Evolution

“Wait. Are you taking a picture of that so that you can report it?”

I stop.

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I lower the camera and look into the flashing eyes of a woman in a brown-and-tan, cloche-style hat, its brim trimmed in leopard print. She’s stands just inches away. Her skin is smooth, the color of pecans, her vivid eyes a half-shade darker. I feel the heat of her anger. It flies off her body like a stray blue sparks. She wears an aqua, church-length skirt. Low-heels. Handbag. She had been walking with great purpose, taking long, quick strides, being that it was early on a Sunday.

“See all that mess up here,” she points up at the old rubber bike tires looped around tree branches, ring-toss fashion. “That all shouldn’t be up in here. This used to be my church!” Now her voice cracks and I understand the fury in her eyes. She lets the former long name roll off, but all I can pick up is “His” and “Pentecostal” maybe “Redeemer” or “Tabernacle” — “Now look: It’s Jesus’  Bike Shop!” That’s sacrilegious.” —

And there it is in big red letters — “Jesus Bike Shop.” I want to suggest that that might be the owner’s name, but check myself. Really, I’m now here to listen.

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These neighborhoods never turn easily. None of them. Ever.

I hadn’t been down the long stretch of Central Avenue — L.A.’s former Jazz Corridor —  for awhile. As a kid, I loved the old squat brick storefronts in particular — they were old even back then — and in some ways helped me to better picture what L.A. looked like in the decades before I was born. Then too there was the Dunbar  — formerly the Somerville — the “hub of the Central Avenue scene” — that catered to African American entertainers in the 30s and 40s,  who would be turned away from lodging in other parts of the city.  Despite its own city-tussles it’s still there. This morning a half a dozen men tending to its facade and its garden  — the parkway dotted with California resilient, native succulents.

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Be that as it may, an elegant museum piece of L.A.’s  past doesn’t address her larger problem of the here and now —  watching the neighborhood evolve before her eyes.

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Now she turns fully to face me and begins to tell me the story of her own street — a few blocks down from where we stand — and how the gangs have begun to use the alley to “drink and drug.” Too, there’s the problem of the mess, “they paint all over those walls. I called the city, I called the 3-1-1, told them they needed to come down and paint those walls and fix my gate. They said: the gate is yours to fix, but they sent someone to paint the walls. It’s improved. The alley looks good now,” she stops, smiles for the first time. “You just have to stay on it. Right on top of it. Gotta stay on the city, me and my neighbors…but you know…”

But truly I don’t quite know. What must it feel like to see your neighbors go — move across town, out of state, die. What must it feel like to lose the rhythm of your routines: your corner store, your pharmacy, your church — your “rock” — to a bike shop — that thinks so little of a neighborhood as to throw its discards into already barren trees. What would it be to not recognize the businesses or faces on your street? But there she was Sunday morning on a stretch of sidewalk that was for the most part deserted,  walking with purpose– not fear — talking about “improvements.”

That Los Angeles that she set up household in is long, long gone.  Talk about looking deep into the eyes of the past. But what makes her a rarity here in L.A. is that  she’s a “past” who is very much still invested in a future — right here, right now, right where she planted and tended her own life’s garden —  tough, resilient. Native.

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The Café Effect

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I’M POSTING this because, coincidentally, I’ve been in a back-and-forth with another writer friend who can only write when there is a lot of noise — a lot.

I’m about 180-degrees the opposite in my orientation. Also I am known for working in the famously chaotic newsroom bullpen environment with ear plugs AND noise canceling headphones to block out even the most minute distraction. But this week the New York Times’s “Well” blog reported about a recenlty published study that suggests that I might going about it the wrong way — that working around a just bit of ambient noise can actually enhance your productivity. The post ties this research to the launch of a new website, Coffitivity, which brings the chatter and hum of café society to your own home…

From the post:

In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.
A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.

Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor of business administration at the university who led the research, said that extreme quiet tends to sharpen your focus, which can prevent you from thinking in the abstract.

“This is why if you’re too focused on a problem and you’re not able to solve it,” Dr. Mehta said, “you leave it for some time and then come back to it and you get the solution.”

I’m not quite convinced. I can only make a café stop when I am at very particular stages of the writing process — fine-tuning a piece, making notes as I begin research on a project, trying to free-assoicate, dream up what’s next — and sometimes that does indeed come from what’s filtering in via ambient conversation and observation. (The flow of Coffitivity’s background noise doesn’t contain any discernible words — rather it is rumbling murmur — some giggles — so what of the serendipity and synergy of a real-life café experience — the creative gains that occur with real interaction — even if it is eavesdropped.) So, I’ll keep my patterns as they are: I’ll roam around in the chatter in my head until it is time to be out amid the back-and-forth of the world’s.

Michael Hastings, 33

via NPR

Michael Hastings, the journalist whose candid interviews of Gen. Stanley McChrystal led to the officer’s eventual removal from his post, has died in a car crash. The news was announced Tuesday by BuzzFeed, which employed Hastings, 33. He was reportedly killed in an accident this morning in Los Angeles

Rolling Stone obit here.

Prep

TODAY WAS prep day for a story I’m beginning work on: tailing around one of L.A.’s premier music curators on the eve of a new season.
She’s dreaming up some menus — one for food and one for music — for tomorrow evening.
Just a few frames from this morning from the Larchmont Farmers Market. Tomorrow more when she gets down to work.

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we’ll see what’s in store…

Private Stories into Public Art

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A FEW weeks back, I spent a good part of the day roaming around inside the memory (and studio) of Inglewood-based artist Michael Massenburg — for a piece I was putting together for KCET. He works with found pieces, discards — newspaper, fabric remnants, cast-off pieces of wood — and refashions them into art.

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He does the same with the stories of neighborhoods — the faces and voices of those who came before us. Since so much in Los Angeles is quickly jettisoned, discarded, Massenburg has set himself on a path to find value in what has been tossed away and in so doing he carefully creates lost layers and contexts.

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His most recent installation at the Farmdale Station on the Expo Line — “Life in A Day” — tells the story of the neighborhoods fanning out around the tracks — not just coordinates and intersections — but the very details and nuances that distinguish one place from another. His work doesn’t just resurrect ghosts but re-assembles history.

My full piece is up here at Artbound|KCET

images: by Michael Massenburg