L.A. Metro’s Buses Are for Writers

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76 Bus to Union Station; Los Angeles, California

I can still remember riding Metro’s 780 bus –from Vermont and Prospect–all the way to Pasadena City College–with my notebooks in hand, as I mused about the world I viewed through the windows. Still a teenager at the time, in true L.A. fashion I’d always take the seat all the way in the back-corner, right next to the windows where I could see nearly everything and everyone in front of me.

I started college in the city of Pasadena in the Fall of 2008, or the same year that Barack Obama would be elected to the office of the President of the United States.

It was a radically different time for me, and all I could wonder about through the days on the bus was just how much of the rest of the world was changing too. Somehow, I felt right at the center of this change, or at least near the center of something monumental, and I valued that feeling. It’s the reason why I wrote.

I never felt excluded, nor unheard, so long as I had the page to hear my voice and the pen to lift my words onto that page. I also didn’t mind very much being rather alone in this, either.

It didn’t strike me very much, if at all, for example, that I’d find myself as the only person on the bus scribbling away at a notebook. I also didn’t find it odd to spend whole evenings on the third floor of Pasadena’s Shatford Library, even if it meant I’d get to the bus stop just before 10:00 PM.

It all came to me very naturally as I made my way between what were two very different cities to me at the time.

In the evenings on the bus the stillness of nights lit up by the stars and streetlights above made for dazzling visions to take into my dreams.

In the daytime on the bus, the bands of pigeons making their way through the clouds as people crisscrossed the crosswalks made it clear that we were all in it together, separated only by whims of time and space.

Construction in the city was something we’d all have to deal with on our respective commutes as well. One way or another, something was always being built.

And I always cared about these particulars of Los Angeles, seated quietly inside its buses, absorbing its landscape through the boulevards, one street after the next on the way back to or from ‘the pueblo’, long before it was the pueblo.

I’ve shared the days and nights with Los Angeles on the bus in sequences like these for nearly ten years now, and still do. But I wonder just how many people my eyes have actually seen through all of the rides I’ve taken, and just where they all might be now. I imagine most of them are still in Los Angeles like myself, as a result of the blink of an eye that time tends to be for most of us, but only the skies know.

As interestingly, while as a seventeen or eighteen year old I didn’t think that to care about L.A and the state of the world meant it’s where my mind would be dedicated going forward, it’s now clear to me that that’s exactly where I am.

I’ve seen more than just Los Angeles and Pasadena, however, in the ten years since I first boarded Metro’s 780 and 180 buses to and fro between the two.

Since 2008, I’ve also been to Seattle, to Washington D.C., to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and New York, as well to Miami and also Chicago.

Through the Golden State, I’ve been to Sacramento and San Francisco more times than I can count, and been to and lived in the wonderful city of Davis, and have been to Tahoe, Santa Cruz, Salinas, Watsonville, Oakland, Berkeley, Half-moon Bay, as well as Pleasanton, Chico, and San Jose.

San Salvador, El Salvador
City Center; San Salvador, El Salvador

Abroad, since 2008 I’ve been to Mexico three times, and seen various other cities and states on the American continent as a result; from Tijuana to Guadalajara, to Mexico City, to the city of Puebla in the state of Puebla, to Zacapoaxtla, to the City of Oaxaca, San Pedro Cajonos, the city of Ayutla, and more.

I’ve also been to El Salvador, to the heart in San Salvador, and to Soyapango, Santa Tecla, San Jose Guayabal, and more.

And I’ve been to Guatemala. To the City of Guatemala, as well as to Tikal, and the adjacent city of Flores in Peten.

In 2017, I even made it to Japan. To the marvelous city of Tokyo and its various mini-cities or Japanese pueblos in Shibuya, Ginza, Harajuku, as well as in the historic Kyoto, the wonderful city of Osaka, and even the great city of Hiroshima too.

I’ve met many wonderful people through each of these trips, and am still in contact with many of them. Together, they form what Los Angeles and the world is to me today.

If some ten years ago on that 780 bus route someone had told me that I’d get to see all of these places and more, I can only imagine how curious I’d find that to be. Now, I’m only more curious about how the next ten years with The City and the world will unfold.

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Atomic Dome; Hiroshima, Japan (2017)

One thing is certain to me, however. The seats of L.A’s Metro buses–whether on the back-corner or elsewhere–are congenial places to write one’s thoughts out, to claim one’s dreams, and to imagine all the other places we can see and be a part of. Just as well, the city of Los Angeles is quite the city to write in. Together, these are the ‘Goldilocks conditions’ that have transported me across the world and which continue to do so.

So let’s keep writing, Los Angeles. That Metro bus is but a great place for it.

J.T.

Deed Restrictions in Los Feliz and East Hollywood

T-RACES, or the Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces, is a powerful map and treasure cove of historical documents showing how cities like Los Angeles were developed over the course of the 20th century, particularly during the years just before World War II. The archives contain ‘area descriptions’ of L.A. neighborhoods as seen by city and county officials of the national Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC); to learn more about the HOLC, readers can visit Design and Violence, where my treasure hunt for the documents began.

I’ve gathered a few of the area descriptions of the “Los Feliz” and “East Hollywood” neighborhoods, respectively, all of them dated from 1939. It’s fascinating to see the old vecindades distinguished by their racial and class makeup. For example, in the Los Feliz neighborhood, the absence of “foreign families” or “negros” based on the “deed restrictions” banning their presence, as well as single-family residential zoning, lead to a “high green” or attractive rating for the HOLC:

“[In Los Feliz] …Deed restrictions cover both improvement costs and racial elements. Zoning is single-family residential. Conveniences are as available as is desirable in a multi-car garage neighborhood. This area was subdivided some 15 years ago, and was engineered and platted to contour resulting in well arranged and improved streets. Construction, maintenance and architectural designs are of the highest quality. Population is of a high character and many of the city’ s wealthiest citizens reside here. Values shown above are somewhat conjectural as size and location of homesite affects prices. This also applies to rentals as quality of tenant is a large consideration. With a convenient location, ideal building sites and high caliber deed restrictions, this area should continue indefinitely to attract a substantial type of resident. On the basis of present development and future prospects area is accorded a “high green ” grade.”

By contrast, in East Hollywood, for the ‘concentration of Jewish families’, along with 5 & 6 room dwellings, or apartment buildings with 5 to 6 units, a “medial yellow” or “only fairly” attractive grade is accorded.

“[In East Hollywood] …There are no deed restrictions and zoning, while mainly single-family, also permits all types of multi-family residential structures in different parts and is also “spot zoned” for business and provides for numerous institutional developments. Two of the largest hospitals in the city are located within the area. Conveniences are all readily available. This area was originally largely occupied by the old Sullivan Farm and was subdivided approximately 25 years ago. Divided by and surrounded with business thoroughfares this far-flung area contains a miscellaneous array of multi-family residential development; however, the pre-dominating type of residence is 5 & 6 room dwellings which are generally of standard construction and fairly well maintained. It is said to be one of the community’s best rental districts. Rumors of scattered Japanese and Negro residents were not confirmed as none were located except upon the business thoroughfares. There is a concentration of Jewish families between Melrose and Santa Monica Blvd. east of Western Avenue. The population in general is heterogeneous, as is also the aspects of the improvements. There is a fair percentage of owner occupancy and many homes are still occupied by original owners. There is a decided trend at present toward business and income properties; however, it is thought that the major part of the area will remain predominantly single-family for many years to come. The area is accorded a “medial yellow” grade.”

Such standards beg the question, just who is the HOLC describing these conditions to?

That is, just who determines that ‘negros’, ‘foreign’ and ‘Jewish’ people and their dwellings reduce the overall quality of life? In literature it’s called the white gaze, or the white imagination that dictates a certain narrative or reality.

With these frameworks in mind, I was excited to read about just how the vecindad my family and I would come to call home during the eighties when mom and pops arrived here fared ‘in the ratings’.

In the eyes of the HOLC, the neighborhood was considered ‘blighted’ for 15% of its residency consisting of ‘foreign’ families, and for 10% of it consisting of ‘negros’, as well as for the neighborhood’s multiple family dwellings and bungalows. This led to a “medial red” or mostly unattractive rating.

“[In East Hollywood] …The few deed restrictions which have not expired are irregular and largely non-effective. The major portion of area is zoned for single family dwellings, but multiple family dwellings are permitted in scattered sections. Conveniences are all readily available. This district was subdivided over 25 years ago as a popular price home district and has largely maintained the characteristics. Many of the improvements are of substandard construction and maintenance is spotted, being generally of a poor quality. Scattered throughout the area are a number of small “B” grade apartments, bungalow courts and other multi-family dwellings. The population is highly heterogeneous with more than a sprinkling of subversive racial elements, there being several concentrations of Japanese and Negroes within the district. There is also quite a Jewish population adjacent to the synagogue which is located in the northern part. While by no means a slum district, the area is definitely blighted and is accorded a “medial red” grade.”

On the one hand, it’s astounding to think that there used to be more Japanese and Black people in the neighborhood. But it’s also sobering to consider how World War II and the Japanese interment which followed violently displaced such communities from the area. When one considers these events and the subsequent or concurrent modernization that followed or accompanied the war, such as the building of the first freeway in America in the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, one can see how modern development has always been a matter of some violence on communities and restrictions of their space for the benefit of wealthier, more privileged groups.

It’s rarely ever easy to take another field trip through the historical foundations which led to our modern dilemmas with access to space. But in order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we come from, Los Angeles.

J.T.

Redlining in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles we know in the 21st century is not just some place that arrived from out of the blue one summer day, but an environment built out through specifically racist laws, designations, and customs over decades of policy, especially during the 20th century. During the 1960s, subsequent waves of civil unrest against such policies struck in several U.S. cities, among them Watts, Newark, and Detroit.

In 1965, a traffic stop by white police officers in Watts led to the arrest of two Black men, Marquette and Ronald Frye, and even their mother, Rena Frye, which angered a nearby crowd of predominantly Black residents, who witnessed the police officers roughhousing the family. When more officers arrived, who used their batons to threaten the crowd back, they fanned the flames of what would turn into six days of a war-zone in Watts, leaving 34 people dead, including at least 26 civilians killed by the LAPD and the National Guard, overwhelmingly Black but also Latino residents, whose deaths were deemed by police forces as justifiable homicides.

When the people of Watts took to attacking police cars and looting storefronts over six days of unrest, was it strictly a matter of Black people protesting police violence? It was not, because police violence had a certain way of being located in a handful of neighborhoods over others. Enter the redlining practice. In L.A., as in “sister” cities, redlining was a discriminatory practice by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which was a government entity, that dissuaded loan services or bank assistance to African-Americans and other minorities based on how “desirable” or white their areas appeared on a racial map, shown partly below.

Redlining Los Angeles - UCLA Luskin

“The Home Owners Loan Corporation designated minority neighborhoods (those shaded in black and gray in the map in this section) as being unfit for home financing, which, with racially restrictive covenants, excluded people of color from the housing boom that afforded many white households their first house.”

SOUTH LOS ANGELES | SINCE THE SIXTIES BY PAUL M. ONG, ANDRE COMANDON, ALYCIA CHENG, SILVIA R. GONZÁLEZ

How were such racial maps created? As Mike Davis points out, the racial makeup of many neighborhoods in L.A. were formed by racial covenants, or Klansmen sympathizers and supporters in Los Angeles who exerted pressure on Blacks, Asians, Jews and others to keep out of what were then white neighborhoods in the city.

The absence of explicit Jim Crow segregation laws in a northern city like L.A. notwithstanding, racial covenants were most active and effective during the early 1920s up until just before the 1950s. Thus, for African-American children born in Watts during the 1950s, the predominantly Black and under-served population of their community wasn’t spontaneously or deliberately located there, but forced to live there due to racist policies, as well as racist judges looking the other way on those policies.

The Kerner Report

In 1967, less than two years after the war-zone in Watts, a police-raid at a Black-owned night club in Detroit led to the arrest of up to 85 African-Americans, which then quickly escalated into racial rioting throughout the city. After five days, at least 43 people were killed and thousands more were injured. In response, president Lyndon B. Johnson called for action, including the formation of the Kerner commission, whose task was to examine the root cause of the rioting, as well as ways to prevent more such violence going forward. Among the commission’s findings, when it came to the issue of housing inequality in the United States, it found that:

“[C]ondemned by segregation and poverty to live in the decaying slums of our central cities, the goal of a decent home and suitable environment is as far distant as ever”

U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968

In our major cities, that condemnation was due precisely to redlining. Redlining concentrated home loans in predominantly white neighborhoods while restricting them from those of ethnic minorities, leaving only poverty to concentrate in the latter. Enter the resentment. Then, the rebellion.

In 2018, any Angeleno taking a walk through neighborhoods like Watts can still feel the legacy of L.A.’s redlining and the relative lack of accountability concerning the issue, as well as the anger and frustration towards such acts of sabotage and abandon against a people and their community.

Yet with reports such as UCLA Luskin’s South L.A. Since The Sixties, which examines how much “progress” the city has made in Watts and South Los Angeles since the Kerner report and other studies, the spirit of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz lives on. From there, our work continues.

J.T.

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 human beings, so I’d never really thought of my family and I as vulnerable people. When I take a moment to think about the economics we’re steeped in today, however, I recognize a thin line we have to walk through between poverty and insolvency. With Davis’s analysis in mind, that line is magnified. Continuing with some more reflections on the preface for 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, warehouse bodies, and millions more who’d no longer have work following the recession even while they were barely managing to pay 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 my brother and I, as heirs of an economy which had no 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 all I knew was I was going to college at the same time that the country was getting ready to see 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 way, but not different enough to distinguish my mother’s struggle to pay the rent from that of our neighbors next door, 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 on Santa Monica boulevard 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 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, 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. This makes my post-graduate phase less about crafting my own destiny than about inheriting my mother’s, and all working class people’s. She needs significant health procedures done on her teeth and on her 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…”

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 naive optimism in 2008, however, I’m not holding on to 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 realize that any upward mobility, like its downward counterpart, takes place one step at a time.

With more soon,