Every so often, I get a call from a journalist working on a story that needs some local government context. In the welter of communities, cities, county agencies, and special districts that blanket the political landscape of Los Angeles, it's easy to mistake who does what and even why.
Some calls start from a basic misunderstanding of political geography. So, what are we talking about when we describe places as incorporated, unincorporated, "contract city," or "county territory?"
To begin with, the city of Los Angeles is not the same political entity as the county of Los Angeles. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is not the mayor of all the cities in Los Angeles County (much to his relief).
On the other hand, County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has been pleased to call himself the Mayor of the County of Los Angeles whenever he's rotated into the leadership of the County Board of Supervisors. But there is no "mayor" of the county with authority over cities (to Mike's dismay, I think).
In a new, four-part series of "Conversations In Place" at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach beginning in August, the lively talk around the table starts with questions:
- Do Southern Californians cling to a nostalgic past?
- What will the future Southern California look like as seen through the prism of its past?
- And how will Southern Californians shape the message of who they are becoming in the 21st century?
The question that most intrigues series co-moderator Claudia Jurmain is "How do we channel the past into the future we hope to have?"
The past might seem to have no place in the future that the rapid pace of change in Southern California is bringing, but the purpose (as I see it) of the Rancho's Conversations series, is a richer understanding of the forces that are shaping the region's economic and cultural life through an increasingly complicated interplay of "then" and "now."
Why shouldn't baseball players wear shorts in sunny Southern California? Still, a collective gasp spread through Gilmore Field on April 1, 1950, when the Hollywood Stars trotted out in short flannel pants, their bony knees bared before 3,869 fans.
It may have been April Fools' Day, but this was no joke. Stars manager Fred Haney considered the new uniforms, which also featured lightweight rayon pullovers in place of the traditional button-down flannel jerseys, a serious innovation that was sure to improve player comfort and performance. "It stands to reason that players should be faster wearing them, and that half step going down to first alone wins or loses many a game," Haney told the Los Angeles Times after their debut. "These outfits weigh only a third as much as the old monkey suits and when both are soaked in perspiration the difference is greater yet."
We may never know what difference the lightweight outfits made, but the barelegged Stars defeated the Portland Beavers, 5-3, that afternoon. And they continued to march onto the field in their new uniforms, donning them for day games and even warm evening matchups. Some players voiced concerns about abrasions from infield dirt ("strawberries" or "raspberries," as they are known in the dugout), but Haney assured them that there was no added risk provided they slid properly. There were also unanswered questions whether Pacific Coast League rules permitted such a radical redesign of the standard uniform, but the organization's president -- coincidentally named Pants Rowland -- quickly put them to rest with his official blessing.
As the Stars visited other cities, fans eager to gawk at the unorthodox uniforms filled stadiums to capacity. "I predict these new duds will become standard equipment in baseball everywhere in a year or so," Haney proclaimed. Yet despite his early optimism, his sartorial revolution fizzled after only four seasons. Other teams -- most notably the 1976 Chicago White Sox -- would later experiment with shorts, but after 1953 the Stars never bared their legs again.
Mayor Eric Garcetti lifted high a container (empty, some say) of industrial quality beer and celebrated the victory of the Los Angeles Kings last week with a vulgarity. In a packed hockey stadium. On daytime TV. To some in the audience, the mayor's attempt at bro solidarity seemed painfully calculated.
The Los Angeles Times noted later, the mayor's "dropping of the F-bomb at a Staples Center rally for the hockey team had all the look of a premeditated publicity salvo ..."
Afterwards, the mayor explained. "I got a little ahead of myself ... You gotta remember, we didn't win at lawn bowling. We won in hockey." Right.
Because I've worked for state and municipal agencies and been a member of local administrative boards, I've signed my share of "under the penalty of perjury" oaths and sworn that I will uphold the constitution of the State of California.
Wondering what "upholding" might mean as a practical matter, I paged through a copy of the state constitution once. I came away knowing that I should be prepared -- but I'm not sure how -- to defend the state constitution's limit on the number of rounds in a boxing match.
Written the other day...
I woke up this morning to gray -- that solid spring overcast we call May gray or June gloom that each year exposes the persistent myth about Southern California's blue-sky beaches and perpetual sunshine. You know, the sort of weather that bewilders the tourists who come here from January on thinking it's the tropics, only to find that flip-flops and tank shirts don't work after dark or in the morning, before noon or so. That doesn't stop them from walking determinedly around in said flip-flops and other manner of summer dress while the mercury barely registers 70; I suppose they think that if they act like they're in the tropics -- or in a full-on desert -- L.A. might respond in kind. Our city may be laid-back, but it isn't charitable like that. It is what it is. There's lots of room for invention, and reinvention, but that doesn't include the weather.
I'm a native, but like the tourists, I used to resent the overcast. From the time I was a kid, it was a stain on my summer-vacation expectations of sunniness that the annual reality of May gray/June gloom altered not in the slightest. The way I saw it, that gloom was unnatural, an interloper that stood between me and my belovedly mythical SoCal that for forty-odd years was always just within reach, and then spring happened. I used to feel flat-out betrayed by the wall of clouds that dampened, sometimes literally, many a graduation and outdoor wedding over the years, events that were recorded in photos in which women in flimsy dresses and sandals hugged themselves to keep warm. Such a let down. I took it all terribly personally, and lived for the days when the sun got strong enough to crack the morning fog by 8 or so, or better yet, to keep the evilness of fog at bay altogether. On those days, I felt like the enemy had been conquered, at least for the season, and I could go about my business of being an entitled native with real confidence and optimism. Those were the best days of the year.
Some of Southern California's "lost towns" never actually vanished; they simply assumed new identities. That's what happened to one small San Fernando Valley farming village that sprang up in the late 1880s -- a village we know today as North Hollywood.
The town's name was born unstable; in its early years, residents feuded over what to call their home.
Some preferred Lankershim -- a name that honored James B. Lankershim and his father Isaac. In 1888, Lankershim subdivided the easternmost 12,000 acres of his father's old wheat ranch, carving the vast tract into farms of 10 to 80 acres each. On the map advertising the new venture, the Lankershim Ranch Land and Water Company identified a prospective townsite where the old road to the San Fernando Mission crossed a newly graded road, Central Avenue. The map identified the townsite as Lankershim.
Many of the residents who settled there disregarded the map's suggestion. Instead, they called their town Toluca. The name's origins are unclear, but it had the strong backing of an influential newcomer (according to one legend, it was an Indian word meaning "fertile valley," and it is also the name of a city in Mexico). When mining baron Charles Forman arrived on the Lankershim Ranch around 1892, he took leadership of efforts to organize the scattered orchards into a town -- a town he called Toluca.
The woman was buying jewelry. Small items. The sort of jewelry you see on the counter at a gift shop. Perfect for two little girls.
I was waiting in line behind her. This is how I learned that the two girls had just lost their mother in a car accident.
The woman leaned heavily on the counter.
"In an instant," she said, "everything changes."
Several days later, I received a letter from a friend. After remarking on various personal matters, my friend mentioned an earthquake from a few months ago. Though the quake was centered near Brea in Orange County, its tremors were felt as far south as San Diego and clear up here in Ventura County, for the Earth is a very powerful and interconnected place.
My friend wrote, "We pave and build and act like today is forever. Every now and again the earth shakes like a wet dog."
Librarian of Congress James Billington announced the other day that Charles Wright would be the next United States poet laureate, succeeding Natasha Trethewey as the Library's 20th -- to use the post's clumsy official title -- Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
Wright is 78 now and retired from teaching (lastly at the University of Virginia). He's the author of more than 20 collections of poetry and translations. He's won the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, Griffin International Poetry Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was my teacher in 1971 at UC Irvine.