Last Thursday, I went to Los Angeles’ City Hall to attend a meeting of the Cultural Heritage Commission. It was a cold wet morning for the city – 59˚ F with light rain. From every direction, Angelenos pitter-pattered hurriedly across puddles like wet cats, toward City Hall.
On the docket for the Cultural Heritage Commission was a review of the proposal for the building of a new, permanent performance stage on the grounds of the Old Zoo in Griffith Park. It was to be built on the exact same spot where Independent Shakespeare Company – an employer of mine – has performed for the last 4 years. I, along with several members and fans of ISC, attended the meeting to express my support for the new stage.
Those opposing the building of the stage first. Their argument was that mass groups of people would destroy the area and harm the wildlife around, that the area should remain a quiet, private urban wilderness for Angelenos to visit. Also, they argued that the Old Zoo was a part of LA’s history, and should be preserved and honored as hallowed ground.
At that point, I really wished animals could speak. I wanted a Zebra to trot up to the mic, clear his or her throat and say, “Preserve a Zoo?! Sacred? Historical? Are you f#$king kidding me?! Let the play actors and melody makers have their stage. Hell, build a hundred stages over any and all reminders of such pain and mistreatment placed upon we lesser mammals by you big-brained f#$k-ups.” The zebra takes a drink of water. “By the way…’PRIVATE urban wilderness’? Isn’t a public f#$king park? Isn’t shit like this a no-brainer?” The buzzer rings, the zebra’s alotted time to speak has expired. The zebra trots out of the chamber.
Several people supporting the proposal appealed to the commissioners. Most of them stated that such a performance space would further the cause to bring to the poorer masses entertainment of cultural importance – Shakespeare, classical music, etc – that they may not be able to afford to see in real theatres, opera houses, symphony halls. One supporter used the founder of the park, Griffith J Griffith’s own words to make such a statement:
It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner, and finer city.
Griffith J Griffith was not a member of the rank and file. He was a rich man of compromised repute. In 1903, he shot and nearly killed his wife, then served two years in prison for it. But in words and action, he advocated for a park that was to be home to all, especially the poor. And, hell, if the begetter of the park wanted to give the rank and file, those plain people, a place where they could relax, commune with other, and live free for at least an afternoon or evening before returning into a city where only toil and marginalization awaits – well, shouldn’t it be so?
The president of the commission reminded both sides that the topic was only up for review and no voting would be done until another meeting in the future. He diplomatically stated he was all for art in the park but requested of the architects of the proposal to bring a detailed report of just what and how everything will be built, plus a report on the possible effects of the environment. Then that was it, they moved on to the next topic.
That night, I did my laundry. It was a cold, wet walk to laundromat. I usually go back the apartment while my clothes dry, but the laundromat’s dryers exuded a soothing, fuzzy warmth, so I sat on a bench, facing the folding tables – not reading, or smartphoning, just relaxing. There were several Mexican-Americans folding clothes in front of me – a man in work clothes, some mothers, children – not smiling, not frowning, just folding. They folded the garments steadily, without pause, like they were practicing some form of domestic tai-chi. They each appeared to have achieved a simple peace that evening, or at least looked like they weren’t looking too far into the future – short Spanish phrases to each other here and there, requiring no response. The tumbling dryers behind them looked like goofy, jiggling cartoon eyes. The man folded his underwear. The lady next to him held two corners of a sheet with both hands, her mija held the other two corners. They came together and the mother took all four corners and folded the sheet into an incredibly small square probably just like her madre, tias and her lovely old ‘uelas did.
I looked out the large window, behind me. The Persian family that ran the falafel joint sat at a table in front of the establishment. Business appeared to be slow but they looked content with just sitting there, bundled in their coats. They chain-smoked cigarettes as they talked, sat silent, talked again, sat silent again. The window was cold to the touch and my fingertips left little foggy prints. As I wiped them away with my shirtsleeve, the cold coming in from outside and the warmth from the dryers collided somewhere inside me and for a split second I dissolved into the ether. When I came back to form, I stated to myself, I’m Home. This moment is Home. I looked around, inside the laundromat and then outside. I saw no plain people anywhere. Only artists.
The next day I walked up Western Blvd from Wilshire Blvd to Sunset Blvd – Koreatown to El Barrio de Hollywood. About halfway into the walk, the Mexican signage blended with the Korean signage on awnings of buildings constructed early on in the previous century. Along the waters of that cultural delta, I came upon a clock repair shop. I stood in the open doorway, stared into the profound emptiness the store. The old clocks on the wall may as well have been hieroglyphics dating back to antiquity. I was debating going further into the shop to see if I could witness the ancient craft of repairing a clock, when I heard piercing laughter behind me. Across the street at the Oriental Mission Church, a woman led a group of Black, Latino and Asian elementary kids into an entrance at the side of the church. The last three kids – Black male, Latino Male, Asian girl – laughed as they held hands and spun around.
These three kids were not the children of the rank and file, they were poets, articulating with their being their right to be happy, to live freely, wherever they are, whenever. Through this ode incarnate, they told me how simple Life really was: All we have to do is hold onto each other as we spin around…there is absolutely nothing else to do.
At one point, the little girl spun free of the boys. She looked like a weeble wobble in her oversized hooded coat as she tried to balance herself. As soon as she did, she ran back to the boys and the three of them resumed spinning, resumed the laughter.
It was a frigid 63˚ F. LA had made it to another winter. The sky was gray but the morning rain had cleared, taking with it any haze or smog. To the North were the hills of Griffith Park. It was such a clean, clear day that the Observatory and hiking trails could be seen in great detail. The fancy houses of the Hollywood hills could be seen, just below. And so clear, too, was the sprawling city, in every direction. It was one of those afternoons when it was clear enough to see just about everything.