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Essential California: How one columnist captures the L.A. story

Essential California: How one columnist captures the L.A. story
Santa Monica's California Incline. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, May 16, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Like many Angelenos, I spend a lot of time in harried transit. I take a subway and then a bus to our offices in El Segundo every morning. It’s an hour or so spent in maximum information overload: I eavesdrop on strangers, rabidly refresh Twitter and triage emails, read things and stare out the window. I gulp down far too much and truly take in far too little.

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I don’t stop until I get to the office elevator, where all three walls are printed with the text of a nearly decade-old story by Nita Lelyveld. It is a perfect (and perfectly placed) story about an elevator operator named Ruben Pardo. It’s the kind of story that makes you suddenly feel as if you know the person she’s writing about, and also know a little more about what it means to be a person in general. I can’t help but give it my full attention, even in a sometimes crowded elevator.

After several years as an editor, Nita returns to writing her City Beat column today. The column chronicles intimate moments around the city in a close-up, personal way. Ahead of the relaunch, I talked to Nita about City Beat, the challenges of writing about L.A. and how she plans to tackle big issues through the stories of everyday Angelenos.

Nita Lelyveld
Nita Lelyveld (Los Angeles Times)

How did the City Beat column first start?

Since I’ve been at the paper, I’ve always felt that we don’t do enough stories that are just reported on the street. We’ve tended to bend a little more toward institutional stories and news events and things like that.

The idea was that these vivid stories would make you feel like you were out on the streets with me. And they would also have something to say, in a larger way, about life in the city. My hope is that the new City Beat will be just as intimate and just as peopled and vivid as before. But I will also take on some of the bigger issues that we just can’t avoid living here.

What do you think makes a story intimate?

I'd rather tell a story about something controversial from the point of view of the people experiencing it. If there are big fights about whether there should or shouldn’t be bike lanes, I want to be in the place that’s at the center of the debate. I’ll describe what’s happening through the place and the people, rather than from the policy.

All the cliches say there’s no center here, and no shared civic life. How do you find the collective fabric?

Part of it is that people only know the L.A. that they know, right?

Every time I’ve moved in L.A.— I’ve moved three times here — and even moving a mile, my whole world opens up. Each time, I learned so much more about the city.

That's the reason I started #MyDayinLA on Twitter. I liked the idea of people sharing their moments of life in the city, so that we can see each other’s cities. Because we can’t be in all of L.A., you know? It’s just too hard. But at least you can see other people’s experience.

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That’s really beautiful. It reminds me a lot of L.A. Taxi Commissioner Eric Spiegelman’s theory of Infinite Los Angeles-es. Eric has this theory that in a place with as many separate, self-contained worlds as Los Angeles, there are actually unlimited versions of the city you could experience, based on what worlds you occupy and the endless permutations of how they intersect.

Exactly! And everybody thinks that that’s L.A., the one that they know. My hope with this column is that people learn about other experiences.

How do you find these stories?

I’m getting such beautiful letters already from people who want to tell their stories or want to direct me to this or that in their neighborhood. I’m really hoping to engage readers in telling me what’s happening. [You can email Nita here.]

What are your literary inspirations for City Beat? What do you read?

I read everything. I read a lot about L.A. and California history. I read tons of fiction. I think maybe my love of oral histories and of things like Studs Terkel and “Working” influenced the stories and subjects I choose.

I’m one of those people who believes that every life has great stories. It’s just finding your way into them.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

Pacific Gas & Electric power lines sparked the devastating Camp fire that destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and killed 85 people last year. Investigators from CalFire released their findings Wednesday, concluding their probe into the deadliest blaze in state history. PG&E had previously acknowledged in February that its equipment had probably been the ignition point for the fire. Los Angeles Times

President Trump will announce a sweeping immigration plan Thursday to boost border security and foreign workers while reducing family reunification, but the White House proposal has little chance of advancing in Congress. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

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Meet Caitlin Hata, the “fermentation chef” for the Manufactory, a 44,000-square-foot downtown L.A. food complex that includes the L.A. outpost of Tartine and Alameda Supper Club. The 28-year-old Simi Valley native’s mad science work can be spotted across the Manufactory, from the homemade pickles to the house-fermented koji rice. Bon Appetit

Long Beach’s first gay dance club will close this summer after more than four decades. Long Beach Post

Customers inside Ocean Star restaurant during lunchtime in 2006. The restaurant, which opened in 1982, closed this month.
Customers inside Ocean Star restaurant during lunchtime in 2006. The restaurant, which opened in 1982, closed this month. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

The Chinese-restaurant-dense San Gabriel Valley has seen a wave of major closures in recent months, including the shuttering of dim sum powerhouse Ocean Star and Empress Harbor Seafood Restaurant, both of which are located in the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park. Los Angeles Times

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

Asylum seekers awaiting court dates in the border city of Mexicali are facing a chickenpox outbreak at their shelter. Desert Sun

Immigrants serving in the U.S. military are being denied citizenship at a higher rate than foreign-born civilians, according to new government data. Sacramento Bee

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

President Trump has pardoned Pat Nolan, the Republican former state lawmaker who spent years in prison after being convicted in the “"Shrimpscam” FBI sting in the 1990s. Los Angeles Times

Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the race for Georgia governor last year, weighs in on abortion bans, boycotts and California. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

A popular plastic surgeon who practices in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach and leads a USC-sponsored fellowship is being accused in a lawsuit of unnecessarily operating on a patient for profit. Los Angeles Times

A wealthy dad admitted bribing his son’s way into Georgetown. Now the student is suing to block expulsion. Los Angeles Times

THE ENVIRONMENT

CEQA — a landmark California environmental law — has often been wielded against development. But now activists in Los Angeles and the Bay Area are trying to use the law to block construction of homeless shelters. Los Angeles Times

All nine national parks in California, including Yosemite and Joshua Tree, are plagued by “significant air pollution problems,” according to a new report. San Francisco Chronicle

California’s attorney general and several fishing and conservation groups have filed separate lawsuits to stop a controversial project to elevate Shasta Dam and expand the state’s largest reservoir, near Redding. KQED

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

From the department of Weird Facts that feel a little like a crossover episode between two very different culture-dominating TV shows: Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was Facebook’s 287th user. The social network’s founders were also “friends of friends” of the South Bend, Ind., mayor while all of them were at Harvard. Mercury News

Museum donors have become the focus of increasing scrutiny as a number of major East Coast and British institutions have cut ties with the Sackler family, whose vast pharmaceutical fortune grew with U.S. opioid epidemic. But will the “the new art world referendum on toxic donors” seize famously progressive San Francisco? Mission Local

At the iconic intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco, a two-story residence known as the Doolan-Larson Building will open its doors for tours as a museum to the counterculture. San Francisco Chronicle

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

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Los Angeles: rain, 67. San Diego: rain, 66. San Francisco: rain, 57. San Jose: rain, 59. Sacramento: rain, 59. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Lin Conrad:

“Between 1953 and 1959, my father worked for the Bireley’s Orange Drink Co. in Los Angeles. The owner rewarded my dad’s hard work by giving us the keys to his house at the Shadow Mountain Golf Club in Palm Desert. The catch? It was only for the summer (115 degrees daily)! That didn't stop us. Mom and I would spend two months full-time. Most of that time I spent in the pool. On the weekends, Dad visited. I fondly remember him waking us before dawn to drive out onto the desert floor to explore. Fringe-toed lizards, sidewinders (a small rattlesnake), bighorn sheep, roadrunners, ravens, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, jackrabbits and my favorite, Cooper’s hawks, were plentiful. Rains arrived in late July to early August, and, like everything in the desert, came down with great exuberance. The lightning would hit the valley floor and glide across the sand like electrically charged ballerinas. The sky was turquoise blue the next day.”

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