How to make the city shine


Break bread and barriers

The true mingle is dead in this town. All we ever do is meet people just like us. We drive in our own little cars to our friends' little houses where we meet more people exactly like ourselves. Or we go to our little clubs to fake-chat with those who dig the same little bands. We're all stuck in nicheville. We never meet an honest-to-God, different-walk-of-life stranger anymore.

So I say: We need to change the way we eat.

There is just not enough communal eating in Los Angeles. The closest we get is in the crowds huddled outside taco trucks at night. Outside of taco trucks, I've met professors, nurses, janitors, body shop workers, prison guards, truck drivers, TV animators and one very sympathetic homeless poet. But tacos are quick, the night is cold, and it's over all too fast.

Food breaks barriers better than booze. Drinking's too obviously social -- bars are where you schmooze, make contacts, get digits. Eating just makes people happy. Give a bunch of people a roast chicken, and they starting telling you about their terrible boss, their terrific sister, their favorite walk.

Restaurateurs, this is your chance to save society! Give us more big, communal tables! Prix fixe dinners are perfect for this. Get us in, make us sit down together, hammer us with your glorious food and watch us eat, drink and make nice with one another. Make us share carafes of wine; make us pass around dishes loaded with hot food. Because nothing makes you love your neighbor more than having him leave you the last garlic French fry.

C. Thi Nguyen is senior editor of the Chow Digest for Chowhound.com.

Feed — and fund — the 'ferals'

Last weekend in a former theater just off Adams Boulevard, I found myself at the North Pole. Around me, the sea gleamed bleakly, pierced by shards of ice. Auroral curtains swept down from the stratosphere. Without the aid of digital effects, I was transported to the ends of the Earth.

I was visiting the new 360-degree painting-cum-arctic-spectacle known as the Velaslavasay Panorama, one of dozens of new L.A. hybrid organizations bubbling up from our city's infamous primordial ooze. Down in the mud, far from the towers of Culture Proper (the LACMAs, MOCAs and Gettys), the hybrids operate as radical, inspiring alternatives crossing boundaries between disparate fields including art, science, technology, architecture and sociology. "Feral institutions" we might call them -- individually and collectively they produce experiences layered with beauty, whimsy and oftentimes jaw-dropping strangeness.

Among this group are the self-proclaimed "urban agriculture fairies" Fallen Fruits; Echo Park's Machine Project, ground zero for DIY techno-happenings; the anthropologically inflected Shed Research Institute; and Silver Lake's tiny museum of the built environment, Materials and Architecture, plus many more. As co-founder of another feral, the Institute for Figuring, it seems to me that there is no city in America where the cultural compost is more productive than L.A. today.

All these ferals operate on shoestrings. With this much creativity on virtually no money, imagine what might blossom with more financial help. How to enrich the cultural life of L.A.? Fund the ferals!

Margaret Wertheim is the author of "Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars."

Collar the dogs

Some hipster's English Mastiff, big enough to bring down a cape buffalo, lies athwart the front entrance to Starbucks while his "daddy" is inside hunched over an iBook. So my 4-year-old son and I head for the side door. A spastic Weimaraner tied to a bistro set lunges at us, gets tangled up in the iron furniture and yowls like he's caught in a bear trap. My kid covers his ears. The Weimaraner's "mommy" charges out with her yoga mat slung like a quiver, nonfat soy latte in her hand, and tries to untangle the mess one-handed. The dog gets loose and pees all over another patron's chair.

Los Angeles has much to recommend it to the callow, decadent and solipsistic. I've learned to accept that, even embrace it, but I fear this city is going to the dogs.

Like empty rituals and exotic charities, dogs offer comfort without demands, making canines the ideal companion for a thirtysomething trustafarian calling himself a writer or actor. There are dogs in this town with better health insurance than a lot of children have. A blind date once argued for this extravagance, asking me what was she to do if her dog required hip replacement surgery. Sweetheart, your dog doesn't need hip replacement. You need a new dog.

Don't get me wrong. I like dogs. I might even like your dog. I just don't like your dog in my lap while I'm working through my pigs in a blanket at Doughboys. And, I may be going out on a limb here, but two pit bulls might be two too many for your one-bedroom apartment in Fairfax.

Even Angelenos ought to draw the line somewhere. And dogs at our cafe tables is as good a place as any to start. Because, after all, they're animals. And there are foster kids out there who I happen to know are a lot better behaved.

Will Beall is the author of "L.A. Rex."

Hand over the mini-malls

The ubiquitous L.A. mini-mall is the 1980s love child of bad tax laws and shortsighted planning policies. But we have them all around us -- every street corner it sometimes seems -- and they're not getting any prettier as they age. I propose that we embrace the mini-mall and make it a positive feature of the contemporary urban landscape.

The mini-mall's banal visage is the perfect place for contemporary art. I am not talking about an official, permanent, committee-sanctioned "public art" piece, but rather a temporary transformative layer of ideas wrapping the site.

A model for this might be the Fourth Berlin Biennial in 2006, which took place on a single street using all sorts of locations -- private apartments, a cemetery, a church -- as venues for the art on display. It was a raging success. Just imagine what photographer Uta Barth or street artist Banksy or watercolorist Dave Muller or artist-designer Jorge Pardo might do if they got their hands on a mini-mall. Not to mention all of the less known but excellent up-and-coming artists and designers our fair city seems to be producing at a very healthy rate.

I imagine that the artists' "interventions" would not be in the stores themselves (though how great would it be to have a gallery here and there, between nail salons); instead, the art projects might occupy all or any of the outside surfaces -- parking lots, billboards and signage, nighttime lighting, landscaping, rooftops, etc. With a budget of about $25,000 per mini-mall and a bit of curating, some seriously fun things could happen. And it might help broker a new way for small-time commercial property owners to increase their property's value at the same time they increase the public value of our streets.

Barbara Bestor is an architect and author of "Bohemian Modern: Living in Silver Lake."

Build a plaza, please

When I first arrived in Los Angeles from San Francisco, I was tired of bitter beer and bitter coffee and bitter hipsters sneering over their copies of "Might" magazine. I relished the big shopping malls and massive cineplexes and themed restaurants, all symbols of the Southland's unabashed, unironic overindulgence.

But over the years, I've developed a distaste for the fact that almost all of L.A.'s public spaces are commercial spaces, like the Grove, Paseo Colorado and other glorified outdoor malls. We congregate in spaces designed not for citizens but for consumers.

Yes, there's Griffith Park. But I'm not talking about grass and trees. I'm talking about urban, public spaces, like the massive, open square I visited in San Sebastian, Spain. There, adults sat and sipped beers or red wine while kids ran screaming through the square. Did the parents pay $8 a head for the privilege of entering this urban Gymboree? No. Did they even once shout, "Don't run!" or, "Use words, not fists!"? No. They sat there, obliviously sipping delicious Pilsners and nibbling aged cheeses.

That's when I realized I don't want to stand shoulder to shoulder with shoppers watching water shoot into the air to the strains of Shakira while my kid fiddles with the latest iPod in the Apple store. No, I want my child to scrape her knees across unforgiving cobblestones while I feast on cured meats and a nice glass of Rioja. Doesn't everyone? Isn't that the American dream?

Heather Havrilevsky is TV critic for Salon.com.

Scold the cell squawkers

Every day, across Los Angeles, boors on cellphones drag us into their lives. We need to tell them that our attention doesn't belong to them. That their right to have loud, dull cellphone conversations ends where our ears begin.

Sometimes, I do this by making a polite suggestion. Other times, I've become too irritated by the last 10 people who told me where to stick that suggestion, or worn down by the need to instruct another adult to "use your inside voice." That's when I help them see a downside of over-share.

A woman at the Rose Cafe shouted her eyeglass order into her cell -- going into great detail about her family's medical plan (they have flexible spending; they'll pay after the first of the year). So I blogged her conversation, including her phone number, and she got calls from around the world: "Eva, your glasses are ready!" I'm guessing she has newfound respect for others' profound disinterest in her life.

Barry sure does. He shouted his number across a Venice Starbucks. I went home and called it: "Barry, I know everything about you but your blood type." Next time I saw him, he took his calls outside.

Now, maybe you're too timid (or too sane) to do what I do, but please do something. Shush the rudesters. At least glare. Ask restaurants to post "no cellphones" signs.

Peace on Earth might not be doable, but we could try for peace and quiet. For civility, not technology, to be our guide. Perhaps the manners of the future are best informed by our pre-wireless past. Think about it: There's a reason no one installed a phone booth right at table five.

Amy Alkon, a syndicated columnist, writes at advicegoddess.com.

Learn to love the authentic

Our city sags beneath a unique burden: hundreds of thousands of fame-seekers who project their rejections onto the city itself. Instead of blaming or shaming it, those who migrate here should make the effort to get to know Los Angeles.

Go take deep breaths of our much-maligned air and stand in line for a hot dog at Pink's, or wait for a seat at the Apple Pan. Put the BlackBerry on silent and see an old movie at the New Beverly. Get to Yamashiro or Olivera Street or the Farmer's Market before each is drained of its charisma. Drive from a mountain to the beach in 35 minutes and appreciate that you're on the last thick line on the map before Hawaii.

If you're from here, don't forget to spend some time falling in love again with the humble gems that haven't succumbed to cultural cannibalism. We need them to fill the eyes, ears, mouths and minds of those new arrivals who may not know how to thrive like an Angeleno yet.

Josh Richman is co-founder of nightlife company The Alliance.

Keep artists in the picture

Los Angeles has emerged as one of the nation's outstanding arts communities, adding one cultural institution after another: MOCA, the Hammer, the Getty, Disney Hall and now the expansion of LACMA's campus.

But what about the artists?

As an artist, I've always found Los Angeles inspirational, but it is getting harder to live here. Skyrocketing real estate prices and rents have squeezed us out of studios and galleries.

Los Angeles needs to build a space for artists. It would be a brilliant building, a model for other great art cities to follow. Think big: 25,000 square feet or more. A cutting-edge green building with a rooftop garden. Top-of-the-line equipment in all media, and flexible spaces for exhibitions or performances. Affordable studios for daily rental.

Allot three-fourths of the studios to local artists selected by a peer panel for yearlong residencies. Use the rest to create a program for international visiting artists. Our city has embraced the arts; it's time for it to embrace its artists.

Catherine Opie is a fine art photographer and photography professor at UCLA.

Meet the new neighbors

It's almost a cliche that L.A.'s diversity is its strength. But another cliche (one, like most, grounded in a certain truth) is that L.A. lives like a small town, or a bunch of small towns, divvied up by color and class. Fact is, we've always preferred our diversity geographically contained and climate-controlled; a white friend of mine once confessed that to most of her friends, "Diversity means having good restaurants."

So let's mix it up. Let's play big developer in the sky, take the great urban chessboard and move all the pieces around so that the kings and queens sit alongside the knights and rooks.

My picks? Move Inglewood next to Beverly Hills, drop Cheviot Hills somewhere around Paramount, stick Watts in the West Valley, merge the Eastside with the West.

Even if we can't really do it, imagining the juxtapositions begins to define what real diversity would look like. It also brings into focus some historical and economic justice that's long overdue. For example: Couple El Segundo with South L.A., each wrought by the same phenomenon of racial isolation, though one was the cause, the other its effect. Or wed Compton to Ladera Heights, which might actually heal the rift between the black middle class and poor that we've all been fretting about for years. Those are my choices, but the possibilities are endless.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to Opinion.

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Artwork credit: Susan Tibbles / for The Times Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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