Sunday, December 20, 2009

CLUI Tour: Oil Extraction in the LA Basin

On Friday morning Bobby and I braved the midtown traffic and rode our bikes to the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City. Bobby had been lucky enough to buy tickets for a tour the CLUI folks had planned before all the tickets sold out, seven minutes after they went on sale. The tour expanded upon the current exhibit there, which details oil extraction in the Los Angeles area.

We all piled onto a tour bus and headed to Beverly Hills, the first stop on the tour. At Beverly Hills High School stands a large, oddly camouflaged tower. It is an oil derrick that produces enough oil to make money for the school district, the oil company, and the property owners in the area.

A property's mineral rights can be separated from the land up top, so one person might own a house while another owns the rights to the mineral wealth underneath.



Extracting oil in urban areas requires tremendous PR work on the part of the oil companies, not to mention complicated machinery to ensure that wells do not leech into the surrounding soil. Much of the oil that is extracted must be separated from water, so from well sites flow two liquids: oil to the refinery, and water to the sewer (although often the water gets reinjected into the ground to encourage oil to come to the surface, or to simply prevent the ground from sinking, known as subsidence).

It occurs to me as strange that the oil companies have not yet decided to greenwash their product as a local one. Presumably some of the gasoline sold in gas stations around Southern California came from crude that was delivered to the refineries west of the 405; why not slap a big "local" sign on those gas pumps so that Prius owners can delude themselves even further?


Our bus took us all over the basin, from Beverly Hills along Pico, where there are many wells, to downtown, which no longer has functioning wells. Near MacArthur Park sits the last operating well in the City of Los Angeles, tucked inauspiciously between two commercial buildings and across the street from apartment buildings. It is managed by a guy who leases oil wells all over the region, sucking out little bits of oil, in decreasing quantity, for profit.

Matt Coolidge, CLUI founder and tour leader, wanted to show us that there is a human face to the oil industry. He did this by having people meet us at most sites, friendly people who work and live in the LA area. In Signal Hill we even ate lunch at an oil-themed diner, Curley's, which has served oil workers since the 1930s.

Like much of Signal Hill, Curley's shares its lot with pumpjacks that tirelessly move up and down, pulling crude out of the ground.

After lunch, a corpulent gentleman representing Signal Hill real estate and oil interests joined our tour. At that point things got a little weird for me, as we were in a cookie cutter suburb crammed with faux Italian or Spanish stucco strip malls, pumpjacks in the gaps, and this large, red-faced man told us how great Signal Hill is, and how soon a Ross will replace the failed Circuit City in one of the larger commercial developments they've added in recent years.

Things got worse as our bus climbed Signal Hill itself, passing hideous condos with views of Long Beach and ending at a park with a monument to the geyser of water that drained this area's groundwater in the early twentieth century.

A Hawaiian shirted old surfer met us there to tell us about the geological details of oil fields. He ended his cheerful, frenetic talk with glowing praise for people like the corpulent gentleman, who believe there might be billions more barrels of oil under the LA Basin, and that they just need to go out and find it.

Through the haze in this picture sits downtown LA. I felt more and more unsettled as I listened to a friendly human face speak without irony about the great profits property owners and prospectors would gather if oil were to be found under LA, with no reference to the yellow smog visible in all directions from our hill location. No connections were made between the extraction of oil and its associated wealth and the eventual particulate matter that gets spewed out of exhaust pipes every time a vehicle carries a human around our city. What does the smog have to do with getting rich, the American Dream?

Finally, a sunset, for, as Don Delillo pointed out so eloquently in White Noise, some good does come of airborne toxic events.


This sunset glows beyond the Grissom oil extraction island in Long Beach harbor, decorated with modern forms to soothe the untrained eye, which might not see beauty in the straining metal of a pumpjack.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moment in Brooklyn

When I briefly visited a dear friend in New York recently, she took me to a fascinating place in Brooklyn.

I guess there's some post industrial sewer called the Gowanus Canal that people like to think about, and they've made a little reading room/museum about it called Proteus Gowanus.

It is nestled in this old alley and it reminded me of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation here in LA.

One funny thing, though: their current exhibit focuses on transport, but there was nary a bicycle to be seen. They had recycled books about cars, ships, and planes, and even walking, but nothing on bikes. Maybe all the items had sold?

Our main reason for visiting was to hear a lecture about the weird old practice of medical students taking pictures of themselves with cadavers. James Edmonson, who curates the Dittrick Medical History Center in Cleveland, co-wrote a book on the subject. This woman who blogs at Morbid Anatomy had arranged the lecture. Morbid Anatomy has a museum space in the Proteus Gowanus gallery, hence the location.

It was all very interesting. Then we had nachos and returned to my friend's home in Washington Heights.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Views from the Train in New Mexico



Philadelphia is for Anthropologists



Last week I made it to Philadelphia, taking the train from Albuquerque to Chicago, then to Pittsburgh, then on to Philly.

Pittsburgh has a terrible train station. It seems like they should have a grand old lovely one, but it's really more akin to a Greyhound station than a quaint public space from before the automotive age. It appeared to have been constructed in the 1970s or 1980s. Hopefully it wasn't the product of some ill-advised redevelopment scheme that razed an older station in favor of the existing depressing one.

Philadelphia, though, is reached via beautiful 30th Street Station, a cavernous marble hall of food courts and information booths.

When I got there I walked through a light mist to my hotel. I'd decided to forgo a sleeping compartment on the train in favor of staying in a cozy hotel room my first night in town, and it felt wonderful to arrive there. There was even a weird channel that played shitty programming about Japan.

Then I did some anthropologist stuff at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. I didn't present a paper, so I just sort of ran around attending talks and waving hello people.

I also played a fair amount of hooky, sightseeing around Philly with a friend of a friend. We had delightful brunches, ample sour ale, and even fifty cent gourmet dumplings.


Bikes!


Urban decay


Second national bank of the United States


Glass lit from below the sidewalk

One surprise in Philly: the subway ridership more closely resembles that of LA than New York. Public transit seems to be left to the transit-dependent. It's not a very crowded city, either. I didn't get to see any outlying neighborhoods, just the city center and some adjacent areas.


Empty subway station

Ultimately I think I'm a better urban explorer when I'm by myself. Other people distract me from flânerie. That's not a bad thing, but it does leave me with a feeling that I didn't really see the city, just had lots of conversations somewhere.

Briefly, Chicago



One of my favorite things about traveling by train: spending your layover in a city instead of in an airport.

I've had many a layover in Chicago at this point, the transfer point for all trains crossing the country. Not only does Chicago have a large and interesting station, it spreads out around the station in accessible fashion. I can wander around and visit artisanal coffee shops and delis. Today I'm just sitting in a chain café (and being subjected to some record executive's idea of what would make midwestern moms cry and buy more Christmas-themed CDs) because it is snowing, and I am wearing thin leather moccasins, so exploring isn't really a possibility.

But when I was here on a layover last week, I did lots of walking, which felt great after being cramped in a coach seat on the Southwest Chief for hours.

I've been silent on this blog for a while because I was helping to mastermind a very special surprise visit to Newark, and I couldn't very well blab about my surroundings and give something away. But now that adventure is successfully completed, and I can write about my current cross-country trip.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Santa Fizzle

(That's "Santa Fe" to those who do not speak izzle.)



We've been riding around in the heart of a mecca for bourgie m'er-f'ers. Santa Fe does not sit on a grid for the most part, its narrow streets radiate out from the Spanish colonial plaza, but it's been a very pleasant city to explore by bike.

Amtrak's Southwest Chief carried us overnight from LA to Albuquerque. Then we detrained and saw this, which alarmed us slightly:



Bike boxes aren't supposed to come open during transit, so it seemed Bobby's bike might have been again smooshed. Fortunately it only suffered additional bending to the rack that they'd bent last time we took our bikes on the Chief.

We toured Albuquerque for a few hours. A lovely friend happened to be home for Thanksgiving and met up with us, introducing us to the state cookie, the biscochito. It's not a delicious combination of biscuits and cheetos, but rather a crispy sugar cookie with tones of anise.

The Rail Runner ferried us up to Santa Fe later in the afternoon. This train is a lot like the Metrolink commuter trains I ride in Southern California, except with a heaping of regional idiosyncrasy. The seats are bright red, and the Looney Tunes' roadrunner sound (meep meep) plays as the doors close. Plus, unlike Metrolink, it's super cheap; it only cost us $5 apiece to travel the 70ish miles between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. On Metrolink that trip would cost something like $12, which is the price to ride between LA and Oxnard, roughly the same distance apart as the New Mexican cities.

The bike securement system on the Rail Runner is not as easy to use as Metrolink's, though.

Once we arrived in Santa Fe, we started reveling in visiting a city on such a different scale from LA. The distance from the train station to my sister's job? Like a block. The distance from my sister's job to her house? Maybe eight blocks. The distance from her house to the Plaza, the historic city center? Around nine blocks. Perfect for biking! Drivers have been courteous, too, except for one society-looking lady from Colorado who'd probably knocked back a few too many appletinis before she drove back to her luxury accommodations.

This place is full of what Bobby has termed "fauxdobes," pleasant simulacra of the pueblos that the Hispano and Anglo settlers gleefully destroyed for hundreds of years (this state's got a bloody history that gets in your face all over the place).

To escape the upscale consumption marathon of the Plaza area, we decided to bike a few miles out of town to a city park, achieving our goal of biking to hiking opportunities. Climbing hills at 7200 feet challenged me quite a bit. The nice part, though, was zipping down the highway at sunset. That's why we look so smug in these pictures, cause we felt pretty badass.



Beyond the hiking area sits a Japanese-style spa complex called Ten Thousand Waves. Having scouted the route yesterday, we made our way back up the hill today and spent many hours enjoying an outdoor hot pool, sauna, etc.

Now it's snowing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Student Fee Hikes, Moonlit Bike Ride

Last Thursday the UC Board of Regents met at UCLA and voted to raise undergraduate student fees by 32% (Here's an NY Times article on the subject). I went to UCLA to protest along with students from throughout the UC system.

I am still fairly new to protesting, having succumbed to the apolitical stupor encouraged, unfortunately, by a liberal arts education. What I mean is that, having fully accepted the concept that there are multiple perspectives to everything, and that action in one direction will not necessarily achieve the desired effect, I spent my first adult years detached from the political system. The first step toward shaking me out of this inactivity came when a colleague at the nonprofit where I worked in Portland in 2007 listened to me brag about not voting (as if I were somehow too smart to participate in the system) and shook his head. As another Chicano from Orange County, he straight out told me that I was being an idiot, especially because I can represent an underrepresented group. Point taken, John!

Now that I'm up to my ears in bike activism, I've learned oodles about how decisions get made at a local level, and I do my best to stay informed about elections. After I vote I wear my "I Voted" sticker with pride for days.

And even my academic self is okay with action, as I've been pushed by my progressive department to view any choice to remain "objective" as a choice to cede control of my work to others. Because, the theory goes, we are gonna be biased one way or the other, and the more effort we make to choose a bias, the better we are at accurately representing something.

So this academician-citizen took the 720 over to Westwood to join the protest. As I rode my bike through the commercial village that separates UCLA from Wilshire I saw four helicopters circling over the campus, the only indication that something unusual was afoot.

At a protest there is lots of chanting. At a protest largely attended by undergraduates, there is also lot of leg, cleavage, and flirting (see the NY Times article picture). My grad student friends and I pulled back from the crowds at some points to comment on the act of protesting as a nostalgic performance, a reference to some 1960s fantasy brimming with youthfulness, passion, and whimsy. It really felt to me like a rite of passage more than anything, like a thing that these kids knew how to do because of what they'd seen in movies, read in books, or whatever.

A simulacrum, but a heartfelt one. Many of the protesters were students of color, and as a teaching assistant it thrilled me to see so many undergrads demonstrating for their own and their peers' rights to a quality, affordable education.

And now, a tale from my regional lifestyle:
When there no longer seemed to be a focus for the crowd of protesters, I embarked on an adventure via 920 to Santa Monica. I needed to get to Long Beach to shake hands with Jeff Mapes, author of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, and I figured I'd try to do it by heading south on the beach path that zips from Malibu to Palos Verdes. From there I could hop on a bus, #232, all the way along PCH to the Long Beach Transit Mall.

Just as the sunlight faded, I made my way down the path through Santa Monica, Venice, and then Marina Del Rey. At that point, though, there's an inlet for boat traffic, and I ended up zigzagging through marinas for about half an hour before giving up and trying to find a major street that would take me across the water. I found a path that eventually led me to the Ballona Creek trail, and I got to ride straight into the moonlight along the funny peninsula that runs between the creek and the marina's channel.

Then I made it back to the beach path, sliding along an empty white road with the moon on my right. I mean it was freaking awesome. When I made it to Hermosa Beach, I popped up the hill to PCH and had a delightfully short wait for the 232.

The bus ride took an hour, meandering through such exotic locales as Lomita and Harbor City, eventually cutting through Latino Wilmington, and then meeting up with the Blue Line along Long Beach Boulevard. I saw a few classy mid-century strip malls and motels, and more than one homey diner.

Leaving the bus, I hopped into the new 1st Street bike lane and zipped through my old neighborhood, Alamitos Beach, making my way to the museum. I arrived at 7:45 pm, my epic journey taking me 3.5 hours total to travel about 30 miles (it would've been less if I'd known how to get through Marina Del Rey).

I did what I'd gone there to do and then went home on the Blue Line.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

City Symphony and Symphony City

Yesterday I ran errands in Hollywood, dropping off an order for business cards, and picking up records and a wig.

Despite the pronouncements I have heard from those who would view Hollywood as LA's version of a revitalized Times Square (where'd all the prostitutes and drunks go?), I think it's still a remarkably scuzzy place for a tourist trap. At least lots of different types of people like to go there, making it more of a mish-mosh than most of segregated LA.

Once night fell I entered the Egyptian Theatre to see Sufjan Stevens' "The BQE," which turned out to be a triptych film in the city symphony genre (see all the movement and traffic! technology and humanity and architecture!). The soundtrack realized in full the leanings he has shown toward serial composition and classical a la Americana, kind of like a mashup of Philip Glass and Aaron Copeland. I liked the parts that sounded most tinkly, with bells and quiet arrangements, not the splashier crescendoes so much.

Most of the visual elements of the film consisted of shots of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Unfortunately the movie also featured some hipster hula hoop performers whose air of ironic detachment did not lend itself well to the screen. Awkward dance moves and shaggy legwarmers are best left to Burning Man, WTF Sufjan.

Then instead of staying to watch the other city symphony films being screened we left on a tip that Terry Riley would be playing at the Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. Scooting over on the subway, we bought rush tickets for $10 and locked up our bikes on an unused rail.

While we waited to enter the in-progress performance, I realized that we would also be listening to the Kronos Quartet. Thrills!

Two and a half hours and many avant-garde compositions later (Matmos and some guitarist/composer were also featured), Terry Riley took the stage, white beard gleaming above a snow white blazer. His bald head loomed over the honey-toned organ on stage, and he led Kronos, Matmos, and the guitarist guy in a blues-y raga composition.

But then everyone else left the stage, and Terry Riley went over to the massive and ridiculous explosion of an organ that dominates the center of the concert hall. The technicians had made the lights that shine up the pipes magenta, so the old master played in the center of a diabolical ensemble over which he had total control, manipulating the keys and buttons and pedals of the organ at will. I'm not fancy enough to have a camera phone, but many people in the audience snapped pictures of the sight.

He played on and on, and eventually we had to escape from the spectacle in order to catch the Red Line home. What a strange vision!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gold Line Fun!

Crowds + new train + bikes + camera = see below.


Mariachi Plaza Station, from the gazebo there.


Bike parking and bike lockers at Mariachi Plaza.


People in the street! This is 1st Street closed for the Boyle Heights Block Party they held in conjunction with the Gold Line opening. Everyone's crowding around to hear and see a lady singer belting out baladas.


Down below, people waited in line to ride the new subway to East LA.


Here's the new public art in the Soto Street Station. The overhanging egg in a wire nest is a bit silly, but I really like the map of old Los Angeles overlaid with blue birds. Go see it yourself, my picture doesn't do it justice.


This is the view of the LA River from the 1st Street bridge during the magic hour.


And if you turn around on the bridge, you can now watch the trains approach and depart downtown LA. This is my favorite stretch of the new line, cause you can ride your bike alongside the train and wave at the people inside. Since it was a Sunday, the bridge had very little traffic. It felt like a train/ bike only bridge. What a dream!

The loveliest moment of the day came when people disembarked from the train at Mariachi Plaza and clapped. I don't know if they were applauding the historic return of rail transit to East LA, or some other happy event, but it made me feel really good inside.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

cicLAvia in the News

Upon returning from Bogotá, Colombia last fall, Bobby and I helped form a committee to bring a ciclovía to Los Angeles.

This month we got covered by the Los Angeles Times (Who's quoted? I'm quoted!). As proof that mainstream media has a long reach, a fellow grad student in faraway Michigan wrote to me since he is also planning to do a dissertation about bicycling.

Other websites, including a drivers' forum, picked up the thread from the LA Times' website.

Then ABC did a little segment on cicLAvia.

Streetsblog also did a post about us.

Woo hoo!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Another Bicyclist's Manifesto

I rode fast along Virgil, pumping my legs and allowing my body to swing from side to side as I pushed up the last hill before I went under the 101 freeway.

I would usually avoid a busy street like Virgil at 3:30 pm, the beginning of the tire-squealing, rage-filled spectacle known here as “rush hour,” but there is no other way to cross the 101 between Virgil and Vermont, an even busier arterial some distance west.

As a young person who has made the decision to live carfree in Los Angeles, I have made the transition from riding inside of cars, where too often we sit frustrated in gridlock or isolated from the city around us, to riding bikes and buses, where I no longer have to maneuver a ton of steel around hundreds of thousands of other, similar tons.

Once you get outside of your car, everything changes. The sounds, the sights, your impression of humanity. Namely, many people drive so sloppily you would think they do not understand that one in fifty Americans will die in an automobile accident. What is this mass delusion that allows us to get in our cars and drive so poorly?

To illustrate this point, let me tell you about some of the things I saw as I rode home from a local bookstore today.

The most egregious sloppy driving I witnessed came from people turning corners: one man accelerated into his left turn, one hand clutching a cell phone to his ear, crossing into the opposite direction’s turn lane. His face registered no joy in this reckless action. A car full of young men swerved in front me a few blocks later, deciding to ignore their red light for some reason.

After I made it past the freeway and coasted the last few blocks until I would leave Virgil for relatively calm neighborhood streets, a few last hazards came from people who slammed on their brakes to make turns. This caused the people behind them to slam on their brakes because they had been following very closely, with some of them swerving to avoid the nuisance of having to stop. One almost swerved into me after some person had the audacity to attempt a left turn, but thought better of it at the last minute.

Finally I turned onto 1st Street to climb the last hill before my block at Bimini Place. Before I started pedaling up the hill, though, I watched an elderly man run across the street at a corner, where he legally had the right of way, to avoid being hit by the cars coming down the hill I was about to scale. They barely paused, indicating that he was indeed right to run; how dare he break the flow of their trajectory?

Almost reaching my intersection, I pulled into the left hand lane and signaled my left turn, all according to the rules of vehicular bicycling. The two cars that flew past, within inches of my body, either resent the techniques of safe riding or simply don’t notice that people outside of cars do not have a two foot buffer of steel around them.

Who are these people? They are parents and children, brothers and sisters.

Who gets into a car and forgets everything about common courtesy in a mad rush to reach some distant destination? Many, many people make this choice, conscious or not, every day.

These are not aliens from outer space inhabiting human forms, these are not drone cars driven by some future technology.

As a bicyclist, I pay extra attention to drivers because so many of them apparently feel exempt from having to pay attention to the environment around them. At this point in time, this is the cost of having the freedom to move through traffic, shifting from the sidewalk to the street as needed. I get around with ease, but I'm sure as hell not going to ride around the way I see people driving, so that means paying attention to every vehicle I pass.

Whether driving on your own block, or fifteen miles from home after work on Friday afternoon, you put everyone’s lives at risk when you drive recklessly.

Cars are inherently dangerous. Why add to this baseline by treating your gas and brake pedals like video game controls?

If you’re fed up with the vagaries of the roads, with having to sit behind rows and rows of people like you, try leaving the car at home sometime.

You have nothing to lose but your ulcer.

My Heart Belongs to the Hot, Dusty Pines

On Sunday we ventured east to Pasadena, where we ate breakfast with family in a white midcentury corporate plaza that now houses a Souplantation.
Postmodernism aside, we were there to finally access the Angeles National Forest, after months of looking at those distant mountains with longing on those clear days when the haze has not swallowed them up.

Not knowing much about the forest, I'd found some information about the Echo Mountain Trail to the Mt. Lowe Railway area, which sounded promising. We accessed it by following Lake Avenue through Pasadena and then Altadena until it ends at Loma Alta Drive. As we drove past the Lake Avenue Gold Line stop in my mom's car, Bobby and I realized we had found a trailhead that would be easily accessible by bike and transit. Hooray!

It turned out we didn't have much time for hiking, but I consider it a thoroughly successful reconnaissance mission. The trail rises from the old Cobb Estate, and since it was a pretty hot day sweat soon covered us all. Some mountain elf we met on the trail told us that you could see a groove carved along the edge of a canyon, evidence of the old Mt. Lowe Railway's path, but I'll need to get some more detailed information for our next visit.

I'm a child of Southern California mountains, since my family landed in San Bernardino in the 1890s and raised grapes in the hills there till the Depression struck. Even after she left that agricultural life, my great-grandmother took all her offspring on nature expeditions. My mother's subsequent appreciation for hiking and camping took root in me as well. The exhiliration I feel when I hit a dusty trail, surrounded by chaparral and breathing in the wafting smell of hot pines, goes a long way to making this girl feel human again.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bike Planning, Bike Riding



On Saturday morning we rode down to a library in South LA to make comments about LADOT's bike plan. Instead of having a podium with a speaker and Q&A, they decided to set up snapshots of the plan on easels around the room. LADOT and Alta Planning staff mingled with the bicyclists and planning students that showed up, their office attire setting them apart from us weekend casual folk.

The large maps showed existing and proposed bike infrastructure along city streets. I saw many comments added to the Central LA portion of the map, the area most familiar to me, with less in the Valley, and none in South LA.

Many people biked past the windows, oblivious to our shenanigans in their neighborhood.

One thing I learned is that Alta Planning has an office in LA, so the planners who worked on this project bike in LA and have done so for years. This means that, contrary to rumors, Alta didn't sweep in from fancy Portland and make a beautiful plan that LADOT then mucked up beyond repair. The setup of this workshop broadcasted that LADOT would like us to think, at least, that Alta is still very much involved in revisions to the plan.

After some hours of chatting, we followed someone who knew what he was doing to the Ballona Creek bike trail, passing through charming Leimert Park. As someone who grew up in a 1970s subdivision, I find older little boxes of ticky tacky quite cute; those late 40s and 50s American Dream homes and their lemony yellows, mwah!

We rode past Baldwin Hills on MLK, and then spilled onto the trail and made our way to the sea! A fresh breeze pushed against us, but in no time at all we reached the spit of land that the bike trail follows out from the manmade inlet of Marina del Rey.



Then after resting on a large bridge where a veritable parade of cyclists trained and some fishermen cast lines, we met up with the beach path that runs from Malibu to Palos Verdes.



On the beach, a yacht had somehow appeared. Vladimir Glytenko had left it there?
I'd read in the paper some time ago, of boat owners leaving their boats to the flow
of the sea to save money they no longer have.
Their yachts go unmoored and sometimes reach land.
How strange it looked! Alone on the shore.
But LA is surreal, and rarely a bore.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Finding Solace in Anthropology

Recently I've been pretty torn up over a developing issue in my community. An ongoing problem has come to a head, and I'm still not sure what the outcome will be. It's been enough of a block that I haven't blogged for like over a week, OMG, what's to become of my internet-addled generation...

In the midst of this community turmoil, I'm also in the most crucial period of my dissertation program: grant writing for fieldwork money. This means I need to convert all my wildly complicated ideas about bicycling, Los Angeles, cross-cultural interaction, marketing, fashion, and redesigning social life into a coherent statement.

I turned to a resource that I've seen others use, a listserv for anthropologists who work on environmental/ ecological issues. I wrote an email with a short description of my project (bicyclists are creative hybrids that have the potential to change urban life since cities, however segregated, are also creative, fluid zones).

I got so many responses, so many leads on things to read, so much encouragement, that I feel somewhat taken aback.

For a long time I've done this thing where I bash anthropology and all academic disciplines for their out-of-touchness, their lack of engagement with the real world, their forced withdrawal from "the field" for the period of intense introspection that is a dissertation.

And now, I'm so grateful to feel like I'm part of an academic community. The world is tough, confusing, messy. As an anthropologist I can inhabit a space that reflects on the world and its problems, not disengaging from it, but allowing me to suspend judgement for a little while.

Now that I feel like my life overlaps with my work too much, the long-critiqued distance of the anthropologist makes more sense.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Echo Park Time Bank Visits LA Ecovillage

A group of people braved yesterday afternoon's autumnal chill and sat out in the courtyard at the ecovillage learning about the Echo Park Time Bank. The legendary Lois Arkin had invited the time bank's founders, Lisa and Autumn, to lead an orientation here for interested folks. They both had on cozy scarves, and recapped the mission and goals of the time bank.

Since the 1980s, LA Ecovillage has been the site of a LETS (local exchange trading system) group, but participation has dwindled in the face of software that is not user friendly (I registered months ago and cannot figure out how to access the website) and in a relatively stable environment where people exchange goods and services without logging them into a system. The time bank offers us an opportunity to meet new people and gain access to all their unique skills!

I've been hearing about the Echo Park Time Bank for some time, having attended an event they hosted at Farmlab a few months ago. They arranged to have the inventor of the timebanking concept, Edgar Cahn, give a talk that evening, and now I own a signed copy of his book, No More Throw-Away People: The Co-Production Imperative. From my perspective as an anthropologist studying innovations in the way people live, exchange, and move through space, I find timebanking to be a really exciting concept.

Basically, the idea is that people do things for other time bank members, who may be strangers, and then they acquire "time dollars." Each hour of time, regardless of what the skilled or unskilled labor may be, earns and costs one time dollar. Dr. Cahn spoke about the successes timebanking has created in communities torn apart by crime and drugs, and I really appreciate that part of its use is placing value on things like companionship and domestic chores whose required time and labor have gone unnoticed.

There were about twenty people at yesterday's orientation, some existing Echo Park Time Bank members, and others interested in becoming members. We did a go-around to hear what people thought they could offer and purchase through the time bank. Greeting cards, guava harvesting, guitar lessons, and other stuff that doesn't start with "g" came up.

I hope that as the time bank and the ecovillage develop their relationship we observe an increase in class diversity among members; all the timebankers I met yesterday were lovely, but there did seem to be a certain similarity in their education and inclinations, not to mention their preference for vintage clothing (there were some really nice outfits). Crossing cultural/ socioeconomic boundaries can be very difficult, and I don't want to criticize the time bank for the fact that it attracts like-minded people. And yes, obviously we struggle with this here at LAEV as well, but the more of us working to redesign life in LA, the better!

Mom on Wheels



My mother, Laurene, came along with me and Bobby on a bike ride to the Larchmont farmer's market on Sunday.

She had not ridden a bike in a few years, so we spent about twenty minutes riding up and down the block outside the ecovillage to get her body to remember all the things that it must do to start, stop, balance, and shift on a bike.

I enjoy biking with rusty riders. It reminds me of the intricacy of using a machine like a bicycle. Mine has become a sort of extension of my body (I am a Man Machine), so I forget that sense of urgency that comes when the light changes and an uncertain foot frantically spins the pedals to get them in the right position so that you can shove off and ride forward.

Plus, since Laurene is my mother, she was a willing participant in the learning experience that comes when you move from being in a car to being on a bike. We had very interesting discussions all the way to the market and back.

The route from the ecovillage to Larchmont is easy: just follow 1st Street all the way. There are some small hills, but because of ongoing construction at Western and Normandie it is a fairly low traffic street.



Bobby and I sandwiched her, with him leading the way and me following and occasionally offering advice.

We made it to the market without incident; no moments of panic and no aggressive honkers harrassed us. There were a number of drivers who ran stop signs through intersections that we were approaching, but I emphasized the importance of eye contact as a way to make sure you can travel through intersections safely.



Laurene lives near one train station in Orange County and works near another one. She wanted to try riding on city streets as a step toward becoming a multimodal commuter, adding the option of train and bike to her current repertoire of carpooling and driving alone to work.

My mom's a good sport!

Limited Bike Space on the Pacific Surfliner

Saturday night provided a perfect opportunity for me to show Bobby my commute in Irvine; there was to be an anthropology department party near the university. We took our bikes to Union Station and made sure to arrive about twenty minutes before our train was scheduled to leave so that we had ample time to get our bikes situated.

Then it became clear that, despite the five passenger cars forming this particular southbound
Pacific Surfliner, there were only three bike parking spots on the whole train, and they were full.

Well, I thought, shoot. We could give up our plan, or we could wait an hour for the next train, or we could just hang around on the platform talking to different crew members about our dilemma. I was all set to go complain at the Amtrak ticket office about this inconvenience, but then I figured that if we just played it cool we might get somewhere after all.

I learned from one crew member that this particular train was a continuation of the Coast Starlight that travels all the way from Seattle to San Diego, and these continuation trains tend to be more crowded. It was a shame, I mused, that there is no way to reserve a bike spot online, and he told me that Amtrak actually is working on developing something like this. Let's hope so.

Sigh, too bad I would be missing my department's party, I said. What about taking the train down without the bikes? he asked. Well, that wouldn't work, because there are no direct transit connections between the Irvine train station and UC Irvine, so we'd be stranded once we got to the station.

At the last minute they did let us put our bikes in the mostly empty baggage car, though the attendant for that car made it clear that this was not her preference. The orders came from some higher up on the train. It's like we got visited by some kind of anti-bureaucracy fairy!

I don't object to the idea that trains and buses can only accommodate a certain number of bikes at any given time, but when you have a train put together from older model cars, and only one of those cars has regulation bike racks, but there is a baggage car sitting empty, it's downright silly to bar passengers from using available space.

I've already documented my commute through Irvine pretty extensively on this blog, but we did find a new bike path to use that's really swell. It starts at Turtle Rock Community Park and roughly follows Bonita Canyon Drive, then Shady Canyon, winding through the scrub hills until you crest and see all of central Orange County spread out below you, from the fireworks of Disneyland to the subdivisions creeping up the side of Saddleback Mountain. The crickets and dampness of the marine layered air made this an exceptional night ride, with a simulacrum of Tuscany off to one side and chaparral on the other. I'm sure it's a nice ride during the day, too. It ends at Sand Canyon Avenue and the 405.


View South Orange County by Bike and Transit in a larger map

Friday, October 9, 2009

City of Lights' Legal Rights Workshop

Here's another video I made for City of Lights:



Making videos for City of Lights has been fun because so far I've only used footage other people have recorded. Now I'm working on some videos based on my own camerawork, and it's a lot harder to be a cold editor when you are the reason for the jiggle joggles and odd framing of the shot!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

(Fairly Restricted) Effort to Reward Bike Commuters at UC Irvine

I just got an email from a vice chancellor at my university, UC Irvine, notifying me that this week is "Rideshare Week 2009." Ooh, I thought, maybe they'll give me a granola bar again for being a bike commuter like they did last Spring!

Actually, it turns out, bike commuters are eligible for a $50 rebate (hey, that'll pay for a lot of better snacks than granola bars!). But there are several restrictions that disqualify me. You have to live within four miles of campus, and you have to have purchased a new bike between October 5 and 9.

So maybe this will provide some impetus to close commuters who have been looking for a reason to buy a new bike and start riding to the campus?

I wonder how many takers they'll have. They're willing to give out 100 of these $50 rebates.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Burned by "An Evening with David Byrne"

On Friday night I went to an event that has been highly anticipated in the bike community here. It was to be a panel of experts offering their thoughts on bicycling in LA. David Byrne, a longtime cyclist in addition to being an artiste and musician extraordinaire, was the reason for the panel, since he's on a book tour right now for Bicycle Diaries. The other panelists represented, respectively, the streets (Jimmy Lizama, my neighbor and cofounder of the Bicycle Kitchen), the academy (Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking), and the bureaucracy (Michelle Mowery, long suffering senior bicycle coordinator to the LA Dept of Transportation).

I arrived early to promote cicLAvia to people standing in line, so I had an hour to crowd watch. The event took place at the 800 seat Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo, next to a large plaza perfect for displaying your cool bike. There were many bicyclists in attendance, but also lots of older people who looked like they enjoy attending cultural events.

I had made myself a peach charmeuse pouf dress with an orange velvet front decoration especially for the occasion. I expected a lot, like some kind of zeitgeisty moment that would ennervate the bike movement here to greater heights of street-level transformation!

David Byrne started the evening, offering his offbeat (literally, he's quite the stammerer) wisdom to the crowded theater. Instead of focusing primarily on bicycles, he spoke about city design, showing slides of architectural fantasies from the first half of the twentieth century. Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, Le Corbusier's vision of what became failed projects, all the ideas that would erase street density and allow people to avoid each other even in an urban setting. In short, Byrne is about the social life of the street, and he sees bicycling as a powerful tool enabling a richer one. He showed pictures of bicycle infrastructure innovations and crowds cycling together.

Next came Donald Shoup, a Bill Murray lookalike who deadpanned his way through a rather hilarious presentation. His basic platform is, of course, that charging more for parking makes a lot of economic sense. He connected the parking issue to bicycling through the fact that no small number of people driving in cities are looking for curbside parking, the cheap trophy of the urban dweller or visitor. This congests lanes that could otherwise leave more room for bicyclists. Then he threw in some pictures of bicycle boulevards in Berkeley for good measure, emphasizing the cost efficiency of bike infrastructure that relies on bollards and the removal of stop signs rather than large scale construction.

Following Comedian Shoup was Michelle Mowery. This woman...what can I say that is politic? She's an obvious target of bike ire because of her status as chief bureacrat, which she noted as she started her awkward presentation. Her self-presentation, as I'd seen before and again that night, mainly consists of trying to align herself with bike interests, mentioning her own bike commuting, but driving home over and over that there's absolutely nothing she can do in the face of immense financial and legal barriers to improved bike infrastructure in LA. Like many others, I call bullshit.

Perhaps it's true that Mowery once had a glowing passion for bike planning, and has had it beaten out of her through years of combat with entrenched politicians who would rather be banging hot chicks on the side than challenging their constituents to be less car-dependent. I really don't think that's the whole picture, though.

A clear distinction between the paradigm of Shoup (bike infrastructure can be cheap) and Mowery (all bike infrastructure must involve horrendously expensive grade separation and is therefore infeasible at this time) showed when she shared pictures of the current extension of the LA River bike path. She tried to emphasize how much it cost by showing big machinery, ripped up concrete, dangerous jumbles of rebar and urbanite. It's ridiculous, though, to pretend that this is the kind of bike infrastructure that current bicyclists want.

For starters, the extension currently under construction will not actually connect the northern section of the river trail with the longest stretch from Maywood to Long Beach, effectively keeping the two portions separate. Are parents who want to offer their little ones a protected place to get comfortable on a bike going to brave the truck-riddled streets of industrial Vernon to get from the northern stretch of the trail to the southern? Probably not. I'm not minimizing the accomplishment; it's certainly great to see continued work on the river trail, but if that's all you can show for your department it's a bit disappointing.

Additionally, bikes belong on the street; how sad that the fantasy of the automotive master race that will be achieved only when all the bikes and peds have been removed from roadways and put in their own place lives on in LA. Mowery even offered an anecdote to support that outdated fantasy, talking nostalgically of her teen years in Torrance when she could go to basketball practice, get home to dinner with the folks, and "be in [her] seat in Poly Pavilion in half an hour."

Poly Pavilion is at UCLA, which is about twenty miles from the south bay city of Torrance. Did she mean that she could drive twenty miles, park her car, and enter the stadium in thirty minutes? How did this fantasy of squinching distance, magically melting miles away by traveling on highways blissfully free of the nuisance of other people, relate to our current struggle to legitimize the travel of bicycles on public roadways?

It just reinforced the fact that Mowery may try to blame LADOT's failure to push progressive policy on "the bureaucracy," but really her goals do not coincide with those of bicyclists like me, who are damn sick of being treated like a gnat by the honking drivers who accelerate wildly to pass me as I try to ride safely and legally in Los Angeles. I'm not asking for futuristic and expensive bike highways; I just want a bike planning department that actually supports all users of our roads.

Mooooooving on, the final speaker was Mr. Jimmy Lizama, a man I whose energy consistently blows my mind. He told the story of the impromptu bike commute on which he embarked ten years ago, little knowing that it would start a bike fire in his life. His tale seemed like a brilliant combination of Ray Bradbury's "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" and the gonzo spirit of ol' Hunter S. While he spoke, time lapse photos showed the stop and go traffic of an LA elementary school in the morning. Many, many children here, as elsewhere, get dropped off and picked up by cars every morning and afternoon. Jimmy's fabulous partner, Josie, takes her little boy to school on a tandem bicycle. The slide show told this story, and made the contrast between their energetic commute and the hulking stasis of the automotive crowd quite clear.

After the four presentations, the audience was invited to ask questions of the experts. The design of the theater was not conducive to movement, unfortunately; many of us would have had to crawl over at least twenty pairs of legs to get to a microphone. Those who did make it to the mics had a single-minded goal: stick it to Michelle Mowery with their tales of bike commuting woe. At the time I got fed up with the repeated if respectful references to shitty bike infrastructure here, and I know others in the audience did as well, but really, what can be expected when a bunch of people who really care about biking are invited to join together and then get mics offered to them?

Despite the presence of a guest whose work in music, art, and film made me hope for a happening, it actually turned out more like a public hearing at city hall. Apparently LA is not alone in this turn of events; the commenters at the linked BikePortland post express their own disappointment at Byrne's talk up there getting overshadowed by local experts.

I guess the moral of the story is that we all have high hopes when David Byrne comes to town, but even the man who made and wore the oversized suit cannot wave a wand and fix our problems!

I wonder how his ego feels about all this.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hmm, Does an NY Times Trends Article Count as an Ethnographic Object?

Oh yes!

Recently I've been mulling over whether my dissertation project will be as holistic as I am (zing!), including a focus both on bicycling as an embodied practice and on cohousing/ resource sharing/ alternative economies. After one of my professors listened to me free associate about my interests last spring, he posed a very troubling question: is there an inherent link between bicycling and these alternative arrangements of home and money?
Well, there is where I live, LA Ecovillage, which has been the site of historic moments in the LA bike movement (founding of LACBC, founding of the Bike Kitchen), and where there's a major emphasis on alternative transportation.

But who needs her own experience when she can just point to the New York Times?

The linked article, on a trend toward intentional house sharing in NYC, has got it all, from references to bicycling as a common interest, to commenter Jay who claims, in somewhat broken terms (spelling does count, folks!), that since he did not have a positive experience sharing house, "communism does not work."
Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Not that I didn't know that many Americans don't know communism from Superman, but also ha ha!

(For the record, "communism" is far too loaded a term to use to describe something like four Jewish artists in Brooklyn sharing a lease).

One time when I was sharing a house, this guy went psycho and broke everything he could in the place, and then smeared some blood on a wall. There you go, "communism" does not work! Also, because I had not taken out the trash one time, he spat on my bed! But don't blame mental illness, blame "communism."

Another time, a severely depressed roommate reneged on an agreement and then gossiped to my best friend, causing a two year rift in our relationship. Flawed "communism" strikes again!

All those experiences aside, when I got to Los Angeles and felt like I was a vulnerable little animal riding my bicycle alone, surrounded by malicious, hungry, and motorized tons of steel (aka cars), nothing made me feel like I might become human again like visiting LA Ecovillage and discovering that not only was it possible to embrace my values in LA, I could also live in a community of fellow travelers.

It's not that co-housing ensures an impossibly utopian home life; it's that people are willing to put up with each other's occasional shit because it's a joint project. There's a big difference between intentional co-housing and five college kids smoking bongs in a living room they're mutually paying for. I'm sure there are millions of people out there who can't/don't understand that.

So for me it's all tied up; shedding a car, moving into cohousing, dealing with my intentionally offensive neighbor who shouts curses at even our most mild-mannered guests, learning how to feel safe riding a bike in LA.

If it takes evidence from the NY Times to prove to my dissertation committee that this thing, this movement of bodies and shared lives, is really happening, so be it, silly comments and all!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Riding with Jornaleros



On Saturday City of Lights held its first group ride with participants from the CARECEN day laborer center near MacArthur Park and the IDEPSCA center in the garment district.

Our spoke card graphic, which I really really like, was made by artist Ernesto Yerena, a rising star who has collaborated with Shepard Fairey, among others.

Group rides have a special place in the hearts of the LA bike scene. From their start with Critical Mass, to the ongoing fun of Midnight Ridazz, group rides offer novice and experienced cyclists alike an opportunity to ride around and own the city together. Personally I prefer daytime rides to nighttime ones, since I like swooshing silently through the quiet streets with my panoramic views of downtown LA after dark, and I don't like facing aggressive drivers during the day. So I appreciate opportunities to ride en masse while it's bright out.

Our thinking with this ride was to use a popular model from the bike community in LA, the group ride, as an outreach tool to make stronger connections with cyclists who don't usually ride for fashion and fun.

My assignment as a City of Lights organizer was to hang out at the IDEPSCA center until the ride arrived from its starting point, CARECEN. I sipped coffee with another ride participant, an REI staffer who came all the way from Huntington Beach to ride with us. We chatted while the TV played coverage of a professional bike tour, entertaining the ten or so men sitting in the center. I got a brief lecture from someone about the benefits of green practices (I tried to explain to him that I live at an ecovillage, etc., but he just wanted someone to talk at, not with), and then Ernesto, the staff on duty, told me about an upcoming silkscreening workshop they're going to hold to raise money for jornaleros (day laborers) to join a soccer league.

Then I saw a bunch of cyclists ride up to the center's storefront, and the day had begun.

Here's a picture of the ride just before we started out from IDEPSCA's center at 18th and Main.



(I was filming the scene from across the street, so I didn't make the picture.)

We had ride support from the Bicycle Kitchen, with cooks Arlen, Scott, and Pedro helping out with flats.

We rode through downtown on Main, stopping at Placita Olvera for a brief historical overview from a docent.



Then we crossed the river and made our way to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, where we pooled our resources and paid a few performers to serenade us with "Cielito lindo."



Since this was our first try at organizing a ride with jornaleros, the ride organizers planned just a few stops. So we ended after Mariachi Plaza at Hollenbeck Park, where City of Lights organizer Andy had prepared a feast!



I filmed some short snippets of interview with a few guys who shared their thoughts about the ride. Everyone had fun, none of the jornaleros had been on a group ride before, and new group ride enthusiast Daniel suggested that our next one take us to the beach! Great idea.

We rode home over the 6th Street bridge and swam through traffic downtown because of the big corporate sponsored event going on this weekend.



Since my next big project for City of Lights involves collecting ethnographic interviews with program participants, I made arrangements to start a Spanish/ English conversation exchange with one the riders. That'll kick my university Spanish into street gear!

I'm happy to be part of such a cool team as the City of Lights organizers. At first Allison and I had a hard time finding volunteers who were both bilingual and understood that it was not our intention to belittle cyclists of circumstance because their bikes were poorly maintained or because they ride "wrong," on sidewalks. It's exciting to be part of this not only because we're making our own opportunities for urban cultural exchange, but because I'm part of an activist project that has anthropological convictions at heart.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bike Count!

This afternoon I sat outside the Casbah Café at the corner of Sunset and Hyperion for two and a half hours, sipping cold mint tea, twitching to the disco sound of ELO, and making little hash marks with a pen on some funny diagrams to indicate the passage of bicyclists and pedestrians through the intersection. That's right, I did a shift for LACBC's bike count, the first in this city!

Turns out I'm rare, at least in Silverlake, since I'm a helmet-wearing, bike-riding girl. Only about one lady cyclist went by for every five guys on bikes. And helmets? Ack, don't crush the hair! Or whatever reason people have, they're eschewing helmets like crazy.

I saw a lot of Chicano teenagers, all boys, on bikes, breaking out some bricolage with their gangbanger attire and monochrome fixies. Most didn't fuss with traffic laws. Oh to have the lust for danger that courses through a teenage boy! Scratch that, I'd probably get into waaay more verbal altercations with drivers.

As I listened to "Confusion" for about the tenth time, I thought about other things it would be fun to count:
- Number of people walking around with iced drinks in hand
- Number of people walking with friends or by themselves
- Who violates traffic laws more, cars or peds or bikes?
- Number of cars occupied by just one lonely person
- Number of pampered pooches using crosswalks

Many people passed through the intersection more than once. It was a pretty fun site to watch cause there's a lot of struttin' that happens along Sunset. I saw several bunches of teen girls holding their asses out at a juicy angle, the better to look uninterested behind their oversized shades. As a young person better schooled in Portland hipsterdom, I find LA hipsters too processed for my taste; where in Portland you'd find a soft fuzz, here there's a bunch of dead hair poking out of a suit that isn't quite old enough to be interesting. In Portland there are worn out sneakers, here there are stressed jean cutoffs. And butts come out a lot more here, that's for damn sure! Hot stuff.

After my shift was done, and I thought my eyes were going to bug out from all the concentrating, I went into Kelly Green down the street and bought some eco bourgie stuff. One of the people I'd seen walking a dog across the street like five times was in the shop, so we chatted, and I found out that the bike count was covered on NPR (nice work LACBC women!). She also sheepishly admitted that she was only out walking cause she'd lost her car keys. Ha! Well, she chose the right time to walk around her neighborhood, cause I got her down for like four solid crossings.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Park(ing) Day Unwelcome at MacArthur Park

There's this ongoing annual arty/ architecty event called Park(ing) Day that happens all over the country. This year it happened on Friday, September 18.

In LA, it's taken the form of nonprofits setting up the usual temporary "park" in a parking space, feeding the meter and providing some diversion to passersby while simultaneously promoting their project. My amazing friend/collaborator Allison planned a park for City of Lights on Wilshire in MacArthur Park. We wanted to combine the public space statement that is a temporary park in the street with our ongoing efforts to publicize the bike movement to Latino cyclists in Central LA, so the activity Allison designed invited passersby to draw their ideal bike routes on maps of this part of town.

We had a nice park set up, with five people sitting under a shade canopy, many LA-appropriate succulent plants in pots, and my little Vox amp blasting Café Tacuba, when a police car approached. It slowed, and a window came down. We chatted with them, explaining what we were up to in the parking space, that we'd fed the meter, and that they were welcome to stop and have some orange juice. They drove on, and I felt my adrenaline drain away slowly. I'd never heard of any Park(ing) Day parkers getting harrassed by cops, and assumed it was totally legal since it's such a popular, national event, so I figured that was the last of it.

However, the same car circled the block, and pulled up behind us. This time the two officers got out of their car, and questioned our choice of parking space. We were set up on a curving part of Wilshire, the block that goes over the park on a bridge, and there were no other cars parked along our stretch. Right in front of us was a bus stop, and the signalized intersection of Park View and Wilshire after that. The officers were skeptical about our safety, since drivers routinely speed along that stretch of Wilshire. What if we had some traffic cones? No problem, I called Bobby, and he said he'd bring some from the ecovillage, where there's a bunch. This seemed to satisfy the police, who left to sit in their car.

But no, they still didn't like the whole idea of the thing, so they called in back up. Then we had four officers, including Iris Santin, who has been building a reputation as a bicycle-friendly officer in that district, questioning our presence. We repeated over and over that this event happens all over the city, all over the country, for just a few hours one day a year. Among themselves the officers decided we needed to get out of the street.

I called friends at another park, just a few miles west on Wilshire at Western, and they gave me the name of a police officer who had stopped at their park, seemed enthusiastic, and gave them a number to call him if they had any problems. They passed on that number to me, I called it, and reached a police department switchboard. I asked for the officer they'd named, but apparently the dude was on his day off. I explained the situation to the lady on the phone, who put me on hold and then let me know that they'd sent a superviser to our location. As I hung up the phone, I realized that the superviser was already there, bringing our total to five cops and three cars, agreeing that we needed to get out of the street.

I entered the conversation, keeping my voice steady as I explained, again, that this event was happening all over the city with no problems; why should our park be an exception? I told them the name of the friendly officer who had visited Wilshire and Western, and they dismissed that with "he's off today."

The superviser had a hard time understanding why we were in the street to begin with, confusing Park(ing) Day with bike lanes or something. At one point they claimed we should get out of the street because a pedestrian had been killed right near where we were set up the day before.

During this conversation, a car pulled up next to our space and three women tumbled out, beaming at us and asking about our park. "We're from the CRA," they told the police, who told them to get back in their car and move along because they were blocking (hypothetical) traffic. I explained to the police that people knew to look for us here because of the Park(ing) Day map distributed online, trying to emphasize, again, that we were part of a larger event.

When we asked if we could set up in a different parking space, like on Park View, which is a lower traffic street, they just repeated that we could not be in a parking space because were were not a vehicle. Iris Santin stormed off to her car after I continued to express my confusion over what, exactly, we were doing wrong, and I tried to reason with the superviser, but, eventually,
we got out of the street.

We schlepped all of our many accoutrements down to a corner that the officers had decided it would be okay for us to use, though the shade canopy was out of the question on a sidewalk.
After calming down for a bit, we moved across Wilshire to a shady area and re-set up our park. Passersby commiserated with our situation, and eventually the day went on like it was supposed to.

Bobby called the office of Ed Reyes, the councilperson for District 1, and someone there spoke with the police superviser who had kicked us out of the street. The superviser told the council office staffer that we could set up in a space on Park View, directly contradicting what they had told us earlier in the street. As we'd already spent another 30-45 minutes re-setting up our space, we decided to stay where we were.

I left for a few hours to visit other parks, and found a lot of astroturf and happy people, but no similar stories of police harrassment. I guess MacArthur Park just isn't allowed to have something that many other parts of LA welcome.

At least Allison was able to collect many bike route suggestions from people who stopped at the park.

City of Lights organizer Andy Rodriguez speaks with a passerby on Friday. Photo by Allison Mannos.

Here's Allison's entry about the day on the LACBC blog. Sadly we were too caught up dealing with the police to take pictures of our first park on Wilshire.
A photo of us also got posted on LA Streetsblog.

I've been reading a lot of interpretations of Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty this week, so I understand that the officers are just unable to see possibilities outside of their own daily routines, but man, is it ever disheartening to struggle for change in LA sometimes!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Unfathomable Mystery

I was idly reading a book when I heard Adonia in the kitchen exclaim in increasingly incredulous tones "what the fuck... what the FUCK??" She then invited me to guess what was in the toaster. I peered in and spied a blackened mass. Fearing the worst (fried mouse or giant cockroach), she rattled it out to reveal a mostly melted kryptonite bike lock key:



We have two working theories. The cats like to carry small objects around, so it is conceivable they could have moved the key. However, they are not known to frequent the counter the toaster is on. In addition, even for a cat it seems ridiculously idiosyncratic to drop a key in the toaster.

The second is that in the hustle and bustle of moving last March, the key could have been jostled into the toaster. This seems slightly more likely, since we were moving only a few blocks and moving with great haste (1 minivan, 6 hours, a Gadda-Lugo record). Since we did zero packing ahead of acquiring the services of a minivan, we were creating bizarre packages of objects. The toaster could have been thrown in a pot that also had a small cactus and a bowl of loose change and keys in it.

This leaves the troubling implication that it has been melting in the toaster since March, and that we did not notice the fumes of plastic and batteries melting (it's the kind with an LED light built into it), potentially consuming trace amounts of burnt plastic in our toast. On the upside, the key still works, so now we have a backup for that key if I manage to lose it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Chick Strand's Short Films at the Egyptian

Last night I went to an LA Filmforum tribute to Chick Strand, a filmmaker who passed away in July. I'd been intrigued by her bio, which includes a training in anthropology, and I wanted to see if her films could be considered ethnographic. That's a big yes.
Not only did she film a lot in Mexico (which, in the grand 19th century tradition of studying the "other" would make her work automatically ethnographic), her work paired sound and images in very evocative ways (which is ethnographic in my own reading, focusing more on ecstatic experiences than on narrative).

Her "Guacamole" (1976) moves from a market where a woman hunches under a huge side of meat, lifting it off a hook, to some dark interior where light filters through orange and red pebbled windows. Meanwhile the music's tone gets darker and darker, while a woman's voice undulates in gitano style, singing about the soul of a child. The play of light and water, droning tones.

One of my favorite shots was in "By the Lake" (1986). She shows a staircase flanked by dozens of blooming geraniums, pink and red bursts with green, vaguely geometric leaves. Some beautiful tone is building in the background, and then water starts darkening the stairs, which frees the music and it wanders.

We sat clapping in the dark for a woman who is dead. During the long pauses between films, as the projectionist loaded the next volley of images, I half expected to see this gypsy woman's form appear in the gray theater. What a strange incantation it was, since so many of her films evoke the angelic with shades of the demonic. But she stayed gone, at least to me, who did not know her.

Then when I got home people were sitting in the street enjoying a campfire. I joined them, though I'd missed the s'mores.

Two Options for Public Space



1. Fill it with people
2. Fill it with cars.

On Saturday our neighborhood got together to paint the street outside the ecovillage, with inspiration from Mark Lakeman of Portland's City Repair.

I wasn't really sure how many non-ecovillagers would show up, since we're actually not that well known in the neighborhood. It turned out that a few people had gone door to door in the week leading up to the streetpainting day, and had let neighbors know that we'd be hosting a fun event for kids. So the kids showed up in force! I hung out with three siblings whose grandma lives across the street. They enjoyed my cats, the fish in our lobby's aquarium, and the chickens in the courtyard.

My neighbor Kathy took a lot of pictures of the process, which can be viewed here.
And Erik Knutzen wrote about the day here.

We painted for hours and hours. There were tasty vittles available, and I didn't even notice that I was straining my muscles by squatting for hours at a time while painting a new streetcar line where the old one used to be. I made a brick stamping device from foamcore, an old broom handle, corduroy, and a lot of duct tape. Behold the results:



My neighbor Joe wrote a good description of the old H Line that ran down our street from 1920 to 1947. The lettering was done by another neighbor, Kwan Wu, who is currently studying signmaking at LA Trade Tech.

The trolley tracks connect up with the main design of a lizard DJ'ing on a bike wheel through a really neat wave section:



At the top of that picture you can see the green tarp enclosing the lot that will soon be a community garden, thanks to the efforts of ecovillagers and others who lobbied LAUSD to reconsider their plans to put in a parking lot on the site.

At the end of the day we decided to use an old coffee cart as an experimental free store outside our main building, moving all the things that had been gathering dust on our free table out there. People have already been taking things, which is good.

It was a lot of fun taking over the street and watching kids play wherever they liked. You do not see kids playing outside in our neighborhood until there is a space created for them (and their parents) to feel safe. Many drivers use our little two block street as a way to avoid traffic on Vermont, and gun their engines through the piddly stop signs that are meant to calm them down. Ecovillagers are now committed to reclaiming the street as often as possible, and have already shut it down again for a potluck since Saturday.

And now for that other way to use public space: fill it with cars. The Brewery is an arts complex in Lincoln Heights, just NE of downtown LA. I'd heard about it for a while, and we rode there for a friend's birthday party after Saturday's painting was done. Since the space is a converted industrial facility, I assumed there would be a visible emphasis there on sustainability as an aesthetic principle. Not so, unfortunately. The place is a fortress, with inward-facing units, and the courtyard is full of cars. There wasn't even bike parking, we just locked up to a rail. I could see some artists hanging out in their doorways, trying to experience the "colony" aspect of the place, but with so many cars parking and parked in front of them I don't see how they can even make eye contact. Maybe some artists there will soon revolt and be like, huh? Why should our courtyard be given over to cars? But I guess that explains how they can have lofts for $2,000 in somewhat ungentrified Lincoln Heights: secure parking for the Benz.

Friday, September 11, 2009

More Bike Riding in South Orange County

Since finding doctors is an annoying hassle, I've been making an inconvenient trek down to Laguna Hills to see mine since I moved back to So Cal in 2007. Fortunately and unfortunately, my insurance is changing this month, so on Wednesday I made my final trip to the hellish medical tower that houses my doctor's clinic.
I'd figured out a route from the Irvine Train Station to the Laguna Hills Mall area last year, but this time I decided to try a different route since I would be starting from UC Irvine. I've mapped the new route, which follows Moulton Parkway, and added it to my South Orange County bike map on Google:


View South Orange County by Bike and Transit in a larger map

Riding through Laguna Woods, a massive retirement community behind gates, I had to climb some long, steep hills. For some reason, though, I didn't start getting honked at till I turned onto busy El Toro Road, where a downhill let me fly. I think I even got honked at by a bus (!) that had a bike on its front rack (!!?).
Moment of triumph: I finally reach the medical tower and start locking my bike up to the railing I've used as an improvised bike rack since they lack bike parking, and a little old lady comes up to me and says, "How did you get here so fast? I was turning out of Laguna Woods, and saw you creeping up the hill, and you're here already?" I explained that since drivers in Orange County do not know how to behave properly around bicyclists, I tend to ride as fast as I can to keep up with traffic. "Well, you look great," she replied as she walked away.
So not only did I get to interact with one of the drivers of those seemingly impenetrable luxury OC cars, it was a positive one to boot!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Heidelberg Project

This weekend Mark Lakeman of Portland's City Repair will visit LA Ecovillage. He's giving a talk on Friday, and helping facilitate an intersection repair project on Saturday. Details here. I first learned about City Repair in 2006 when I took a video editing class at Portland Community Media (PCM), the cable access organization. My group decided to create a short documentary about City Repair, whose big street paintings and cob benches dot Portland. I was most familiar with the stuff near the Pied Cow off Belmont. Class time ran out, and we never finished the piece. What stuck in my mind was the new editing techniques I'd learned rather than City Repair and its mission.

However, now that I live in LA, and have become much more sensitive to community-building as a pastime and goal, I think City Repair is a great organization.

In Detroit you can visit something that reminds me of City Repair, though it is one man's vision as opposed to a neighborhood creation. Tyree Guyton grew up on Heidelberg Street on the eastside of Detroit, watched it fall apart as people moved away and houses came down, and twenty years ago started turning his block into an art piece called the Heidelberg Project.

Bobby and visited the street a few weeks ago, and were surprised to find that Guyton himself hangs out there and attempts to stage interactions between different types of visitors. His project embodies the DIY spirit, and that's his take-home message too: don't wait around for the government or anyone else to step in and solve your problems, do it yourself.

The project itself features re-used building materials, industrial byproducts, houses made into 3D canvases, stuffed animals, and so forth.

Bobby's pictures are here on Flickr.

Here's one view, featuring the painted street:


And here's me and Tyree:


He and his photographer were tickled to hear about our bike trip, and when I asked Tyree if I could get a picture with him, he insisted on hopping on Bobby's bike.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Boogie Boarding into Compton

A while back I got heavily into Stacy Peralta's surf and skate documentaries, spending a week home sick in Portland watching them over and over while huddled on the couch I'd dragged next to the little gas heater in my big drafty home. Even though I grew up a few miles from the beach, the fact that I was a mixed race girl from a poor family meant I didn't get into the surfing thing, and had only spent a little time on boogie boards as a teenager. Nevertheless, I feel the lure of a magical surfing film like Endless Summer. Peralta's movies give a bit of that vibe, though they suffer from a very unfortunate tendency toward the music video. That is, the cuts are fast, overproduced, and there's like fifty songs crammed into an hour and a half of documentary. He seems to be more into the moment than the big picture, although the stories he chooses to tell are so interesting that his movies still manage to overcome their own short attention span.
Then this week Bobby and I lifted some ancient (like circa 1987) boogie boards from my mom's garage, and ever since I've been scraping my belly up on a scratchy old styrofoam board that is falling to pieces. But do I feel like Laird Hamilton? Maybe just a little bit.
Today when we got home from the beach we decided to watch Peralta's newest film, Crips and Bloods: Made in America. As former residents of Long Beach, Bobby and I spent a lot of time in 2007-08 riding the Blue Line through South LA, and I got exposed to a very different style of "ghetto" than the comparatively lush and pastoral subdivision where I grew up, which was considered a ghetto nevertheless by white South Orange County residents because it was home to Mexicans. Traveling through the towns and neighborhoods I'd heard of in the rap songs that came in my bedroom window in that simulacrum ghetto, and later shared in dorm rooms at my fancy liberal arts college, I learned the scale of poverty, segregation, and inequality existent in Los Angeles. It's off the fucking charts, as it is in most American cities. A lot of people wouldn't consider riding the Blue Line, and it's another symbol of the fear of public transit that keeps people in their cars in LA.
So anyway, Peralta's film chronicles the legacy of segregation and the lack of conventional opportunity that have contributed over many years to the current gang situation in South LA, telling the story of a facet of the cultural zone I've passed through on the Blue Line. It does so in a sympathetic manner, choosing to portray gang members, both active and former, as human beings caught up in conditions not solely of their own creation. I particularly appreciated the attention paid to the role of private funders in granting money to nonprofits staffed if not founded by community members in South LA. Because, in the end, the film wants to be a contributor to an activist movement that fights to provide choices for young people (but especially boys, women only appear in the film as crying faces of wounded motherhood, I think it only showed one interview with a female gang member) in an environment that, according to the film, has led to higher levels of PTSD in children than that of wartime Baghdad (they quote a RAND Corporation report at one point).
In other words, once again, Peralta managed to tell a story that stuck with me despite the shitty editing techniques he's popularized.
And all the while the movie played outside roared the helicopters. It occurred to me, reading through the unfavorable reviews, that maybe the context of LA matters, that I'm going to feel the movie a whole lot more cause I live off Vermont on the grid that connects my part of town to the part in Peralta's movie. Manohla Dargis, writing from Manhattan, can focus on filmmaking but in the city where the film lives, it's about the story.