Sunday, March 28, 2010

Food Trucks and Greening the Poor

In Southern California food trucks, particularly taco trucks, have been around for a long time. The first time I remember seeing one was at a light industrial park in south Orange County where my dad worked when I was about four. It stuck out in my mind because of the corrugated metal siding. They just blend into the landscape here.

As I understand them, food trucks have fairly stable locations and the same workers patronize them everyday for lunch in places where other options are lacking. They're an ingenious way to correct for a lack of mixed use development, where food was an afterthought. In LA they seem to also be a night time thing. The taco truck near my Metro station often feeds me when the delicious aroma of carne asada and onions stops me in my tracks and erases all other dinner plans from my mind.

These everyday food trucks are emerging as something cool, and now people track food trucks via Twitter, and chase them around town. I appreciate the emphasis on valorizing street food as part of a return to urban street culture, but how many people drive to food trucks? Isn't there something fundamentally bizarre about driving to a food truck? Their whole existence relies on the notion that there is a group of people in some location that will want to eat a meal, but now they broadcast their locations to anyone willing to drive to meet them. There are websites that categorize the trucks for your pleasure, and clearly many people have decided that a food truck is a worthy business venture. Not just for immigrant families anymore?

I wonder how long the trendiness of the trucks will last before it's just back to tacos and workers eating a mundane lunch. Or maybe this will be a permanent change as part of our adjustment to cities marked by constant referral to geographic tracking technology? While in the past foot traffic was the limiting element of business growth for the trucks, now anyone interested can make them into a destination and they are free to change locations as demand shifts without losing customers?

Maybe there will be two food truck markets, like the older ones run by immigrant families that serve neighborhoods, and the glossier ones run by venture capitalists who serve the growing number of young urban professionals tied to their smart phones and willing to drive across town for fusion food. One adds to place, while the other adds to smog?

This is weird, though, not least because the turn to food trucks here is marked by a focus on the "green" practices of poor people. For example, this street food-themed restaurant emphasizes sustainability while also creating an environment where the low income families that make and consume street food do not spoil patrons' enjoyment of their meals with their pesky poverty.

How green are food trucks that encourage customers to drive around town? How is it appropriate to call the practices of the poor green when you've hidden the economic constraints that lead to their low use of resources?

Lucky for the world that things don't have to make sense, especially when they make money instead.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ecovillagers at Barnsdall Art Park

Up above East Hollywood rises an incongruous hilltop, crowned by the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House and some city art programming buildings. Barnsdall Art Park has a view of the Hollywood and Silver Lake hills, with the Griffith Observatory and another FLW house looming across Los Feliz.

There've been some recent bike-related shows going on up there, but since I've been mostly out of town on the weekends I didn't make it up until Sunday's closing of "The City Re-Emerged When We Arrived," a music-film collaboration between several of my neighbors at LA Ecovillage.

Aurisha Smolarski-Waters and Somerset Waters, the violin and cello voices of Telematique Ensemble, composed a score to accompany images by Doran McGee, a video artist. Federico Tobon also contributed, to the visual element, I think.

So here's how it worked: one person mounted a rusty old stationary bike repurposed for the exhibition and another two perched on the cart behind it. Whenever the bicyclist wanted the cycle of photographs and moving images to go forward, she pedaled forward. Backward, backward, etc. Across the screen flashed images of an older Los Angeles, pastoral landscapes inhabited by pretty ladies in 1920s garb and bursting flowers that bloomed in time-lapse acceleration. The images visited Bimini Place, home of the ecovillage and the site of the Bimini Baths.

The sounds followed the rhythm of the cyclist as well. Musically, the strings interplayed deep tones from the cello and piercing strands from the violin, frenetic at times according to pedal speed, and sometimes contemplative. Telematique manages to capture registers of serial composition and melodic pop, according to their whim, and in this case they sounded appropriately like Philip Glass, their counterpoint heightening the pathos of Los Angeles' many years of burying its own legacy of natural splendor.

And of course, the bicycle. The bicycle allowed the participant to make connections between a rich history and a present landscape marked by barriers to its passage. In the exhibit, the bicycle moved me forward into a past where there was an opening not taken, that moment before the car usurped the bicycle as a vehicle for urban transport. Now we have an opportunity to reclaim that possibility, to enact our own vision of a more splendid and equitable city where we share space instead of bypassing it.

Many thanks to the artists who made my Sunday even more pleasant. I'd already hiked up to the observatory with my mom and little sis, and we caught the weekend trolley back down to Vermont/ Sunset station, which is around the corner from Barnsdall. So they got to enjoy the piece as well before they Metro'd back to Union Station to get the afternoon Metrolink home to Orange County.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Streeeeeet Summiiiiiiiiiit

(voiced in a monster truck rally announcer style)

I knew I would be late, so I rode fast on 7th to downtown from Koreatown, and then headed south to LA Trade Technical College, the location of this year's Street Summit and last year's Bike Summit.

As I approached I ran into two gentlemen cyclists I know, and we cruised into the bike valet area adjacent to Trade Tech's brand spanking new facility. It took me a while to extricate all my belongings from my bike, since I had an overstuffed pannier full of presentation materials and my video camera, along with my tripod strapped to the rack. I've been enjoying bike valet quite a lot recently (thanks LACBC!), and it certainly is nice to leave my bike in a safe area. I don't even have to tote around my helmet (although I do remove my lights, habit), I can just leave it on the bike.

Inside the breezy main hall of the new building (it had a cool jigsaw puzzle wooden ceiling), Carl Anthony of Breakthrough Communities spoke on environmental justice to an audience that spilled out the doors. I crept in and listened as he made connections between low income communities and the fundamentally unsustainable automobilized conditions under which they live. He pointed out that in a place like Oakland, long the home of a proud Black community, more and more families are moving to the suburbs. As they leave dense areas well-served by transit and situated on grids for cul-de-sacs far from services, they become more reliant on cars to get around. I didn't know there would be such an excellent prelude to the presentations I'd be involved in later in the day, where I would make clear my own commitment to confronting issues of class and race in alternative transportation and quality public space.

Soon we broke for lunch. The organizers incorporated street food into the event, since it is hip in LA to eat from food trucks and those trucks exemplify a more full use of public spaces. This meant I finally got to try Korean fusion tacos, something I've been hearing about for quite some time (Verdict: meh. I guess you might find them mind blowing if you're not accustomed to f-ing delicious carne asada, with which, as a So Cal native, I am more than familiar). I picked up my tacos and kimchee and made my way over to the artificially grassed lunch area, where I met some urban planning grad students. One studies billboards, and the other is developing a project on bicycles.

After that we reassembled in the main hall and listened to Charlie Gandy give an update on the legitimately awesome bike stuff happening in Long Beach, where urban planner Sumire Gant initiated remarkable cooperation between city staff, politicians, and local advocates that is changing the way bikes fit into the landscape there. Then there was another talk on the need to consider low income communities in alternative transportation, given by Lydia Avila of the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC). Basically they want to stave off displacement of the low income, Latino community in Boyle Heights, which is being pumped full of redevelopment in the next decade.

(There's something funny going on with redevelopment, gentrification, quality of life, and burgeoning interest in alternative transportation among wealthy, educated people. More on that in another post.)

And then, finally, we moved on to workshops. I got to participate in cicLAvia's presentation, which went very well. Several people in the audience had attended ciclovĂ­as or similar events around the world, and shared their own enthusiasm about the concept. Now that we have a signed letter of support from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and are fundraising to hold our first event on September 12 (fingers crossed so hard they might break!!!), it felt much more professional than when we presented at last year's Bike Summit (although that was also very fun and led to good things).

After that I had to rush in to wrangle with computers and projectors so that I could help present on City of Lights/ Ciudad de Luces, the outreach program I helped start last year that connects the bike movement with low income, Spanish speaking cyclists. I presented with Allison Mannos, the program manager and all-around superstar of City of Lights, and Andy Rodriguez, who organizes educational programming. We gave our history and current program spiel to a packed room and had some good questions about how to get started with connecting to low income cyclists in other areas (hooray!).

Unfortunately the Summit had only three workshop cycles, so since I presented during the first two, I only got to attend one other workshop. This was a presentation on walkability assessments given in part by urban planning student/ alt trans researcher extraordinaire Alexis Lantz, who showed pictures to illustrate common impediments to walkability and gave a vocabulary lesson on pedestrian improvements (chokers and chicanes for all streets!).

The closing speech for the day came from Ryan Snider, a transportation consultant here in LA, who was careful to preface his fiery call to action with the understanding that this was about advocacy, not policy. Then he proceeded to argue, persuasively, for a culture change at LADOT. Since the Street Summit's opening address was given by Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner of NYCDOT, we'd all been made painfully aware of the possibilities of a more progressive department of transportation. If our own DOT embraced the (sooooooooo obvious) need for a new approach to congestion and safety in Los Angeles, how much easier would it be to get simple and affordable bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects off the ground?

So then the day wasn't over, even though my brain was frizizzled, and we rode en masse to La Cita near Bunker Hill and enjoyed their back patio while decompressing. Then it was time to try out Angel's Flight (more on that later).

To see a more human Los Angeles manifested by the advocates who are working to bring this reality to more city residents inspires me to keep on plugging along.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Furniture Doesn't Move Itself

I've been fiendishly productive since about 4:30 pm yesterday. New things live in my house, such as a broken toaster from the Goodwill (I gambled and lost), a second metal breadbox for hiding earrings from inquisitive cats, a handsome kettle, clean clothes, and groceries. The drawn-out, acquisitive wrangling involved in moving house has become more manageable.

Most purchases come home in my backpack or in my arms, but furniture still sticks it to me with its car dependence. This morning I borrowed a neighbor's car to visit the St. Vincent de Paul outlet store in Lincoln Heights, a somewhat reliable source of used furniture that costs less than $50 per item.

As usual when I get behind the wheel, I was reminded that on the inside of a car, the sound of an accelerating engine doesn't signify ill will toward those outside. You can feel the engine straining, and the faster you accelerate the less it strains, especially if you're driving a finicky old manual car. But when I'm on my bike, I tell you, that sound viscerally disturbs me. I feel like I'm running through a jungle and it is a lion's roar as it pounces on my back.

With some LA party station funk pumping out of the radio, I swung onto the 101 and 110. A few months back I got a ride home from downtown with LA's own bike celebrity, Chicken Leather, and got a different perspective on driving. He had his windows down and talked freely to other road users; there didn't seem to be as much of a separation. That's one thing that I think has to go if we are to create a more humanistic public mobility: driving with the windows up in fine weather. I know it's the dream to be in one's own isolated, climate-controlled, noise-controlled shell, but that's no way to travel at speed through a peopled landscape.

So I left the windows down, but I still found myself driving without paying attention to the speedometer. And of course that insidious frustration with traffic crept in, amplified by my anxiety that people behind me would honk if I didn't cut around things and impeded their own passage through the city.

The car expedition left me more exhausted than running errands on the bus or on my bike. It takes a lot of mental energy to drive. Since I try to do it mindfully now, instead of just relying on the habitus I acquired in ten years of driving (plus 16 years before that of being a passenger in a car-dominated landscape), I think it takes even more energy because I have to guard against glazing over.

Monday, March 8, 2010

LA = Field Site, Portland = Home?

When I first moved to LA and my homesickness for Portland was in maximum overdrive, I used to think about a scenario in which I would be able to travel through some kind of wormhole to a specific part of Portland. Would I still want to do it if I could only visit, say, SE 82nd Avenue between Holgate and Stark? I could never decide if people would be able to come and visit me in this space, or if I would be unable to communicate with my Portland friends.

I think I got the idea from the Arabian Nights, like it would be the product of me finding a genie and wishing to go to Portland, but somehow misspeaking and then the genie would laugh evilly at my human folly.

Today as I get ready to return to LA yet again I wish I could hide from my flight like I used to hide from my mom when she would come to pick me up from friends' houses. It always seemed like maybe if I could hide well enough in some closet or behind some pillows, she'd give up and we could resume playing with gusto.

I doubt that Horizon Air will come hunt me down if I go hide in a big patch of daphne odora and inhale its sweetness till I pass out. However, hours later when I would awake in a puddle of rain, I would remember that I'm not a little kid and that I do love my LA project, as challenging as it is most of the time.

So it's back to the field I go. After all my years of yammering about how racist, colonialist, scientistic, unethical, etc. it is for anthropologists to leave their homes and go study the native others in Vanuatu or whatever, I've ended up replicating the pattern by feeling as bitter as Malinowski about going back to LA.

(Invariably, though, LA wins me back within a few days of returning from lilting, porchy Portland with its palimpsest of lives and smells and colors.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

New Jet Technology Makes Instant Gratification More Possible

It's funny that you can ride your bike to Vermont/Beverly station in Koreatown at 7 am, ride the Red Line to 7th/Metro, board the Blue Line to Wardlow, and then ride through charming California Heights to the deco Long Beach Airport. You get there at 8:15 am.

And then at 10:30 am you walk out on the tarmac, cause they're small-scale like that, climb one of those sturdy staircases, and board a little jobby to Portland.

Two hours later, jobby lands and you board the MAX to the Hollywood Transit Center in NE Portland. Then you climb aboard bus #75, which runs along 39th Avenue. Soon you can get off at Woodstock Boulevard, enjoy wieners at Otto's, lattes at the Woodstock Wine & Deli, and ogle the current crop of Reedies making the trek up the hill to Woodstock for lunch at 2:30 pm.

I'd been traveling long distances solely by train from September 2008 till January 2010, so pardon me if I marvel at the magical time/space bending capabilities of modern jet travel!


Thursday, March 4, 2010

European Views on American Landscapes

I like to collect outsiders' impressions of American sprawl and highway systems. As a child of Orange County, I've long struggled with my simultaneous love of Southern California and revulsion at the way the gorgeous landscape has been carved into intensely unoriginal if immensely profitable tract homes. Something in the alternately adoring and satirical reports of my land by particular Europeans resonates for me.

Jean Baudrillard's America got my goat because I found it being used as an academic representation of postmodern Southern California, and while I won't give it that authority, I do like the voice of the sophisticated tourist.

Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies surprised me with its attention to historical context, but it dismissed as unfathomably boring the part of LA where I live and will be studying for my dissertation project. What he calls the "Plains of Id," the vast flat stretches of the LA basin that reach from the mountains to the sea, encompasses the old urban core of LA, the part I like the best and where lots of bicycle change is happening.

His vision of "Autopia," though, rings true, and gets represented visually in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. This film, starring the winsome Harry Dean Stanton, came out in 1984 and splits its time between sweeping Texan landscapes and an incredibly uninteresting suburb overlooking the Burbank airport. Harry Dean and the boy who plays his son escape from the suburb and spend days driving back to Texas, with the camera following their passage through country highways and the interstates of Houston.

Before that, though, Harry Dean comes upon a man screaming on a freeway overpass in the early light of dawn. His rant dooms the whole San Fernando Valley and its inhabitants to a future outside the "safety zone," and the freeways along which they flow are roads to nowhere. I appreciated finding a bit of critique tucked in between all the shots contrasting pink and green neon in portrayals of an aestheticized West of the road.