Thoughts on Ethnography, Anthropology, and Living in Compton, September 2014

Bring up the city of Compton in any conversation here in America with people 40 years old and younger, and people will probably conjure up images of gangsters, drive-bys, basically ground level zero of "ghetto-ness," which is basically associated with somehow living a life that is seen to be "in deficit." 

I told an economically-more-successful childhood friend that I was living in Compton with my wife.   She probably thought it was a joke and said, "straight-up?"

Yup, I'm here.  

Been here, actually.

And I'm fine.  Mostly.

I did suffer a violent fall...on my ankle.  That was my own bad.

Though on the real, I haven't been really connected or connecting to many of the people actually in Compton. I've found that my wife and I tend to prefer doing business in Gardena, Carson, and every other city outside.  I've gotten too bourgeois, maybe?  I think it does save some mental energy sometimes honestly because the Food4Less on Rosecrans and Central and the Smart and Final on El Segundo and Central are always so damn busy.

But anyhow, I mentioned some Anthropology words:  Ethnography and Anthropology.  Let me define Anthropology and Ethnography in laymen's terms, and how they can be relevant to my situation now.

I've been somewhat out of touch with the latest literatures in Anthropology and Ethnography;  all I have is what informs my conception of it now.

Anthropology is the study of humankind which spans 4 major sub-fields:  socio-cultural (studying different cultures), linguistic (people studying the ways we use language), archaeology (digging for bones), and physical Anthropology (people studying primates, human evolution, forensics).  I am most interested in the first two sub-fields, which is roughly studying different "cultures" and different ways people use language.  

One of the defining research methods of Anthropology in my view is based heavily on the research method of Ethnography, which has largely defined socio-cultural Anthropology.  It's a tradition that spans roughly over 100 years with two distinct traditions in America and Europe, and typically involved people going far off to document the ways of strange, foreign peoples.  Nowadays, socio-cultural Anthropologists still do go out to document the ways of people that they or the milieus around them consider "strange" or "foreign."  

In keeping with that basic theme of studying what some people consider "strange" or foreign", I'm starting to feel an inner push to begin studying the city in which I live.  I think that the city of Compton, while a part of American culture, is viewed as a part of an American sub-culture and not really the dominant American "mainstream" culture.  It is the spatial symbol of not only black (and Latino) American life, but the worst of.  I'd like to shed more insight on the complexities of life here --- from the schools, the workings of city council.

There are some difficulties for sure in doing this kind of ethnography of the city.  I think of ethnographies of the past where I largely "imagine" the one person in a geographic region and simply finding some people and actually living with them.  I can't quite do that.  

I am thinking of how much harder it is to actually live here full-time with a growing family, not knowing anyone, but also wanting to make some kind of positive change here.  Sure, I live within the spatial boundaries of this place, deal with the physical infrastructures, see the same people on the street, but my network of relationships doesn't extend beyond my neighbors on each side of our tiny house.   I don't think I would be able to live at someone else's house given my commitments to my family and a lack of connection to another family, though UCLA's CELF center does give me ideas.  Additionally, there isn't an immediate escape from this place as most of what I value is here with me.  If I decide that I wanted to be proactive about something, people know where my family is.

At any rate, I don't think the obstacles are impossible, and think that there is a lot of Anthropological insight as well as potentially different framings (and therefore perceptions and understandings) of the city in which I live.

Wilmington, the Bike Lane Capital of California, Ha-ha

I am in hiatus at the moment, and have been wanting to post for the longest on events here in Compton.

However, my writing efforts are focused on a bigger project at the moment, and only my most immediate gutteral reactions that masquerade as blog posts can be posted only because they don't take as much time as my other posts.

Anywho, the reason I am writing is in response to an article by veteran bicycling advocate Joe Linton celebrating Wilmington as the city with the most concentrated bike lane network.

I feel very connected to Wilmington being that I used to visit my then-girlfriend, now-wife quite often BY BIKE from Long Beach and now visit my wife's family quite often.

I don't really have a negative response to Joe's article, just a few observations:

  • Those bike lanes that made it the densest network in the state really did appear overnight (or over a weekend in either 2012 or 2013).  I appreciate Joe's story of how LADOT basically worked it in, when all along I thought it was the work of some activist group.  My wife's family who lives on one of those streets were surprised that one day they couldn't park on the curb as usual, by the time the cones were gone, there was fresh paint and to my unexpected delight, bike lanes.
  • As Joe mentioned in his post, it is still somewhat hard getting INTO the city either from Carson on the North or Long Beach on the East.  I've seen plenty of bicyclists on PCH, the main East-West thoroughfare in Wilmington, and it really feels dangerous.  I've only biked with my wife on this street once.  On the sidewalk.  For what its worth, PCH never really seems to be in gridlock for car traffic or anything, unless of course they shut down a North-South street like Avalon for a traveling fair or something.
  • I vaguely remember my wife or saying something that there used to be a lot of people biking to high school.  Students don't bike because their bikes get stolen, last I heard.
Here are some other observations that I think might impede usage of bikes in Wilmington (and therefore bike lanes)
  • When I haven't seen the fixies, a lot of the male teenagers skateboard --- probably much cheaper and easier to control
  • It feels like the vehicle of choice is the work truck.  Besides the Port of LA, there are not a lot of jobs within the city itself.
  • Most kids and young adults who can get around like hanging in towns adjacent and outside of the city.  Rancho Palos Verdes has the [cheap on Tuesdays] movie theater, Torrance has the malls, eateries.  There isn't much of interest for the native Wilmingtonians other than the occasional Gus' Burgers, Tres Cochinitos, or Red West Pizza outing.
  • Cultural activities?  Not a ton load.  The most I've seen centers around Banning Park and school festivals.
  • The businesses (99 Cents store, Food4Less, churches) don't really have bike facilities.
I agree with Joe that the bike lanes are only a good thing for the community, but it seems like it will be a ground zero area to test the adage "if you build it, they will come."

Bugs Me A Little...Reinforcing Racism: KTLA 5 News Coverage of Oarfish Discovery and of a Stabbing in Hawthorne

I am bugged out by a juxtaposition of various news stories.  Mostly because it just seems to reinforce age old stereotypes.

As I was looking up things to do in Catalina Island for this upcoming weekend, I came across a dated news story back in October about an Oarfish discovery on KTLA.  I was surprised that the one who made the discovery was a Latina snorkeler or at least had a Latina-sounding name, but its LA, its 2014 (or the video was back in 2013), everyone's all integrated, we've got a black president yada yada yada.

However, you wouldn't know that she made the discovery.  That she has accomplished something.  You'd just think it's a bunch of white people, yet again, by watching KTLA's video.

In that KTLA video, which has been listed on innumerable aggregate sites from Yahoo to Huffington Post to local news affiliates, no effort seems to made in showing the discovery, or getting her story, just pictures of some screaming white girls and an interview of her co-associate who looks like Freddie Roach's brother.  

Meanwhile, the actual institute has its video on Youtube, which to day viewed a paltry 2,600 times, and actually features her in all her glory.

Adding salt to the wound, immediately following this story on KTLA a story about a stabbing by a Latino man.  No hesitation in getting a clear visual of him.

Just one little way that media can reinforce racist narratives without necessarily intending to do so (or so I'd assume), which...bugged me a little.

The Least Bike-Friendly Cities and Districts in LA County and City of LA

My work takes me all over LA County and the City of LA.

And when I can, I bike.

I don't have any real metrics or data available.  My rankings are not based on counting speed limits, bike lanes, traffic counts, or whatever, but are based mostly on my whether or not I 'feel comfortable' on main streets in certain cities as a sometimes-commuting bicyclist myself.

Chances are that if I "feel comfortable" as a sometimes-commuting bicyclist who occasionally rides with his scared-to-death fiance, mom, and/or sister, it is likely that even more people/Angelenos, who don't really make the effort to bike nor have given it much thought, will feel the same when encountering the same environs.

"Comfort" for me means "intuitive" and/or "natural."  So a driving (pun not intended) question behind these rankings is, how "intuitive" and/or "natural" is it to be biking on the streets of a given area?

But first...

The Limitations of These Rankings:  
  • It's not systematic;  absolute lack of numbers
  • Areas I know really well where I can take the little streets because I've passed through them many times:   LA City Council District 13 (Silver Lake, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Eagle Rock, Atwater Village), UCLA Area (Westwood-Culver City-Palms) North Hollywood,  Most of LA City Council District 4 (Los Feliz, Little Armenia, Koreatown, southern commercial parts of Glendale, Most of the Central San Fernando Valley:  Van Nuys, Panorama City, Pacoima, Arleta, Most of Long Beach:  Eastside and Westside Long Beach, Wilmington, Pico-Union, Exposition Park
  • I could probably find my way around, but mainly use the big streets on:  A lot of the Valley (Universal City in the South to Van Nuys in the North, Sherman Oaks to the West, Burbank to the East), A lot of the South Bay Area (Culver City, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Carson, Torrance, Gardena, North Long Beach, Cerritos, Compton, Lakewood, Signal Hill, San Pedro), Some of the San Gabriel Valley (Monterey Park, West Covina), Some of the Westside (Santa Monica, Venice), Some of the Eastside (East LA, Boyle Heights), LAX-El Segundo area, Malibu, South LA (USC-Leimert Park), Culver City
  • I would be pretty lost here:   A lot of the San Gabriel Valley and everything else East (Arcadia, Alhambra, Montebello, El Monte, Pomona, Lincoln Heights), Anything Northwest of Northridge (Chatsworth), Anything North of Pacoima (Lake View Terrace, Santa Clarita etc), Slightly North of Santa Monica (Pacific Palisades, Brentwood), Anything East of Paramount (Bellflower, Downey, Lynwood, Commerce)
Possible Takeaways:
  • To place a more public spotlight on areas across LA County and City of LA that really feel unsafe for bicyclists.
I've divided the sections of LA County Cities and City of LA Neighborhoods into two tiers: "Really needs improvement" and "Oh Shit, I really hope I don't die"
LA County City "Needs Improvement" Tier

1)  Carson.  Carson has streets with decent amount of room for bicyclists, but I am not aware of many of its bike-friendly signs or whatever.
2)  Redondo Beach.  Not thinking of the actual beach area, but the surface streets.  I remember taking Artesia one time.  Not a lot of room for bicycling, though it seems to have potential.
3)  Inglewood/Hawthorne/South Gate.  Inglewood and Hawthorne seem to have space, but I hardly remember bike facilities on either.

4)  Alhambra/The Covinas - Wide streets, mostly flat.  Only cars have the opportunity to take advantage.

LA County "Oh shit I really hope I don't die today" Tier
1)  El Segundo - If you don't know the small streets here, it can be very scary.  Luckily the Green Line has a stop for Mariposa, and that's basically the street on which you should stay.
2)  Gardena - I have yet to see a single bike facility in this city.  It's one saving grace is the East side where there isn't any traffic.  But if you try going down Redondo Beach Blvd with its three lanes, BE SAFE.
3)  Cerritos - South Street can be scary as noted by me a few years ago.  Luckily this town is not that big.
4)  Beverly Hills/Century City - I think of Santa Monica Blvd.  Hate it.
5)  Torrance - My fiance's dream city growing up.  All suburbed and boxed in a car waiting to get on/off the 405.
6)  Vernon - Would be a decent biking area if there weren't trucks breathing on you, abandoned, and full of polution.
7)  Malibu - PCH, PCH, PCH.  Despite the fact that bicyclists are highly visible and there are road signs warning drivers to slow down, I still would not want to bike here.  The roads are designed for people to zip through, and it's probably even worse during peak hours.  Speeds can reach highway speeds
8)  Culver City - I really dislike biking anything in Culver City because of the traffic and the utter lack of bike facilities.  Sepulveda isnt very enjoyable.  Neither is La Cienega. 

LA City Rankings "Needs Improvement" Tier
1)  Mid-Wilshire - I know these streets already as a bicyclist, but I mention this here because actual Wilshire is still and almost always will be a nightmare (unless past 9P-10P, but that isn't guaranteed).
2)  Hollywood - Mostly because the touristy areas along Cahuenga are packed with traffic.
3)  Harbor City - Very small section of the city that I know has little bike-friendliness, especially not on PCH.
4)  Harbor Gateway - I see this district sign and I immediately think, what kind of bike-enemy trouble am I going to encounter next?
5)  Historic Filipinotown - The main East-West thoroughfares, Temple and 3rd St, are and always have been mini race tracks
6)  Florence - Whenever I use this street, I don't think bike-friendliness.  There is space, but I always wonder what cars are rushing behind me.

LA City "Oh shit I really hope I don't die today" Tier
1)  Beverly Glen - I think of Sunset Boulevard and how completely unrunnable it becomes.
2)  Beverly Grove - I think of La Cienega Blvd, the lack of space for bicyclists, and the car traffic that breathes on you like a predator
3)  Vermont-Slauson - Slauson has got to be the worst East-West thoroughfare with a railroad track on it.   Usually railroad tracks are a good sign for bicyclists.  In Slauson's, it means just try really hard not to get run over.
4)  Cahuenga Pass -The route that I used to take from LA to the Valley was always kind of scary mostly because of the cars breathing on me.  Would be a nice fun uphill/downhill if not for the impatient motorists.

Compton vs. Malibu - Chronicling Compton - Friday, March 21, 2014

Continuing my quest to understand the "opportunityscape" in Compton.

But first, the bits and pieces of Compton:

Compton vs. Malibu

Incidentally, both have been given 'D' grades for their respective efforts at historical preservation, as mentioned in the bits above.

I don't know the ins and outs of either of these cities like I do central LA.  A lot of what I do know about each is visual, but I'm learning rapidly.   Compton, because I live here.  Malibu, because I am currently working there and scoping out the entirety of its streets.

I find the juxtaposition somewhat interesting;  going from one of the worst-perceived towns in America to the town perceived as the idyllic and reserved for the ultra-successful.

Things that jump out at me:

In Malibu:
  • The Roads:  Ample Hills.  Ample Winding roads.  Every street is a cul-de-sac.
  • Biking:  It is still very dangerous to actually bike PCH;  rarely have I seen anyone but the recreational bicyclist on PCH and on sidestreets.  Getting up the many hills though seem like a professional rider's dream.
  • Public Parks:  No real parks.  Ample Tennis courts, but probably if you're a resident;  I don't see the taco truck guys going up there.
  • Starbucks:  I have been to two.  Always lively, steady stream of people, at least during the daytimes that I have been there.
  • The Schools:  There is a marine school with lush fields for soccer, running, and anything
  • The flow of the work day:  More people working on houses than actual residents
  • In its public displays:  The environmentalism. 
  • The homeless people are:  Usually around Civic Center Dr.  Wherever the 534 drops em.
It's also political office season there.  Lots of city council signs.

In Compton:
  • The Roads:  Flat, flat, flat.  Streets are generally on a grid, except when they're not, like for instance trying to take a biking route to the Metro station on anything except Compton Blvd.  The roads are pretty damn bumpy, least in the Westside.  Distractingly bumpy as in, you're trying to ride smoothly, but you just end up having to deal with a rash of potholes, no matter what mode of transport you take.
  • Biking:  There's an OK amount of bicycling;  not the greatest biking accomodations however
  • Public Parks:  No one really at the parks unless there's some kind of party.  Tennis courts that require a permit.
  • Starbucks:  The one on Artesia has been empty each time I've gone.  Closes very early.
  • The Schools:  Who knows how the schools are?  But the schools have a a reputation probably just by virtue of being here.
  • The flow of the day:  Generally quiet.  But occasionally someone will have a midday merienda with friends occupying the block.
  • In its public displays:  The isolated strings of civil rights awareness in the black community
  • The homeless people are:  Anywhere, usually.  But mostly at the Metro station...
When it was political office season here, there were also lots of signs.  That was for school board. 

National Reparations Day - Chronicling Compton - March 15, 2014

But first, the bits and pieces of Compton

The Daily Life Review:  Parking and National Reparations Day 

Unfortunately, due to my day job, I was not able to attend either Amiri Baraka's celebration nor hear our mayor speak at USC.  The breaks.

 1)  Parking really sucks on my block.  Everywhere I've lived (or visited quite often) has been the same, from Silver Lake to Lakewood to Panorama City to Wilmington, I've had to utilize some kind of parking "strategy."

It's not so much that I can't find parking, it's just that some neighbors always take the parking space in front of our house.  And it's not like they have one car, there are 2 in their driveway, 1 in front of their house, 1 or 2 on the other side.

This week it's not only in front of our house, but two of their cars are almost obstructing our driveway.

I've been tempted to call municipal code or something and have them tow away their truck, which is perfectly legal after 3 days. 

On another note, I can't believe I'm actually worked up about this.

2) National Reparations Day.  Exactly a week ago, March 6th, aghast at how slow my running pace has become, I decided that I was going to run from my house to Cal State Dominguez Hills, which is about a 5 mile roundtrip.

Along the way, I see a fallen white bicyclist tribute on Gardena and Avalon.

On the way back, mid-afternoon I see how Carson morphs into Compton.

I get on Central on the Easterly sidewalk next to the airport.  Right across from Tragniew Park.


I heard this all the way on the Easterly sidewalk of Central Ave near the Airport.

As I get closer, I see booths set up.  A fair of some sort.

My field of vision is greeted by a wooden representation of a slave ship, adorned with a white T-shirt carrying an image of Africa and the American flag. 

 On the basketball court, the drumming.

A middle-aged black belly dancer.

There is a small crowd of about 30 or so people scattered in booths.  What are they selling?  Shirts, food, but mostly to promote National Reparations Day (NRD).

I see men dressed in Nation of Islam-like clothing --- suit with a bowtie.

I wonder how they in particular would receive me, an ambiguous-looking maybe Latino, maybe Asian man in an event dedicated to "their" cause.

No one talks to me as I wonder and glance at the dancers on the basketball court.  In my head, I'm replaying scenes at the church where we were talking with long-time parishioners, and one of them makes the comment to my fiance about soothing over Latino-black relations, "it takes one person."

I walk hesitantly towards the booths trying to understand what "this" is all about.  I mean, I know what it's about, but I have a few questions about how such a celebration/movement was brought on this particular day.

Why March 6th?  Any significance to it?

I seek out the booths, glancing at who might be receptive to my inquiries.  I look for a booth with flyers and giveaways.

After some initial hesitation, I approach that booth with the flyers, hoping to learn more.

A middle-aged woman wearing a shirt naming Latin American countries also in the African diaspora.

She doesn't really give me an answer about why March 6 other than to say "it's time."  Her way of saying, "if not now, then when." 

She appears to be surprised and impressed by my mere appearance at this gathering at the edge of West Compton.

She talks to me about how the younger generation doesn't seem to understand the impacts of slavery.  She likens the experience of slavery to a holocaust, mostly as a way for the younger generation to understand the emotional toll it exacts on people today. 

Discovering the Way West out of Compton by Bike - Chronicling Compton - March 6, 2014

Bits and Pieces of Compton

The Daily Life Review 
  • The Post Office on Santa Fe, really closes at 5:00 PM on the dot.  An unrepentant, uncompromising lady will slam the door in your face if you are a millisecond late.
  • The Bike Report:  Artesia Ave from Alameda/Santa Fe is nicely developed for biking Eastward through North Long Beach.  Sad that it doesn't really seem to lend itself Westward.  Speaking of Westward, I've also "discovered" the new, "somewhat" safe street that kind of carries me through Westward from Rancho Dominguez to Gardena to Hawthorne to El Segundo (the airport):  It's called 135th Street/Utah Ave (in El Segundo), which for me I started on San Pedro.  If it were a Yelp rating, I'd give this East-West thoroughfare three stars, mostly because there are plenty of sketchy sections with 40 MPH speed limits and 2 lanes, and a ton of cars during evening, when it's single lane, but it's as safe as it gets.
  • Speaking of bikes, a pothole on Central Ave near Alondra Blvd. almost killed my bike and me.  As I was merging to make a left turn, I ran smack dab into a pot hole, which slowed my bike considerably.  I was able to merge into the turning lane successfully, but it was kind of scary with oncoming traffic.  Potholes, potholes, potholes, they are the worst for both bicyclists and cars on Central Ave.