We Are All Michael Brown

The ongoing conversations about the meaning of Michael Brown, the black teenager killed this month by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, have yielded many other conversations that go well beyond police-community relations. It's distressingly familiar, the racial soul-searching prompted by a tragic encounter between a black man and police. Most distressing is how good we've gotten at this in the last twenty years: we hit all the right notes pretty quickly, draw the right conclusions about root causes, and then file it all away in a collective memory that we seem not to even have.

Transforming any of the conversations into public policy is, in this terribly polarized political atmosphere more polarized than ever by race, nearly impossible. Conservatives have gotten very good at pushing back on these discussions, too; the instant they sense any racial soul-searching spreading past the borders of a state or two, they send out the troops to loudly pontificate about personal responsibility, black criminality, and the essential need for law and order under any circumstances, including peaceful protests. It reminds me of how Walmart sends out anti-union troops, like a hazmat team, to quash any talk amongst its employees about joining a union. None of that justice stuff, it pollutes initiative. Better to strive for inclusion rather than actually achieve it.

Photographic Magic: Images of Ventura County's Coast Trigger Something Deeper

Sea lions, intertwined. | Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch

My friends Steve Munch and Stephanie Hogue just published a book of photographs. It's called, "Latitudes: Coastal Photo Explorations." At this very moment, a copy rests on my lap. Its happy heft makes me, well, happy. Slowly turning its pages, my mind drifts.

This is not a shameless shill for Steve and Stephanie's book (though their photos are achingly beautiful). With full disclosure in mind, I wrote a few short paragraphs in their book, but mostly my words just get in the way of what matters. This post really has little to do with Steve and Stephanie's photographs, although it is their photographs that are currently performing the magic that the right picture does. The right picture sings. It reaches directly into your heart and plucks an impossible array of strings. Sometimes -- and these are the best times -- it reaches deep into your memories, and then, who knows? The right photograph takes you back, and whisks you forward and places you firmly in the present. Time travel exists.

Steve and Stephanie's photographs focus on California's incomparable coastline and seas. Many were taken right here at home in Ventura County, which, I feel, is an incomparable gem along California's incomparable coast. There are photographs of sleek dolphins, and fog-shrouded piers, and tiny mustard flowers that somehow thrive in places washed with salt and raked by crazed winds. There is beauty in that alone.

Whose Happy Home? Measuring Satisfaction With Where We Live

Chosen Land
| Photo: MS Gallery

Sommer Mathis, writing for at the Atlantic's CityLab site, frames the early results of a new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll under the headline "Suburbs Are Still the Happiest." Her reading of the numbers has a slightly different word choice: "When it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king."

Measuring public happiness has become something of a fad lately. As a recent NPR piece reported, getting beyond the Gross Domestic Product to something more intimate has been the aim of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 2011. The OECD's Better Life Index, now with more than 4 million respondents in 180 countries, has tried to quantify what makes a nation happy and unhappy.

Is it happy or is it satisfied? They're not exactly the same. Perhaps, it's something else.

The Lost Bridle Paths of Beverly Hills

Bridle paths ran down the center of Sunset Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, intersecting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Courtesy of the Beverly Hills Public Library Historical Collection.

Across the Southland in the early 1920s, horses were vanishing from public streets, their once-essential motive power made obsolete by the internal combustion engine. Buses replaced horse-drawn omnibuses. Automobile taxis replaced horse-drawn hacks. Heavy-duty trucks replaced horse-drawn wagons.

But Beverly Hills bucked the trend.

From the early 1920s through the 1960s, pathways dedicated to horse travel ran down the center of several Beverly Hills streets. One stretched from the city's eastern to western boundary, meandering through town down the center of Sunset Boulevard. Another occupied the median of Rodeo Drive, where it replaced an abandoned Pacific Electric trolley line that once connected Santa Monica Boulevard with the Beverly Hills Hotel. Two more snaked their way up Coldwater and Benedict canyons.

Laid with decomposed granite and buffered from automobile traffic by curbs and ornamental plants, these bridle paths served several purposes. They satisfied the recreational urges of the city's many equine enthusiasts. They reinforced the image of Beverly Hills as a place of wealth and privilege. They preserved the rustic feel of a city that was fervently carving itself out of the open countryside of Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas. And lastly, though saddle horses were never as common on city streets as draft horses, they nostalgically recalled that dying breed -- the urban horse.

The Paradoxes That Keep Some L.A. Neighborhoods 'Park Poor'

Lawrence Clark Powell, author and literary critic, remembered that his mother had arrived from back East at the turn of the 20th century carrying her horticultural triumph -- a geranium plant.

The geranium was an exotic flower where she had grown up, a tender plant kept in the parlor during winter. She had kept her prize geranium on her lap on the long, transcontinental train trip. And when she stepped off the station platform in Los Angeles, she saw geraniums in bloom in nearly every vacant lot. They were as common as weeds. In humiliation (and perhaps with some relief), she threw her pampered plant away.

You might say that we've been tossing out the geraniums ever since. In its abundance, Los Angeles is a kind of garden, after all. Why would anyone need or want any more of nature?

The Ruling Party: Scenes From George McKenna's Winning Night

Seen and heard last week at the George McKenna campaign headquarters in the Crenshaw district:

8:00 p.m.
Too early for any returns, but the Mardi Gras party atmosphere is already heating up with purple and gold balloons, marshals preparing to lead a "second line" parade with beads and festooned umbrellas, and a food station busy cooking up a full Southern menu. Several people are dressed in variations of purple, gold, and green. McKenna is a New Orleans native and one of the more prominent representatives of a whole contingent of L.A. transplants from New Orleans who arrived here starting in the '40s; many of them are Creole, historically black people mixed with white and/or Native American and often with a French surname. They were part of the last wave of major black immigration out of the South to other, presumably more racially hospitable places in the country during the long era of Jim Crow. L.A. pretty quickly got a reputation for being the city with the largest Creole population outside of New Orleans itself. That generation is aging, but the traditions have stuck, especially the celebratory ones. Whatever the outcome of the election tonight, this party will go on.

Passages, Passings, and the Last Sight of Fathers

Farther and Sons
| Photo: D. J. Waldie

Roz Chast -- the jittery cartoonist of middle-class urban anxiety -- lay down next to her dying father in his nursing home bed trying, she wrote in the Los Angeles Times, to "telepath to him how much I loved him, and that I knew how much he loved me, and that we were 'good' and it was o.k. to let go." It was her last conversation with her father.

Josh Max was called to his father's apartment where, he said, "a lone, hard detective stood in a full suit and tie in the blistering July heat. 'You might not want to go in,' the detective said. 'He's been there awhile.' My dad would have liked this guy." And when Max did look at his father for the last time, he saw that "his features had collapsed onto themselves. It was clear that whatever that was in the chair, it was not the man responsible for bringing me into the world."

My father died behind a well-made wooden bathroom door late on the evening of August 15, 1982 (the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary).

How a Health Guru Helped L.A. Discover its Hiking Trails

Paul Bragg (front-right) leads his Wanderlusters Hiking Club up Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park in 1932. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Long before yoga pants made their first appearance in Runyon Canyon, a health guru helped Angelenos discover their local mountain trails.

Beginning in 1924, on the first and third Sunday of each month, members of the Wanderlusters Hiking Club followed Paul C. Bragg into the hilly terrain around Los Angeles. Dozens of them traipsed through Altadena's Millard Canyon or hiked up Griffith Park's Mount Hollywood. Men doffed their shirts. Women wore bathing suits. Sunscreen had yet to be invented.

Their sprightly leader had moved to Los Angeles in 1921 and set up what he claimed to be the nation's first health food store on Seventh Street, just west of Figueroa. In his paid "Health Hints" column in the Times, Bragg advertised services like his Hydralite Bloodwash Bath, a hot-water shower that lasted for several hours, and products like Live Sprinkle, a salt substitute. His dietary recommendations ranged from prunes and whole wheat bread to Knudsen's Velvet cottage cheese ("it melts in your mouth") and Fig-Co, a coffee substitute made from figs and barley.

Los Angeles, a city that then buzzed with the fervor of a hundred cults and religious revivals, embraced Bragg's food fanaticism -- and arguably still does today.

Outside Los Angeles, Bragg was a controversial figure. In 1930, the postal service debarred the self-styled "professor" from the mails, alleging fraud. The American Medical Association denounced him as a "food faddist." He likely overstated his age by 14 years to bolster his claims of longevity.

But in Los Angeles, for a time, he championed what he billed as the city's "return to Nature."

Museums, Historic Buildings, and Oases: The Place of Places in Los Angeles

Earlier this week, I sat in as the co-moderator of a discussion about museums and historic sites at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, The discussion was part of a new series of Conversations in Place at the rancho.

The participants were W. Richard West, Jr., president and CEO of The Autry National Center of the American West; Milford Donaldson, FAIA, chairman of the US Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; Stephen Farneth, FAIA, founding principle of the Architectural Resources Group; and Pamela Seager, executive Director of Rancho Los Alamitos, along with Claudia Jurmain, the rancho's director of Special Projects and Publications.

The presentations and panel discussion aimed at finding the place in our lives of sites like the Autry and the rancho.

Then There Were Three: Regional Water Agencies Tainted by Scandal

The taint of official corruption has reached the West Basin Municipal Water District, one of the three regional water agencies that serve Los Angeles County. It was inevitable.

West Basin, like its sister agencies, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and the Central Basin Municipal Water District, is an obscure local government that the media and voters don't much care about.

The districts are in the news mostly after they foul up. Voter turnout in district elections averages about 10 percent. No one knows who the elected board members are.

And with no one watching, it's easy for these little governments to give in to personal and political interests.