Los Angeles: Roots

Almost a year ago to the tee, following a recommendation from a friend, I got my hands on a little book called City of Quartz by Mike Davis.

It felt like a brilliant discovery, since as early as the book’s first pages, one thing was clear: whether in discussing the international interests of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers or township rebellion through the streets of South Central, City of Quartz’s Mike Davis was someone who cared about Los Angeles.

In turn, I went through a few of Quartz’s chapters on the site, and had a blast analyzing the roots of The City in response to the author’s perspectives on it.

But then, something happened.

It was a great but unpredictable time for me. On the one hand, I was having a lot of fun earning a little bit of money from freelance writing and photography, not to mention time with The Plus Me Project and The Beautiful Gate, but on the other hand, it wasn’t enough.

It’d been just a year since I graduated from college, and though JIMBO TIMES had taken me to Miami, when I got back from the trip I could see that if I wanted to keep going places I’d have to make some sacrifices.

I then did what so many of my peers did before me, as our families did before us: I found myself a job, earned a little bit of pay, and called it a day.

It was good: I could finally help mom out at home on a more sustainable level, and I could also just help myself with anything from gas money to a new memory card for my camera.

But it was also tough: while I could see my time in the service industry with Starbucks as something honorable and even brilliant, I also felt that it was a significant digression from my interests in work for youth, education, and of course, the writing!

Work with the company was also exhausting; standing on my feet for so many hours of the day made it so that when I got home I found myself too worn out to keep my eyes up through a book as dense as Mike Davis’s Quartz.

I had to let it go, then. And let it go I did.

I told myself I’d get back to the book and the rest of J.T. soon enough, but then the days passed, and then some other projects came up, and then:

Boom!

From one week to the next, I got wrapped up in the cha-ching noise, numbers, and framework of it all; even if I wasn’t earning much, there was this rhythm to it that I respected — and, who am I kidding — it was a matter of getting some bread.

But the thing is: even if it was all well and fine to work and work hard, it also took time from The L.A. Storyteller, and I couldn’t just let this go.

In response, in January of this year I made some changes to my schedule in an effort to regain the time I’d lost with J.T. and was successful in doing so. Moreover, I was chosen for a special project with the Inside Out Writers, and just like that: my framework expanded.

Contrary to a silent skepticism, then, J.T. was still growing after all; new seeds were being planted, and earlier seeds were blooming at last.

But there was still more: more I needed to give to JIMBO TIMES, and more which I needed to sort of get back to…like City of Quartz, L.A. Stories, and other extensions of the site not just for me personally, but for the kids.

On seeing this, I realized that I had to make some sacrifices again, but this time in the other direction;

I had to get back to myself.

And so I do.

Tonight it’s a bittersweet pleasure to announce that I’m finished with Starbucks at the end of July, and that my project with the Inside Out Writers has grown into a precious part-time position with the organization.

It’s also a pleasure to announce that I’ll be picking up where I left off with City of Quartz over the next few weeks. The thing is, these pages are dedicated to The People of The City, and critical literature by those before us plays an integral part in just how the pages continue to form. I can’t just let this go, even when I do let it go.

As such, it’s about to get literary again, and so I hope The People are ready.

There’s too much going on in the world for us to neglect our voice in it. Plus, studies show that many of the kids from the neighborhood start to slump during the summer. But nah’, we choose to make the opposite true: this summer is now officially dedicated to reading, writing, and more work to uplift The People of L.A.

With more soon,

J.T.

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City of Quartz: Oh man,

Another great part of finally landing my hands on Davis’s Quartz is digging through all of the beautiful things that others have written about The City before The L.A. Storyteller. From the pages of Davis’s excavation, I draw from one of his quotations to share with J.T., which he takes from Morrow Mayo’s Los Angeles of 1933!

“Here is an artificial city which has been pumped up under forced draught, inflated like a balloon, stuffed with rural humanity like a goose with corn…endeavoring to eat up this too-rapid avalanche of anthropoids, the sunshine metropolis heaves and strains, sweats and becomes pop-eyed, like a young boa constrictor trying to swallow a goat. It has never imparted an urban character to its incoming population, for the simple reason that it has never had any urban character to impart. On the other hand, the place has retained the manners, culture, and general outlook of a huge country village.”

…And it’s so precious to meet the words of another soul fascinated by The City, through which time and space collapse for the timeless and spaceless realm of love; love for one’s surroundings, and one’s understanding of a world beyond them. I could have been born in Paris, or Mexico City, and I would have treasured it all the same. My affection for the place I call home is merely a human affection, for life that’s been around long before J.T., and which will remain long afterwards too.

In the meantime, however, it’s so great to see that L.A. was dealing with a ‘drought’ as far back as 1933. The truth is that the terrain on which The City was founded has always been a dry land, but that somewhere along the way either people forgot about the natural dry spell or flat out denied it in their insistence on living here. Los Angeles is indefinitely something of a living dream this way, or a fantasy that people hold onto because it’s better than ‘real life’ elsewhere.

For Mr. Davis and other writers, such ‘holding onto the dream’ marks L.A. as one of the last frontiers of late capitalism, where all of the fantasies of high living culminate into one great and strange experiment of freeways, beaches, individualism, and the sense of starting over and away from America, and even the rest of the world.

This assessment is fair enough, but for those of us who were born and bred in this city, L.A. is not the last, but just the first world of many more like it to come, where at some point in the process of living through a fantasy as people are living through a ‘drought’, people don’t just hold onto, but fight for their dreams. 

And if the last one hundred and twenty something years of L.A. show anything, it’s that no matter what society or year it might be, people will always need their dreams, as a life without them is meaningless. On the one hand, this is scary, since there are real and not fantasized issues that trouble L.A. like any other part of the world. On the other hand, it’s what keeps the great fight going, and I’ve got to be honest: I love a great fight. As Mayo, Davis, Fante, and countless other souls before me have fought with their words to ‘wake up’ The City, and as others will fight to do so after my time, it’s an honor to bring J.T. into what might most appropriately be called The Battle of Los Angeles.

With more soon,

City of Quartz: Opening Remarks [Extended]

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My brother and I might have been raised by a single mother, but we were raised to be educated, active, and resilient young men, so 
I’d never really thought of me and my family as vulnerable people. When I take a moment to think about the economics we’re steeped in today, however, I see us at a thin line between poverty and flat out financial insolvency. With Davis’s analysis in mind, that thin line is magnified. Continuing with some more of the preface from City of Quartz, another passage strikes me as being particularly relevant. Once again, in his updated preface of 2006, Davis writes:

As manufacturing employment shrinks, an already precarious low-wage workforce is further compressed into a limited spectrum of service-sector jobs in restaurants, hotels, offices, theme parks, and private homes. This service-heavy economy, based upon a myriad of poorly-capitalized small businesses, is especially vulnerable to fluctuations in economic weather…

When the financial meltdown of 2008 stormed the market, Davis’s insight proved to be prescient. Like the Titanic, the first to lose everything in the crash were the laborers at the bottom of the ship, or people like the garment workers who’d no longer have work following the crash even when they were just managing to pay their rent in the first place.

The second group of people to lose everything would be those just a level above the laborers, or people like me and my brother, as the inheritors of an economy that had no real safety net for their immigrant parents, and barely any safety net for us as their children.

For yours truly, however, in 2008 there wasn’t much of a crash for my eyes to assess. I was barely an eighteen-year old high school graduate then, and the only thing I knew is that I was going to college at the same time that the country was getting ready to claim its first Black president; I was excited about the future, and hopeful that I was a part of a new era of American culture. Plus, my mother had left the garment industry to start and run her own small business a few years prior, so I believed that my family’s destiny was always going to be a little different from those around us.

Our destiny would be different, in its own natural way, but not different enough to distinguish my mother’s struggle to pay the rent from that of our next-door neighbors who cleaned houses for a living. As Davis’s text points out, our ability to level the crash was fragile, and though my mother’s little newsstand business managed to survive the next couple of years of the sour market, a “profit” has never been more difficult for her to garner than it is today.

The truth is that business for mom is not growing, but reeling further into a story of yesterday’s memories with each passing day. In turn, seven years after Hope for an era of American Change, the only thing that’s different for me and my family is that the task now lies on my brother and I to step up and weather the storm.

I can live with this destiny, of course, as my mother managed to live with the fact that she’d have to raise two young men in Los Angeles on her own, but I know that all of us expected more from our country. Yet with the clock ticking, each minute that passes wanes my mother’s tiny bones further into exhaustion, making my post-graduate phase less about crafting my own destiny than about inhereting my mother’s. She needs major health procedures on her teeth and feet soon, and as Davis points out in his preface:

“The working poor in Los Angeles have only marginally better access to healthcare than they might possess in Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro.”

It’s true. As a recipient of Medi-Cal, like my mother before me, I know firsthand just how many benefits of the government’s health-care my family and I are actually able to access. Benefits include check-ups and diagnoses for our health needs, but the rest has to come out of pockets that are already drained.

Still, as Davis later points out in his preface, “wages in California have increased only for workers with a college degree…”

And as I think about my education throughout the last couple of years, I believe firmly in my ability to gain a greater footing for me and my family to make it through the next seven years. Unlike my blind optimism in 2008, however, I’m not holding onto any hope for a presidential bailout anytime soon. As I reflect on the market for what it’s been to me and my family throughout the last decade, I finally see that any upward mobility, like its downward counterpart, comes one step at a time.

With more soon,

City of Quartz: Opening Remarks

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City  of Quartz,

We meet at last. It’s taken me twenty-four years to reach Mike Davis’s legendary “excavation” of Los Angeles, and yet I know I’m right on time. Published just two years before rioting rumbled through the streets of South Central, the book is renowned for its unfaltering confrontation of the money and politics underpinning life, crime, and movement in Los Angeles. For this, the book is particularly special to yours truly, as it paints a unique portrait of worlds in The City that I walk through each day of my life. As such, my next few posts will be reviewing the book’s chapters in hopes of “carpooling” with J.T.’s readers on a journey with the author.

For some time, I’ve done my best to steer clear of politics with my writing on JIMBO TIMES, and yet I’ve always known I could only look away for so long. My writing has always been a world exploring contrasts, honoring what’s beautiful throughout the world, while also acknowledging what threatens its beauty. This is what makes it an honor to reach the pages of City of Quartz, as I know the book will play a significant role in shaping The L.A. Storyteller’s perspective.

In fact, it already has. Just a few pages in, the book’s very preface has already helped me to identify a key aspect of my relation to The City. I’m reading the re-edition of Quartz, published in 2006 with an updated preface from the author, and I think a great starting point for reflection can be found in Davis’s assessment of then-Mayor Villaraigosa’s impact on the city.

After a municipal election (2005) sadly devoid of new concepts, genuine passions, or substantive debate, Los Angeles at last has a mayor -Antonia Villaraigosa- with a surname that resounds with the same accent as the majority of the population. The election of Villaraigosa – once a fiery trade-union and civil-liberties activist – should have been Los Angeles’s ‘La Guardia moment,’ an opportunity to sweep city-hall clean of its old scheming cabals with their monomaniac obsession with gentrifying Downtown at the expense of the city’s blue-collar neighborhoods. Instead…the former rebel from east of the river is now the jaded booster of a downtown-renaissance that promotes super-cathedrals, billionaire sports franchises, mega-museums, Yuppie lofts, and drunken Frank Gehry skyscrapers at the  expense of social justice and affordable housing…

Even before Davis’s mention of Villaraigosa, I’m almost immediately reminded of L.A.’s 2013 race for Mayor between then-councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Gruel, which finished with the lowest voter turnout in L.A. history. In fact, according to the L.A. Times, “Garcetti’s complete tally was 222,300, just 12.4% of the city’s registered voters. That was well ahead of his opponent, City Controller Wendy Greuel, but a smaller vote total than any incoming mayor since Frank Shaw in 1933.”

I was in Davis, California when the elections were taking place, but even from afar, I observed a contest that showed hardly any concern over the city’s housing, education, or transportation crises. Like Villaraigosa before them, both candidates seemed nearly oblivious to the worlds facing the people of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, or the neglected black and Latino students of L.A.U.S.D.

Garcetti spoke of “revitalizing” L.A., but for who? In the two years since his election, his time in office has merely been an extension of Villaraigosa’s liasoning to developers and other displacers with a stake in L.A. property. Just last year, despite heated protests from riders, Garcetti voted along with the Metro board to raise the fare on Metro’s ridership, the vast majority of whom – as cited by the L.A. Weekly – barely earn “an income of roughly $20,000 a year and more than 80 percent [of whom] are minorities, according to a Metro survey in 2012.”

Naturally, proponents of the fee hike pointed to rising operating costs for the Metro system, but as several leaders opposing the vote made clear, Metro’s board cited rising costs while failing to acknowledge their inability to attract new, wealthier riders over the last few years. In turn, their vote placed the costs of their under-performance on the backs of their already financially-strapped patrons.

As if to catch my drift, apart from the election at the time, the preface of Quartz also delves right into transportation, providing material for readers to place the relevance of Metro’s recent decision within the larger spectrum of L.A.’s transportation crises:

“Right now [in 2006], locals pay a ‘congestion tax’ – ninety-three hours per commuter per year lost in traffic delays – that is the highest in the United States, and twice as high as it was in 1982. In the worst scenario, it can double again in another decade.”

And here, I think readers can see why I’m so excited about the book: in the opening alone, Davis shows concern for the city like a driver exiting the freeway determined to find the origins of the traffic that stifles it. Taking a stand on the pathway overlooking the congestion, Davis is ready for a change. Walking down the street in my journey with L.A., I recognize the author as he stares down at traffic, and join him in observation. Together, Davis’s preface tells me that both the reader and writer can find key roots of the gridlock, and in turn, key roots of the response.

I look forward to sharing more of what these responses look like with City of Quartz soon, and I hope readers look forward to hearing them.

With Love,