Op-Ed

When L.A. takes to the streets, it defines itself as a city

Los Angeles tends to define itself — or at least to discover its public nature — when it takes to the streets. Such a discovery occurred, again, on Saturday, at the women’s march downtown. In a city with a fractured relationship to its public spaces, one that often seems to turn its back on its streets, marches and demonstrations are not events we can take for granted. When they happen, they remind us, with the force of insistence, that the boulevards belong to us all. 

We talk a lot these days about how Los Angeles is changing — coalescing, coming together  — with the expansion of Metro and the return to the urban core. And yet we live in a landscape through which it remains possible to move without directly engaging another person: Lone drivers travel between home and work, using the streets, or more often the freeways, merely as a conduit.

“The enormous village,” social critic Louis Adamic once called it, in which culture and conversation are essentially private — or, to be more precise, domestic. And yet, Los Angeles also has a history of street level engagement, of Angelenos asserting themselves by laying claim to the city, block by block.

On Saturday, I found myself remembering the old Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth.” Recorded in December 1966, it offered a response to the Sunset Strip anti-curfew riots the month before. These demonstrations were small, just 1,000 or so people in contrast to the hundreds of thousands who converged on City Hall over the weekend, and unlike Saturday’s jubilant and peaceful exercise, the 1966 gatherings devolved into chaos, with violence and arrests.

“What a field day for the heat,” Stephen Stills, who wrote the song, nearly whispers on the recording, “a thousand people in the street / singing songs and carrying signs / mostly say, hooray for our side.”   

The side that won in the late 1960s helped institutionalize the nightlife of West Hollywood, not to mention Southern California-style rock and roll.  But this wasn’t the only time Angelenos have marched to shape their community. In “The Sexual Outlaw,” John Rechy recalls the 1976 Gay Pride parade along Hollywood Boulevard: “The turf they’ve tried deviously with ordinances, openly with violence, to wrest from us year after year.” And, famously, there were the immigration rallies of 2006, in which half a million people marched through downtown to protest a bill, passed by the House of Representatives, that would have criminalized the undocumented and required construction of a border wall.         

At the women’s march, the true diversity of Los Angeles was well represented: young, old, black, Latino, Asian, Anglo, gay, trans and straight. Such a convocation makes it clear that despite our differences, we are all here together, that we belong to a larger community. 

Is that sort of community possible without public space? I don’t believe it is. Without a gathering place, “community” and “the common good” are little more than abstractions — pretty to think about but disconnected from our daily lives. To find community in atomized Los Angeles, we flock to Grand Central Market, coffee shops, even the fake-real public space of a mall such as the Grove. It’s only fitting that these places are commercial; commerce is the traditional creator of common space.

At the same time, the women’s march and its precursors insist that we need more, to claim the streets themselves as the commons, to seize the fabric of Los Angeles and thereby to participate in its public life.

That’s not to say that the streets don’t have their dangers: Rodney King was beaten in the street, and that attack led to “civil unrest” that mapped whole neighborhoods, street by burning street. In 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots — in which white U.S. Navy personnel went after Mexican American youth — unfolded for 10 days across some of the same boulevards along which Sunday’s protesters marched.

For Rechy and the gay activists, for the immigration marchers and even for rock ’n’ rollers half a century ago on Sunset Boulevard, protest represented a way to address directly those in power:  We are here; you must acknowledge us.  The same is true for those who participated in the women’s march. When Angelenos take to the streets, however, we are also addressing ourselves:  Do we want to be connected, to look out for one another? Or are we content to be mostly self-concerned?

Such questions — which pit the commons against the fenced backyard, the public good versus private comfort — have long been front and center in Los Angeles.  On Saturday, I was reminded again that how we answer them begins with the most basic interaction: people walking with one another in the street.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion and the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.”

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