Monday, April 30, 2007

Fifteen Year Anniversary of L.A. Riots

I have lived most of my life in Los Angeles. On April 29, 1992, I saw events occur that I knew could happen, but never believed would transpire. After the inconceivable acquittal of the LAPD officers charged with the beating of Rodney King, some sections of the city exploded. The fires burned in familiar places and mayhem ensued close to home. It was our city's darkest hour.

The anniversary passed with few public comments. Time Magazine published a special section. The Los Angeles press had a couple items, but most of the attention was paid to Senator Barack Obama's glamorous appearances. (Image: LA Times) I rather like Sen. Obama, and I appreciate his compelling oratory style and stubstance. (Stevie Wonder is pretty cool too.) When Sen. Obama spoke at the First AME Church in South Central LA (a prominent pulpit in the city, certainly so after the 92 riots), he spoke of a wound in our cities and of a metaphorical bullet that needs to be removed. There is a wound, yes, but to remove the lead, where to begin?

It is astounding to see the lack of progress and development in South Central. I remember driving by burned out sections of town on my way to grad school at U.S.C. that remained vacant for years. And still, I can't believe that the same politicians are reelected, the same platitudes are offered. The song and dance hasn't changed since the Watts riots. Of course people have been and continue to be fed up.

Little has been done to create economic development. The Times reports that a Rebuild LA (the private post-riot recovery agency) "study said that an infusion of $6 billion was needed to reverse decades of stagnation in South Los Angeles. When the agency shut down in 1997, corporate investment totaled only $389 million."

To that point, Sen. Obama adds:
"We have now spent half a trillion dollars on a war that should have never been authorized, and should have never been waged," Obama said. "We could have invested that money in SouthCentral Los Angeles, or the South Side of Chicago, in jobs and infrastructure and hospitals and schools. Why is it we can find the money in a second for a war that doesn't make any sense?"
The above comment is a day late and a dollar short, to say the least. Whatever you think about the war, federal money was never going to solve the problems of South Central (no matter how many times Congresswoman Maxine Waters will lie and promise to the contrary). One thing that South Central needs is more investors like Magic Johnson working with corporations like Starbucks to bring good jobs and sustainable business to the region.

Lastly, I'll note that I didn't see many blog posts about the anniversary. I would like to comment on one post at the capable blog LAist: (Can't We All Just Get Along - 2007). The post was somewhat interesting, but one phrase jumped out as absurd: "For five days, all of the stored up bitterness, resentment, and frustrations were unleashed in a cathartic rage on the city as the rest of the world watched." (Italics mine.) Cathartic? Since when is arson (more than 1,100 buildings), murder (53 lives taken), racially-targeted violence (2,300 people injured), and widespread mayhem considered cathartic? Not the right choice of words. Catharsis is a purification, described by Aristotle as the purging of emotion, fear, or terror by experiencing a poetic tragedy. While I understand that a riot, like catharsis, is a release of energy, its end result is not pure. If writers and politicians continue to frame riot in terms of "uprising" or exacting satisfaction, then it will be construed to be a justifiable event, which it is not and never can be.

On Wednesday, I'll feature a book that is essential in understanding the King beating, the trial, and the riots.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Santa Catalina is a-waitin' for me

I first traveled to Catalina Island (a small island located about 22 miles off the coast of California Google Map) as a Boy Scout in the early 1980s (back when it wasn't problematic to be a Scout). The Los Angeles Scouts had a summer camp at Emerald Bay. To us, as suburban kids, it was a natural landscape we were unaccustomed to, a paradise. The water was cold, but clear. Could this be the same Pacific waters? No sludge? No bacteria? I remember my first hours there in camp. Myself and a few others from Troop 961 hiked over a ridge at the edge of our campground, and we were surprised to be met by a herd of bison! Our encounter with nature was more than we bargained for. We were kept awake all night by packs of wild boar who roamed camp in search of candy, toothpaste, anything sweet. Woe to the kid who neglected to eat all of his Skittles or put his shampoo up in a tree and out of snout range.

These two species were not native to the island. The fact is that the beasts were brought over to the island for a film production and (according to rumor) left due to a shortage of funds to pay for their return. On a recent trip, I learned that the boar had been all but eliminated from the island (they were a threat to the ecosystem), but the bison still thrive. The Catalina Island Conservancy devised a plan to export a portion of the bison herd to repopulate Plain State Indian reservations.

My introduction to the island was important, not only because it was a fun place to go (being a pre-litigious era, we were allowed to go jump off of a 30+ foot cliff into the sea). It was a way to connect to California history, to wonder at a marvel close to home but never dreamed of, and to experience nature in an elemental way that was not easy for a kid of my background and setting.

For the next few Fridays, I'll tell you a little more about Catalina Island, its history, my connection to it, and how you can plan a trip. For now, I'll leave you with a link to the hit song, "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" (iTunes) by the Four Preps.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Where Jazz Lives

I mentioned in a previous post (Commuting, Traffic, and the Soul) the ultimate jazz and blues radio station: KKJZ, broadcasting from the campus of Cal State University, Long Beach. The website is actually: The superb site is also a great source for jazz and blues event listings in Southern California, and they also embed jazz news from NPR. I have not found a better jazz station anywhere. Nor have I ever heard a better radio announcer than the late Chuck Niles ("Be-Bop Charlie, Mr. Jazz, or The Minister of Cool") whose dulcet voice graced that station's broadcasts for many years. Click on the KJAZZ (their designation, but not their official call letters) logo above to listen live (streaming) anywhere in the world.

Monday, April 23, 2007


I've been reading The Chronicle for Higher Education's coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech, and one of the things that has struck me is how instructors and students talk about the unhinged youth (Cho Seung-Hui) and how they saw trouble coming. For instance, one former student (who was in a playwriting class with Cho) heard about the murders and immediately suspected that it was the kid in his class who wrote the disturbing plays. I work in an academic environment, and I know that it would be nearly impossible to pull a student like this out of the college (and similarly impossible, because of federal law, to learn of his deranged state). Still, it seems as though we ignore many dangers in our midst.

We pay little attention to the rate of violent death in this country unless it weighs heavily on a terrible scale. I mentioned to a co-worker the shootings and stabbings at my high school and surrounding schools in the late 1980s, and he was surprised that he hadn't heard about them. Why would he? He lived thousands of miles away. At the time, incidents like that weren't reported on a national scale. Certainly, we heard about the tragedy at Columbine, but that was perhaps the first time when school shootings entered the national consciousness. (Because of the ethnicity of the victims? Suburbs or exurbs as opposed to an urban environment?) Many people I spoke to at that time were surprised by the shootings, but the people who were not surprised grew up going to urban high schools. Teen-aged homicide has been with us for quite some time.

Consider the number of murders in this country. In 2005 (the most recent year with complete statistics that I could find) there were 16,692 homicides according to FBI stats. In California, there were 2,503. That's a rate of 6.9 murders per 100,000 residents in the state of California. In addition, homicides rates are increasing (but they're down overall from the high rates of the early 90s).

My point is simply that we live in violent times with violent people among us. The families of victims often suffer with the crimes unsolved (or prosecutable) and their stories untold. If you want to know more about the lives of victims in a violent city, Jill Leovy at the LA Times compiles brief stories at The Homicide Report. This reading isn't morbid voyeurism. They're reporting sad stories not addressed by the national media. While people are learning about the latest Hollywood gossip, there are personal tragedies that escape (and somehow demand) our attention.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fresh Fruit!

If you have ever found yourself living in the Midwest or Northeast, pacing the aisles of a grocery store to stock up for another winter blizzard, invariably your thoughts will turn to California in the produce aisle. All tomatoes are flavorless, the avocado offering is dismal, the lettuce is wilting, and the oranges are bruised, battered, and expensive. Oh, you were spoiled with that stubby lemon tree, delicious bell pepper bush, and the juicy oranges on the straining boughs in your own BACKYARD!

There is sweet relief. I salivated over the April 2007 issue of Sunset magazine, "savoring" their travels through the bountiful Ojai region. Among the many places mentioned in the article, I was most intrigued by Friend's Ranch, a family-owned citrus grower that has been in operation for over a hundred years. These folks will ship to your home a box of citrus delights (and avocados), which varies by seasonal availability. They're famous for something they call the pixie tangerine. Oh, how I want one now.

Better yet, go and visit them. (Google map) Let me know how that pixie tastes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Control of Nature

My plan was to work on a post last night and finish it in the morning. Instead, I spent the night battling nature. Our basement leaks like a sieve. We have a champion sump pump (that my father-in-law thankfully installed) but that machine is not enough to stop the seeping water. Thus, I was armed with a shop vac, and cursed my way through moving basement water-soaked miscellanea.

This effort brought to mind the way in which we build homes and cities with little regard as to how nature can and will intrude. There is much written about this, but I have not come across a better author than John McPhee. The most powerful of his books on this subject is The Control of Nature. Here is how his website describes the book:

"In Louisiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has declared war on the lower Mississippi River, which threatens to follow a new route to the sea and cut off New Orleans and Baton Rouge from the rest of the United States. Icelanders confront flowing red lava in an attempt to save a crucial harbor. In Los Angeles, basins are built to catch devastating debris flows from the San Gabriel Mountains.

Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters."
The phrase "contested territories" says it all. We're in a contest with nature, and we're certainly the underdog. Reading McPhee, one realizes that we're at the mercy of bad planning and aggressive engineers, more so than the environment. Where is your house built? What dangers await?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Commuting, Traffic, and the Soul

This morning I read a post on LA Biz Observed (an informative blog written by Mark Lacter that is part of the site LA Observed) about an article on commuting in The New Yorker titled, "Annals of Transport: There and Back Again: : The Soul of the Commuter." Lacter points out that Los Angeles was only briefly mentioned in the article, but he notes that the opening paragraph describes the herculean three hundred and seventy-two mile commute by a Cisco Systems engineer ("Sierra foothills to San Jose"). Lacter lists average yearly communing delays (hours in addition to normal commuting time) at the end of his post. Los Angeles and San Francisco lead the way with 93 hours and 72 hours respectively. That's a lot of lost time, but I'd guess that it's a low estimate. In the late 90s I worked as an assistant for two entertainment managers in Beverly Hills. My commute was roughly nine to ten miles on surface streets, yet it invariably took me forty-five minutes to an hour to commute. That's "soul-corroding" slow, to borrow from Nick Paumgarten, the author of the New Yorker article. What should be ascribed to as lost time is due to poor urban planning. (There's a reason why it's impossible to get to BH from anywhere—the wealthy keep freeways out of their neighborhood.)

Lost time in the car is wasted time, certainly. Were it not for NPR or KLON jazz (now KKJZ), I would have gone insane. Which leads to some interesting thoughts and research presented in the New Yorker article. Paumgarten describes how commuting dislocates the individual from civic and family life.
I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”
Commuters are aware of their disconnect, but like others engaged in social pathologies, they do little to correct their situation. In addition, people tend not to be logical in their cost-benefit analysis:
Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. ...The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated.

"People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.

I no longer live in Los Angeles, and my daily commute is little over a mile. I live in a college town where life should be more pedestrian. It isn't exactly. Essentials are closer together (read Paumgarten's clever description of Putnam's living triangle), so there's less time wasted in the car. Do I have more social connections as a result? Probably not, though I may live longer; saved by fewer pains in my gut due to road rage.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

So It Goes

Alert the Bear, the blog, begins today. What is Alert the Bear? It's a blog reflecting on news, culture, sports, nature, and travel in California. The Golden State has a vast and diverse population, geography, and culture. Certainly this blog can't cover this state in its entirety. It's but one man's view on what rises and falls in the west.

Generally, the blog will have posts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Monday's post will focus on news and culture. Wednesday's contribution will explore California arts (books, music, film, and more). On Friday, Alert the Bear will try to get you out the door and into the wild. Posts will cover travel, nature, and things to do.

Want ATB to answer your questions or cover a topic?
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