It's all too rare, but there are those times in Los Angeles, like last Monday, when Rodney King's haunting question can be answered with an enthusiastic "Yes!" Under a hot June sun, an estimated 550,000 Angelenos gathered in the streets and in a downtown parking lot to celebrate the Lakers' repeat NBA championship and to wildly clamor for a "three-peat." The crowd was Latino and black and white and Asian. It was Armenian and Salvadoran and Korean and Lithuanian. And everybody did "get along."
Angelenos gathered to celebrate a basketball title, and they did their reveling in a new-found public plaza of shared symbols. Fittingly, in the days before the celebration, the city where nobody walks largely expressed its team spirit via the automobile, with those little plastic purple-and-gold flags anchored to cars stuck in traffic along the freeways and boulevards. Some of my highbrow acquaintances were endlessly annoyed by the flags--how gaudy--but they don't grasp why L.A. desperately needs to stitch together a sense of place in the midst of a geography inhospitable to the very notion of community.
The vast majority of people in this city have never been to Staples Center for a Lakers game. They can't afford the sky boxes or even the nose-bleed seats. And so, half-a-million people gathered for a free parade and to see the Lakers' perform, this one time, for the rest of L.A. For kids from the Crenshaw district and grandmothers from Rialto and dads from San Gabriel. The Staples Center parking lot looked a lot like the rainbow city that Census 2000 tells us we are.
What struck me most was the preponderance of young Latinos, and the way they blended seamlessly into the crowd. Latinos, even the most recently arrived immigrants, have gravitated to basketball in recent years. I have seen pick-up games among Oaxacan busboys in South Los Angeles and among Indians on playgrounds in Southwestern Mexico. I have met Mexican migrant kids from North Carolina to Oregon wearing Chicago Bulls caps and windbreakers. For these immigrants, the style serves a binational function. Here in the States, it helps you at least imagine yourself a member of the popular culture of your adopted land. When you return home to visit relatives, you wear the Air Jordans to show how far you've come in America.
But what truly surprised me last week were all those brown faces beaming alongside black ones at Staples Center as they both cheered on our mostly African American basketball heroes. Haven't we been told for years of the tensions between Latinos and AfricanAmericans in the City of Angels? In the wake of the mayoral election, the apparent divide was there for all to see in the exit polls: AfricanAmericans voted 4-1 for James K. Hahn, Latinos 4-1 for Antonio Villaraigosa.
The notion of a neatly divided city always makes for good copy, but it doesn't capture the complexities of our actual social relations. Black and brown increasingly live side by side not just in L.A. (South Los Angeles is now evenly divided between the two) but across the country. We have all read in print or seen on TV the stories of "race riots" on Southland high school campuses, of gang violence between black and brown, of hate crimes.
What we have not seen or heard is the story of how black and brown have come together not just in terms of demographics but in the everyday relations that make up the true character of any city. Latinos are not immune to the disease of racism--indeed, they bring it with them from across the border, where "negrito" jokes have yet to be considered politically incorrect. But many of them are also becoming acculturated in working-class neighborhoods that for decades have been shaped, culturally and politically, by African Americans. And so, at times, black and brown rise above racialized notions of competition (which are less about race than they are about economics).
What L.A. needs is more public spaces in which we can all come together. There are only a handful of places diverse crowds gather these days--Citywalk, the Venice boardwalk, Old Town in Pasadena--all places that aren't exactly working-class-friendly. As L.A. grew, planners designed in favor of private, not public space. We unraveled across the land without the kinds of essential public anchors--plazas, neighborhood parks, pedestrian-friendly commercial corridors--that help to form a sense of belonging in the urban setting. We are still largely a city without a core.
If L.A. wants to continue coming together, we will have to invest in a city of many cores. Public space, in and of itself, does not address all our issues of social and economic inequity. But it does allow the residents of the city to rub elbows.
After all, we can't count on the Lakers winning the championship every year.