Sometimes it’s hard to know when you have won. Games are easy--you can tally the score when time is called. Someone acknowledges defeat in war. Sometimes even peace is declared. In cities, on the other hand, no one blows a whistle and declares victory.
For all its woes, Los Angeles has been winning for the past month. It has been beating back the despair of those who care in the celebrations of its Arts Festival, which ends Sunday. Thousands of citizens have turned out to festival events all over the city, frequently finding themselves listening to the musicians or poets on loudspeakers outside because there was no more room within.
There were the poets, Shirley Kaufman from Israel and Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American, who shared their hopes and their friendship for each other in a small bookstore a few days before the historic signing of the peace agreement in Washington. There was the group called Vashti, made up especially for the festival, of drummers of different cultures who created an extraordinary sound and impact on their audience in a church. There were theatrical groups and gospel singers and films of private moments in many different lands.
Seeing all of the festival isn’t essential because, while we are coming to hear the artists, we are also coming to see one another, and therein lie the seeds of victory.
Los Angeles was formed community by isolated community. Housing tracts were laid out when streets and power and water became available. People moved in and closed the gates behind them, figuratively and often literally. After a change in the immigration laws in 1965, newcomers began arriving from all over the world, each one seeking the promise of opportunity, many finding it, many not. Times got tougher, and we grew more conscious of our separation from one another, more aware of how difficult it is to overcome the distances.
The L.A. Arts Festival is not just a showcase for artists. It is an opportunity for people of different communities to meet, to visit a new neighborhood and not feel like an alien tourist. It is an opportunity to share the experience of someone else’s culture. And most amazingly, it is an opportunity to see that there are people of all communities who want to partake of that sharing.
That is the victory for the city: the same yearning to heal that we saw the day after the riots, when people of all colors came with shovels and brooms to help victims sweep away the debris. The audience of the arts festival reflects the same yearning, but the experience is one of joy. There is security in knowing that we can travel to another neighborhood and feel both safe and welcome.
The problems and frustrations are still there, of course. And all neighborhoods may not be safe all the time. But people who come together this way go back to their homes knowing that living in Los Angeles is an extraordinary experience--one that can be made better.
Victory is the recognition that we can live together as a city. The arts of the city are its gift to its present and its heritage for the future. The opportunity to participate in them as a member of the city is a measure of our hope and our success.