For decades, Broadway Place was a quirk in downtown L.A.'s otherwise orderly street grid -- a 300-foot-long diagonal that formed a triangle-shaped block at its intersection with Main Street. Until very recently, Broadway Place was a vestige of the past, a remnant of an earlier routing of Broadway that once bustled with traffic.
Broadway Place was born in the early 1890s as part of an ambitious program to improve Broadway's stature -- one that later allowed the street to emerge as a major retail corridor. Property owners along Broadway fretted about the street's dead-ends both to the north at Fort Moore Hill and to the south at Tenth (now Olympic). Progress, they thought, might pass by Broadway, so they petitioned the city to make the road more accessible.
The city's solution: extend Broadway diagonally from its southern terminus so that it merged with Main Street.
Controversy greeted the proposal, which required the city to condemn private land for public use. Affected landowners sued to stop the project, but after a lengthy trial the courts ruled in the city's favor. Workers graded the new roadway and cleared any structures in its path, and by 1893 the extension was open to traffic, creating a triangle-shaped block bounded by Broadway, Main, and Tenth.
A tunnel through Fort Moore Hill later extended the road to the north, and by the 1910s, Broadway had become Los Angeles' primary commercial strip. Department stores and hotels fronted the street, which bustled with pedestrians, automobiles, and streetcars.
This is how we began. I looked out at the 300 faces before me and said, "How many of you in this classroom are often asked, in a bar or a store or at a party, What are you?" Maybe a hundred young people raised their hands, and they couldn't believe that's what we would spend ten weeks talking about.
"People will guess, all the time, and they're never right," one young woman said.
"People think I'm black because of my hair. But I'm Ashkenazi Jewish," a young man said.
"People think I'm Asian because of my eyes," someone else said.
"My son is really light, because he's Mexican-Irish," said Arely, who is Mexican-American, standing in front of the class and showing her children from a cell phone photo onto the screens. "But my daughter is darker, since she's Mexican-Colombian, and everyone talks about that. I already know how hard that's going to be for her."
The class is "The Mixed Race Novel and the American Experience." But of course we didn't talk only about books -- we talked about who we are, how America sees us, how our families see us, and most importantly, how we see ourselves. We talked about America's ongoing obsession with hair and melanin, about what it means to be undocumented, what it means to be a mother, what it means to witness a murder or to lose a dog. But all those discussions began with what it means to be of mixed racial and cultural heritage, and many students in this class at UC Riverside say this was their first time ever talking about these very personal things in an open forum.
Yesterday when I opened my e-mails, I had no less than 30 Cyber Monday deals. This is remarkable -- and a waste of cyber ink -- because I shop online roughly as often as Lady Gaga avoids the spotlight. Nonetheless there were deals from GearBuzz and Tilly's and Amazon. Even the venerable National Geographic Society got in on the act. Perhaps hoping to prod me, many of the ads incorporated CAPITAL letters, with subtle reminders like "YOU CAN'T MISS THIS", "ONE DAY ONLY," and "LAST CHANCE TO BUY NOW." After running down this column of emails I felt desperately as if I were missing something. When I realized that something was an empty Inbox, I felt better.
Yesterday when I plucked the newspaper up off our driveway, there was a sticker affixed to the front. It read...
"Today's To Do List
Pick up more lights
Buy bows and ribbons
Drink gingerbread lattes
Gift for Mom and Dad
Order sugar cookies
Find organic kale & ale
Watch Sunday football "
I'm not sure when the holidays became a "To Do" list. Maybe they always have been (To do. Find Shelter. Find Food. Stay Alive). I do know the sing song nature of the list on the sticker brought another list to mind.
Wanda Coleman reads "Drums Inside Your Chest" in 2010. | Video: Stephen Latty/YouTube
A poem tribute to Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, who passed away last month. Mike Sonksen also wrote a story in her honor at KCET Departures.
On the day before Thanksgiving, national day of grateful
On a day of California seventy-five degrees and possibility of higher, of better
On a common but incomparable day I was going to write me a poem about the first woman of poems, Wanda Coleman
A bard of Los Angeles born and raised in Watts, L.A.'s rarely visited part, a bard who sang the possibility and sour notes together
Entirely, deliberately, in the clear, rough voice of the rarely visited. She made no bones. I was going to pay proper respects in words just before Thanksgiving
But then I couldn't get home, at first. South along Crenshaw I ran into blockades of cop cars at strategic corners of my neighborhood, Inglewood
Near 108th Street & my street. I was used to cops & other emergencies, flashing lights
That generally were passing through: not today
Today they all stayed, made a perimeter camp of cars and vans and helicopters hovering for a better look
At the too many law enforcement outfits to count. I u-turned and squeezed home the back way near Imperial
Then found out on TV there was a gunman with hostages over on 5th Avenue. What? Just two blocks from my door
An irate man bunkered in the house was threatening to hurt women he knew. He had shot at the cops who had come to his door, inquiring
They shot back and and then it was on. You know the rest. As I watched the live feed I felt relief
That on TV news Inglewood looked pretty good, so bright and possible in the 75 degrees
The houses on gently sloping hills all divvied up with nice roofs that were faces turned to the sun,
The picture did me proud. I was sorry for the chaos but glad this wasn't about gangs or drive-by
I was glad nobody was dead
I noticed nobody on TV said, "Neighbors are saying it couldn't happen here," with that solemn face reserved for Sherman Oaks or Silver Lake
But the houses are Valley-like here, built the same year
In the same sun and vale of dreams
The good things is that it all made me think of Wanda and her poems
How she claimed L.A. with no hesitation or qualification, how she presumed things were crazy underneath the promise
Because she'd lived that. So many of us did. The barricaded man would not have surprised her, or the media that wasn't quite sure if this hilly part of Inglewood was a hood like Watts, and vice versa,
Wanda would not have been surprised at the proximity of this man's violent resentment to Thanksgiving No, Wanda would have written a poem
About barricades and blockades and the quality of desperation
I hope she still does somehow.
I get questions, sometimes from researchers but more often from journalists. Earlier this year, the questions came from Gerd-Ulf Krueger, a real estate analyst and a columnist for the Orange County Register. Krueger wanted to know what we might be calling home in the near future and where that home would be.
My answers, which I've revised and expanded for this column, Where We Are, are below.
If Metro builds it, they still won't ride public transit ... at least, not until their psychological blocks are overcome. That's the result of a new study led by Steven Spears, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine. Getting you on the bus (or train or subway) is far more nuanced than getting you into a "transit oriented" high-rise and pointing you toward the nearest bus stop or light rail station.
Spears and his research team found that "attitudes toward public transportation and concerns about personal safety ... were robust predictors of transit use, independent of built environment factors such as near-residence street network connectivity and transit service level. Results indicate the need for combined policy approaches to increasing transit use that not only enhance transit access but also target attitudes about transit service and perceptions of crime on transit."
In plainer terms, fear, class, race, and even shame color the decision to get out of the driver's seat and into a seat on a bus, train, or subway. The bias against public transit is so polarizing that European researchers last year announced a "Car Effect" that biases against transit. Instead of evaluating travel options for the combination that had the lowest cost and fastest commute, people in the study preferred driving even when a car wasn't the best time-and-money choice.
The researchers concluded that in the decision to ride or drive "available information is not properly processed; cognitive efforts are generally low and rational calculation play a limited role."
That is, most people are irrational when the choice is between a car and public transit.
How do you tell a story about Thanksgiving through a photograph? For the photo editors at Los Angeles' mid-20th century newspapers, the answer usually involved a turkey, a person, and some sort of a weapon. The resulting images may strike us today as bizarre and even inappropriate, given our heightened sensitivities about cruelty toward animals, but in earlier times they served as humorous vehicles for concise visual storytelling.
Now, browse through the following selections from the region's major newspaper photo archives -- the Herald-Examiner Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library, the Times Photographic Archive at the UCLA Library, or the Examiner Collection at the USC Libraries -- as well as associated collections.
A fascinating piece on the geology of the Santa Monica Mountains by our colleagues at KPCC inadvertently offers the latest example of one of my favorite pieces of geographical myth.
If you're surprised that there are such things as geographical myths, you shouldn't be. We live on the landscape, and we tell stories about that landscape that help us figure out how we fit into it. And sometimes those stories turn out not to be precisely true.
The geographical myth at hand is one that pops up in scattered places around the country despite abundant evidence proving it false. That myth: mountain ranges mostly don't point east-west.
Here's the relevant passage, really just a footnote in the KPCC article, in which reporter Sanden Totten conveys a geological history of the Santa Monica Mountains offered by geologist Arthur Sylvester:
Slowly, the plate dragged the mountains that would become the Santa Monica and San Gabriel ranges north. Sylvester says at some point the mountains got snagged on some feature of North American Plate and were forced to rotate about 110 degrees.
"So that now, the Santa Monica Mountains, which use to be parallel to the San Diego coast line are now east-west mountains!"
He says it's one of only a few east-west ranges in the country.
As reported on Totten's piece, Sylvester nuances the statement admirably. You usually hear this myth repeated in much more absolute tones. I first heard it in the summer of 1982, when I was first heading for California on a Greyhound bus from the distant East Coast. As we slowly made our way across the southwest corner of the state of Wyoming, the driver directed our attention to the view out the leftward windows.
Recently I received an e-mail from a friend. The subject line was "Worth." The e-mail had a link to an article from the Daily Mail, a UK-based publication. The article was a "Rich List" of colleges and institutions that had the wealthiest alumni. Turns out the college I attended has the highest percentage of self-made billionaire alumni in the United States.
The college in question doesn't matter (unless you are in charge of alumni relations at this particular college), but it does raise the question of worth. I read the entire article (only because it was short), learning that my college has nearly 500 "super-wealthy" (the Daily Mail's quotes, not mine) alumni worth 31 billion dollars. I felt sorry for the fact checker who had to count all that money. I hope it was mostly large bills.
I suppose I am proud of my fellow alumni for making their money on their own, although there is also no telling what may have fallen by the wayside in the process. The pursuit of wealth takes time, and we all have the same amount of time in each day. What to leave in and what to leave out? It is up to us to decide, and it is those decisions that make a life.
Lists like this "Rich List" are everywhere, and it's not just because money is easy to measure. We are intrigued (fascinated? hypnotized?) by wealth (different, as you know, from worth). Who hasn't wondered about the world of private jets, European villas, and fine wines -- price-be-damned-and-likely-not-even-noted -- not to mention never again worrying about paying next month's bills? What would it be like to call your private pilot right now, and without packing (you have an entire wardrobe waiting at your destination), fly, right now, with the one you love, to a private Caribbean island? I know the woman I love deserves nothing less. But I don't have a pilot on standby and I have a wardrobe you can run a hand across in ten seconds, although I do know certain hidden Caribbean beaches and one day I am going to take my bride there. I have spent enough time on secluded beaches to know the stars shine down on all lovers. But we will have to fly with our fellow travelers and look at the prices on the wine list, and probably turn down things we would like to try, because in the course of our lives we have made decisions that have seen us divert from the path that might have seen me boost my alma mater's "super-wealthy" list by one.
It is okay.
I suppose you've noticed that these posts trend toward the serious. Perhaps pompous, to be frank. Skanky city hall politics and the shadow of history falling over sunny illusions, along with bits of muddled lyricism and a splash of melancholy ... these pieces get sort of weltschmerz-y and splenetic.
When that happens, then Ishmael's complaint (in the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick) makes sense to me:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.