16 October 2008

Taking off the rose-colored glasses

Los Angeles is such a strange and funny place. A year ago, my internet buddy Geoff wrote an ode to Los Angeles that I love, but that I have come to disagree with to a certain extent. To be completely honest, I don't think I would have moved here on my own, on purpose, had it not been for graduate school, and the school that I ended up in was not my first choice originally ... until I visited and discovered USC was pretty great.

And so I did move here, over a year ago now, and it was such an exciting journey. I got to see so much of the country that I had not seen before, with a good friend and my cat in tow. It was tough but really wonderful, and the rewards have included not only going back to school and finding so many new opportunities, but also realizing that I have another great friend - in addition to some existing really awesome ones - that I can rely on.

This is where the "but" comes in. BUT ... now that I've been here a year, I feel like I have some perspective. There is something to be said for first impressions, and while they are not always appropriate, my first impression of LA, on my first trip here in 1999, was that it was a massive, dangerous, and generally unpleasant. And of course the city has changed so much since then, with new development, improvements in public transportation, and real inroads into making the city a more sustainable place. But, the longer I live here, the more I start to see evidence of that first impression creeping back.

The thing that I find most amazing, in my own experience, is the similarities between LA and the city that I left behind, Cincinnati. On paper you might not find a clear comparison. But on paper, you might not find a person that has lived years in transitional Downtown areas of both of these cities, as I have. Cincinnati, like LA, had race riots, and both cities struggled to heal from those tumultuous times. Cincy and LA have both recently seen efforts to resurrect the residential districts of their Downtowns that suffered greatly after "white flight" to the suburbs decades ago. Both cities have intense vehicular traffic and public transportation systems that should be functioning much better than they currently do because of their reliance on the automobile. And both cities are trying to remedy that, each with its own version of resistance.

The part where it gets amazing is when you look at the scale of these cities. Cincinnati is a city of around 350,000 with a metropolitan area of 2 million. Los Angeles is a city of 4 million with a metropolitan area of 15 million. So the problems that I saw in Cincinnati are multiplied, theoretically, by a factor of roughly 7 in Los Angeles. And the thing that troubles me the most in this scenario is in the issue of evolving race relations. Cincinnati still has lingering issues with race relations, more than 7 years after its race riots. The primary source of conflict, in my opinion, was the distrust of the urbanized and typically less-well-off African-American population by the middle-class, suburban white population. There were good people and many misunderstandings on both sides of this debate in Cincinnati when I lived there. Most of what I saw had to do with perception and misconceptions.

I wish I could have brought some of the trees from my old street in Cincinnati with me to LA. It's too dry here for them, I think.

Fast forward to Los Angeles, and my life a few blocks away from Skid Row. The thing that troubles me here is that there is not just one cultural group that may experience conflict with one other group ... it's that there are so many cultures, and when you increase the number of cultures, you increase the potential for conflicts. The way NOT to handle this, I would say, is by insulating yourself from other people who are your neighbors, as the Latino community did last weekend in Downtown LA. Regarding this event, Blogdowntown wrote "And if I am allowed to dream on a long weekend; in a city that boasts cultural diversity, why isn’t there a parade that gives everyone a chance to be represented on one day, on one street? Parades are segregated. There is no Cultural Diversity March that has, say, two entries from the best of L.A.’s ethnic and holiday parades." I don't know why this particular situation struck such a chord with me, but it led me to write this post, and I think it's indicative of the state of cultural relations in this city. And this is where I start to really have problems. Because even Cincinnati - little, sometimes backwards Cincinnati - knew how to throw a parade, and a festival, and a block party that included everyone.

Over-the-Rhine, just north of Downtown Cincinnati, threw darn good block parties.

So I know this is really super long and kudos if you are still reading, but this has got me thinking a lot lately. I could be wrong but it doesn't seem like other major cities in the U.S. experience these issues, or if they do, they deal with them a lot better. It just seems to me that if Los Angeles wants to survive and not render itself functionally obsolete, it needs to encourage its citizens to live with each other, not just next to each other; to work together, not apart. And in return, these citizens need to learn to take care of their community, and eventually give back. Since LA's problems are multiplied by a factor of 7, it's got a lot more at stake. Geoff Manaugh writes in his ode, "... the huge irony is that Southern California is where you can actually do what you want to do; you can just relax and be ridiculous." But how much longer can LA continue on its current path before even relaxing becomes ridiculous? I may just be asking the question now, but LA needed the answer yesterday.


liz said...

i love this post, it is really interesting. i definitely noticed some of what you are talking about when i visited. i feel like also the racial issues are not just black and white, but you have a serious disconnect between latinos and others in CA. of course you have that here too (example: crazy butler co sheriff) but it is to a lesser degree.

another city that has serious race relations issues is detroit. it's so separated that it's sad and the city is totally suffering.

one thing i feel like all of these cities have in common is the fact that they are so spread out and have so much rich white suburbia. people are not forced to interact so they don't. also i feel like a lack of seriously good public transportation adds to this... people just sit in their cars by themselves.

emKem said...

Thanks Liz. It's been weighing on me a lot lately. Especially with the Latino community, it's very divided here. Maybe it has something to do with the population of illegals? I am not sure.

You're right, Detroit is in trouble too. And you make an excellent point about public transportation... cars allow us to stay away from each other. Stupid cars :o/

myriam said...

Absolutely fascinating post. Lots for me to chew on, as I'm experience a similar move but in the opposite direction. (SoCal --> Midwest.)

You've given me enough to think about that I'd like to let my thoughts coalesce for awhile before responding more fully. I'll come back. Meanwhile, thanks for taking the time to write this out!