Earlier this month, President Obama announced the first five recipient areas of his Promise Zone Initiative, a formal partnership between the federal government, local communities, and businesses intended to help shrink poverty and expand the rosters of the middle class. The initiative enables those areas to receive a share of a $500 million investment in existing federal funding, addressing the areas of job growth, economic stability, education, affordable housing, and public safety.
Aside from San Antonio, Philadelphia, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, Los Angeles was named, specifically a swath of the densely-populated central part of the city, which includes the communities of Hollywood, East Hollywood, Koreatown, Westlake, and Pico-Union.
L.A.'s Promise Zone, which encompasses an irregular-shaped area stretching from Franklin Avenue to Pico Boulevard, and between Highland and Union avenues, includes a predominantly low-income, yet culturally rich section of urban L.A.; though with a majority Latino population, it also includes two of the city's designated Asian enclaves: Thai Town and Koreatown. Both share well-patronized and well-acclaimed ethnic eateries (many of which are open well into the late night hours), spas, and dense, pedestrian-oriented, transit-accessible corridors. The zone also includes pockets of other Asian immigrant groups, namely Filipinos (in East Hollywood and the Historic Filipinotown-adjacent parts of Koreatown and Westlake) and Bangladeshis (among the already-diverse immigrant multitudes residing in Koreatown).
The Promise Zone designation struck me with great interest -- not only do I live there, but I'm a homegrown product of the area as well.
Several weeks into this New Year, a friend sent me a news item. It was a list of ten of Pope Francis's most memorable quotes, turned by a writer into a list of New Year's resolutions. They were nice resolutions: be happy, don't gossip and finish your meals (there is no such thing as innocent slander and wasting food is stealing from the world's poor, the Pope has said), befriend those who disagree with you, be understanding, and don't judge others. But with all due respect to the Pope, my mother told me these same things many years ago. And then she went on and served as an example.
But, and my mother would be the first to echo this, I often need a reminder, and so I read the Pope's words carefully (plus, it's a good idea to stay on the right side of someone like the Pope, no matter what he says about befriending those who disagree). They were, as I said, fine words, aimed at making each of us a better person and, in sum, a better collective whole. I realize I'm a little past the window for New Year's resolutions, but now I know you won't judge me and you might even thank me when we're done.
After ruminating on the Pope's thoughts, my mind quickly turned to my myriad failures on so many of these fronts, and, far more entertaining and fit for print, the myriad failures of others. I am only kidding. I refuse to gossip.
A golden thread runs through the American imagination from Hernán Cortés to Joseph Smith to George Warren Shufelt of Los Angeles. In our imagination, fabulous wealth lies hidden by time or sorcery under some hill somewhere, left by Aztecs or men from Mu, and waiting for a lucky someone to seize it. It even runs through California's motto - Eureka, Greek for "I have found it."
Glen Creason, the Los Angeles Public Library's map librarian, reminded us the other day of Shufelt's "eureka" on Fort Moore Hill (touched on in these pages by Nathan Masters and Hadley Meares.). Shufelt, a mining engineer and an inventor with a mysterious "radio X-ray" device, claimed to have found treasure catacombs under Fort Moore Hill in 1933.
According to Rex McCreery and Ray Martin, who spoke of an ancient map they had, Shufelt's find was a vault of Spanish gold. Or perhaps it was Aztec. It wasn't clear. In early 1933, the three treasure hunters convinced the county Board of Supervisors that they should be authorized to dig. They offered an even split of the riches with the county.
It seemed like a good idea in the worst year of the Great Depression.
Change on my working-class block of tract houses is both present daily and years long in arriving. The walk I take south and east from my front door brings me past a row of house fronts and lawns that have been that way since I was a child.
Except, of course, they're different in ways that have accumulated as successive owners added something of themselves, took away something of someone else, and left other parts untouched by design or neglect.
A house down the block had a tree in the front lawn until yesterday. I'm not much of a tree spotter, but I think it was a California ash tree, about 30 feet high, and old but not original to the neighborhood. A ragged pile of quartered logs and some undefined bits of wood lay in the parkway strip next to the sidewalk. A mound of ground up stump covered most of the lawn.
There are older trees still on my block. They're the remaining Brazilian pepper trees that once lined both sides of the street. The old peppers have twisted themselves into their age and developed galls and bulges. They're actually ugly. But when the pepper trees flower every year, wild bees hum in their branches loud enough to be intimidating, at least to me as I walk underneath.
The missing and presumed ash tree flowered in late sprint with clusters of small, white flowers that always surprised me. I'll remember that.
Ground broke this week on the Crenshaw-to-LAX (adjacent) rail line. Looks like good timing for some transportation justice, this being the week of the Martin Luther King holiday. Since the Blue Line opened some 20 years ago, rail construction in L.A. has been moving steadily from the Westside and Valley and Pasadena back to the hood, a southward march that has now reached the last stronghold of black neighborhoods in the region, Crenshaw and Inglewood.
County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and others are heralding the groundbreaking as a proud and significant, if overdue moment, a turning point in an area that's had an anemic economy for, well, forever. Trains, we're told, will change that. Trains will theoretically bring the world to Crenshaw, which may have name recognition but not the economic health to match.
Not that nothing's happened economically. The Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza mall is spruced up and now boasts on its grounds a Rave Cinema and Post & Beam, a genuine foodie restaurant -- top-line chef, chic interior, creative menu -- that puts Crenshaw on the culinary map in a different way than do Harold & Belle's and other traditional Southern hangs. Those places are wonderful (and I speak as a West coast Creole who grew up visiting family that lived along the Jefferson Boulevard corridor and who actually founded H & B) but they are Crenshaw's traditional past; Post & Beam is its future.
It's the dead of winter, but the Southland's urban forest knows no season. Skyduster palms sway in the breeze. Sprawling Indian laurel figs shade sidewalks. The broad leaves of Southern magnolias soak up the January sun.
How did Los Angeles become an evergreen city? Aqueducts mean these trees won't soon thirst for water in the Southland's semiarid climate. But the region's urban forest also owes its existence to a generation of agricultural innovators, amateur gardeners, nursery operators, and others who brought trees from exotic locales like Australia or the Andes to improve -- to "emparadise" -- a landscape they found lacking.
In his magnificent new book, "Trees in Paradise: A California History," environmental historian Jared Farmer tells the story of this landscape revolution -- among many others. For example: California's vegetable giants inspired awe around the world, but the state nearly reduced the entirety of its vast coast redwood forest to stumps. Also: immigrant labor sustained Southern California's Orange Belt, yet it was rarely acknowledged in the idyllic scenes created for picture postcards and citrus crate labels.
I asked Farmer to elaborate on some of the themes he raises in his book. Images from L.A. as Subject member archives accompany our conversation, which you can read below.
Several weeks ago, I was waiting at a traffic light at an intersection in Ventura. It is a busy intersection, and it has become much busier over the years as our town has grown. This is not unusual in many towns. There is a mall at this intersection, and a popular restaurant and an enormous big box hardware story that handy people frequent but I rarely visit. These days there is too much traffic for this intersection. People run the light, get stuck in the middle of the intersection, and other people can't go. I think you can already feel the frustration.
On this particular day, all this was happening and more. It was just after five in the evening, the roads choked with drivers coming home from work. Cars ran the light. They were stuck in the intersection when the light changed. Other drivers began honking. Behind the windshield of a truck I saw a man pounding on the glass and shouting. He did not stop. He just kept pounding.
Our town is not usually like this. Yours probably isn't either. But we have all seen this. People were very angry.
Too many of us in one place? I don't know.
I was quizzed the other day about Danny's Donuts and the origin of the Denny's chain. In local mythology, the original Denny's (now the nation's largest chains of family restaurants) was on Carson Street not far from Lakewood Boulevard.
Local mythology had it wrong. Chris Nichols (associate editor of Los Angeles magazine and tireless investigator of mid-century Los Angeles) discovered in 2012 that the origin of what are now 1,600 Denny's restaurants was some miles away, although still in Lakewood.
(I have Chris to thank for sharing his research, which led to this nostalgic video, and photos in this commentary of two early Danny's Donuts.)
I stepped out of my house on Thursday morning, and sullen bands of ochre, tan, and sienna were smeared across the northern horizon. Hillsides in Glendora were burning in the cruelly dry air. Pale flakes of ash occasionally drifted through my walk, although the fire was miles away.
When I looked up later, a wide bank of smoke had spread west as far as Venice and south as far as Long Beach as if the fire attempted to encircle the basin. The smoke was gray, like a rain cloud on the horizon. But it wasn't.
Mandatory evacuation had been ordered earlier Thursday morning for Easley Canyon and San Gabriel Canyon Road and the neighborhoods west of Glendora Boulevard and north of Sierra Madre Boulevard. By noon on Thursday, the Colby Fire (as it was now named) had grown to nearly 2,000 acres. It was still uncontrolled.
I met Amiri Baraka last year at the Leimert Park Book Festival. It was the first and only time I saw him; he had come here to anchor a panel about the legacy of the '60s, the festival's headliner event. It hardly seemed possible to me that such a giant of black letters would grace this well-regarded but still modest event, in Los Angeles no less.
I was impressed, almost incredulous. Of course the movement happened all over the country, including here, but the ground zero of black activism is the South and the east coast -- the South for obvious reasons, the Midwest and east coast because of their big-city black ghettoes that in many ways replicated the segregated conditions of the South, but also produced great writers and creative agitators like Richard Wright, James Baldwin.
From his native and distinctly unglamorous Newark, Baraka built the Black Arts Movement and, among other things, tried to remake local politics so that it was accountable to the people. He was interesting that way, at least in that phase of his life -- an unapologetic black nationalist who yet saw the potential for racial justice in mainstream electoral politics and civic participation. To me, that's pretty much the definition of a patriot.