Q&A: Aaron Paley, Co-Founder of CicLAvia

Aaron Paley

Los Angeles native Aaron Paley says his work focus is on "looking for ways to improve the quality of life -- making better public spaces and making ways for people to connect with culture and public space." As the co-founder of CicLAvia and Community Arts Resources (CARS), that has meant a wide range of public productions, from opening up the streets to car-free activities to hosting a Yiddish festival in Little Tokyo. He notes that his work "manifests in all sorts of crazy ways." Below, he shares some insights in his work and life in Los Angeles.

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What inspired you on your career path?

Growing up in L.A. inspired me. From the age of five, I was interested in how cities are put together and in transportation. I asked, Why can't L.A. be different and still be L.A.? A major realization was seeing Paris and New York and San Francisco and knowing we were never gonna look like they did -- that those were the wrong models. We had to look for our own model for L.A. In mid-'80s that was my guiding principle: We can't import it -- we have to build it. I have a button that said, "I don't care how they do it in NY." With Community Arts Resources, our logo is a map of downtown L.A. This is where we are. The idea was: Let's do it here. We really believe in the iconography of Los Angeles and we weren't going to shy away from that.

What are the key external factors that drive your work?

The city. The economics, demographics, geographic, and infrastructure. We play with diversity. We want to figure out how to transform the famous lack of public space. We don't have public spaces, so let's just use the streets. We transform the space we do have.

Also, just the population. We create cultural events that highlight that and bring people together. An exciting principle is that we're always trying to lower the barriers. We're looking for simple ways to bring people together in ways they don't feel like it's artificial or forced.

Tell us about some discoveries you've made.

The fact that is L.A. is a place [for which] the stereotypes aren't necessarily true. There's always some greater truth in there but they're not true as well.

Sure, everyone is driving -- or a majority are driving -- but that doesn't mean we can't create opportunities for them to get out of their cars. If you create a great public space, people will flock to it.

Also, L.A. is famously segregated with ethnic and socio-economic divides, but people still come together if you give them the opportunity. It's a marvelous city that functions beautifully.

What are the barriers you face in your work?

Resources. We have these ideas and then we need to fund them. But I don't really think about barriers. I look at them as a given and then we can work around them. The barriers of the city are about how it's structured. That's the challenge. They become challenges for how to shape the programming of the thing we're designing. If there's a parking lot in the middle of CicLAvia, then we turn it into a public space. We try to turn our barriers into opportunities. We make things happen. A producer's role is to solve a problem. Our job is to figure it out and make it work.

Name a significant, little-known fact the every Californian should know.

I'm not an expert in this, but I've picked up some information over the years. California has always been the most diverse place in the U.S. in both eco-systems and ethnic demographic structure. Even when there were no Europeans here, this was already the most diverse part of the United States. The kind of California as a multi-cultural, diverse place where everything can grow and flourish is true and can always be true. Not just people, but plants and animals.

A genie grants you two wishes to fight climate change. What do you ask for? (And what would you do with the third wish?)

I'd wish for a city where the car is naturally the third choice for people, instead of the first. I'd wish for a city where solar power and other alternatives were ubiquitous instead of isolated examples. And I'd wish for a canopy of trees -- a veritable urban forest -- to cool us down and eat up all that carbon!

Be honest: are you hopeful or pessimistic? Tell us why.

Oh, hopeful! I look at my lifetime and how L.A. and California have evolved and I compare that to the literature and the movies and popular culture, which portrays how they think we are or will be. I would much rather live in the L.A. of 2016 than LA of 1970. And in the 1970s, 2015 looks really bleak in "Blade Runner"! We thought that was our future. No matter what it was going to look like, we knew it was going south, it was going downhill. But it's not like that all all. There are more people but we're using less water. The city is getting incredible.

Two bonus questions for Angelenos: Name two things you like most about L.A., and what would you change?

I would like to change the public transportation system so that's there's more of it and it's a more robust system of our dreams. I would like to change our thinking about L.A. and remove the car an option as a given.

What I love: I love its complexity. It's not an easy city to discern, to read, or understand. I always ask people who have moved here from other other places how they like it and I found out there's a three-year rule. The first three years: I don't really like it or haven't found it yet. And then something happens for out-of-towners -- all of a sudden it's, "Oh, I get it." It takes three years to find out how to figure out how the parts fit together. Even me, I've lived here all my life and I'm still trying to figure out how the parts fit together.

The other thing I really love is the topography -- the fact that there's this mountain range that protects us from the desert. The mountains that run through it and the beach and the coast. The whole crazy setting is the thing that makes L.A. L.A. It gives us the climate and pockets of micro-climate and pockets like Echo Park that's carved into the Canyon, and the way the river goes through the city. The topography and geography really make the city.

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