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.
This Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a seismic disaster that leveled freeways, pancaked soft-story apartment buildings, caused more than $20 billion worth of property damage, and claimed 57 lives. But Northridge is only the most recent earthquake to shake Los Angeles -- and, in a region that is literally being torn apart by the great forces of plate tectonics, a relatively meek example of the earth's destructive power.
Southern California's earthquake record extends to July 28, 1769, when the first land expedition by Europeans was making its way through the region.
A group of soldiers and clerics led by Gaspar de Portola had just pitched camp on the left bank of the Santa Ana River, across the stream from the Tongva village of Hotuuknga and near the present-day community of Olive. Fifty-two of the villagers had waded across the river to greet the newcomers. They were encouraging the Spaniards to join them, make their home there -- they even offered to share their land -- when the ground beneath them trembled.
An engineer, Miguel Constanso, recorded the scene -- not without a measure of condescension -- in his diary:
We experienced a terrible earthquake...One of the natives who, no doubt, held the office of priest among them, was at that time in the camp. Bewildered no less than we by the event, he began, with horrible cries and great manifestations of terror, to entreat the heavens, turning in all directions, and acting as though he would exorcise the elements.
Perhaps the Tongva interpreted the seismic event as a warning; when the Spaniards returned two years later to establish a mission on the site, the villagers' once-welcoming attitude had hardened into hostility. The people of Hotuuknga drove the missionaries off to the north, where they established a mission on the San Gabriel River instead.
Meanwhile, the shaking continued to rattle the Portola expedition's nerves. When the party reached present-day Los Angeles on August 1, the land greeted them with three violent aftershocks. Two days later, when they came across the La Brea Tar Pits, they (incorrectly) presumed that the shaking had forced the bubbling asphalt to the surface.
Scientists can be precise about neither the strength nor exact location of the 1769 earthquake; seismometers were not even a figment of the imagination then. But one researcher at UC Irvine, Lisa Grant Ludwig, has proposed that it might have been a magnitude 7.3+ earthquake that lifted the Orange County coastline three to 11 feet.
If Grant Ludwig is correct, the magnitude 7.3 temblor would be one of the strongest recorded earthquakes in Los Angeles history. But it still pales in comparison with what happened when a 220-mile stretch of the San Andreas Fault ruptured north of Los Angeles on the morning of January 9, 1857.
Skateboarding, as a rule, is a young person's sport. It requires a certain limberness, a certain fearlessness, a certain bouncy-ness that most adults do not have. When a fifteen year old diverts from his planned trajectory and hits the pavement, he gets up, brushes himself off and continues on his swooping way. When an adult hits the pavement, he lays there in an oddly twisted manner that quiets even the youngest kids. Sometimes he closes his eyes and lays there a bit longer, grateful he can wiggle his toes and remember his name.
Unless you live and skate in Ventura County, you probably haven't heard of the little town of Piru. Officially, it's an unincorporated community, but we can all learn a little something from the little town of Piru, which two months ago opened its new skate park. It is not the Piru skate park that's big news, although it is big news to the kids now flocking there. There are other public skate parks in Ventura County -- in Ojai, in Camarillo, in Ventura, to name a few. After all, this is Southern California, home and grooming ground to the likes of Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta, Tony Hawk, and Curren Caples.
What's skate news in the town of Piru are the adults.
It's time to round up some remainders of last's year news to see just how little has changed at the start of 2014.
Football sooner in London than here. The National Football League has put an even tighter grip -- if that were possible -- on the future of NFL football in Los Angeles. While entertainment conglomerate AEG continues to hold out for a promised Farmers Field downtown, the NFL spent the last months of 2013 testily reminding team owners that none of them should even mention moving to Los Angeles until the league has extracted the last measure of dollar value from a stadium deal.
League Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in late October that London -- not Los Angeles -- might get a team in 2014-2015. "I'd love to be back in Los Angeles," Goodell said, "but it has to be done the right way; we have to do it successfully. I want both (London and Los Angeles), but it doesn't matter which one is first."
So ... let me get this straight. L.A. is being used to leverage concessions from NFL cities in the U.S. while London (in the U.K.) is being used to leverage more concession from the L.A. City Council.
This week I got an email from my councilman congratulating the Inglewood community of stakeholders for the imminent reopening of the Forum next week. The effusiveness was a bit too self-congratulatory, but at the same time I understood it -- we don't get a lot of successful construction or improvement projects as significant as this one, to say nothing of one that finishes on time.
That's because Madison Square Garden, The Forum's new owners, had a concert schedule to keep; the Eagles were booked months ago as the rehabbed Forum's debut act. They had a deadline to meet, which I totally understand. Too, MSG is anxious to prove to the naysayers that The Forum can not only rise again as a primetime concert venue, it can seriously challenge the downtown nexus of the Staples and Nokia Theater.
A big part of the naysaying is about location. Inglewood is not only an unsexy ZIP code, to put it diplomatically, it's pretty far south. Downtown and Hollywood or thereabouts are where most people go to see live performances by big pop headliners like the Eagles. The South Bay mostly has auditoriums -- El Camino College, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. People go south to spend time at the beach or shop at its endless malls. It might be tony, but it lacks the cachet of a place with an L.A. ZIP code, as well as a certain edge that would appeal to fans of Jay Z and Justin Timberlake.
Inglewood is not L.A., but it's hard by, as they say, and it has plenty of edge. But evidently too much edge, or not the right kind. Inglewood has an interesting problem: despite its demographics, is essentially seen as a troubled suburb rather than as an urban center with a lot of good characteristics, like a sizable middle class. Whether The Forum can clear up the confusion or rebrand Inglewood altogether remains to be seen.
The melancholy end of Lee Baca's 15 years as sheriff of Los Angeles County was of a piece with the man himself -- awkward in manner and unfocused in sentiment, but without much bluster. Baca has always been an anomaly as one of LA's top cops. His nearest analog in public life might be Jerry Brown -- part philosopher, part politician, and part dreamer.
What Baca was not was an agent of institutional change in a department that is unlike any other in California. Besides being the county sheriff, Baca is the "chief of police" of about half of the county's 88 cities, those that contract with his department for law enforcement services. His "span of control" extends from Hawaiian Gardens to Antelope Valley and includes the warrens of the largest jail system in world.
In hindsight, the voters might have asked in 1998 if Baca had the right mix of skills to be the right manager for this job, but the way in which the office of sheriff evolved in the 20th century -- and the way county government has been interpreted to voters -- disallowed meaningful review of either the office or the man.
Why does downtown Los Angeles' grid include a street with such a distinctively New York name? Broadway may be one of L.A.'s oldest streets -- laid out by surveyor Edward O. C. Ord in 1849 -- but until 1890, Angelenos knew it only as Fort Street.
Problems with pronunciation provided the impetus for the name change. By the late 1880s, Los Angeles was home to a growing, influential minority of German immigrants -- a group whose native tongue lacked the "th" sound used in so many English words. Confusion reigned as Angelenos with German accents pronounced two intersecting streets, Fort and Fourth, identically. Even when pronounced by native English speakers, the difference was hard to discern over the city's primitive telephone lines.
Fort Street was then transitioning from residential street into retail district, and such confusion threatened to retard its development. In early 1890, a group of residents and merchants along Fort Street -- led by printer Fred Lind Alles, originally of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but then a resident of Fort and Fourth -- petitioned the city for a name change.
Drive up the 14 Freeway, past the Antelope Valley and Kern County, and onto U.S. 395, past the Owens Dry Lake bed and the town of Lone Pine, and you'll see it. Among the endless acres of alkaline desert brush, nestled in this deep valley sandwiched between two majestic, snowcapped mountain ranges, a guard tower appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and the brown-colored highway signs bear the name of the place.
For this was the very place, some 70 years ago, where up to 10,046 Americans of Japanese ancestry -- many from the Los Angeles area -- were suddenly uprooted from their daily lives and forced to live in virtual imprisonment, without any formal charges nor due process of the law. It was one of 10 "War Relocation Centers" that stretched from California to Arkansas, designed to "protect" Japanese Americans, as the U.S. government claimed at the time. Yet, the guns at the guard houses pointed in, and not out, and while America was also at war with Germany and Italy, German- and Italian- Americans were not confined in the same manner. "Why us?" the Japanese American community wondered.
Today, following years of reparations, redress, and remembrance, Manzanar stands as a National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service, as a living history lesson and reminder of a regrettable time in our country's past, so that the same mistake will not be repeated again. A decade ago, the auditorium building was converted into an interpretive center, replete with historic items, displays, photographs, and multimedia presentations that relay the internment experience. In late April of each year, surviving internees, their families and other community members make an annual pilgrimage visit to Manzanar, which still sits silent on the floor of the Owens Valley, save for the occasional wind and cars passing on the highway. It is a constant reminder of Manzanar's intended solitude. A semblance of peace amidst memories during a time of war and occasional chaos.