day was sunny, the skies were blue, the crowds were hopping, and the food…oh the food was magical. We ate in the little square, in the least-full looking restaurant though we still had to wait for seating. I kind of wanted to throw over vegetarianism, even more than I already have I mean, and order the chicken volcano (it’s an entire chicken, steamed veggies, and the whole thing seems to be on fire…I don’t think you can ask more from an entree.) But I didn’t. And I wasn’t sorry taste wise.

We actually only saw dancers, none of the dancing, though we did wander the booths. Because the main attraction and the real reason we were there?

Not him specifically, though I wouldn’t have minded, especially as he is a new champion. We were there for Muay Thai, or Thai boxing. Remember Ong Bak? Oh yeah. Unlike Western boxing, you don’t just use your fists. It is known as the “Art of the Eight Limbs” as there are 8 points of contact, the two hands, shins, elbows, and knees.

And while it has no long tradition of women fighters (tradition holds that a Muay Thai ring will be cursed if women fight in it…not surprising of course), there is a new popularity and some kick ass women fighters were there.

And we stood watching it for several hours, there were 18 matches in all, and I think we stayed for perhaps 11 of them…we left after the first heavyweight match as it wasn’t as exciting or lively I’m afraid. A very drunk thai man in a wool hat enlivened the afternoon; he really wanted to bet. He kept shouting out bets that I couldn’t understand, 200 of something or other, and cheerfully embraced everyone from the fighters to security. And there were a few guys behind us who drank the whole time, smoked three bowls of weed and had the most revolting conversation I have ever heard. I pray that they die single and never reproduce, but any women priveleged to hear their comments would have to be dead before allowing any of them to touch her.

The above was the best shot (and the tats by far the best as well), the light was none too good, even after we’d worked our way to the front. And like western boxing, there are a lot of clinches…where the photographs essentially look like two guys holding each other tenderly. I did get a good one of spittle flying out of a guys mouth, and some good expressions…I might put those up later.

Jose and I had lost Bev by that point, she wasn’t so into the fighting, or the standing in the sun for hours. I was too into the fighting to notice really, until I started getting tired, and then we moved and my legs were hating me. They still do. They might hate me for some time. Because we walked down Hollywood…passing some amazing graf

There was more, but I tire…we were headed exploring, and to the Frolic Room, and we passed the Museum of Death. I have been wanting to go there for some time, with such a name how could you not go?

The best thing about the Museum of Death, apart from the name, is that the owner has a siamese turtle.

It’s a bit blurry, but it is extraordinary…and will be as long lived as a regular turtle, as there are two hearts. He had an albino turtle as well, who was lovely.

You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, and it is pretty…gruesome in there. Very gruesome. Very graphic. I’m glad I went, I recommend it to everyone with a strong stomach and a taste for the macabre. I shan’t be going again however! You start out in the warm-up room, full of the embalming arts, a horrifying training video, pictures of dead babies laid out in funeral splendour, the implements of the trade, matchbooks from funeral parlours…you move into a corridor full of photographs of car accidents, a couple having an affair who killed the husband, stripped, dismemebered him while naked, had much traditional fun with the body parts, and took pictures of it all. They were caught while developing them (this is pre-digital days obviously), and lads, the woman was released after only 6 years, so she’s out there and possibly dating.

There’s a room on suicide cults. A room on L.A.’s biggest crimes…the Black Dahlia (those photos will keep you from sleeping for a week), the Manson murders (likewise), OJ Simpson (seems like a sweetheart next to the rest…) There’s lots on serial killers, little write ups, surveys they’ve filled out, letters, pop up books, drawing, pictures…Richard Ramirez showing what Jeffrey Dammer’s fridge probably looked like, a cheerful letter from the Son of Sam. It’s a nice intimate look at the mind of killers.

Ooh, and there’s Jane Mansfeld’s stuffed chihuahua. And a video room. And a section on hollywood stars who have croaked in extraordinary or violent ways…I’d say more but I’m winding down. So go. And don’t forget that the Frolic Room is only a few blocks away, you will almost certainly want a drink. I admit to “needing” one after the Museum of Death. And who could ask for more from their dive bar?

Jim Belushi was here. He fit in with the mood.

And so two beers later, my legs hating me much more after a museum tour, we walked to the train station. Which was crawling with cops. And waited for the train. And waited. And waited. Union Station was closed due to a “police incident,” and I couldn’t find anything yet on the news this evening, but hopefully tomorrow. Finally the train came, and it was packed full of course, and there was a break-up in full swing right next to us. And both the girl and the guy were annoying. I almost wanted them to stay together so no one else would be tempted to date either of them. And my legs were hating me. And I was starving. And freezing.

So back home to Echo Park, chilaquiles at Rodeo Grill, and back home. To play some with my pictures. And to write. And to sleep, but I shall hope for no dreams!

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Under the bridge, same L.A. river

I’m still impossibly sad. So this is reflecting on past glories. We headed east from Frogtown on Monday. Frogtown will get its very own post because it’s such an amazing place, but today it is the river. A piece of it, because there was too much.

Here is one of the most fascinating and strangely beautiful places I’ve encountered in L.A., and one that actually scared me. You are always being watched here. And no one can hear you scream.

But enough of the melodramatics, I respectfully took no pictures of the watchers, so let me show you the amazing and incredible bridge.

This is the outside, but it has unguessed depths, and that’s where you are being watched from. More of my people with nowhere else to go but the depths and darkness.

The ground is littered with spray cans and strange sculptures of rocks and wood piled high on top of each other. The world of graf artists and those seeking some kind of home coming together.

And the cars, I don’t know how they got down here, or when.

I love twisted pieces of rusted metal, I find them…beautiful. I think beautiful is the right word. But it’s a dark, jagged, decaying beauty of sharp lines and curves and deep shadows.

And the combination of rusted twisted metal, architecture, nature, and graffiti? Stunning.

The graffiti was incredible, I have to go back. You could spend days I imagine, documenting some of the tags, and a sunny day would be better. But I love rivers as much as dark places, and the river has nothing of the bridge’s enclosed creepiness, with all of the characters.

The view looking out from the caves was incredible too, if you like mazes of concrete and bridges and freeways

I do.

And to turn this place into a home? Someone had tied up things all along the fence. If I were a believer I would say this was brujeria, a witchcraft protection or warning, a wrapping of potent charms in black plastic bundled with flowers and wrapped in yellow cord and shoelace.

I’m not much of a believer at any rate. This guy was just fun.

From here we headed further east, even though that required cutting cross country. But more on that later…

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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.