Los Angeles, like many cities, is experiencing a new level of connectedness. The opening of new train lines, an increase in bicycling events and trails, kayak tours of the L.A. River, and other events are connecting our metropolis in a manner that has never happened before.
On Sunday October 7, the fifth CicLAvia took place in Los Angeles. The event closed 9.1 miles of L.A. streets for five hours to all vehicles with mechanical motors: cars, motorcycles, riding lawn mowers, scooters, etc. Although previous CicLAvias felt like highly enjoyable community rides, this latest installment seemed to me like something much more grand.
Los Angeles held its first CicLAvia in October 2010, when 7.5 miles of streets were blocked off to motor vehicles from East Hollywood to Boyle Heights. With subsequent installments there were route changes, but always just two poles -- an eastern and western. It had the perhaps unintended effect of making CicLAvia seem to be a slightly anarchic bike marathon. People rode from one end to the other and maybe back, but they didn't engage the communities through which they passed. What's worse, some people who chose to walk reported being harassed by numerous rude riders.
This year it seemed that the event organizers had a deeper sense of engagement on their mind. Working with American Institute of Architects - L.A., the organizers published an architecture-dominated guide to downtown attractions along and near the route. The multi-tendriled route design, which this year included spurs to Chinatown and Exposition Park in addition to the existing hubs in Boyle Heights and MacArthur Park, also facilitated the sense of connection to multiple regions.
NOBODY BIKES IN L.A.?
The initial bike craze in L.A. began in the 1890s, but their popularity as a mode of commuting declined with the rise of interurban railway and car dependency. Cycling, of course, never disappeared, although it wrongly became viewed as primarily recreational or for people too poor to own a car.
Palms Cycle, established in 1930, is L.A.'s oldest bike shop still operating today. Velo La Grange was established in 1969, followed by many other clubs like Bicycle Club of Irvine, Bodacious Bike Babes, Compton Schwinn Masters, Crankheads Cycling Crew, Crankin' Time Cycling Club, Different Spokes, Dockriders, East Side Riders, Eastside Bike Club, Elegants Bicycle Club, Foothill Cycle Club, LightningVelo, Los Angeles Wheelmen, Los Ryderz, Major Motion Cycling Club, Ovarian Psycos Cycle Brigade, San Fernando Valley Bicycle Club, South Bay Wheelmen, Vello Allegro, West Los Angeles Cycling Club, and Wolfpack Hustle among many others.
Besides the vast social, physical, and psychological benefits to participants, there are undoubtedly larger benefits that CicLAvia can bring to the entire region. For example, when the 405 was temporarily closed during the so-called Carmageddon, air quality measurements taken by two professors from UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability showed that it had improved 83% in the vicinity, 75% throughout the Westside, and 25% throughout the entire region. Surely something similar takes place when people reject their cars for CicLAvia.
Wanting to engage the experience on a deeper or at least different level, this year I decided to attempt to walk the entire route. L.A. Commons and Walking L.A. were organizing group walks, but I decided to go it alone -- with a friend or two joining me along the way.
To begin, I took the bus to the hub nearest to me -- in Chinatown.
In the past I've been curious about how the event engages -- both positively and negatively -- the communities it passes through. So I decided to walk and observe instead of just ride through. As I stood on Broadway near Casa Italiana in the northern end of Chinatown, I looked down the slope at cyclists riding a temporary course in the Cornfields. When I looked up, a beaming, long-heard, Latino youth on a skateboard pointed to his board and yelled, "Today! Free for everyone!"
Almost immediately after that, a multi-generational group of Filipinos exited their van and offered a contrasting view. The eldest in the group asked me how to get to Far East Market without walking. I wasn't able to help. He then asked when the event would end. I told him in five hours. Perhaps resigning his self to shopping elsewhere he asked, "How do I get to the 710 from here?" A younger woman laughed and said matter-of-factly, "I told him today is not the day to come to Chinatown!"
A few blocks south, there were young children sitting and squatting along the sidewalk with older relatives in tow, as if gathered to watch a parade. The businesses seemed decked out for a parade too, with strings of flags and the balloons in the red, white and blue colors of the KMT and USA. There was also both live and DJed music.
The event did have something of the feel of a parade. Cyclists, skateboarders, paddle skateboarders, roller skaters, pedestrians and more passed by. There were spandex-clad racers with more equipment than your average scuba diver, and people conversing bike to bike as they casually rolled down the street in their civvies. There were kids doing tricks, skaters pushing strollers, and bikes pulling skaters. There were also participants looking for attention, riding weird vehicles, men in nightgowns, cyclists dressed in bunny, cow, and panda costumes. Other people claimed the streets to paint, play chess, ping pong and other games.
When my friend Maryam and her dog Reiner arrived to join my walk, we stopped at Wonder Bakery in the Chinatown Plaza to get a banh cam and coffee. Although the event had just started, the staff seemed somewhat taxed by and unprepared for the crowd. We then walked down Broadway and then to Spring Street.
Near Olvera Street, an older man on a bike whined bitchily, "it would be nice if people would walk their dog on the sidewalk so we can ride our bikes." I attempted to succinctly explain that ClicLAvia isn't just for bikes, but I saw no sign of my message penetrating his sense of entitlement. Thankfully, it proved to be our only such encounter for the day.
GRAND PARK HUB
Arriving at First Street and Spring Street in the Civic Center, we decided to check out the newly-opened Grand Park: twelve acres of park space in the heart of downtown. Some reviews have complained about the park's slope, location, and supposed lack of stunning views -- all criticisms which I completely fail to comprehend. It was my first visit and I thought it was great as did, apparently, the throngs of people enjoying it that day.
At this point the route forked. The eastern leg traveled along First Street, through Little Tokyo, the Arts District and ultimately to Boyle Heights. We decided to keep walking south down Spring Street and then west on 7th Street in what formed the core of the event.
This route passed along the edges of the Downtown neighborhoods of the Historic Core: the Old Bank District, Gallery Row, the Broadway Theater District, the Jewelry District, and the Financial District. This core of CicLAvia saw the streets become choked with bicycle gridlock, but riders seemed less frustrated than drivers in similar predicaments. The energy was very positive, and when I heard a DJ bumping a Mannie Fresh production, my hair stood on end.
At the intersection of Figueroa and Seventh Street, the route again split. Here, the western spur headed to the MacArthur Park hub in Westlake, and the southerly route headed to the Exposition Park hub in South L.A. We opted for the latter since all the previous CicLAvias have passed through Westlake, but this was the first one to venture into South L.A.
SOUTH L.A. LEG
We headed south down Figueroa Street through "New" South Park, through the northwestern-most most corner of South Central, into University Park and ultimately to the Exposition Park Hub. In South Park I stopped to get a good picture of a bike-like contraption with taiko drummers (but failed). Maryam asked some parking attendants how the even was impacting them. They said they loved it and pointed out that they're paid by the hour.
Compared to the packed core of downtown, the South L.A. leg of the event seemed practically deserted, and I worried that perhaps a portion of the participants were heeding the silly but oft-repeated mantra to "never go south of the 10."
As we approached L.A. Live, the sidewalks began to seem more crowded than the streets. It turned out that one of the city's professional basketball teams, the Los Angeles Sparks, were playing. The sidewalks and streets began to thin as we continued south through an area dominated by car dealerships. At Kia of Downtown, a DJ blasted Psy's hit "Gangnam Style" at a physically painful volume, as a man in a hamster costume danced and posed with passersby. Almost all of the dealership lots and showrooms were empty but for employees.
Heading south along the Figueroa Corridor, we began to get hungry. The collection of junk food joints feels like an outdoor mall food court with very few local places like Grinder -- which doesn't have an accommodating patio for pets. Heading further south the number of local establishments increases. As a woman exited one she jokingly asked Reiner (the dog), "Why you ain't on a bicycle?"
We finally stopped at The Lab, across from USC. They seemed overwhelmed by the increased business, and our lunch ended up lasting a couple of hours.
EXPO PARK HUB
At the southern terminus was the Expo Park Hub, which unlike most of the stretch between downtown and the hub, bustled with activity. Outside the California African American Museum, the CAAM Target Sunday series was taking place. I enjoyed a couple of songs, picked up some material from TRUST South L.A. (their community affairs manager is on CicLAvia's board), and shared perceptions of the day with musician David Flores of El Sereno's Nuevo-Son Jarocheros, Las Cafeteras.
I also talked to a vendor who mainly peddles his wares at South L.A. events like Ride South L.A.'s Watts ride and the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. It was also at the Expo Hub that I saw the Whittier Peddlers Bicycle Club and talked to members of L.A. Real Rydaz -- two bike clubs from different regions with vastly different style.
Though my original plan was to walk the entire 9.1 miles (and double back for a total of 18.2), time was running short. So we took the new Expo Line train back to downtown, walked down First Street through Little Tokyo, and hopped on the Gold Line to the Mariachi Plaza Hub in Boyle Heights.
By the time we arrived at the plaza, the streets had been reopened -- but car traffic seemed slow to return. On Fridays and Sundays at Mariachi Plaza, there's an open-air market with live music and dancing. Today during CicLAvia, most of the vendors sported T-shirts that said "I (insert picture of a mariachi on a bicycle) Boyle Heights." The crowd seemed to include CicLAvistas who'd decided to linger after the event's official end, some who had probably never been to the Eastside.
After paying an impromptu visit to a friend who lived within earshot of the norteño and cumbia coming from the plaza, Maryam and I hopped back on the Gold Line to Chinatown. Walking through Old Chinatown Central Plaza we crossed paths with some of the event organizers at Via Café, and stopped to socialize for a bit before heading home.
END OF THE DAY
In L.A., those dependent mostly on cars for transportation seem to have a pretty accurate sense of the time required to sit in traffic to get from point A to point B depending on the time of day and direction travelled. On the other hand, most have only a remotely accurate sense of how close point A and point B are in terms of distance. I hope and expect that some of CicLAvia 5's participants will have had their eyes opened through their participation to how easily accessible various regions of L.A. actually are. And hopefully their increased awareness of their vibrancy and variety will bring them closer together.
Photos by Eric Brightwell