Happy New Year?

Artists painting murals during the protests in Hollywood this year.

Seems like everyone agrees that 2020 was the year from hell. We had a deadly pandemic spreading like wildifre across the globe. In the US we had the incredibly weird and stressful presidential election.

And here in LA? Where do I start?

While the homeless population has been growing for years, the number of people experiencing homelessness in LA County shot up by 12% in 2020. The City of LA saw an even larger increase of 16%. There were months of protests in the streets against police violence. Though not many people seem to have noticed, it’s been an unusually dry year, which should be cause for alarm since our water resources are continuing to decline.

And then there were the numerous indictments filed by the Department of Justice against current and former LA City officials. The charges included bribery, extortion and money laundering. I count five guilty pleas so far, but it’s hard to keep track. Then there are former Councilmember Jose Huizar and former Deputy Mayor Ray Chan who claim innocence. They’ll go on trial later this year. The saddest aspect of all this is that these prosecutions come as no surprise to thousands of Angelenos who have been following local politics. The acts described in the indictments sound like business as usual at City Hall. And don’t get me started on what’s been happening at the City Attorney’s office under Mike Feuer.

All of us are hoping that 2021 will be better than 2020, and really that’s setting the bar pretty low. Yeah, it would be great if Covid-19 went away and we could get back to some kind of normal. But other than that, how much will change? Most of the problems I listed above have been with us a long time in one form or another. Will the new leadership in Washington bring about a new era of peace and equality? Don’t bet on it. Will our elected officials finally agree on a way to successfully address homelessness? Nothing they’ve done so far inspires much confidence. Will LA City Hall become more transparent, open and honest? Don’t make me laugh.

But in spite of my extreme cynicism, I’m not giving up, and neither should you. This year we’ve seen legions of healthcare workers and others make huge sacrifices to care for people infected with Covid-19. In LA we saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets to protest injustice. And even if the culture at LA City Hall is hopelessly corrupt, there are numerous community groups working hard to address homelessness, hunger and poverty.

LA will never be perfect, but it could be a lot better. We can make it better. We can give our time as volunteers. We can give our money to non-profits with a proven track record of helping people. Even just staying informed and staying engaged can make a difference. If you’re not registered to vote, then get registered. And then next time we have an election, take the time to vote. Find a news source you trust, and then subscribe to it, because supporting journalism, especially local journalism, is crucial.

The new year will not be any better than the old year unless we make it better. We can’t just sit back passively and hope everything will turn out all right. We have to get involved and stay involved.

Reality Check: LA’s Water Resources Are Shrinking

With everything else going on this year, you could be forgiven if you haven’t thought much about LA’s dwindling water supply. But it’s important for all of us to remember that all of the water resources LA depends on are declining. After a number of dry years, we had a couple of really wet ones, and many people thought our troubles were over. Unfortunately, a couple seasons of unusually high precipitation didn’t wipe out our water deficit. To get a sense of the scary reality we’re facing, take a look at this map which shows the areas of California that are currently experiencing unusually dry conditions.

Drought Map CA Nov 2020

As you can see, almost the entire State, with the exception of coastal Southern California, is dealing with dry, in some cases exceptionally dry conditions. This is, of course, one of the main reasons why Northern California was ravaged by a record number of fires this year. But to really understand the scope of the problem, take a look at this map of the whole US.

Drought Map US Nov 2020

As you can see, it’s not just California. Much of the Western United States is extremely dry. Climatologists are in pretty much universal agreement that climate change is a primary factor, but it isn’t the only factor. One of the major reasons we’re in this situation is that the Western US has been recklessly depleting its water resources for decades.

All you have to do is take a look at the Colorado River. Seven western states depend on the Colorado for water. Unfortunately, the combined annual allocations for these states amounts to more water than the total annual flow. This means there’s a structural water deficit. We’re using more water than the River actually contains. Over the past several years, the levels at Lake Mead have repeatedly fallen to precariously low levels. Here’s a photo from November 2018 that illustrates the problem.

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The white band around the perimeter shows the difference between how high the water used to rise and how low it’s fallen in recent years. Lake Mead is considered full when the water level reaches 1,229 feet. Right now it’s at 1,081 feet, which is 6 feet above 1,075, the point at which the first round of reductions in allocations kicks in. Because the level has fallen dangerously low a number of times in recent years, the western states that get water from the Colorado River have worked hard to develop a drought contingency plan. If the levels continue to decline, which is likely, the plan provides an orderly framework for allocation reductions. This is an important step, but it’s not a solution. Here’s a quote from Jeffrey Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District….

The drought contingency plan is, in many respects, just a tourniquet; we’re basically bleeding out on the Colorado River.

The interview this was taken from was published in the June, 2019 issue of The Planning Report. If you have a few minutes, it’s worth reading, because Kightlinger lays the problem out clearly.

MWD Achieves Consensus on Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

But it’s not just the decline of the Colorado we need to worry about. To repeat. All of the water resources LA depends on are declining. A look at the maps above should make it clear that deliveries from the State Water Project will likely be reduced. We can’t depend on the LA Aqueduct the way we used to. And much of the groundwater LA has access to is contaminated. Remediation efforts will take many years, if not decades.

State and local leaders seem to think that if we build another tunnel or move more quickly on water recycling projects we’ll come out okay. They’re wrong. For the last century, Californians have clung to the myth that this is the Golden State and that we can keep growing forever. We can’t. There are very real limits that we have to accept, and fundamental facts we can’t ignore. We have a finite supply of water. That supply is shrinking. If we don’t accept that fact, we’re heading for disaster.

Where Are We Heading?

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Screenshot from video posted on LA Times web site.

Last night there were protests in Downtown over the killing of George Floyd, with violent clashes between police and protesters. The unrest continued today. The Mayor of LA has imposed a curfew. West Hollywood and Beverly Hills are doing the same. And I just read the National Guard is on its way.

The scary thing is, all of this seems familiar. I was on the phone earlier with a friend in New York. She’s from Los Angeles, and was one of the journalists who covered the 1992 unrest for the LA Times. We both agreed that all this feels very much like the days of chaos that followed the verdict in the Rodney King beating.

In a way I feel like we’re back in the same place. That nothing has changed. But actually, the more I think about it, the more I feel like things have actually gotten much worse. For the last several years Los Angeles has been sliding closer and closer to the edge. There are over 36,000 homeless people in the City of LA and 59,000 countywide. People are struggling to pay rent and bills in a gig economy that offers zero stability. We’ve spent many millions on new transit infrastructure, and now Metro is getting ready to spend millions more because contractors botched the job the first time around. And we’re learning more and more about the pay-to-play culture at LA City Hall, with four guilty pleas so far in the ongoing corruption investigation, and more on the way.

There are major problems across LA County, but the City of LA is the poster child for dysfunction. Most of our leaders are crooked, and the ones that aren’t don’t have the backbone to challenge the status quo. Our Mayor tells us that building luxury skyscrapers will help solve the housing crisis, and even the City Councilmembers who know better cast their votes to approve the latest high-end high-rise. Our Mayor tells us we’re getting people out of cars and onto trains, while traffic gets worse and transit ridership continues to plunge. Our Mayor tells us we’re creating a sustainable LA, while our urban forest is dying and the majority of our recyclables still get dumped in landfills.

But, of course, it’s not just LA. California is in trouble. The US is in trouble. George Floyd’s killing may have sparked the protests, but people have been frustrated and angry for a long time. I wish I could say I think things will get better, but I don’t. At least not any time soon.

I can still hear the sirens screaming by out in the streets. As of Saturday night, here’s what’s going on in LA.

L.A. Police Face More Mass Demonstrations After Friday’s Violence from LA Sentinel

National Guard deploying to L.A. as looting, vandalism, violence worsens from LA Times

“El momento más pesado”: alcalde de Los Ángeles extiende toque de queda a toda la ciudad from La Opinion

And here’s a view of the larger picture.

George Floyd: protests and unrest coast to coast as US cities impose curfews from The Guardian

Local News Is Dying

 

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Obviously, the impacts of the pandemic we’re experiencing have gone far beyond just threats to human health. It’s devastated numerous industries, and in many cases we can’t even predict the long-term effects.

Local newspapers are getting hammered by the outbreak. As businesses have been shuttered, they’ve stopped spending on advertising, and this has been catastrophic for newspapers small and large. The loss of revenue has forced the LA Times to close down three local papers it published, the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and La Canada Valley Sun. No doubt we’ll see more closures in the not-too-distant future.

Publications that report local news have been declining for years, and as that has happened, Americans are less and less aware of what’s going on in the cities they live in. Did you know that the City of LA was facing annual budget shortfalls of $200 million to $400 million before the pandemic even hit? Did you know transit ridership in LA County has been declining for years and is down about 20% since 2013, in spite of the fact that taxpayers have spent billions to build new rail lines? Did you know that the State requires cities to recycle 50% of their solid waste, but that the RecycLA program hasn’t even hit 35%? If you didn’t know these things, it may be because you’re relying on TV or social media to get your information, instead of experienced journalists who know how to report hard news.

Local news is crucial to keeping people informed. If you don’t know what your elected representatives are up to, there’s no way you can make an informed decision when you go to the polls.

The LA Times has done an excellent breakdown of this frightening situation. I urge you to read it. And then, if you don’t already subscribe to a local paper, get on-line and sign up.

Coronavirus Crisis Hastens the Collapse of Local Newspapers. Here’s Why It Matters

The Death of the Newsstand

Boyle Heights Newsstand from LA Times 2002

Photo from LA Times by Irfan Khan

Today the LA Times ran a story on a newsstand in Boyle Heights that will probably be closing this year. Like so many other casualties of the rise of digital media, newsstands are a dying breed. While you can still find a few here and there in LA, most are long gone. In my own neighborhood, Universal News, (used to be on Las Palmas) has been closed for years, and World Book & News (1652 Cahuenga) has drastically reduced its stock. I know the odds are that one day it will close down, too.

While I hate to see newsstands disappear, I know that change is inevitable. As advances in print technology in an earlier era gave rise to newsstands and made them a part of the fabric of our cities, advances in digital technology have now marginalized newspapers and magazines.

In theory, print news and digital news should be the same. In reality, the shift has led to a huge change in the way the news is reported and consumed. The internet allows us instant access to news outlets all over the world, which seems like an incredible opportunity, but the promise is different from the reality. It allows us to search for the news we want to read, often to the exclusion of news that we should read. And while we now have what seems like an infinite number of sources to choose from, I feel like that allows most of us to subscribe to the sites that tell us what we want to hear.

One of the most damaging casualties of the rise of digital media is the loss of local reporting. Twenty years ago in LA, both the Times and the Daily News had beat reporters covering City Hall and the various city departments. They knew the landscape, they had the connections, and they kept the public apprised of what our elected officials were doing. Now, with both papers having slashed staff over the years, reporting on City Hall is sporadic, and our electeds have found they can pull all sorts of stunts with very little public scrutiny.

Here’s the link to the story about the newsstand in Boyle Heights. A small piece of LA history that’s about to disappear.

Spanish Language Newsstand Braces for the End

Public Education Is Everybody’s Business

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The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been in the spotlight a lot this year. First there was a contentious teachers’ strike that shut down LA schools for six days, and resulted in a 6% pay raise for teachers. Then there was the hastily thrown together ballot measure that would have imposed a parcel tax to address the District’s long term funding problems. It failed, but there’s talk of another measure in 2020.

LAUSD is struggling. During the strike and leading up to the vote on the ballot measure people weren’t shy about offering their opinions on the subject. Some people see the District as dysfunctional, and many in that camp lay the blame on the School Board. Others say the District is getting hammered by larger societal changes that it has no control over. I think there’s some truth in both arguments.

You can certainly point to a number of mistakes the District has made. The botched rollout of two highly touted tech initiatives, iPads for all students and a new student accounting system, both under former Superintendent John Deasy, were costly and embarrassing failures. Recent revelations regarding serious problems within LAUSD’s Office of the Inspector General haven’t improved the District’s image.

But at the same time, LAUSD is facing problems that are crippling school districts across California. The biggest threat may be declining enrollment due to lower birth rates and a drop in immigration.  Because schools are funded based on student attendance, this means shrinking revenues. At the same time, pension obligations are ballooning, making it increasingly difficult to balance the budget. And since many of the District’s schools were built decades ago, maintenance costs are becoming unsustainable.

So when Austin Beutner took over as Superintendent last year, he certainly had his work cut out for him. I’m not Beutner’s biggest fan, but I do respect him for taking the job. Honestly, I don’t think anyone else wanted it. The District’s financial difficulties are so severe that, if they’re not resolved, the situation could result in a State takeover.

Recently the LA Downtown News ran an interview with Beutner where he talks about the challenges ahead. It’s worth reading. The Superintendent’s agenda is nothing radical. In fact, it’s just common sense.

“I think I have a pretty good understanding, and I think the people here do, of what works: an experienced school leader with the budget they need,” [Beutner] said. “A high-quality teacher in the classroom, colleagues to help support the social-emotional needs of the child. It’s not a secret.”

A lot of Angelenos may think that, because they don’t currently have kids enrolled in LAUSD, they don’t need to worry about the District’s future. Anybody who believes that is dead wrong. If we’re not giving kids the reading and math skills they need, if we’re not teaching them about this country’s history, if we’re not making them aware of what’s going on in the world around them, this city will only sink further into chaos and dysfunction. It may be a cliché, but it’s absolutely true: These kids are our future.

Myths, Math and Austin Beutner

Communities Speak Out against 4:00 am Bar Bill

Dntn Alcohol Castro Spk 2 1905

Miriam Castro, of Mujeres Transformando la Comunidad, speaks out against SB 58.

Today at City Hall people from communities all over LA spoke out against a bill that would extend hours of alcohol service in a number of California cities. The legislature is currently considering SB 58, authored by State Senator Scott Wiener, which would allow cities to push the closing time for bars and nightclubs to 4:00 am. A broad coalition of community and public health groups are pushing back, warning that passage of the bill would mean a significant increase in health and safety harms.

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Councilmember Paul Koretz talks about the billions of dollars lost due to alcohol-related harms.

Councilmember Paul Koretz started the event off by listing the staggering cost that California already pays for problems related to alcohol consumption, including billions spent for medical and mental health care, as well as expenses related to law enforcement. He was followed by Miriam Castro, of Mujeres Transformando la Comunidad, who emphasized the negative impacts that alcohol has on communities. Pueblo y Salud Program Director Brenda Villanueva made the point that prices for Uber and Lyft rise steeply in the early morning hours and public transit mostly shuts down, meaning that people leaving bars after 4:00 am might well decide to drive home. This also means that cities not covered by the new law could end up dealing with late night drunk drivers from neighboring cities, i.e. someone getting out of a club in Hollywood and driving through Burbank on their way home.

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The press showed up to cover the event.

Senator Wiener has framed the bill as a pilot program that could be ended if crime and DUIs rise, but the reality is that once cities extend hours of alcohol service it’s highly unlikely that closing times would be rolled back. The beverage and hospitality industries would be lobbying hard to stop cities from returning to a 2:00 am closing time. And it seems odd to call this a “pilot program” when the cities included account for well over ten percent of the State’s population. (The bill would cover Cathedral City, Coachella, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Palm Springs, Sacramento, San Francisco, and
West Hollywood.)

If you want to take a look at the bill yourself, here’s the link.

SB-58: Alcoholic Beverages, Hours of Sale

And if you want to talk to your State rep about this, you can follow this link for contact info.

Find Your Rep

Dntn Alcohol Signs 2 1905

 

 

Supervisors Approve Seriously Flawed LACMA Plan

LA BOS Image 2

On Tuesday the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a massive make-over of the LACMA campus. This was a major mistake. There’s been a lot of debate about the aesthetic quality of architect Peter Zumthor’s latest design, but really that’s a secondary issue. LACMA is a public institution and its primary purpose is to serve the public. I’m not the only one who feels that the project as proposed fails to accomplish that goal.

I wrote about the drawbacks to the plan a couple days ago, so I won’t go through it all again, but one of the main concerns is that LACMA is getting ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a new building with 10% less exhibition space. Does the LACMA Board really think that’s the best way to serve the public? Another serious problem with the new structure is that it doesn’t contain office space for most staff members, including curatorial staff. The museum will be renting space in a building across the street. Separating the staff from the exhibition space is a foolish and potentially costly move. How can anybody think this is a good idea?

To those who are angry about the loss of exhibition space, LACMA Director Michael Govan has said he wants to get away from the traditional idea of what a museum is. Rather than expecting people from all over LA County to come to the Wilshire District to look at art, Govan has proposed bringing the museum to the people by having LACMA open new spaces in various communities. Here are a couple paragraphs from the story in the LA Times….

Supervisor Kathryn Barger praised LACMA Director Michael Govan, who hopes to offset the loss of gallery space in the new building with future satellite locations in South Los Angeles and elsewhere.

“You really do have a vision, and it’s not just about four walls,” Barger said, later adding: “We believe it’s important to give exposure to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”

In theory this is a great idea. We shouldn’t keep clinging to old ideas about what a museum is, and the notion of creating different spaces in LA’s communities to engage the public directly makes perfect sense. But where’s the proposal for these satellite locations? What’s the budget? What’s the timetable? How is it going to happen?

Various sources reported that Govan pitched this idea in January 2018, and at the time he talked about the possibility of opening five different spaces anywhere between South LA and the Valley. What’s happened since then? Well, that same month the LA City Council approved an agreement which would allow the Department of Recreation & Parks to lease LACMA space at South Los Angeles Wetlands Park. The idea was that LACMA would gradually renovate an existing building at the same time it was providing programming in the park. Here’s an excerpt from the agreement.

LACMA proposes to begin providing museum programming services at designated recreation centers near the South LA Wetlands Park within six months of the execution of the Lease while the repair and retrofit work is being conducted in Building 71. Programming at the Park will be provided within eighteen (18) months of the execution of the Lease.

The LA City Council approved the lease in January 2018. The agreement says LACMA would start providing programming near the park within six months and that programming at the park would begin within 18 months. I looked all over the net. I looked at the Rec & Parks web site. I looked at the LACMA web site. I didn’t find anything about art-related activities provided by the museum anywhere near South LA Wetlands Park. The 18 month period will expire in July of this year. Will LACMA be providing programming at the park beginning in July?

What about the other locations? In July 2018 it was reported that LACMA had opened a small gallery at an elementary school near Westlake/MacArthur Park, but at that time it wasn’t yet open on weekends. Another site that’s been mentioned is Magic Johnson Park in South LA, but an article published in the LA Sentinel last month merely said that LACMA was “considering” a location there.

In other words, there is no plan in place. There are no details. Govan’s idea of bringing the museum to the people sounds good, but at this point it’s all up in the air. The locations haven’t been determined, there’s no timetable, and apparently no budget. This last part is especially concerning. Since fundraising for the new Wilshire campus has slowed, it’s hard to believe donors will be rushing forward with millions to fund this new idea of off-site locations. To say that the loss of exhibition space in the proposed building will be offset by new satellite locations without offering any concrete plan for how that’s going to happen is pathetic. Could some satellite spaces open in time? Possibly. But it’s also possible none of them will open.

I can’t believe anybody could buy this half-baked idea. But apparently the Board of Supervisors thought it all sounded great. You can read the write-up in the Times here.

LACMA’s $650 Million New Building Wins Approval from County Supervisors

 

Music in the Air

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A cold December night. Or cold for LA, anyway. Probably around sixty degrees. I got off the subway at Hollywood and Vine. When I reached the second level of the station I heard this delicate music somewhere nearby. As I got closer to the next escalator, I realized that someone behind me was playing an instrument that sounded like a harp. They seemed to be walking just a few feet behind me. I didn’t recognize a melody. Just these lovely, short, phrases that sounded something like snow falling.

As I got to the last escalator leading up to Hollywood Blvd., I caught the scent of the incense from the vendor who’s usually selling his wares there. It was so cool. This lovely music following me up to the street, and this sweet perfume hanging in the air. I decided I had to say something to whoever it was, so I turned around. It was a guy who might have been in his twenties holding a very small guitar. I said something like….,

“That’s very cool. Thanks.”

I think he said,

“Thanks. Have a good day.”

“You too.”

Then I was at street level, so I turned around and walked off into the December night.