Today is election day in Los Angeles, an event important enough for me to break my vow of silence. I have to admit it, I miss LA. I’ve been back exactly once since my last blog, for enough time to see the new park downtown and the Expo Line, though I was disappointed to see that the Hollywood Freeway Park hasn’t been completed yet. What gives?
As I write this, it’s 11PM (and winter) where I am, on the other side of the American supercontinent, but that means it’s still 7PM back in LA, and the jury’s still out on who will get to be the next mayor: Garcetti or Greuel. More on that later. But no matter who wins, Antonio Villaraigosa is out, and who knows where he’ll land next. He’ll probably end up being a lobbyist, or take advantage of his newfound free time to have a few more affairs with hot anchor babes. Sarcasm aside, despite the negative aspects of his legacy, there are plenty of things that will make him stand out, and even a few things that Angelenos can really be proud of.
After a failed bid for mayor in 2001, Tony came back to win the mayor’s office in 2005. In some areas, his record is mixed. Progress was made in education, but dropout rates remain high, and the expensive, Dr. Seuss designed Buck Rogers magnet school in Chinatown stands as a symbol of an education department that overspends in some areas and underspends in others. Crime is down, but the LAPD still has grave internal issues as evidenced by the Christopher Dorner incident which ended in a bloody shootout last February.
Indeed, there’s no single area in which Villaraigosa stands out as being perfect. Nevertheless, in other ways, his record will be remembered as solidly positive. Above all, he represents a sea change – call it a “subway to the sea change” – where the underlying strategy for planning the city’s future canged from envisioning a completely private, isolated city, to one in which the idea of building a robust public sphere was brought to bear.
That’s not to say it was always brought to bear correctly. The LA Live/Ritz Carlton projects, while they do bolster the viability of downtown to a certain extent, funcition like moted medieval castles where they should have instead been built as integrated elements that feed into the lifeblood of the area. The bike lane on Spring st. was a good idea that needed to be followed by several more good ideas. Instead, it’s now been left to peel up.
But the emphasis on new parks, public transportation, and a more urbanized way of life where people embrace the city instead of shielding themselves from it, is a badly needed breath of fresh air. Los Angeles may still be widely considered the car capital of the universe, but implementing Ciclovia is helping to symbolically confront that image. And given this car obsessed status, staging a Ciclovia in Los Angeles is perhaps more important than in cities traditionally considered to be walkable. It shows that even in places where attempts to foster new transportation options and public life seems to be hopeless, there is hope.
Years from now, Villaraigosa will stand out as one of the city’s most important mayors, who changed the city’s course after so many decades of wrong headed thinking, and set it on the right track.
2011 – the year that wasn’t. I wasn’t in town for the entire beginning of the year, nor the middle or the end really, but I did manage to make it in for the last few weeks. My biggest fear in coming back was that I would find myself disenchanted with my hometown. Argentina has managed to hold my attention for much longer than I thought; truth be told i’m not quite done there and will be going back for a stint in graduate school (the good news: it’s free!) and will thus have to leave my dear old Loyalist blog unattended for a while longer. There are a number of impressive new innovations afoot in Buenos Aires to report too, not the least of which is a massive installation of dedicated bike lanes and a bike sharing program – the reaction to which has unfortunately been less positive than it should. After all that time away, I was half expecting to come back and feel out of place, to feel like I had seen greener pastures which had robbed me of any affection for my home, to convince me that all those vociferous LA haters were right.
Long story short: it didn’t happen.
Los Angeles may not be a city of superlatives. We may not be the biggest or have the tallest buildings, or be the most aesthetically arresting. There are moments when even the most ardent supporters (me) have to admit that some things here are seriously fucked up. But there is something about this place that you can’t quite replicate anywhere else. So many people find the cafes of Europe, the subways and the urban prestige of the US East Coast, the myriad other experiences you might get elsewhere, to indicate the cultural inferiority of our humble west coast burg. I don’t.
I can’t expect any of you to be convinced by this. But I will leave you with a short tale, one that to me is why I still feel so at home here, why I feel this is a place to be, why despite the fact that I’m temporarily leaving again, I know for sure I’ll be back. This time back here I made sure to catch the art walk. I stumbled into a shabby loft on 5th street, where crowds milled around on the first floor. I climbed the flapper-era staircase to the second floor, where there was a salon with a panoramic view of the street. A surprisingly ornate ceiling was covered by wires and pipes, and at a stage on one side of the room a band, fronted by an Austrian in a sailor suit, blared 80s rock. Local artists pedaled drawings of Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson. Upstairs, an angry neighbor shouted down for everyone to shut the fuck up, he had just called the cops and they would be there any minute. They never came. He then resorted to simply verbally harranguing people who tried to climb past the third floor.
There’s a certain edge to this life, a lush combination of being strong, yet not totally played out. I can’t think of any American or European city where you’d get something like that. Our other cities are either dead or stale. Ironically, the closest I’ve ever come to anything like this is in Buenos Aires, which may explain why I spent so much time there.
So there you have it. I will leave you with some photos I’ve taken here so far. I may not be able to return for a while, but I am still and will always be an LA Loyalist.
Dear fellow Angelenos,
First, let me begin by apologizing for taking a break of (gulp) half a year without writing anything. I know, it feels like I’ve forgotten about you, my loyal loyalist fan base. Let me respond with a bit of potentially shocking news. For the past several months I have been living outside of my beloved hometown of Los Angeles, albeit in another town with a spanish name: Buenos Aires. It’s been great being here and I love it, but I must confess a bit of homesickness. Hence, this post. The good news is that I will almost certainly be returning to LA some time in the future, I don’t know exactly when but I will certainly keep you informed.
Rest assured, I have been keeping tabs on what has been taking place back home. My last posts detailed the exploits of the first cyclovia, I’m thrilled to see that the second one was an even bigger success. I’m also honored to hear from Alan Crawford that my writings on the Gerald Desmond Bridge helped to bring attention to the issue of bike/pedestrian lanes on the bridge, and that the replacement bridge will (hopefully) have them. There’s plenty more to comment on, in fact so much more that it would be silly to try to include it all in this post. Suffice it to say that despite my months of not writing I do miss you guys, and I promise to reenter the blogging world with renewed vigor and better Spanish skills upon my return. Until then, please try to survive without me. I know it’s dificult.
So, after a mammoth photo set from Ciclavia, and good feedback from it all around (including the Times!) it’s time to get back to real life. But I couldn’t help but post one last chunk of fun from the event: some raw footage of the “No on Proposition 23” march. This is one of the few marches to be lead by spirited, if somewhat unfocused, dancers. They’re almost as good as the ensemble who danced in favor of the Chevy Volt! All rump-shaking aside, there’s something poetic about this spirited group of protesters, smacking drums, marching towards the downtown skyline.
Without further ado, here’s the video.
What is a street? Is it simply an asphalt slab, carrying bulky cars to their destinations? Or is it a potential destination in itself? After decades of experiencing nothing but the former, yesterday Angelenos got a small taste of the latter. It was Ciclavia, where 7.5 miles of streets were closed to cars, and open to bikes, runners, skaters, walkers, anyone interested in a more pleasant afternoon.
How many people came? Was it a success? Did mayor Brokenarm make a cameo? I really don’t know, nor do I particularly care. Someone has probably already reported these matters on other more prestigious news sources. All I know was that it was a unique and wonderful experience, and one that surely has all its attendees wondering if open streets might be a good thing to have in our city.
Of course I have pictures, taken on a ride from Hollenbeck Park to the Bike Kitchen. Click below to see them; there are a lot so even those with a fast connection may have to wait a while.
This morning (on the eve of CicLAvia, no less!) the LA Times ran a column by Sandy Banks, which was essentially a negative review of a new bike lane on Wilbur Ave in Northridge. Normally, I would simply read a piece like this, become a bit testy for the next few minutes, then forget about it. But knowing Banks’s work, I decided instead to respond with a lengthy email. Since I haven’t been able to cough up new stuff in awhile, here it is for your reading pleasure.
Dear Ms. Banks,
I am one of your regular readers, and I think your columns do an excellent job of giving a voice to both sides of controversial issues, particularly in your recent series about the LA Times’s study on LAUSD teachers.
Thus I feel the need to write to you about your article this morning. I should let you know up front that I am a frequent cyclist; I cycle not for recreation but as a practical mode of transportation, though I also drive a car. I am a regular contributor to Streetsblog Los Angeles, an online news source about biking and mass transit. All that said, I am sympathetic to the negative feelings one might have at the removal of lanes on one’s favorite street. When lanes exist and are taken away, there is a palpable feeling of loss – and perhaps even wrongdoing – that would not exist had Wilbur Ave been built with bike lanes back in the 1950s. Also, driving in a car has the unique ability to make drivers acutely aware of every stop, delay or traffic jam.
Furthermore, while I am generally a supporter of new bicycle infrastructure, I do have ambivalence about the Wilbur Ave. bike lanes. If nothing else, they could have been implemented better. But the fact that there is currently little bike related infrastructure in the Valley means that people have little incentive to travel by bike, and in general will choose not to bike until they can feel safe on any street. The fact that one single street has been made safe is a step forward for cycling, but it won’t make a dent until the rest of the Valley is a safer place to bike, and in the meantime the existing piecemeal network is left wide open to criticisms such as the ones you raise.
I’m not as concerned with your arguments against the Wilbur Ave lanes specifically (admittedly, not the highlight of LA’s bike planning) but the statement you make midway through the piece: “The city’s bike plan calls for 1,600 miles of lanes and paths 20 years from now. There are 400 now, and the mayor has promised to add 40 miles of lanes each year. Some will come at drivers’ expense. But where, how much and to what end?”
The implication, then, is that every new bike path will be a carbon copy of the Wilbur experience: infrequently used, and a pain to drivers. I can tell you unequivocally that that is not true. I live in Long Beach, a city which is every bit as “car dependent” as the rest of greater LA. However, the city has its own bike program which recently has become very active in developing new bike lanes, bike boulevards and “sharrows”: lanes which cars can still use, but are marked to indicate that bikes also can have use of the lane. And though the program is not free of opposition, it have been successful. Sharrows on 2nd street have doubled the number of bikers, and also had a positive effect on local stores and restaurants. Two weeks ago, new bike lanes opened on a wide open stretch of PCH near Long Beach State. I ride this stretch frequently on my bike and in a car, and the new lanes have improved both the driving and riding experience. The stretch of road used to between two and three lanes, the outermost often used by aggressive drivers passing on the right. Now, the new lane gives more space to bikes and eliminates this problem.
I ride my bike frequently in central LA as well. Bicycle lanes make a huge difference. While biking on Sunset through Echo Park a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Thank God there’s a bike lane here!” If you want to experience the sheer terror of biking in LA without a bike lane, try riding down Wilshire.
Will new lanes impede motorists? In some cases, yes. And to the points you raise, it would be ideal if new lanes could be done in such a way that would generate an instant spike in bike ridership. However, why not look for those areas, like PCH here in Long Beach, where adding a bike lane does little to affect cars and is a major improvement for bikers? And, while it might raise objections from those unfamiliar to cycling, there are some cases where taking away car lanes would actually be a net benefit to neighborhoods. Consider some of the denser commercial and retail districts in Central LA and the Westside. What if everyone who lived within two miles of any given commercial area chose to ride in on a bike? Bicycles have one tenth the square footage of cars, which means a huge amount of extra room for those who still drive in to park. Wouldn’t it be useful to encourage people to bike, instead of making cyclists fear for their lives?
I can’t really expect you to change your mind about the bike paths on Wilbur. But I ask that, when you hear about new bike lanes being installed somewhere in the city, to at least keep an open mind about the effects they might have on traffic and the community. They might in some cases cause drivers a momentary inconvenience, but what about the safety they give bikers? What about the space, gas, and wear on the road saved every time someone chooses to take a bike rather than drive? Isn’t that worth a few extra feet of pavement?
I would also like to invite you to find out more about the cycling community. I enjoyed your talk with Michelle Mowery, but there are also plenty of other bikers around town. My editor at Streetsblog is a knowledgeable and friendly guy, and there are several independent bike organizations throughout the city; the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition is a good place to start. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are organized group rides, which you can find on sites like Midnight Ridazz. Some can be pretty intense, but others are geared towards casual riders and are a lot of fun. And tomorrow, there is a huge bicycle event downtown called Ciclavia which may give you a better feel for bicycling in LA – if you get this message in time. If nothing else, dust off your old bike (or maybe borrow your neighbor’s) and try riding down Wilbur. It may not quite make up for the time it costs you in the car, but at least you’ll see what the streets look like from a bicycle. Who knows? You might even like it.
So finally, as I realize your schedule is in all likelihood quite full and you receive a high volume of emails, I’d like to thank you for reading this far and hearing me out. And while we may have differing views on bike paths in Los Angeles, it is good to have the issue raised by someone as reasonable as yourself.
If you want to send your own message to Sandy, her public address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Have fun!
Last week saw the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the coinciding one day release of the Big Uneasy, a film about said hurricane and its aftermath in New Orleans. It is a loving tribute to the city by “part time New Orleans resident” (and part time voice of Seymour Skinner) Harry Shearer. It is also a potent critique of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, with some valuable lessons for us full time residents of Los Angeles.
The Corps’s improper construction of levees in New Orleans, in addition to flood waters from its Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, precipitated the tragic flooding of the city and surrounding parishes (to be fair, any state that refers to its counties as “parishes” inevitably increases the likelihood that its citizens will perish). It is this same Corps that built the concrete banks of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, which handle much of this region’s flood waters.
From a functional standpoint, the Corps has done a much better job here than New Orleans, though there is still room for improvement. The disastrous 1938 flood has yet to have been repeated, though there have been deadly floods as recently as 1994. The concrete river banks, while not particularly attractive, have helped the river keep from destructive changes and direction and have worked reasonably well to prevent flash flooding.
The detrimental effects of the river remain palpable, especially in Long Beach, the outlet of both of the region’s major rivers and thus a focal point for anything and everything that washes down. The efficient fluid removal of the concrete river banks effectively allow a region of 10 million to dump its radiator fluid, dog feces, and other unpleasantries in the gutter and not think about where it goes. The result is a riverbed filled with plastic bags and used car parts, emitting an odor similar to the interior of an outhouse. After the completion of the concrete river beds, Long Beach’s shores went from being a tourist attraction to a health hazard.
While the risk of a Katrina-sized flood from the LA River remains low, New Orleans’s hurricane flooding and our own disastrous pollution can both be seen as products of the Army Corps’s hasty and overly utilitarian approach to civic works, as well as its rigid unwillingness to allow meaningful community input. This is particularly apparent in the Corps’s handling of the post-hurricane reconstruction. As Shearer’s film points out, the corps gave little consideration to the better but more expensive “Option 2” rebuild, and zero consideration to the hypothetical “Option 3” which would rely on adding natural marshland to the city to absorb water and pick the slack from overloaded pumps. Similarly, the Corps has been a thorn in the side to LA River revitalization efforts, often concluding that replacing concrete walls with vegetation impedes the flow of the river (which at this point it still considered a drainage ditch).
The way forward appears difficult, however the solution may lie in other federal agencies gaining the upper hand. Recently, the EPA declared the entire length of the LA River as “navigable waters,” overriding an initial determination from the corps. Hopefully this will open up a new assortment of river redevelopment possibilities. Let’s hope our New Orleanian brothers and sisters have the same good fortune.