An Ode to a Place, Los Angeles

The American Way by Tristan Eaton in Long Beach, CA. “This mural is inspired by a 1937 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White depicting a group of African American men and women waiting is a bread line for relief and disaster support. Tristan’s reworking of this image highlights the ever present inequality in American culture. The imagery chosen and collaged together analyzes the American Dreams versus the reality of the American Nightmare.

Los Angeles is a complex city. It’s full of grit and glamour, extreme haves and have-nots, a vast variety of cultural goods and cultural appropriation. I grew up in the port of Los Angeles in a city called San Pedro, a bastion of oddity, art, and old world ideals proud to be named the Surliest Town in Los Angeles. Deemed the most likely place to get into a bar fight, likely with someone wearing a “where the ghetto meets the sea” sweatshirt from a local shirt company, San Pedro is an old-school Italian, Croatian, Portuguese, Mexican, and Greek fishing village that has turned into one of the United States largest industrialized and unionized ports, bringing in $1.2 billion of cargo every day. San Pedro is decidedly a blue collar town at the edge of Los Angeles, full of pride and meaning with busy local art galleries, theatre companies, Johnny Depp look-alike mailmen, Misty Copeland led dance classes at the local ballet company, and a vast variety of cultural honor. (Eric, the Depp-esque mailman, used to deliver my mail, and he’s super nice.) I couldn’t wait to leave when I finished high school. Yet, I returned again and again as it will forever be my hometown.

Photo of Sunken City via The Wild Mile. During my undergraduate years in Boston, my roommate’s boyfriend, who hailed from the Orange County city of Seal Beach, told me that he “found” Sunken City and no one else knew it was there. I’m pretty sure people noticed when the road fell off the cliff, friend. I’m also pretty sure everyone in my high school went there for something illicit at some point as well.

Years later, I would return to downtown Los Angeles as I attended graduate school, spending an inordinate amount of time in south central LA high schools for a project in which I interviewed students about their college and career aspirations. During this time period, especially whilst exploring LA hipster-institutions such as Silverlake, Echo Park, and Culver City, I became much better acquainted with “the industry” of film, having really until then only vaguely been aware of film sets on my daily commute, the frequency of the LA harbor showing up in any movie requiring a port, and how people tended to discuss celebrity in hushed tones usually reserved for places of worship. I now know a good portion of people who work in film, at various levels, jobs, and degrees of success; the majority are transplants from other cities, regions, countries, all drawn to Los Angeles to pursue a life of film-making. Film, to me, is such a perfect example of working across and between arts and design disciplines, the great medium that involves it all. But, “the industry” is not all of Los Angeles, but it’s in large part how Los Angeles is viewed by both the world and its own elite.

Mural by French artist JR, overlooking downtown Los Angeles.

And, now on every April 25, LA is apparently going to devote an official day to a film that sings its own accolades and “celebrates the magic of the city.” I would like to add, the magic of the very white, high socio-economic status, and culturally appropriated arts of Los Angeles. (Unpopular opinion: I really hated La La Land.)

“Just in time for the La La Land’s DVD release, the film got a love letter of its own from Los Angeles in a ceremony…on the steps of City Hall. ‘It it my pleasure to declare today in the city of Los Angeles ‘La La Land’ Day,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said of Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning ode to LA.” Via How does LA celebrate La La Land Day? With aerial dancers, a jazz band, and Mayor Garcetti on the keys

This news article kept popping up on my feed on good ol’ La La Land Day. However, the commentary was from my native Angelino friends from across the basin: “That’s it…I’m packing an moving to CDMX before white people also ruin that place.” “Nothing like a movie about LA made by an outsider being celebrated by other outsiders and the typical elite.” “La La Land 2 will actually be a prequel set in 1992 about teenage Seb’s efforts to quell the LA Riots through the magic of song, dance, and cultural appropriation.” La La Land is not all of Los Angeles, but it is instead a work on how the city is viewed and given worth.

Meanwhile, three miles down the road from City Hall, there is an ongoing battle between arriving artists and the community of Boyle Heights. In Los Angeles, the arrival of artists and arts galleries skyrockets real estate values and the cost of living, pushing out long-standing communities and changing art from a home-grown ideal to instead an external view of the city.

“Today, artists are more liable to be described as the ‘gentrifying foot soldiers of capitalism,’ harbingers of highfalutin coffee and six-figure loft living. That is certainly the case in Boyle Heights, where a number of art spaces have materialized in the industrial zone just west of the 101 Freeway over the last three years, raising alarms among longtime residents about gentrification…
‘Artists who didn’t grow up in Boyle Heights, they look at Boyle Heights as a blank canvas,’ she says. ‘They don’t realize they are painting over another work of art.’
Via ‘Out!’ Boyle Heights activists say white art elites are ruining neighborhood…but it’s complicated.

Gentrification of communities is not all of Los Angeles, but how art is used to impact urban policies, place-making, and planning is how the city will continue to deal with these issues.

A response to this on-going debate and protest in Boyle Heights has been a grass-roots group called the Ovarian Psyco-Cycle Brigade, about whom there is a new documentary by Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle.

“Boyle Heights is in the midst of a mighty struggle with the forces of gentrification, and the members of OPC are trying to walk the fine line between creating a more bike-friendly environment and creating an environment that caters to outside interests. In an interview with Good magazine, OPC founder Xela de la X said that “one of the telltale signs of gentrification in our communities is [the appearance of] bike paths.” She argues that, while bike paths make cyclists feel safer, they also act as welcoming beacons to potential gentrifiers.” Via New Film Documents Badass Women Bicyclists of Boyle Heights

OPC frames themselves thus:

“ Established in 2010, we have supported and fortified young womxn of color leadership through a credo that believes in ‘feminist ideals with indigena understanding and an urban/hood mentality… Our mission and vision currently under construction.. when the rest of the world and all our relatives alongside us are dying, being held hostage in the prisons, holding strong through the terror and inhumanity at Standing Rock, our relatives that have suffered the continued raping and the pillaging in occupied territories all over the globe, ‘healing our communities by addressing pertinent issues’ no longer feels sincere nor is it an adequate nor appropriate response. We will learn tactics, build strategy and in the process find our purpose.. accepting that we may or may not ever heal.”

There are a lot of things that may not be all of Los Angeles, but, at least, this movement seems so much more real to me than any choreographed version of LA. It’s a city full of love and hate, grass roots movements and slick production values, local and global art, long commutes and feeling close at home. Los Angeles is a complex city. And, it will always be home.

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