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City leaders promote politics over culture




"Do you want to take a picture or do you want to have the experience?" David Rensin, one of mine own and the city's own favorite resident authors, asked me over a vividly colored plate of pad Thai at Jitlada last night.

Most say they'd rather have the experience; most are lying, I think. Lots of people snapping photos around downtown these days, especially on the South Lawn of City Hall, where Occupy LA has set up shop and after twenty days is still cranking out agitprop. And the pols in City Hall have been supportive.

But these pols also capriciously killed the revenue-generating and cultural profile-enhancing Sunset Junction Street Fair and asked for handouts from food trucks to police the revenue-enhancing Downtown Art Walk. And yet now they face $45,000 in bills and repair work to the protests they have encouraged at City Hall--and apparently are now only too glad to pay this cost. Even if a lot of what is going on downtown seems oriented around taking a picture rather than having an experience, while the street culture events they've meddled with like SJ and Downtown Art Walk seem to be more about experience than photo-ops.

We took a table just before the crush arrived and we spotted Tony Pierce at Jitlada too--Pierce, recently of the Times and now of KPCC--waiting with Etienne for a table. Good for them, for coming over to talk to our grizzlied table and pretending to enjoy our company for a moment.

Tony brings up Montreal, where the couple has recently recently been--or maybe I bring up the city--can't remember. But when the young ones leave for their own table, I get a chance to talk to Rensin about my own experience of Montreal, the place where my parents were married. I keep going back in five and ten year intervals and a mon avis it keeps getting worse and worse because it prioritizes its own perpetually-conflicted political life far above its own cultural life.

The last time I was there the city had even gone so far as to ban English-language signs in Department stores. Politics over culture.

At the time of the 1976 Olympics, Montreal was the financial capital of Canada--it's certainly no longer that now.

One thing I like about Rensin is he knows many cities throughout the world; he knows, say, Valparaiso and Santiago, where Etienne has recently been. Valparaiso is also of interest to me because it was South America's largest port, a hundred years ago, then slowly eased into a haze of colorful decrepitude. Like Montreal? Like perchance LA, which is too busy and too frequently eating its own?

Not quite yet. There's still the LA path and the Montreal/Valparaiso path, and they are still distinct. LA twenty-five years ago had its own Olympics and also made a sturdy bid to become the cultural capital of the United States. It launched its own opera company and set off on its own symphonic hall competition.

But now the symphony and the opera may or may not be at end of cultural lifecycle, and culture is pouring into street-life. And now leaders like Eric Garcetti and Andrea Alarcon are voting for political rather than cultural esprit de la rue, quietly killing off its cultural street life even as they double down on left-leaning political theater. That kind of thinking at such a dicey time for our arts profile could ease our own burg into cultural decrepitude too.

To me, the damages done downtown are a political price we have to pay to keep sane politics mobilized; but I wish the City could have found a way to keep its street-culture mobilized as well. To me, when they encourage the political street-life but punish the cultural street-life, Eric Garcetti and Andrea Alarcon do LA a grave disservice.