Dear New Residents of L.A.: Please Participate

Voter registration at a Los Angeles naturalization ceremony in 2008 | Photo: Korean Resource Center 민족학교/Flickr/Creative Commons License

On Wednesday there was a naturalization ceremony in downtown Los Angeles, so here's a big welcome to our city! The city of traffic jams, plastic people, air pollution and drive-thru cafes. What's not to love? In the words of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

But Los Angeles is more than Hollywood and a perceived lack of substance. It is a city on the edge, literally. As Mike Davis wrote in Ecology of Fear, "The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed by the San Andreas fault." To live in Los Angeles is to be somewhere and someplace, and be acutely aware of fragility.

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More than a city forever between natural disasters, Los Angeles has been described as a place with no center. Both mentally and physically this is true. We have no place where we all coalesce. Los Angeles is indeed the antithesis of the community with a town square. What that means is that we share few experiences. The experience of residents in the westside may be more akin to residents of San Francisco or parts of New York than that of residents of the eastside.

But I wouldn't live anywhere else, and yesterday I received a huge antidote to my usual cynicism at the naturalization ceremony. Almost fifty-five hundred people showed up, either to become citizens or to cheer on friends or family members who did. What do we say to a group of people whose goal is to become naturalized citizens? I think we say, "welcome to this fragile place, help us make it stronger." A democracy only works, or at least works better than the alternatives, if people participate. Let's hope our newest citizens do just that.

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