The federal government shutdown is over, for the moment. Another shutdown that's been possible for years now feels dangerously imminent, though if it happens it will be permanent. And the loss will be incalculable.
I'm talking about Degnan Boulevard, that tiny spot in Leimert Park that is in many ways the heart of the entire Crenshaw district. The strip between 43rd Street and 43rd Place is a small but potent collection of black and African-themed shops, restaurants, galleries, and street life that exists nowhere else in the city.
Music has also been a mainstay: the ambitiously-named World Stage, co-founded by poet Kamau Daaood (a Watts Writers Workshop alum) and jazz drummer Billy Higgins, has featured top-notch jazz performances over the years by headliners like Higgins to local greats like Dwight Trible and Nedra Wheeler; it is also a workshop space for musicians and poets.
Around the corner on 43rd Place, Fifth Street Dick's jazz coffeehouse garnered global attention for its marathon jazz sessions and for the rags-to-riches story of proprietor Richard Fulton, a former denizen of Skid Row who dreamt of opening his own jazz spot one day. Dick died years ago and the dream coffeehouse more or less died with him, but not his legacy of building community through arts and culture. Degnan's always been about that.
Degnan Boulevard has been famous. But it has never been prosperous. Even at the peak of its fame in the early '90s, as it was showing riot-torn black L.A. a different way to build and rebuild, its merchants often struggled to pay the rent. Merchants talked continually about the importance of owning the property to preserve the scene, but a plan of ownership was never devised. Nor was City Hall very helpful, mainly because the business folk on Degnan had such fractured relationships with the councilpeople, notably Mark Ridley-Thomas, the county supervisor who started his political career as councilman for the 8th district.
Long ago my great uncle owned an apple orchard. I was young at the time. The rows of trees seemed to stretch for miles. The wind carried the smell of both sweet and rotted fruit, because that's the way life is.
Not so long ago, agricultural fields lined the 101 freeway here in Ventura County. Some of the fields are still here, vast swaths that would have made Uncle Dwight smile his slow smile. But in many places the fields are pinned between buildings. Or they are gone.
Recently traffic congestion was in our news. Traffic is not news to anyone who lives here -- we've all been stuck in it -- but we still don't suffer like our neighbors to the south. It is one of the many reasons we live here. Perhaps it is one of the reasons you live where you do. But here in Ventura County and elsewhere, we all see things changing. New traffic lights in places where they once were once unnecessary. New roads. Expansions to existing roads. As I write this they are expanding the 101 freeway from Mussel Shoals up to Carpinteria, adding a new lane in each direction. When they are finished the new lanes will be Ventura County's first HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes. I'm not sure this is something to celebrate.
I'm betting your surroundings are changing where you live, too, and not always for the better and not for lack of good people trying to balance what we have with what we need. But sometimes progress is a blind, finger-pointing child, and when we act like this there is no turning back and good things are lost for good.
As I said, traffic congestion was recently in our news, an in-depth and well-written article in the Ventura County Reporter by Art Kraft titled, cleverly and ominously, "Destination Nowhere." In this article a Camarillo city official was asked to comment on a large residential development project proposed for a parcel of land at the foot of the Conejo Grade. If this particular residential community is built, it's estimated to add 40,000 car trips a day. I have no idea how one arrives at these estimates, but I do know that is a lot of people on the road, not to mention the end of more farmland.
Mayor Garcetti may have found his "brand" on the streets of Los Angeles. Last Thursday, the mayor issued an executive directive to key city departments to begin what the mayor hopes to become a citywide Great Streets program.
At this stage, the great ideas are many and a bit vague. Fountains? Murals? Sculptures? The emphasis seems to be on the look of things, although potholes, parking, and bicycles were mentioned. "We've ignored the aesthetics of our city too long," Garcetti said in announcing his streets initiative. "The way that neighborhoods look has a lot to do with its livability."
The mayor announced his plans before a conference convened at the Urban Land Institute by Gail Goldberg, ULI's executive director. (Goldberg is a former city planning director.)
Eric Garcetti has been a modest mayor these past 100 or so days, focusing more attention on the prosaic than on the poetic when telling Angeleños who they are and what their city should be. He's resisted weighing down his mayoralty with the slogans -- Education Mayor! Green Mayor! Technology Mayor! -- that only highlighted Tony Villaraigosa's inability to deliver on them.
But Mayor Garcetti can't resist the fundamental temptation that comes with power in Los Angeles (even if the mayor's powers are pretty meager). Garcetti wants to re-imagine Los Angeles ... again.
A controversial trail closure in the Coachella Valley may not bring anyone any closure after all. On October 5, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that settles just when hikers will be able to walk the entire length of the popular Mirage Trail, more commonly called the Bump and Grind Trail, in the Santa Rita Mountains above Palm Desert.
The trail has been a jumping off point for controversy and populist anger ever since the California Department of Fish and Game put up a gate barring hikers from the last half mile of the trail, where it crosses into the Magnesia Spring Ecological Reserve. The agency -- now called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife -- said the move was necessary to prevent disruption of the local population of Peninsular bighorn sheep, an endangered species.
That gate was soon vandalized, and hikers filled the forbidden last half mile of trail as their angry comments filled the web pages of local newspapers. The new law, Assembly Bill 1097, has been touted as a compromise that would close the trail during the three month bighorn lambing season and open it for the rest of the year, but local hikers are already vowing to violate even the compromise law.
They literally moved mountains to create Dodger Stadium. Between 1959 and 1962, an army of construction workers shifted eight-million cubic yards of earth and rock in the hills above downtown Los Angeles, refashioning the rugged terrain once known as the Stone Quarry Hills into a modern baseball palace.
Controversy surrounds the stadium's origins. First, a never-realized public housing project erased an entire Mexican American community from Chavez Ravine. Later, the city of Los Angeles enticed Walter O'Malley's Dodgers to the site with what council member Ed Roybal called a "sweetheart deal." But once ground was broken on September 19, 1959, the construction of Dodger Stadium -- a project overseen by O'Malley and architect Emil Praeger and executed by Alhambra-based Vinnell Constructors -- was a relatively straightforward project of muscle and machinery.
Workers met their greatest challenge in the site's topography. Steep slopes and deep ravines had long sheltered the Elysian Hills (also called the Stone Quarry or Rock Quarry hills) from intensive development. In 1883, the city set aside the northern half of the land, then considered worthless, as Elysian Park. The other half eventually became home to the bucolic neighborhoods of Bishop, La Loma, and Palo Verde.
But the rough terrain was no match for modern industrial technology. In a little less than 31 months, nineteen giant earthmovers relocated eight million cubic yards of earth, flattening hills and filling in gullies across the 300-acre site. At the highest point, a 726-foot promontory variously called Mount Lookout, Silverwood Hill, and O'Malley Hill, they amputated the peak and carved an amphitheater into the mountainside that would serve as the stadium's foundation. (The landform named Chavez Ravine remained intact. Stadium Way runs through it today.)
Building the 124-foot grandstand was almost as herculean a task as the grading. Some 40,000 cubic yards of concrete, including 78 precast frames, and 13 million pounds of reinforcing steel went into the structure. Because the largest precast pieces were too big to move by truck, Vinnell built a six-acre casting yard on the site. To assemble the pieces, the contractor imported a $150,000 crane from Germany that was then was the largest in North America.
At the project's peak, Vinnell employed 342 workers on the site. Total costs ran close to $23 million, including $4.47 million in city and county subsidies.
My father turned 80 last week. It's a startling number; it feels like the real break from middle to old age, the point at which people officially start considering you fortunate to be alive at all. I know that longevity is increasing, that making it to 100 is becoming more and more common. But those are trends, statistics.
In real life, the fact that my father is 80 is nothing short of triumphant because so many men in his family didn't make it to that age. They didn't even come close. My father's father died of a heart attack at 52, and my father's oldest brother died the same way at nearly the same age. Congenital heart disease, cigarette smoking, and stress all figured into it; of my father's seven brothers, only one lived to 80. Last week, my father became the second. He was the youngest brother and is one of the very few of his generation still living. The last brother died in 2001, just after the turn of the new millennium.
My father has kind of joked about his good luck, and his solitude, over the years. Once the baby and the political rebel of the family -- he was a full-fleged '60s activist -- he is now its patriarch. That shift has made him more willing to talk about the past, which I always knew generally but not in great detail until the last decade or so. What I always knew is that he moved to L.A. from New Orleans in 1942 when he was nine, that he graduated from Fremont High School in 1950 after being one of the first blacks to go there, that he went into the Air Force as a musician, that he worked at the post office and got married and had kids and eventually earned a degree from UCLA in 1959.
Ordinary places are supposed to be so -- well -- ordinary. But enigmas of time or circumstance occupy places as ordinary as mine. Here are three enigmas (as I think of them) that linger ...
An enigma of class. An orange Cadillac Coupe de Ville is parked in the driveway (above). Maybe the Cadillac isn't orange, although that was an optional GM finish. Postcard photos were often retouched in the 1950s. A pinkish Studebaker Speedster is parked on the street. It's probably 1954 or 1955 in the photograph, if my estimation of the height of the fins on the Cadillac and the height of the trees at the curb is right.
The street is in Lakewood Gardens, a 500-house tract built by the developer Paul Trousdale in 1946-1947 and later hemmed by the vastly larger Lakewood Park development of 1950-1954. Both developments were aimed at buyers with moderate incomes, ex-GIs mainly, who could manage a mortgage and the spread of payments for a car, a TV, and appliances on less than $500 a month.
The Studebaker was a low-cost car distinguished in the early 1950s by Raymond Lowey's advanced designs but cheaply built. A Studebaker fits the neighborhood, although a Ford or Chevrolet would be more characteristic.
Two-door Cadillacs of the same period were factory priced at just under $4,000. Who in Lakewood Gardens would buy a car that cost almost as much as a year's wages? What postcard photographer would assume that an orange Cadillac belonged there?
The older I get, the younger I want to be. No, it's not like that. It's not about appearances. It's about attitude. How I see the world and how I live in it.
These days I try very hard to be a child.
The other day I was waiting in a pub for friends. It's true, children can't do this, which is one reason it's more fun to be a pretend child than an actual one. My friends were running late: adults are very busy doing many adult things. Knowing they'd be late, I brought a magazine and read an article about Reinhold Messner. Messner, if you don't know, is widely regarded as the greatest mountaineer ever. The Italian has accomplished superhuman things, things once deemed impossible, like climbing Everest. Alone. Without oxygen. "Like Copernicus," another climber has said. "He conceived a whole new way of seeing his world."
I greatly admire Messner's fearless mountaineering feats (I begin to weep atop a step ladder), but in reading the article it was Messner's words that charmed me.
"Probing the edges of what may be possible is the only thing I know how to do," he said. "... And more than anything, I am like a child, I would always be unhappy if I didn't try."
Certainly, children are not perfect. We know this because we were children once. But there is much about them to admire.