What were we supposed to do, march on the Hollywood sign?
With no great metaphor for what’s plaguing our nation readily available, somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 protesters, depending on which news source you prefer, assembled on Saturday, Oct. 1, at Pershing Square in Los Angeles (not exactly a brand-name landmark) and marched a mile or so to City Hall. This was part of the nationwide wave of Occupy Wall Street Protests, except we had no place like Wall Street to occupy. Our City Hall building is a lovely beaux arts/classical mash-up on Spring Street, right across from the equally magnificent Los Angeles Times building, whose denizens, not surprisingly, took little notice of what was going on under their noses.
Grand as it is, City Hall is a symbol of, well, nothing much, though it did stand in for The Daily Planet headquarters in the old Superman series. In Los Angeles, the office of the weak mayor and inept City Council is usually among the least interesting places to be on any given day.
That’s changed, for now, thanks to the angry (but typically congenial) Angelenos now camping out on its lawns. These days, it’s a better photo op than Hollywood Boulevard, the Capitol Records building, or the truncated sign that once advertised the ill-fated Hollywoodland development.
Coincidently, and weirdly, the Occupy Los Angeles movement started the same weekend as the Pacific Standard Time exhibit opened at the Getty Center and other museums and galleries across the city. The exhibit is an ambitious attempt to stake Los Angeles’ rightful claim to a leading place in the postwar U.S. art boom. Whether it’s because New York owns the means of cultural dissemination (for now) or because Los Angeles is too inchoate of an idea to keep its own history, our local legacy in the arts is too often shorthanded into a single word: Hollywood. “Hey,” PST seems to be saying, “Don’t forget Baldessari, Hockney, Ruscha, Eames and all the modernist architects who made hay here, not to mention Andy Warhol, who got his big break at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962!” Where but L.A. would take soup cans seriously?
But for a change, Hollywood, which may be the last union shop in the country, a place where my girlfriend can make a living wage costuming a TV talent show, isn’t the symbol of our present ills: Wall Street is. Sunday’s march here began as a show of solidarity with the brave folks in New York facing down pepper-spraying and net-wielding police to protest the corporations and politicians hastening our demise. (This just in: Like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals, they’re in it together). And like the protesters in Manhattan and across the nation, the L.A. marchers called themselves “the 99 percent”—in other words, everyone except the wealthiest one percent for whom the system’s been rigged.
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Despite all the action, it was in many ways, as Randy Newman sang, “another sunny day.” For me, it began with running into local legend, and old friend, Vaginal Cream Davis, at a greasy spoon diner on the Silver Lake/Echo Park border—ground zero for the eastside creative class, or, if you prefer, Brooklyn Heights expats.
I hadn’t seen Davis in years, since we both worked at the LA Weekly back when a journalist and a 6-foot-6, cross-dressing performance artist could still find work in this town. Davis has since moved to Berlin, where the public votes for the arts with its tax dollars. I’ve joined the new economy, where I spend my savings to ply the trade I once got paid to do.
Davis was carb-loading before taking a leading role in the Trespass Parade a celebration of art and activism that was part of Pacific Standard Time’s opening ceremonies. It began at L.A. Mart and wound up Broadway before finishing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a new director, New York’s Jeffrey Deitch, is earnestly scrambling to fathom this stubbornly unfathomable city. New York is easy by contrast—wealth is the primary cultural currency. Here, it’s something more elusive—imagination, charisma, beauty, style, science … the future. After all, L.A. happily gave birth to both The Hangover and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We have the Emmys and the Nobel Prize factory, CalTech.
Davis handed me a route map for the parade, but I had a prior engagement to visit the East Hollywood studio of a friend picked as one of the up-and-coming artists to be featured on a citywide art map during Pacific Standard Time’s opening weekend. After that, I decided to ride my bike down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse.
As I rode across the city—Hollywood through Koreatown, Historic Filipinotown, skirting the southern fringe of Angelino Heights, through the Second Street Tunnel, and then downtown to City Hall, the city unfurled as it really is: a dream factory, perhaps, but not made of tinsel. These neighborhoods have little to do with Hollywood. They’re working-class, scrappy and filled with people who came here for the better life America promised to the world, and in many cases, for the better life Los Angeles promised to America. And despite these hard times, it wasn’t all in tatters. Fruit still fell from the trees, the sun shined as generously as ever, and the clusters of strip malls, bodegas, modest restaurants, grand art-deco apartment buildings and overstuffed, one-bedroom garden villas climbing up hillsides stubbornly held their ground. For the day at least.
I started thinking about the tenuousness of this present, already dissolving into a rickety future, and wondered how much more it can take. I thought about the differences between old-world, hierarchical New York and sprawling, horizontal Los Angeles. For the past decades, New York—as symbolized by Wall Street, which itself is just a symbol—has been in the taking business. Siphoning money out of workaday streets like the ones I was peddling over, and sucking it up into the executive suites of Wall Street skyscrapers.
That destructive process went into overdrive in the mid-1980s. I lived in New York then, among the future masters of the universe, many of whom I went to school with, and even then they could never really explain what it was they actually did. There were no real words for it, so they invented complicated ones like LBOs, derivatives, subprime mortgages and debt trading. What they meant was simple enough: scheming, bilking. Riding through L.A. toward Pershing Square, I couldn’t help but think these are the last gasps of the wobbly Wall Street paradigm.
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I’ve always been impressed with Los Angeles’ empathy. After the 9/11 attacks, a friend and I took a large sheet down to the local supermarket and started writing messages of solidarity with New Yorkers on it. In a few hours, the sheet was filled with hundreds of L.A. love letters to New York. Another friend flew the banner back East and put it up in Union Square. I think we Angelenos sometimes feel like we’re out here on our own, for better or worse, and we want the rest of the country to know, despite your incessant cheap shots at our expense, that we’re thinking of you, and often fondly. After all, most of us are you. We just walked a little farther into the horizon.
But it wasn’t only solidarity with the resistance leaders in New York that motived folks to come to City Hall. Unemployment in Los Angles is around 13 percent, compared with New York’s 9 percent. People here, like everywhere these days (there are 160 Occupy cities at this writing, and they are as disparate as Santa Barbara and Binghamton, N.Y.), don’t see a way out of the mess we’re in unless the Kabuki theater of American politics changes significantly. And as much as the lazy observer would like to pigeonhole the movement as some radical fringe, plenty of L.A.’s occupiers didn’t fill the bill.
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I parked my bike, walked south along Spring Street, and met Mark, an elderly gent with an Irish brogue that’s survived his 50 years in America. A former special-education teacher (“I tried regular education, but I’m not that tough,” he jokes), Mark took the bus from Santa Monica to join in the demonstration. “I think it’s good that lots of people came here,” he told me, smiling as he looked around. “People are taking back the country. I think people are very aware that they’re being ripped off. We have to wake up to the truth that everybody on this planet is brother and sister, and the competition with each other we’ve been seduced into is the illusion.”
A few yards away, Samantha, 29, and Rosa, 30, were standing together on the sidewalk holding signs. Samantha’s sign informed passers-by that she has a master’s degree, has been unemployed for two years and can’t pay off her student loan. Rosa’s sign said she was a struggling student, and that education should not be a luxury. They both came in from Fullerton, a middle-class suburb in Orange County, and had covered their faces with bandanas.
“Why the bandanas?” I asked.
“This is about the cause, not about us,” Samantha said.
“Maybe if I cover up my face,” Rosa said, “people will relate more. We’re just everybody. Also, I get sunburned.”
I got the sense the two were mostly concerned their families might recognize them on TV.
Samantha has been looking for work as a teacher at the community college level since getting her master’s degree two years ago. She told me there are thousands of applicants for every job she goes for, and that rather than fill those positions with experienced or highly trained applicants, community colleges facing budget cuts are hiring low-paid interns.
Rosa has also been trying to find work for two years. “I apply for jobs all day and get no callbacks,” she said. Her mother came to California after the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake that killed 5,000 people and left 250,000 homeless; she was looking for a better life. Forty years later, Rosa’s still looking for it.
“I’ve done everything to become a productive member of society, but I keep getting rejected,” she told me. “I just want a job.”
A few minutes later, I met a gainfully employed 32-year-old boy-next-door named Tom Pharo. Tom moved here five years ago from South Jersey and works 40 hours a week at a supermarket, “just to be broke.” “Corporations don’t want to pay us, and they’re making millions,” he said. “We’re sick of the rich getting richer and everyone else getting squashed.” He looked around at the marchers, the signs, the theater of protest. “We have to do this to have the freedom our founding fathers guaranteed us.”
Tom grew up around New York. He says that while he has common cause with Occupy Wall Street, he’s glad to be out of that city’s shadow. “It feels like a more loving community here. I felt that as soon as I got here. New York is just a money drain.” A few yards from Tom, I met Clea, a single mother whose house is being foreclosed on while she faces a 50 percent salary cut at her job as a social worker. She told me she was just looking for a reason to believe.
“I have a 10-year-old. I can’t just curl up and die, but I don’t have a lot of optimism. There has to be some energy from somewhere. When I see others doing this, it gives me something. It resonates with me.”
After a few hours, I peddled up César Chavez Avenue toward my home in Echo Park. I felt lighter and stronger despite hours of sun and little to drink. For the first time in a while, a bit of hope pushed me along. People were out doing things, protesting, parading, carrying signs and, yes, cross-dressing. Later that night, there were PST art openings and events to go to, but I found myself back down on the steps of City Hall, soaking in the assembly as a bright quarter moon hung over the Times building. I wasn’t all that concerned with what people had to say about Los Angeles’ place in the art world. After all, we know who we are. We’re the 99 percent.