A march through downtown Los Angeles on Friday, April 25 was an excellent reminder of how L.A. is divided by race and class.
I joined between 700 and 1,000 marchers, who were mostly janitors and renters of slum apartments in Westlake, just west of downtown. Many of the marchers fit into both categories. They were low paid janitors who lived in the packed old apartments. They wanted better pay and protection for tenants like themselves, who are being forced out by landlords and developers determined to upscale the area.
The idea of two L.A.s, one affluent the other struggling, is not new. Long before Sen. John Edwards built a presidential campaign on the concept of “Two Americas,” LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick proposed a series for the Los Angeles Times on Two L.A.s, one affluent the other poor.
Roderick was a reporter in the Times City-County Bureau in the ‘80s when he came up with the project. I, the bureau chief, thought it was a great idea. Roderick did preliminary interviews and other research and wrote a detailed memo laying out the concept. The City-County Bureau reporters, who had been digging into the social, economic and racial forces that were dividing Los Angeles, would collaborate on the project.
Our bosses quickly rejected Roderick’s idea. In fact, I was urged to shift our coverage to issues affecting the middle class. Such bad decisions should be noted by those mourning the long passed “great old days” at the Times. A lot of those days were not so great.
Life went on. The city was ripped apart by the 1992 riot, and we finally got around to reporting on Two L.A.s
I thought of that as I joined the marchers gathering at the headquarters of Service Employees Local 1877, which is organizing the Justice for Janitors campaign for better wages and working conditions. Other groups were involved, including the ACORN organization, the Los Angeles Housing Partnership, the LA Alliance for a New Economy. and UNITE HERE, Local 11. Together, they comprise the progressive activist wing of Los Angeles politics, fighting to make themselves heard in a city hall dominated by land developers and downtown business interests.
The janitors wore purple and gold (Lakers colors) and red and black t-shirts. We walked west on Seventh Street toward downtown. We stopped at the forbidding glass and concrete fortress of a city building, headquarters for the city housing department. Officials had refused an invitation to speak to the marchers and the appearance of the building conveyed a simple message: Keep Out. Security guards reinforced the message.
We crossed the bridge above the Harbor Freeway, the highway that permits people to travel from downtown to the harbor without noticing the poor South L.A. neighborhoods on either side. We passed the Wilshire Grand hotel, passed Roy’s the hot restaurant famous for small but delicately prepared dishes at high prices. We passed shops and went through an underground mall, with more stores. Office and store workers on their lunch hours watched the marchers. Perhaps they realized they had more in common with the marching men and women than they did with their bosses in the executive suites.
The rich own the buildings and run the law firms, accounting companies and other enterprises in them. Affluent property owners who, in some cases, have been given valuable exemptions from city building laws are developing new apartment houses and tearing down older ones.
In addition to better wages for janitors, the marchers asked that every apartment unit torn down be replaced by an equally affordable unit. They also want stepped up enforcement of laws against illegal eviction and an increase in the number of building inspectors in the Westlake MacArthur Park area. Finally, they’re asking that the city, state and federal governments make more money available to build affordable housing.
Next time you walk or drive through the area and see the apartments or consider the working conditions of janitors at your market or in your building, you’ll have to agree this agenda makes a lot of sense.
I found my friend Abner Lee dead in his West Los Angeles condo the other day. It looked as though he had died as he’d lived, alone.
A neighbor and I called the paramedics, but, even to us, it was clearly a case for the coroner. He had no family around nor friends close enough to claim his body. A paramedic said he had been dead three or four days.
Abner was my tennis coach. I thought it was unusual when he didn’t show up for our weekly session at the Cheviot Hills-Rancho courts. He was compulsively punctual and would harangue me if I were just a few minutes late.
I called him, but nobody answered. I left a message. He didn’t call back, also unusual. I called a few more times during the weekend. There was still no answer. I dropped by his condo, which is near my house. His buzzer was connected to his voice mail. Same message.
The thing about condos, I discovered, is that they are so well protected that they are inaccessible to outsiders, even well intentioned ones like me. I checked the garage under the building. His black Mustang wasn’t there. That was odd. In our conversations, I’d learned that he never went anywhere except to the tennis court, Ralph’s or a fast food place. I didn’t know that most of the cars were behind the building. I couldn’t have checked anyway. The only entrance to the rear parking was through the well-locked building. There was no way to get in.
I talked to several people at the tennis courts, but none of them had seen him in several days; they thought this was odd. I returned to the condo a few days later, encountered one of the residents, and explained the situation. We walked back to the parking spaces and found Abner’s car. Then we walked back inside and tried the door to his condo. It was unlocked. We went in. Abner was on his bed, eyes closed, clearly dead. He was wearing his warm-ups. The television was on. His tennis shoes were neatly placed at the side of the bed. His phone was by his side. Maybe he had tried to call for help.
I feel terribly sad that he had died alone like that. He had been teaching me for about three years, and we got to be friends. He was a good teacher He broke the game down, and made the student work on each part of the serve, the forehand, the backhand, the volley and everything else. He was gruff, to put it mildly. Some of the players at Rancho didn’t like his method or his manner. They had been playing for years and didn’t want to go back to basics. I had only been playing for a decade and wasn’t very good. I was willing to try anything. He improved my game, and when I went to Arizona to watch the baseball teams during spring training, I noticed that the coaches used exactly the same method as Abner, breaking down each step of a pitch, a swing and all the other moves. And they did this with pros who had been playing the game since little league.
When we talked about current events, Abner – who was African American – was filled with rage at the way black people, especially men, were treated. He grew up in Baltimore, had gone to college to study art and had been an elementary school teacher. There were paintings in his condo, sensitive portraits of people. I was intrigued that a tough guy like Abner could do such work.
He’d quit teaching to join the pro tour. He didn't make it and, like others in the same boat, became a tennis teacher. For most of them, it’s a hard way of earning a living, and Abner was always short of money. He was also overweight and a heavy smoker. In his late 50s, he’d already suffered a couple of heart attacks. Maybe that’s what killed him.
If there’s a lesson in this particular LA death, it’s for people like Abner, who live alone and who don’t have family and friends around. Find someone you trust. Give him or her a key. If you’re not in good health, arrange for someone to check in with you regularly. What we all have to keep in mind is Los Angeles, despite its great weather, is a lonely, big and indifferent city.
Two recent pieces of writing from the bowels of the Los Angeles Times tell much about the state of the newspaper and Los Angeles journalism.
One was a terrific Times story on the crisis in LA Country's health care system. The other was memo from Times editor Russ Stanton on an editors' "retreat" at a site near the beach and far from those dependent on county health care.
First, the health care story by Garrett Therolf, Mary Engel and Jean-Paul Renaud, which was prompted by the resignation of yet another county health director. The story went much farther than that, examining the impact of the failing system and, in particular, what has happened since Martin Luther Jr. hospital in South Los Angeles closed.
I can just hear Times owner Sam Zell screaming, "Why in the - - - - - - -hell do you need three - - - - - - - reporters to write a story about one - - - - - - - hospital." Sam, a noted authority on newspaper staffing and erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra, had previously questioned why six or nine reporters are needed to cover the Iraq war.
The fact is that it takes three excellent reporters to dig into the subject and explain the impact on those Los Angeles residents who do not dine at the hottest Westside restaurants. The story examined the odd plan to reopen King, having it operated by a small Long Beach hospital with ties to Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. The impact of King's closing has been devastating:
"Based on a variety of health indicators, the South Los Angeles area remains among the most disadvantaged communities in the nation. More people die of lung cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart disease there than in any other place in Los Angeles County."
The Stanton memo on the editors' retreat was also enlightening in that, unlike the story by Therolf, Engel and Renaud, it was so vague. Like all "retreat" documents, it was heavy on "values."
He defined the values:
"--What we want to keep (our ambition, integrity, critical thinking)"
Aren't you supposed to do that in any job?
"--What we want to eliminate (dwelling in the past, arrogance, silo mentality)"
No more dwelling in the past? History is bunk. No more boring anecdotes from veterans about the '92 riot, pre-Villaraigoa mayors, Valley secession, long-term poverty. In fact, no more veterans.
"--And what we'd like to create (greater focus on, and interaction with, readers; a more entrepreneurial environment, increased operational flexibility)."
Stanton is right there, and he is correct on one of the solutions, which will mean more hard work and stress in the newsroom:
" We will train all editorial employees in new skills in every medium in which we work (print/web/TV/mobile/radio); launch two or three coverage teams focused on a specific topic (for example, and only for example, immigration or health care)…"
But what Stanton didn't address was the cutback in the staffs of the Times and the Singleton papers in the San Fernando Valley, Long Beach, Torrance and the San Gabriel Valley. You can hold retreats and greet each calamitous cutback with positive clichés. But as Sue Cross, senior vice president of global new media at the Associated Press, told the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review:
"You can go read about news issues in more sources than ever before… but what are being lost are some crucial things. One is in investigative and watchdog journalism. …The second area that I think is being lost is consistent day-in, day-out institutional coverage. City government. County government. State government; You are seeing beats combined as newsroom resources are cut down. You also are seeing people are going in with less expertise. Seasoned beat reporters are, in many cases, leaving the industry.”
Such reporters are as important as county supervisors or council members or mayors. That's why cutbacks at the Times and Singleton papers are a civic disaster.
One of the best ways to cover city hall is to get out of city hall. Instead, wander through the many fund raising dinners where the real clout is on display.
I thought of this recently when a couple of well-connected friends told me about a gold plated dinner at the Beverly Hilton.
It was the annual roast for the American Diabetes Association, put together by two of city hall's influential lobbyists, Arnie Berghoff and Harvey Englander. Berghoff's daughter has diabetes, and his conception and promotion of the event have done much to finance research on the disease and to raise childhood diabetes higher in the public consciousness. I think it's a great cause and actually served as master of ceremonies for the first two roast dinners.
But like all these fundraisers--either for charity or for political campaigns--this one has a purpose beyond raising money. The events give lobbyists and their corporate employers a chance to connect with the mayor, city council members, their staffs and various important department heads and city commissioners.
My friends told me that the hot spot at the diabetes dinner was the special pre-dinner VIP reception, where only the most generous sponsors and their guests were admitted. One friend didn't make it inside and had to buy a drink at the hotel bar. The other was more fortunate.
They told me that the biggest sponsors were the corporate developers of two huge development projects. One was the firm behind the 5,553-home Las Lomas project just north of the intersection of the Golden State Freeway and the 14 Freeway. The other was NBC Universal, which has proposed $3 billion worth of homes--2,900 of them-- along with new production facilities, restaurants, stores, a hotel, an entertainment center and other features at Universal City.
At the VIP event, I was told, representatives of the two firms socialized in pleasant, comparatively intimate surroundings with the elected officials and others who will decide the fate of their projects. So did other business chiefs, assorted big shots and lobbyists.
This kind of gathering is common practice and there is nothing illegal about it. Nor should there be. We already have too many laws.
But as I finish the last four months of my City Ethics Commission term, such events fill me with a sense of futility. We work like mad to make sure that city politics are played on a level field. The world of fund raising dinners and high-powered developers and lobbyists guarantees the field will never really be level.