Imagine A Great City: Gabriel Kahane’s Los Angeles

April 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane

During the 1990’s, I was a board member of the Junior Arts Center (now Barnsdall Arts), an organization formed to provide art education to Los Angeles children after art classes were all but dropped from the LAUSD curriculum in the 70’s. At the JAC, all classes were taught by working artists and, because we raised money to pay them, fees were kept low. The children produced very good work that we tried to reward, holding an annual exhibition in Barnsdall Park and giving prizes. To raise awareness of children’s art, we partnered with one of the billboard companies on a project called “Imagine a Great City.” Children entered drawings on the theme of Los Angeles, and the winners were displayed on billboards during February, a slow month in the industry. The program ran for a few years in the early 90’s. Despite the ubiquity of the downtown skyline, LAPD helicopters and palm trees in many of the submissions, it was a success.

“Imagine a Great City” came back to me when I was given a copy of Gabriel Kahane’s new Los Angeles-themed album, “The Ambassador.” Kahane is a classically trained composer and virtuoso musician, but his music contains rock, soul, blues and Broadway references. His lyrics are equally beautiful and complex, as poetic as any by Joni Mitchell.

Each song on “The Ambassador” concerns a Los Angeles building, either commercial or residential or, in the case of the “Mildred Pierce”-themed “Veda,” imaginary, and through these addresses Kahane tells the story of modern Los Angeles. Kahane’s subject matter includes modernist architecture (“Villains”), “Blade Runner” (“Bradbury”), the novels of Raymond Chandler (“Musso and Frank”), and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (“Ambassador Hotel). In the album’s most ambitious composition, “Empire Liquor Mart,” Kahane tells the life story of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, whose 1991 murder at the hands of Korean store owner Soon Da Ju was a catalyst for the 1992 riots. He begins with the shooting, from Harlins’ point of view:

The lady in the fishing vest
Has dropped the gun
Who wears a fishing vest
When they’re working at a liquor store?

I float up to the corner
Just above the ice cream  And the frozen food.
I perch beside the surveillance
Camera…

He then traces the Harlins family’s move west from St. Louis, revealing the devastating loss of Latasha’s mother and uncle in separate shootings, before returning to Harlins’ murder.

Nobody reads from the Book of Job
At the church where me and my grandma go.
Nobody sees the trouble I know
But I know that trouble’s gonna find me.

So when I say that my un-
timely death was
Something certain,

What I mean is
That these tragedies
Are a kind of family tradition.

The album concludes with another masterpiece, “Union Station,” which considers manifest destiny, apocalypse and the tragedy of leaving LA:

When the pilasters slplit to admit the sea,
The hands of the clock will be covered in verdigris
I’ll swim to the train and I’ll find my seat
And hazard a smile at anyone who looks at me.

When the Alkali flats with their cracks pass by,
Think of the color wheel, think of the Western sky:
Distant city with a distant glow,
The hall of the lost has let me go.

This is songwriting of the highest order, incisive and deeply felt. The fact Kahane doesn’t even live here (although born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Northern California and lives in New York) says something too: that the tired La-la Land cliches have finally fallen away. Gabriel Kahane is appearing tonight at the Fonda, opening for the Punch Brothers, and I’m looking forward to his performance.

Related article: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-lessons-of-429-how-the-la-riots-transformed-the-korean-american-community/

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The Lessons of 4/29: How the LA Riots Transformed the Korean-American Community

May 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

A Burning Mini-Mall at Western Avenue and 6th Street, April 29, 1992/Copyright Hyungwon Kang

Last week’s anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots brought a flood of programming, all of which helped to bring the chaos of 1992 into historical perspective. Like others who lived through the events, I found myself remembering things I had suppressed during the intervening years, when moving on seemed more important than dwelling on the violence and terror of those days. One vaguely recalled memory, so frequently overshadowed by the Rodney King verdict, was the Riots’ other inciting incident: the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner, in March of 1991. Although Soon claimed self-defense in shooting the girl, an African-American high school student she had accused of stealing a carton of orange juice, she was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in November of that year. The jury recommended a 16-year prison term, but Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Soon to 5 years probation, with 400 of community service and a $500 fine. Outrage over the absurdly lenient sentence set the stage for violence. The King verdict the following April was like a match tossed on a pool of gasoline, and the city erupted.

Not surprisingly, Korean-owned businesses were heavily targeted by rioters. These included not only convenience stores in South Los Angeles but stores throughout downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown, particularly along Western Avenue from Pico to Beverly. At the time, I lived on the eastern edge of Hancock Park, at 6th and Bronson. Six blocks away, a half-dozen fires raged at strip malls along Western, including the one pictured above. Many stores that escaped the fires were vandalized and looted. Those of us who lived nearby were under curfew for several days, during which National Guard troops arrived in tanks. Heavily armed, they patrolled the streets and used the Masonic Temple on Wilshire as a garrison.

Amid the strangeness of this quasi-war zone, we resumed our daily lives. The kids went back to school and everyone adopted a keep-calm-carry-on attitude. One day several weeks later, my son and I visited a shoe store in the mini-mall at Wilshire and Grammercy, one that carried all the latest sneakers. It was owned by a young Korean couple, and the husband had gone out of his way to be friendly and kind to us. Now we were shocked to see him emerge from the stock room with a bruised face and broken arm, injuries suffered at the hands of looters. He seemed remarkably unembittered, but the business never recovered and closed six months later.

Among the commentary I heard last week, a statement by a Korean-American professor had particular resonance. Before the Riots, she said, Koreans immigrants in Los Angeles always referred to themselves as Koreans. Afterwards they began to refer to themselves as Korean-Americans, seeing themselves as part of the multi-cultural fabric of the city instead of a separate community. Though I hadn’t registered the shift, I remember a series of post-Riots meetings between Korean business owners and members of the African-American community, in which long-simmering cultural differences were discussed for the first time. One source of friction was the Korean store owners’ practice of putting their customers’ change on the counter instead of in their hands. That their customers universally regarded the practice as rude and racist was a revelation to the store owners, who were simply doing what they had done in Korea.

20 years later, it’s hard to describe the mood of distrust that simmered before the Riots, because it no longer exists. This is not to say that the different racial and ethnic communities live in perfect harmony: resentments still abound, but in a much more open and integrated atmosphere. If post-Riots Los Angeles had a civic motto, it would be We’re All In This Together.

For the Korean community, the Riots–still referred to as 4:29–were a shattering experience, but they also served to speed the inevitable and necessary process of assimilation. At the end of my block in Hancock Park, there stood an apartment building that was entirely occupied by Korean immigrant families. As I walked by with my dog each evening, I could hear–amid the sounds of household chores and music practice–kids screaming as their fathers administered stiff corporal punishments. As the ’90s went on, the music lessons continued unabated, but I no longer heard the beatings. Like the bullying my son endured at the hands of his Korean classmates, such punishment was a thing of the past.

Strength Through Adversity: How the Calamities of the Early 90s Transformed Los Angeles’ Self Image

April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment

The LA Riots of 1992/Courtesy http://www.paranormalknowledge.com

When I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 1989, I did so at some risk, quitting my job, selling my house and uprooting my preschooler in a life-changing leap of faith. My decision was met with disbelief by colleagues and acquaintances, who were incredulous that a) anyone would leave the Bay Area voluntarily and b) that anyone would move to Los Angeles without being forced. When they found out I didn’t even have a job waiting for me, their incredulity turned to derision. No one even bothered to put a positive spin on what they considered an incomprehensibly awful idea. The nadir of these comments, reported to me by my son’s babysitter, was spoken to my bewildered 5-year-old: “Have your mommy buy you a gas mask.”

Once we were here, I noticed no one in Los Angeles ever said anything bad about people who did the reverse. Leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco invariably brought congratulations and positive statements. I love the Bay Area! was the general theme. Clearly, these attitudes had to do with the historic rivalry between the two cities, but also with the fact that Los Angeles–having surpassed San Francisco economically–was on its way to usurping San Francisco’s position as the state’s cultural capital. Los Angeles-bashing only underscored San Francisco’s provincialism, but no one in either city seemed to mind.

More surprising–and disheartening–were the comments Angelenos made about their own city. Los Angeles circa 1990 was thought of almost entirely in negative terms by people who ostensibly had moved here without duress. The city was polluted, expensive, traffic-filled and stressful. There was too much going on, or not enough going on, depending on whether you were talking about culture or sports. Having grown up in Tokyo, which at the time was far more polluted, crowded, traffic-filled and stressful than LA, and yet was universally considered an enviable place to live, I found it odd. The only thing people in Los Angeles didn’t complain about was the weather–unless of course it was raining. (An English friend of mine used to say the winter rains here were the most depressing she had experienced in her life. “But you’re from London,” I said, at which point she embarked on a comparison between the lovely soft English rain and the cold, pelting Los Angeles rain. I’m not kidding.)

But in 1990, something good happened: the air quality improved noticeably. The apparent reason was the closing of the last auto plant in LA, which ended 50 years of ill-advised heavy manufacturing in the Los Angeles Basin, an area the Tongva Indians used to call The Valley of the Smokes, which perhaps was the original local put-down. In any case, smoggy summers soon gave way to blue skies, and in winter the views of the San Gabriels were stunning. Nevertheless, the civic mood hardly had time to improve before the Rodney King beating (March ’91) and subsequent riots (May ’92) made Los Angeles the most reviled major city in the country. At the time of the riots, I was living in Hancock Park, in a house that lay 6 blocks from multiple fires. My son and I cowered in our house all during that first day, not knowing whether the mayhem on Western and on Wilshire would spill over into door-to-door violence. It was a strange and frightening experience, surreal both at the time and in retrospect.

The following months brought an exodus of Los Angeles haters–people who, if not for the riots, probably would have stayed on unhappily, infecting the civic mood. Instead they lit out for their various hometowns, or New York, and things brightened considerably. But it took the Northridge Quake (January ’94) to really sweep the city clean of detractors who, terrified of The Big One, left in droves. Unfortunately, the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman that June set back the city’s self-image once again, but nothing could undo the post-Rodney King reform of the LAPD, which changed the head-cracking culture of local law enforcement and brought about a huge decline in crime.

Two decades later, it’s unreal to think about these events, all of which eventually changed Los Angeles for the better. As I luxuriate in relatively clean air and low crime rates not seen since the 1950s, it occurs to me that years have passed since I’ve had to listen to anyone disparage Los Angeles. Though it might be because word has gotten out that I’ll say, “Then you should leave,” I think it’s because Los Angeles has become a great place to live. Still, we should let the haters think otherwise, or else they’ll come back.

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