30 May 2009

Lamenting Los Angeles: A Melancholy Manifesto

You could say that I've been working on this blog post for nearly two years. It's taken me days to write. You'll forgive me, then, if its large length dwarfs that of my normal posts.

My days in LA are numbered. Whether I get a job or not still remains to be seen. What is not in dispute, however, is that I don't think Los Angeles is right for me at this time in my life. The following thoughts (or novella, perhaps) try to explain this feeling a bit.

When I got here in August 2007, my heart and my eyes were wide open; I'd lived in several of the country's greatest cities - New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC - and now I was going to give Los Angeles an extended try, by going to graduate school at USC. I'd never really liked LA in the several weeks I'd experienced it as a visitor or business traveler, but I was sure that living here would be different. In my first couple of months, I think I must have had an exuberance that only new people can show; everyone was nice to me, I smiled constantly, and I started to think like this guy.

A ferris wheel at one of USC's many on-campus events.

As it's well documented, I sold my car before I moved to LA. I did this because I am not one to shy away from a challenge; so what if LA is the "car capital of the country? They have a fledging subway system, I'll be fine. Plus I have my bike!" Frankly it made sense financially, too. By getting rid of my car before moving, I saved not only a couple hundred bucks a month in car payments, I also saved at least $100 a month for insurance, let's say $150 a month for parking, plus maybe $50-$75 a month for gas...not to mention how much it would cost me to move around the city, and pay for parking in those places. I've estimated that I saved at least $20,000 by not having a car while living here in LA. That savings allowed me to spend more time on school work and less time at a job, which led to more opportunities at school, which led to several extra lines on my resume. I do not regret my decision at all, and every time I realize how much hassle my friends go through trying to park and/or fix and/or pay for their cars, I feel a little relieved that I sold mine a while ago.

One of USC's many perks: football games.

What I soon started to discover, however, and what I still believe, is that, while I enjoyed my time at USC immensely, my school is an island. It's not the only one though. There are many, many islands in Los Angeles. Some of them have big tall buildings and cultural institutions, like Downtown or the Miracle Mile; some of them have lovely neighborhoods and bohemian attitudes, like Santa Monica or Venice Beach. On the other hand, some of them have blight and crime and poverty and gangs, like Skid Row, just next to Downtown; or "the Jungle" in Baldwin Hills, which I once rode my bike through without any idea that there had been a movie made about the gangs in the area. Other "islands" are as reserved and exclusive as if they were an actual island, like Brentwood or parts of the Hollywood Hills. And Griffith Park, which the city boasts is "one of the largest urban parks in the country", is so hard to get to it might as well be an island.

The Getty Center has some of the most beautiful gardens in the entire LA area. And they are free and open to the public! Well, except for the cost of parking. The Getty Center is definitely an island.

My thinking about Los Angeles as a series of islands came from my gut. This is a city without a center: Downtown is trying really really hard to be the center, but aside from a glorious confluence of public transportation lines (that I took advantage of constantly), it bears little resemblance to the city centers I know and love, like New York and San Francisco. Communities insulate themselves here. Whether because of trying to stick to the safety of their native / immigrant culture, or fear of other groups, or awful school systems, or who knows what, the norm for a lot of people in Los Angeles is not to interact with the unknown "other". People get around "other" people in Los Angeles by hopping in their cars and driving around them. The truth, of course, is in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, you can't really avoid people who aren't like you. At USC, we embrace diversity in a way that I didn't experience much in the rest of LA. I did feel uneasy in a lot of places in the city, however, in part because many signs were not in English, or the streets and sidewalks were so poorly maintained it was hard to walk.

This year's entanglement on World Pillow Fight Day in Pershing Square.

Which is not to say that I didn't have fun during my time here. When there was a pillow fight or a protest or a bike ride to be had, I was always out there. But I'm a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky person. My natural state is inquisitive and awe-struck, but cautious. I took initial joy in the drama of every day life in the city, and things like film shoots or festivals in my neighborhood were an adventure. But recently I had to walk 3 blocks out of my way to get home because of a film shoot, and frankly that made me cross. And I can hardly walk around my neighborhood now without dodging creepy people, or silently ignoring catcalls or unsolicited comments from some disgusting man on the street. (Why do people always try to talk to me, anyway? Do I have a sign on my head that says, "Please, crazy person, speak up"?) So after a couple of years of dealing with this, even formerly welcome surprises have lost their luster.

Prop 8 protest at City Hall, November 15, 2008.

The interesting thing to note here is that this is all my opinion, an opinion that was formed by a person who does not have a car in one of the most car-happy cities in the country. The irony here, too, is that LA has many neighborhoods that are walkable, including my own. It's just that everyone here knows that one's life isn't restricted to one's neighborhood. Would I have come to any of these conclusions had I also been a car owner, if I had taken public transportation less and disengaged from the life of a sidewalk dweller a little more? It's hard to say. But I know many people who live in LA who do like it, and it works for them, and I believe all of them are car owners. And it's not even that I am so anti-car that I wouldn't consider getting one; I just don't like the idea that my life in a particular place is incomplete without being permanently attached to a set of wheels. I used to live in Cincinnati, where having a car was even more of a necessity, but it was also affordable. In Los Angeles, things that are affordable elsewhere become much more of a burden.

Downtown at sunset, from a bike.

Which brings me to my next big problem: LA is the most overpriced city in America. Don't take it from me, take it from that article. This goes back to some of the issues I mentioned earlier. I think it's easy for communities in this region to insulate themselves, into what I think of as islands. This is a gross generalization, of course, and not everyone acts this way, but in the communities that do, I think you'll find a higher percentage of gang activity. And these gangs are really scary. Gangs are obviously a serious problem here, but of course they are not the only problem. There's an ecosystem of political and social problems that feed off of each other, that contribute to making life more difficult in the Southland. There's the budget problems, how California has the worst credit rating in the country, and how it's about to go bankrupt. There's the modern-day equal rights debate, being played out all across the state and in protests and counter-protests throughout the city. And there's the vicious cycle.....the distance between home and work for many people is exacerbated by the cost of housing and the availability of jobs; in turn, the distance contributes to a higher cost of transportation; the massive amount of roads required to get massive amounts of people back and forth from all areas to all other areas requires an equally massive investment in infrastructure; the need for infrastructure improvements creates a greater tax burden; taxes are strained even further as public services like the police and fire departments struggle to not only keep up with the distance between communities but the increased tension between them. In short - it's a giant hot mess. And it might - might - all be manageable, if it weren't for that pesky other problem we have to worry about: our environment.

View from the roof of my apartment building during the fires that surrounded the county last November. This photo was taken in the middle of the day.

When the San Andreas Fault and its little siblings aren't trying to shake us all to the ground; when fires aren't eating up chaparral and homes somewhere to the North, South, or East of us (quelled only to the West by the ocean); when the air pollution spewed forth by the imposing and unrelenting grid of buildings, the sea of autos, and the throbbing mass of humanity isn't trying to change our DNA; what we really have to worry about in Los Angeles, my friends, is the water, or lack thereof. This, too, is ironic since there's so much of it just to the West of us. We don't currently have the capacity to make that useful, however (desalination, anyone?), and we have been in a drought for three years and counting. Water conservation rates are going into effect starting June 1. The Southland draws water from two aquaducts that traverse the entire lower half of the state, but when will they dry up? The people that run the state have been asking that question for a while now. But we don't have an answer yet.

Ah, the beach.

If I think too hard about all the problems that face Southern California, it's enough to make me run screaming from the region. But the truth is that humans have been settling here for hundreds of years, and the climate is more than conducive to human activity. A little too conducive maybe....in the winter months, I noticed the tendency for people to bring up the "sunshine" and the "warm weather" in conversations more often. As if to say, 'hey, it may have taken me 90 minutes to get here in bumper to bumper traffic, and the cost of living is crippling, and there could be another atmosphere-wrecking wildfire or an earthquake next week, but at least it's not -5 degrees here like it is in Minnesota.' Yes, the weather is, as my friend Ian would have said, "unnoticable" most of the time. But I just wish the Southland would try a little harder to look at their long-term growth while soaking up the sun. Because I chuckle when people talk about how California is leading the green movement. In some respects, like standards and legislation, it IS a national leader for environmentalism, and good for it! ... But in many other respects, it's definitely not.

This is the only photo on this post that I didn't take. It showed up on MSNBC last fall during the fires. If I could sum up Southern California with a photo, this would be it.

With that, I think I've said my piece. I've decided that my two years living in Los Angeles was well-spent, and pleasant, but a challenge. I could probably come back, eventually, but only if the city evolves to reflect a place that offers the quality of life that its high cost of living already demands. I'm going to leave you with a few more photos that I've taken since I moved here, as well as some quotes from a recent Los Angeles Magazine article about LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mayor Tony just got reelected to a second term (apparently; I sure didn't vote for him) and the article tries to give him suggestions on how he might salvage his time in the Mayor's office.

An Open Letter to Antonio Villaraigosa by Ed Leibowitz

"....Your successes can mask the truth: what you now lead is an administration in which politics is almost always trumps policy - where solvable problems become impossible to fix."

"We're still the gang capital of the world, with 40,000 members causing havoc. In 2006, gangs were responsible for more than half the city's murders. Crime rates have gone down, though try telling that to the elementary school students in Highland Park who practice diving under their desks in anticipation of live rounds, the way children in the '50's prepared for atomic bombs. By middle school, as much as 90% of the students in L.A.'s poorest neighborhoods will have been exposed to violence, with more than a quarter of them suffering post-traumatic stress disorder."

I love this picture I took of Downtown from the top of City Hall.

Andy Lipkis: "The critical problem the mayor should take on is water. Three factors are creating a perfect storm of water shortages in LA. First, although rain in most years could provide nearly half the water we need for all uses, we send most of the rainwater we receive into the ocean. Second, we are inefficient in our use of the water that is piped here from hundreds of miles away. Third, our traditional sources of water are being threatened by environmental degradation and climate change...."

Disney Hall, by Frank Gehry.

Lisa Watson: "With more homeless than any other city in the country, Los Angeles has the opportunity to be a national leader or a national disgrace. I hope that Mayor Villaraigosa continues to take on the challenge to lead the country in ending homelessness by providing affordable and permanent supportive housing to the area's 70,000 homeless people."

Umbrella building in Culver City, by Eric Owen Moss.

Bill Allen: "When compared with the rest of LA County, the city of LA has dramatically underperformed in the creation of jobs since 1980. From 1980, to 2008, LA added more than 1 million residents to its population while losing more than 50,000 jobs. The causes include the highest taxes on business of the 88 cities within the county, a far too complicated and political process for development, and an extraordinarily high rate of conversion of the city's scares industrial land to uses that accommodate population growth but not job growth."

One of my favorite buildings in the city is just up the street from my apartment: the CalTrans building by Morphosis.

David A. Abel: "It was urban theorist Jane Jacobs who said that a metropolitan economy, when it is working well, doesn't lure the middle class, it creates one. The most important challenge for the mayor is to attract, retain and grow middle-class jobs. Today LA is not only losing its middle class, it is without either a coherent, integrated economic strategy to reverse the trend or an accountable city department to implement one."

6565 Sunset Blvd.

Cheers, Los Angeles. I'll try to miss you.

26 May 2009

Fighting for Equal Rights requires equal effort

Of course I disagree with this morning's decision by the California Supreme Court to uphold the ban on gay marriage. I, like many people, want the gay community to have the same rights as the rest of us, and think it is unjust otherwise. I am, however, not surprised. I am glad that they allowed the marriages that had already happened to remain unscathed, but in case anyone forgot, there WAS an election in November and California DID vote to ban gay marriage. I didn't think that the courts would go against this public mandate, however disappointing it may be, and they did not.

Here's the thing though: this is a pretty serious equal rights issue. Does anyone recall the civil rights struggles of the 1960's? If not, you can go look at the statues erected of the civil rights leaders and protesters from the 60's to get an idea of how hard they had to fight to convince people that they deserved to be treated equally. Was it right? Of course not. It makes me sick to think that anyone was actually hurt trying to "convince" people that someone of color was equal to a white person.

Well, this is a struggle that reminds me of how the civil rights campaign may have gone in the 1960's. Except the people working the hardest are not the people who want equal rights for the gay community; the pro-Prop 8 people are working harder. Mormons, who we're all aware funded a large portion of the original Prop 8 campaign, actually give up an entire year of their lives to wear suits and nametags and go on missions to spread Mormonism all around the globe. Is anyone surprised by their efforts to defeat gay marriage? They are hard-working and persistent, and if we want equal rights for gays, we must be as well. I'm not suggesting that people who want equal rights for gays should give up a year of their lives to do anything, but this fight is going to require a lot more than strongly-worded Facebook status updates - it's going to require actual action.

Also the blame for this does not squarely lie on the shoulders of the California Supreme Court. They didn't start this and they won't end it. Fix the problem, not the blame, folks.

I mean, I'm trying to fight global warming and I went back to graduate school for two years. Global warming is going down, if I have anything to say about it! I hope for everyone's sake that there is a stronger effort in this struggle for equal rights in the 21st century. Otherwise, we might have to brace ourselves for more disappointments.

25 May 2009

LA Marathon!

Scene from the LA Marathon this morning at 7th and Flower in Downtown LA.

20 May 2009

Graduation Speech :: USC School of Architecture :: May 15, 2009

Following is the text from the graduation speech I gave to classmates, professors, friends and family at the USC School of Architecture graduation on May 15, 2009.

Good morning everyone!

I want to start off by thanking my classmates for inviting me to speak on their behalf today.

I also would like to thank all of our family and friends for supporting us throughout our entire time at USC, and also for joining us this morning.

Last but not least I want to thank the faculty and staff of the School of Architecture for challenging and encouraging us, and I'd especially like to thank the Building Science Faculty for mentoring me during my time here.

Now I'd like to address everyone here in the front, in the funny black hats: we picked a heck of a time to graduate, didn't we?

In all seriousness, though, these are very challenging times. Perhaps more challenging than any of us have ever seen. But I'm not going to stand up here and tell you what you already know. Instead, I'd like to use my time on this stage to give you a few tips that you can take with you when you leave here today. Without further ado...

"Emily's Top 5 Happy Thoughts for the Class of 2009."

NUMBER 5: Think positively and don't dwell on your fears. I started off with this one because there's a good chance that many of us are having negative thoughts about what the future holds. But just forget about that negativity. Let it go, it won't help. You've got goals; focus on those instead. So, plan out your goals, focus on them, and think positively about how you can achieve them, and they'll guide you through the challenges you face.

NUMBER 4: Remember your gifts. The number one gift you're being given is the piece of paper you're going to receive from this university. Yes, you had to pay for it so it's not necessarily a "gift"; and yes, the Trojan family and its network and the football games are all great, but not too many people have the opportunity to receive a world-class education like we did; take your experiences and what you've learned here with you, and it won't let you down.

NUMBER 3: Invest in yourselves. I must give credit for this one to Dean Ma, who so wisely mentioned it first at a lunchtime talk we had a few weeks ago. If, like many of us, you anticipate having some "down time" in the near future, use it to brush up on your skills. I made a major investment in myself when I quit my job a few years ago and decided to go back to graduate school. But I wanted to be a better designer and a better professional, and that's why I ended up at USC, and now I'm here giving you a speech, so I think I did OK! So, go out and learn a new program.... participate in competitions.... go to lectures or conferences or seminars....get out there and do whatever you can to make yourself a better designer and a better person. Which leads me to ....

NUMBER 2: Be exceptional people. Go out and do more than you've ever done before. Be "better" than you've ever been before. Be persistent and unrelenting in your pursuit of excellence. It sounds silly, but life is an adventure, and it will be an even greater one if you embrace it, open yourself up to new opportunities, and be the best version of yourself that you can.

And NUMBER 1: Create/innovate/instigate. Or to use a cliche, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Based on this premise, we should be able to make a LOT of lemonade right now...reservoirs, even. But maybe we can make a new kind of lemonade.... maybe we can drink it out of funny straws or mix it with pomegranate juice, or something. The point being, use your creative energy to try something differently, to look at problems in a new way, and to challenge limitations.

Ok, so I'm done with my list, which is good because I think my brief time is up. I realize that, as graduates, you probably thought you were done with note-taking, but I hope that something I said today resonated with you; I hope for all of us that we're able to go forth and make a difference in the world; on a personal level, I hope that each of us is able to contribute in a way that is helpful to the environment and to the Earth; and ultimately I'm confident that we will all persevere and succeed because we've been given the tools and the skills to do so. With that, I'd like to say, thanks again for having me, congratulations to my fellow graduates, good luck out there, and fight on!

17 May 2009

Graduation Day

Cross-posted with my Archinect School Blog....

My classmates and I graduated on Friday, in a grand morning ceremony with the Governator speaking, and then again at a "satellite" ceremony just for the School of Architecture. Literally I cannot believe how quickly the time has flown since I got here less than two years ago. Especially since last August....I feel like I blinked and it was May, and there I was in my funny gown and hood and hat. It's a strange and slightly scary feeling to be freed from academia again.

But enough about that, here are some photos.

Here is our flag, just before we're about to process into our seats for the main "all-school" ceremony.

The processional of school flags.

My view of the podium.

Arnold "The Governator" Schwarzenegger giving us a very funny commencement speech. Yes, he did say "I'll be back" at least 3 times.

A sea of graduates behind me. There were about 4500 students who graduated from USC on Friday!!!

My fellow Master of Building Science graduates, minus one, just before our ceremony.

Some of my M.Arch. friends.

More of my M.Arch. friends, + moi.

Dean Ma giving his speech at our School of Architecture ceremony. Just after this I gave my speech. Later, a total stranger told me that my speech was "the only one he could relate to", which I thought was nice!


....So that's pretty much it. I received two awards at the ceremony: the Alpha Rho Chi Medal for Leadership and the Master of Building Science Outstanding Thesis Award for the GreenDesignCollective and my thesis work related to it. Those were unexpected! But I am quite grateful for both.

Later when I have some time to calm down, I'll try to figure out what my future plans are so I can actually tell you about them. :o)

13 May 2009

Life changes!

I don't have much time, but the reason I've been quiet lately is because I've been swamped with cleaning, purging, writing, paying fees, and all sorts of other things involved with graduating, looking for a job, and starting to move. I am a bundle of nerves! To clarify, here is what's going on with my life:
  • Re: the move, I don't know where I'm moving yet! If I get a job and it suits me, then I'll move there. If I don't, then I'm going to stay in Hawaii with my man-friend for a while! I'm almost certainly leaving Los Angeles though, which is fine with me. More on that when I have time to breathe.
  • No, I don't have a job yet, but I did send applications and resumes all over the country, to every time zone. I had a couple of good interviews but nothing solid yet. The building industry is just really, really depressed right now. I'm extremely lucky to have even had interviews when some of these companies are receiving hundreds of resumes, and knowing that many friends have been laid off, furloughed, or can't find jobs - even with Target.
  • I'm graduating on Friday from USC. My degree is Master of Building Science. I won't receive that diploma for a few weeks, but I did already receive my Graduate Certificate in Urbanism & the Built Environment. It's pretty! Also, I was nominated by my classmates to give a speech at Friday's ceremony, so wish me luck! We'll try to record it and make it into a Podcast if anyone is interested.
Also, I wanted to mention that I am selling and/or giving away a bunch of furniture and other items. If you have any interest, please feel free to check them out on this Google Spreadsheet and leave me a comment here if something strikes your fancy. If you want it and I can ship it, then let's do it! Let's freecycle!

Whew! I'm like a tornado right now! Hopefully I'll have some good photos for the blog in a few days....

04 May 2009

In Seattle

Space Needle, Monorail, & Experience Music Project in foreground