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Super, Again

Ramon Cortines is the new head of the LAUSD. Here's my LA Weekly story from 2010, the last time he found himself in that slot.

Other profiles of LA luminaries here.

Non Disputandum

"It's transparently obvious they will have alienated a significant portion of the Los Angeles poetry world," a prominent LA poet tells me, on seeing the recommending committee Mayor Garcetti formed to select our next poet laureate — which was only made available to the public after the new laureate was named.

The poet also assures me that many poets won't participate again.

That is a sad commentary on where this city has taken the office of poet laureate in its short history.

Indeed, the selection committee included people who have almost no connection to LA's poetry scene, like Shepard Fairey's wife, a teen literacy advocate, the Deputy Counsel to the Mayor himself, and a woman described as an "aspiring poet" who lost her web domain just a few days ago. That in itself was a committee rigged for error, even as the selection process of LA's first poet laureate only produced fiasco.

The salient thing about the City's second poet laureate, Luis Rodriguez, is that he already has his own arts organization, (and has, most recently, in a rare burst of megalomania even for a poet, run for both Governor of California and Vice President of the United States on oddball revolutionary platforms), and can thus already, even without the largesse of the City, presumably promote poetry as much as he wants to.

A former gangbanger whose once-neglected son was sentenced to 28 years in the big house for shooting at a cop (reduced to 13.5 years), Rodriguez blames his own early absentee parenting and various other vida loca days, alcoholism, and other previous abuses on...undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I don't begrudge Rodriguez his $10,000 stipend, anymore than I begrudge him any of his other government grants and junkets. I don't like his poetry, which is not memorable to me, and excuses himself a bit too much in accounting his own life — it is as though he has commoditized the very things he repents for most, without much observable contrition — but matters of taste are famously non disputandum.

His is the precise narrative voice that the bulk of Chicano literature has been, to me, so devastatingly over-reliant, to the constant consequence of ironic cultural subordination: the voice that tallies every personal wrong as a chit that comes due to the self, laying self-infliction against social infliction, hoping for a forged balance, and ultimately becoming more about the incidental line-items on the balance sheet than the full operation of a forward-moving business. It is, in short, to me, more personal ledger than it is poetry; and how do you talk to yourself, ever?

But for another view — for some more typical fawning, opinionless, criticism-free publicity regarding this — see the LA Times resident lit publicist Carolyn Kellogg's piece.

Garcetti, a self-declared Latino of a rather more privileged background, is said to have picked the poet himself. He obviously has no idea what a poet laureate is; not that Villaraigosa's first pick could have helped guide him.

Far from Laudable
LA's Second Poet Laureate
Poet Envy: LA Picks a Poet Laureate

Where Did the LA Times Go Wrong?

Where did the Times go wrong? That's not a question Olney's going to be asking, but I'll answer it anyway: it went wrong around the time of Coffee and Greenwood, from whom Jim Newton and later, inheriting the recessive gene, some Weekly arrivals drew too much. I've written of this epoch, of which I had a different kind of view,  for odd reasons, previously, so I'll not review that scorched earth now. Nor will I overanalyze yesterday's dismissal of Newton, which I have for a long time seen as essential to restoring informed dissent regarding what goes on in Los Angeles. For a long time, the Times editorial pages have only worked to diminish the City's local political life, which ironically diminished the whole newspaper itself in the process. What's now left to do is to fix what can be fixed: to re-engineer the paper in a way that challenges City Hall, rather than protects it.

Jim Newton Doubling Down on Incompetence
Why Jim Newton Must Go
Jim Newton as Moderator
Austin Beutner Toughs Up

Money, Power, and Character in the Foothills

The Foothill Record is emerging as a voice of journalistic sense and stability in communities that have not had a reliable journalistic voice for a long time. I have been very pleased to contribute to two of the first three issues of the paper.

In my latest column, "Money, Power, and Character all Count in Foothills Development," I discuss how the communities face yet another large suburban-tract styled development, trace some of the recent history of such developments on both the northwest and northeast sides of the Valley, and conclude that while money and power are important development forces, it is honesty and character that will win the day in not only this matter but in other similar development proposals.

Appreciably grizzly

Noted: one of the band-fragments I wrote a suite of short stories for a couple of years ago, Jail Weddings, was named by the LA Weekly as Best LA Band of 2014 in their annual "Best of LA" issue. For all involved I'm sure the designation represents a personal artistic apocalypse with a wink.

I do indeed think Jail Weddings, on whose whirling periphery I have quietly stood for some time now, is indeed a band with a literary edge, which deserves a special category of distinction. I've also read lead singer Gabriel Hart's novel (would be a good match for Akashic Press in my opinion) and it is consistent with the ironic mayhem one hears in so many Jail Weddings songs. I have long wondered how LA would ever evolve out of the lit noir trap NYC commercial mills have imposed on it for nearly 80 years now, and Hart's solution has been to dangle over the circus as though from a trapeze. The result is output spotted from fifty feet above the crashing herd and dangling in perpetual peril of dropping into it.

The band heads to Europe later this month, for some club dates in cities known to Kafka and Kierkegaard, after coming off an appreciably grizzly date in Mexicali. All of it affords a lot more trapeze time to Hart and the other aerialists. New audiences will be grateful.

Frick That

Of course, the bastards want to demolish a favorite NYC garden now. To know what the Frick's Russell Page Garden, formally called the Seventieth Street Garden, represented to New York City at the time it opened, you have to recall that in 1977 the top visited museum piecse in the whole city of astonishing museum pieces were at MoMA: the morning and afternoon views of Monet's water lilies at Giverny (with both Picasso and Franco dead, the museum was being pressured to cede Guernica to Spain — it would ultimately do so in 1981). The room that held Monet's water lilies also looked out onto MoMA's garden courtyard. The Frick's Page garden wasn't a truly public one but upheld the more public vision of the NYC museum experience, engaging not only art but court, unifying the experience of both as the MoMA Monet room did. When you looked out of the room of the water lilies onto the MoMA court, you already felt as though you were outdoors, and looking into hardscape; when you looked outside of the stately Frick and onto Page's Seventieth Street Garden, you were back in time, looking from a rigorously stately interior into what Page himself described as "an impressionist painting." The present Frick has been entirely disingenuous regarding the whole scuttling of the space, claiming that demolition for the sake of adding a tiresome building is a way to realize "a long-deferred architectural plan." That City would probably tear down the Medici fountain too if the right billionaire came along with the right self-aggrandizing hopes.

UPDATE: Petition against is here.

Far from Laudable

LA's first poet laureate experience was a fiasco. The woman chosen came to Council to promote herself rather than LA poetry, bringing only her own books with her. She knew so little about the scope of her position and the civic structure of Los Angeles that she said she was proud to be service to ten million people, confusing City with County. She fell ill after three months, and unfortunately even now has not fully recovered, but only resigned her post a long time after the onset of her illness. All the while, her publisher released statements on her behalf, again promoting person above culture, and forestalling the abandonment of the post as long as possible.

As for the City's role, it was embarrassing to see the General Manager praising the poets for filling out their applications properly, with the award going to the most fully filled out application.

While the discussions regarding the selection of a Poet Laureate for the City are justifiably private ones, the people of the City deserve to know who makes the selection and how it is made. The city should make sure that in bestowing the title of poet laureate that it is not simply providing a publicity bonanza to an individual or a particular press, but promoting the entire poetic art on behalf of the City.

LA's Second Poet Laureate

Los Angeles is on the verge of choosing its second poet laureate. We didn't need a first poet laureate but we're getting a second. LA's poet laureate is a person who has been willing to submit themselves for consideration as such.

I was the only other soul in Council Chamber who could reasonably be described as a poet when the first LA laureate came to Council two years ago; I was there at the invite of Ed Reyes' staff. The occasion was a bit of a fiasco, and then Councilman Garcetti wasn't interested in the proceedings. This time around, I am told, Mayor Garcetti will make the final decision.

Poetry to me is a kind of inherently anti-promotional activity anyway — the best promotion of poetry of all is in the individual attempt at memorable language, rather than promoting a whole subset of types who think they should take a whack at constructing it, many of whom likely should not even try — and thus it does not benefit from the promotional activities of a regional laureate. As such, the very idea of designating a poet as a local "promoter" of poetry builds only more bad irony rather than good poetry. In designating a poet laureate, we are really promoting a person to promote a culture, rather than promoting poetry itself.

LA's first poet laureate was a complete bust. Chosen despite a profound conflict on the selection committee, she wandered into Council chambers promoting only her own work. Most ignored the proceedings; Garcetti, then a Councilman and one who was thought to have a kind of poetic soul, was decidedly removed from the activity. Within three months, the laureate contracted a serious illness, from which she has only partially recovered even now.

I don't begrudge her the $10,000 a year stipend she received. But Red Hen Press, which published her under its lesbian authors series, often spoke on her behalf, and should have recommended that she abdicate her role earlier than she did, because it was obvious early on that she would not be able to fulfill it. Instead, they waited and waited through the illness, indicating to a small subset of observers that they were only wondering how they might hold onto something of promotional value (to the degree that such capitalization is possible in this cottage economic realm). It was only after her illness was made public that she indeed abdicated her "title"— or someone abdicated on her behalf. All in all, the selection of a poet laureate, as I had predicted, only made for a climate of back-biting, recriminations, and general messiness, where the hope had been for things rather opposite to those.

But there are on occasion events that do help poetry along. For years and years, the only sufferable component of the insufferable sewer of commerce known as the LA Times Festival of Books was its poet's corner, where commerce was far less evident than everywhere else on the grounds. Local poetry indeed benefited from availing that rostrum and nexus one weekend a year. And that is where the best practice lay: because the realm is so uneven, as a region we should focus on promoting cultural events, not on conferring titles on particular people.

Triaging the Homeless to the Margins

In a rare political guest op-ed in the Downtown News, a LA City Councilman admits the overall City of LA strategy for dealing with homelessness: to push it out of downtown and into the City and County.

This is Councilman Jose Huizar's op-ed:

"We need to address the issue honestly and move forward with a service-first approach in Skid Row while we also work to offer services and permanent supportive housing in communities throughout the county....Let’s end the “containment” policy of years past where Skid Row was simply an area to say 'out sight, out of mind.'”

In other words, it's not OK for anyone to "dump" the homeless downtown, where there are dozens of social service organizations who may be ready to help them — and the City will sue you for damages if you try.  But it is OK for the City to "shuttle" the downtown homeless to "communities throughout the county" that are not yet equipped to deal with them the way that Downtown with its high concentration of homeless service agencies is equipped.

That's also why the City of Los Angeles has set up Homeless Working Groups that are not accountable to the public, relying on unscrupulous operatives to present their ancillary projects as a panacea for homelessness in their own local communities.

I too called for an end to Downtown's "bipolar" housing policy" eight years ago: "The next step toward redress will not be an ordinance or a bond, but mustering the political courage to admit that to bring about real "affordable housing" solutions for everyone involved, the overriding policy of containment must be brought to an end, once and for all," I wrote in the LA Times. But I certainly did not call for turning the homeless agencies Downtown into a triage desk for farming Skid Row's homeless out to other parts of the City and County, and empowering secretive groups that don't answer to the public to do it.

Start Over, Mr. Garcetti

In preparation for this Labor Day, I've been reading Marx. I knew the 33% minimum wage hike for LA proposal was coming, posited by people with LAANE and the local SEIU, neither of whom have economists on their boards. I also know that this is not Seattle or San Francisco's labor force: there is already a bare minimum of labor market "surplus value" here in LA, because it's already a place where businesses are leaving and small businesspeople have such trouble making a go.

The minimum wage hike, if it goes through, will impact two parts of our local economy that my wife  and I know well: bookstores, and fashion. Both are already declining.  Fashion obviously has a much larger economic footprint in LA than the book world does, but bookstores here, the ones that remain anyway, are vital to rounding out and enhancing lifelong learning, ordinarily a big professional precept.

While Garcetti relies on the advice of organizations without economists to raise standards for the poor, and City Councilmember Gil Cedillo even goes so far as to say it's all about getting the poorest into Starbucks, here's an important paper by economists Sabia, Burkhauser and Hansen from 2012 that demonstrated how big minimum wage hikes lead to less employment for the less skilled.
The paper concludes:
Using a difference-in-difference approach, we find robust evidence that raising the New York minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.75 per hour significantly reduced employment rates of less-skilled, less-educated New Yorkers.
In other words, while claims that overall employment does not decrease with a wage hike do have merit, what really happens is that in industries reliant on minimum wage labor, the labor market has to find a way to make the minimum wage earners worth their new wage, which means hiring a different strata of skilled worker.

While all cities who adapt higher minimum wage laws that are significantly higher than their states make the prospect of part time summer employment more difficult for students, the overall picture is less cruel to Seattle and San Francisco than it will be in Los Angeles, with its low-skilled, immigrant-saturated labor pool; it will basically drive low-skilled immigrants out of jobs, and replace these jobs with people with more skills.

The Mayor in capitulating to his wife and the SEIU in this matter is showing, in my estimation, complete economic cowardice. Raising the minimum wage in LA while developing nothing but luxury condos is actually going to put more poor people out of town: there will not only fewer places for them to live, but fewer places for them to work as well.  It's not only big corporations that can swallow "poison pills"—trade unions can too when fashioned by the government. I call on the Mayor to scrap to-day's ridiculous and short-sighted proposal, and to earmark LA's minimum wage to the State of California's: it should be no more than 10% higher than what the rest of the State's is.