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

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.

Not about Hollywood or Filmmaking: Tips for Surviving a Big Earthquake

March 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Los Angeles Faults/Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory Collection

When I was a second-grader in Tokyo, a large earthquake struck during school hours. My classmates and I had been through enough drills, as well as actual quakes, to know what to do, and got under our desks to wait it out. But this earthquake was different from the others: instead of shaking the building, it made it sway like a pendulum. The intensity of the swaying increased until the classroom felt  like a boat on rough seas. When it finally stopped, we got out from under our desks and, after calming down, finished out the day as usual. Later we learned the earthquake’s epicenter had been on the coast south of Tokyo, and that a school there had collapsed, crushing the children inside.

Since then, I’ve lived both in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, going through earthquakes of various sizes and types. The Northridge Earthquake was probably the most violent, knocking down the brick wall and cracking the base of the chimney in the house where I lived at the time. (The chimney turned out to be supporting the entire house–but that’s another story.) But what I remember most about the Northridge Quake is that my young son and I stayed calm as the house shook violently, while my boyfriend at the time screamed and cried hysterically at each jolt. He wasn’t much better after the earthquake: despite the fact that there was no electricity or phone service, he kept switching on the TV and trying to use the phone. Downed power lines crackled outside, yet he was determined to jump in his car and drive back to Santa Monica. If I hadn’t stopped him, he would have gone–probably via the 10, which had collapsed.

The point is, staying calm is essential in a natural disaster. In Japan, accounts of level-headedness during the recent Tohoku Earthquake abound: despite its 5-minute duration, people did as they were taught in drills, taking cover and remaining calm under duress. The tsunami was a somewhat different story, since it’s hard not to panic in the face of a rapidly approaching 30-foot wall of water. Yet in seaside towns, there were instances of incredible bravery: a man carrying an old woman–who somehow remained calm–up a flight of stairs after the water rose to her nose; a teenage boy who leapt from rooftop to rooftop as the wave surged through his town.

With all that in mind, here are a few tips for getting through the next LA earthquake:

During: Get on the floor, away from windows and stairs. Standing in a doorway is not safe, despite what we were told. Taking shelter under a sturdy piece of furniture will protect you from falling objects. It’s unlikely that your building will collapse, so Doug Copp’s “Triangle of Life”–which dictates getting alongside large objects to create a safe space and air pocket for yourself–isn’t as helpful here as it would be in a place like Haiti. You’re much more likely to be hit by books and artwork, so stay under the desk. If you’re in the car, try to pull over and stop, avoiding power lines, tunnels and bridges. Stay in the car until it’s over.

After: This involves advance planning. You should know beforehand where family members will meet in the absence of phone communication. Chances are that power and phone lines won’t be working for hours or days, so it’s important to have flashlights, extra batteries and a radio that runs on batteries or alternative energy (solar or hand-cranked). You should have a wrench in order to turn off the gas at the meter. Last year, Los Angeles advised residents to prepare to fend for themselves for up to two weeks after a major earthquake–which means some serious provisioning. You will need at least 1 gallon of water per person, per day, as well as food that doesn’t require cooking. If you have cans, keep a can opener in the same place. If you have pets, you will need extra water as well as food for them. It’s a good idea to keep at least a half-tank of gas in the car at all times and–because credit cards depend on phone lines–some emergency cash. You can go much further, but these are the basics.

Above all, don’t panic.

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