This first appeared in the November 2001 issue of The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books (Vol. 1, No. 1) . It was co-authored by Marina Sitrin and Chuck Morse.
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Editorial note: the exceptional nature of the September 11th terror attacks and the consequent war seemed to merit a momentary departure from The New Formulation’s book-review-only policy.
We are living through scary times. Clearly the U.S. Government and its allies believe they have a grand opportunity to realign domestic and international relationships in their interest. This is frightening: major shifts in the political landscape threaten to tear the ground from beneath our feet.
However, these glacial shifts in the political scene also offer anti- authoritarians a unique opportunity to obtain a new, more secure footing in our struggle against economic exploitation, political hierarchy, and cultural domination. Political conditions are changing radically and, if we respond correctly, we have the chance to advance our movement to a much higher level.
First of all, we must not be cowed by present circumstances, as disturbing as they are. On the contrary: recent events call upon us to exercise political leadership in the best, most principled and visionary sense of the term. This is our challenge, and one that we can meet with an anti-authoritarian vision and politics.
We believe it is imperative that anti-authoritarians formulate a coherent response to the war build-up and their role within the growing peace movement. We must not allow our perspective to be subsumed under more prominent but less radical tendencies in the Left. Also, the peace movement is presently defining its politics and structures and we have a great opportunity—at this moment—to engage the movement and push it in the most radical direction.
The purpose of this letter is to explore the contours of an anti- authoritarian position on recent events. We encourage you to discuss this letter with your friends and comrades and to prepare for broader discussions that we intend to initiate in the near future.
We want to address three important issues in this letter: structure, politics, and the future.
We anticipate that the anti-war movement will experience divisions similar to those that beset the peace movement during the Gulf War. In other words, national organizing efforts will be split into two organizations: one will be pacifist and more libertarian in character, and the other will be more militant and Stalinist. Both will be top-down mobilizations, built around well-known “leaders”, and awash with a moralism that would turn off even the most- open-minded citizens and activists. Continue reading →
This review first appeared in the June 2002 issue of The New Formulation:
An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books (Vol. 1, Issue 2)
Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement, Part II
~ by Chuck Morse
On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement
By various authors
London: One-Off Press, 2001
The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization
Edited by Eddie Yuen, George Katsiaficas, and Daniel Burton Rose
New York: Soft Skull Press, 2002
What was remarkable about the movement that erupted in Seattle 1999 was not so much that previously adversarial sides of the progressive opposition—the “teamsters and turtles”—had started working together or that old revolutionary flags were flying once again. These things had happened at various times in recent history to no great effect. What was extraordinary was the dialogue that emerged between members of the revolutionary, ideological Left (anarchists and communists) and activists whose primary interest lay in pragmatic, bread-and-butter reforms. These two tendencies have long been divided and often regarded one another suspiciously, but somehow the anti-globalization movement created a political space in which they could come together and jointly imagine a movement that is Utopian and yet faithful to the demands of day-to-day activism.
The challenge was to figure out how to hold these dimensions together in one more or less unified movement—how to be realistic and demand the impossible—and activists across the world confronted this challenge with a vigorous campaign of education from below. They held teach-ins, Internet discussions, and sponsored countless other activities designed to flesh out the contours of this compelling new movement. Although their work helped raise the level of discourse among activists immeasurably, the movement’s common principles remained embodied in a sensibility and shared activist experience rather than in clear political statements.
Thus the significance of On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-capitalist Movement and The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization. These anthologies attempt to constitute the anti-globalization movement as a coherent project. They draw upon its history and culture to elaborate its internal cohesiveness, identify its continuities and discontinuities with other political tendencies, and clarify its problems. They reveal a movement that is exciting and dynamic but also struggling with difficult theoretical and political questions. In fact, the future of the anti-globalization movement will be determined to a great extent by our response to many of the issues raised by these books. Continue reading →
The link between transportation and racial justice has been an explicit part of American culture since Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycot in 1955, if not earlier. Most of us understand, if only intuitively, that who moves around, where they move to and from, and what they move upon interacts with complicated histories of oppression, rebellion, and innovation.
This is one of the reasons why Oakland’s Red, Bike, and Green collective is so exciting. They have not only created an an affirmative, welcome spacing for Black urban cyclists but also established a platform for a new discussion of the politics of mobility in the city.
I recently had a chance to ask Red, Bike, and Green about their work and views. The following is a transcript of our exchange.
~ Chuck Morse
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Q. Can you tell me how Red, Bike, and Green (RBG) got started and what exactly you do?
Design by Nick James
A. Five years ago, becoming more and more disenchanted with driving, the cost of regular car maintenance, insurance rates, gas prices, and the overall expense of having a car, Jenna Burton decided to ride her bike more regularly. She began to think about creating a space and culture for Black folks that would promote biking as a safe and viable mode of transportation. Burton organized a small group of Black bikers to go on random weekend rides. Further conversations with colleagues and friends led to naming the group Red, Bike, and Green. For those unfamiliar, Red, Bike and Green is an ode to Marcus Garvey’s idea that Black people in the United States need their own nation and flag, which would be symbolized in the colors of Red, Black, and Green.
With a little help from some friends, Burton officially launched the first season in April of 2010. Red, Bike, and Green now rides every third Saturday and First Friday of the month from April until November of each year.
Q. One way that White supremacy operates is by limiting the mobility of Black people and people of color generally—from the laws that prevented people from moving into a specific neighborhood to the ongoing police harassment of motorists (i.e., “driving while Black”). Do you believe that encouraging Black people to get around by bike is a way to challenge White supremacy? If so, how?
A. Yes. And no. First and foremost, we see RBG as a psychological and spiritual departure from White-supremacist values. While we are not gathering with the intention of directly challenging White supremacy, we are not trying to feed that machine either. If the indirect outcome of being pro Black (not anti-White) and asserting autonomy is a challenge to White supremacy, then so be it. We are functioning out of a love for Black people and the need to create a space where we feel safe and part of a community that cares about our well-being.
When you see fifty plus Black people on bikes in ANY neighborhood it is a symbol of Black power. The rides are a way to make a space where Black love and healthy Black living is visible. As a result of RBG’s success in outreaching to a community of Black folks who have largely been ignored by mainstream bike culture, it has given us a platform with which to fight different sorts of oppression and we are grateful for that.
Q. Black people have long been marginalized in the cycling sports—from the prohibition on African-American membership in the League of American Bicyclists, which was not rescinded until 1999, to more subtle signals that push Black people out of bike networks. What do you think about the racial dynamics of the bike scene in the East Bay today? In what ways is it an affirmative, inviting place for Black people and how is it not?
What is affirming is that there are groups that have advocated for bike lanes in some neighborhoods, which make it safer and easier to ride for all bikers. Who are the bike lanes for is the question.
It is easy to assume that biking is a really accessible and easy way to travel. But a simple understanding like that discounts not only the cost of the bike but also other factors that weigh in when thinking about riding. Can you afford to fix your bike if it is broken? Is it practical for your lifestyle (i.e., do you have children)? If your bike is stolen, can you replace it? What’s the morale before even deciding to get on a bike?
If we were to use a metaphor to illustrate the racial dynamics of the bike scene in the East Bay, it might read something like this: Red, Bike, and Green is like English Breakfast Tea being dropped in an ocean—it’s not going to turn anything Black. The bike scene in the East Bay is largely a White space and since Black people are traditionally overlooked in bike culture as well as multi-racial sites of organizing, an organization like RBG fills a void.
Q. There is a tendency in Hip Hop culture to celebrate cars, particularly luxury cars, as symbols of power and even defiance. Do you believe that encouraging bike riding among Black people is an important counter-tendency to this trend? If so, why?
A. RBG is cultivating a culture of healthy living that incorporates more alternative and economic modes of transportation, such as bike riding. It’s important to encourage bike riding as a counter tendency to materialism, but we want to be careful not to give Hip Hop (or any one culture) the monopoly on defining blackness. The side that’s been dominated by mainstream media has fixated on a particular kind of Hip Hop, where luxury cars are flaunted as being Hip Hop.
As an anecdote, when Burton started riding her bike in 2008, the Black folks that she would see riding were largely folks that couldn’t afford cars. By and large, they rode a bike out of necessity. And over the years she has seen a change. While it is still not commonplace, there are a lot more Black folks on bikes.
Part of the reason why RBG exists is to try and bridge the gap between the folks that are already riding (the avid cyclist; the sports enthusiast; the college educated, single, twenty/thirty something, without kids, health conscious rider) and those that haven’t given riding a second thought. And one thing RBG does pretty well is create a visual aesthetic around Black folks riding bikes, care of our designer, Nick James. The material that is produced for RBG intentionally uses the rich history of biking in the Black community. I guess you could say we are redefining Blackness too.
Q. Do you have sister groups in other cities?
Yes. In Chicago and Atlanta.
Q. In an ideal world, where will Black biking in the Bay Area be in, say, five or ten years?
A. Hopefully there will still be Black people left in Oakland and the Bay Area.
Q. How can people get involved with and/or support RBG?
(first published on Project Oakland on April 15, 2014)
Last month, when Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gave her annual “State of the City” address, the 10K2 Plan was the only major, new initiative that she announced. With an election coming up in November, and faced with persistently low approval ratings, she clearly hoped that it would help her persuade voters to give her a second term. Under the program, she pledges to add 10,000 units of housing to Oakland—25 percent of which will be affordable—at some time in the future.
Quan’s policy is designed to appeal to people with interests that are typically counterposed. On the one hand, the addition of 7,500 units of market-rate housing will be great for the wealthy tech workers pouring into the region. These are the people who can pay thousands upon thousands each month for a small apartment and who are driving up housing costs, by all accounts. On the other hand, the addition of 2,500 units of affordable housing will be good for poorer residents; these are the people who can’t pay high rents and are being pushed out in droves. On top of all this, the expansion of the housing stock will put some downward pressure on housing prices generally, enlarge the city’s tax base, and create some new jobs. Apparently, this is a win-win-win policy.
In some respects, Quan is merely rebranding and taking credit for a construction boom that is already underway but, still, she has presented this as a plan and we should assess it as such. The issue that Oaklanders need to consider when doing so is this: has she found a way to increase the city’s housing stock, make space for those driving displacement, while also protecting the working class’s ability to live in the city? Can Quan actually perform this magical balancing act?
The answer to all of these questions is no. Although the 10K2 Plan contains some modest measures intended to mitigate displacement, it will necessarily make the city more of a place for the rich and the rich alone. There are two reasons for this.
First, the 10K2 Plan embraces an economic model that has been ruinous for Oakland’s poor and urban areas throughout the country. After deindustrialization and “white flight” gutted the city in the mid-twentieth century, planners and policy makers have set out to rebuild the city’s economy around shopping, entertainment, and housing. We see this not only in the 10K2 Plan, but also in Quan’s boosterism on behalf of local sports teams, the hotel and restaurant industry, the monthly Art Murmur gatherings, etcetera. These things generate some jobs (and some tax revenue), which politicians are quick to celebrate, but the jobs are low-end service jobs that are almost always insecure, lack benefits, and do not pay salaries that could support the rental or purchase of a market-rate home in Oakland. The 10K2 Plan embraces this model and, as such, furthers the city’s commitment to an economic form that more or less guarantees that its poor will remain poor and have to go elsewhere.
Second, adding 7,500 market-rate units will bring many thousand more—let’s say 15,000—wealthier residents to the city. These people will push for planning and policy changes that will make Oakland less hospitable for lower income folks. We can expect more parklets, dog parks, and bike lanes, which are great for people with lots of leisure time but maddening for those rushing to get to work. We can also anticipate an increase in heavy handed police tactics, a necessary tool for managing marginalized and discontented populations. Subtly and not so subtly, these things will indicate that Oakland’s streets are not for the working class.
In reply to these criticisms, defenders of the 10K2 Plan might argue that at least the low-end service jobs being produced are jobs, which is better than nothing at all. This is a “logic of lesser evils” argument used to bludgeon people into accepting the bad because it is not worse, but Oaklanders shouldn’t have to endure substandard employment or an economic model that pushes the poor from the city. Likewise, Quan’s allies might say that the city can institute policies to ensure that its planning and design decisions express all residents’ concerns, not just the upper class, but this is naive. These new Oaklanders will demand that the city reflect their needs and they will have far greater resources to force it to do so than the poor. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise.
Although Quan was able to deliver an effective stump speech, no one should be confused about the class-bound nature of her 10K2 Plan, such as it is. It portends more displacement not less, despite the presence of superficial half measures oriented toward working class residents’ needs. There are so many things that cities can do—foreclosure prevention, improve rent control, encourage land trust conversion, etcetera—but this is not what we see here. In essence, expanding the housing stock without challenging class inequality will always serve the upper class. Indeed, no politician will ever be clever enough to create a policy that can override the basic class conflict between the rich and the poor that is dividing our society and our city. Quan may try her best, as she fights for reelection, but we should not be deceived. Housing justice and economic equality are inextricably linked.
Doh! There is no leftwing alternative in Oakland’s mayoral race and there won’t be one. The three credible candidates—Jean Quan, Joe Tuman, and Libby Schaaf—are pro-business, pro-gentrification Democrats and no viable left candidacy will emerge from the fringe. Why is this? Because the left has basically checked out of municipal politics in Oakland and that is a huge mistake.
I know it seems nuts to say that the left is absent in Oakland. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Occupy Wall Street protestors swarmed the streets of downtown? And isn’t there always some demonstration or another going on? Whether it’s up in the Hills (isn’t that where Angela Davis lives?), in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, or anywhere in between, there are literally scores of lefty writers, activists, and on-going and ad hoc groups. That’s why it made sense when the New York Times called Oakland the “last refuge of radical America” in 2012.
However, there is a big difference between having leftists in a city and actually having a municipal left. As it stands now, no group is advancing a program to transform the City of Oakland as such. No one is pushing or even talking about comprehensive changes designed to fundamentally alter how the City works or how it fits into the region. People occasionally prod the City to change this or that policy, but no one is trying to rewrite the rules as a whole.
And there is a history of local engagement with the city. The Black Panthers ran Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown for Mayor and City Council, respectively, in 1973; this was part of their “Base of Operations” campaign, with which they hoped to seize the city government, take control of the Port, and turn Oakland into a hub of global communist revolution. In fact, the Socialist Workers Party, which positioned itself to the left of the Panthers, also ran candidates for local office that year. In the 1980s, the Oakland Progressive Political Alliance pushed progressive candidates and, back in the Stone Age, the Socialist Party ran Jack London for mayor.
I’m not saying that the left must run candidates for local office. Electioneering often slides into pandering and it is not clear what a left candidate could actually accomplish if he or she were to win office. What I am saying is that we can’t afford to ignore City Hall.
The City presides over an annual budget of approximately a half billion dollars and exercises enormous influence over what happens here. Much of this has to do with development—where it occurs, what it looks like, and who pays for it—and it also has a big impact on policing, schools, among other issues. On a broader level, the City is the main institution that ties us together as citizens—a key point of reference for democracy in the city, or at least the idea of it. Whether or not we choose to engage the city through elections, we do need to engage it.
At the very least, Oakland leftists should start talking about how to transform the city. What would Oakland look like if it was restructured around social justice and emancipatory ideals and linked up with worldwide movements for change? What policies would we implement and why? What policies would we abandon and why? These are tough political questions. We need to start wrestling with them.
As Oakland’s mayoral election heats up, we can expect the candidates to debate who can create the most “business-friendly” climate in the city and, above all, who can put more cops on the street. While this happens, we should start laying the foundation for a real alternative. There are thousands of us here, and we can draw upon what’s going on in cities elsewhere, from elements of local history, and maybe even come up with some bright ideas of our own. Oakland is a great place. It could be awesome.
(First published on Project Oakland on March 28, 2012)
Social struggles occur in diverse places in Oakland: at street protests, in debates at City Hall, and sometimes even where you plant your butt! Take the benches in this photo: though modest and unassuming, they are actually a salvo in the battles over public space that are presently unfolding in Oakland and cities worldwide.
They sit steps from a West Oakland park known as a hangout for the homeless and super-poor. At this park, it is common to see a half-dozen shopping carts full of belongings, people drinking from paper bags, and to smell pot smoke wafting through the air. Those present are almost always black men, middle-aged and up, with a sprinkling of younger adults and women of assorted ages. I have only seen kids there twice during the dozens of times that I have passed by and the absence of swings or play gear of any sort suggests that no one expects them to show up more regularly. I have never witnessed the police harassing people there, though surely it would not be hard for them to come up with reasons to do so if they wished. It appears that authorities have decided that it is okay for the uber-marginalized to congregate at this site. Something similar would not be allowed in Berkeley or San Francisco, which rank among the “meanest” cities to the homeless in the United States.
An inspection of these benches yields insights into their origins (click the photo above for a larger view). First of all, we can see that they are not city-issue products. Local authorities construct benches out of steel, or a mix of steel and composite wood, whereas these are simply painted wooden planks bolted to the sidewalk with cheap “L” brackets. We can also conclude that they are not the work of a business hoping to accommodate its customers—they lie in front of a trash-strewn lot, not a store or restaurant. Everything indicates that some guerrilla decorators installed them surreptitiously, presumably under the cloak of night and inspired by the outrageous thought that poor people also have a right to sit down.
The built environment is inherently political. This is obvious in the case of things like monuments and palaces, but seating and politics also have a particularly strong connection. In Home: A Short History of An Idea, Witold Rybcznski sketches the long evolution of approaches to seating and argues that what has changed over the years is less the technology of seating than its cultural use. He points out that seats are often means of articulating and representing power. We see hints of this in our everyday language: the head of an academic department is the “chair,” a judge “sits” on “the bench,” the center of authority in a country is the “seat” of power, a monarch occupies “the throne,” etc.
But what does it mean when someone covertly builds seats for the marginalized in a city like Oakland, with its vast quantities of public space that have been privatized and in which thousands have been stripped of their right to assemble due to encounters with the Prison Industrial Complex? It is an act of compassion and also an act of resistance. To write the needs of the impoverished into the physical structure of the city itself, even in a small way, is a gesture toward reclaiming public space, toward reopening the commons.
Changing society and changing our practices of domesticity and comfort have always gone hand in hand. The Black Panther Party housed its members in austere, barrack-like “Panther pads,” whereas hippies built kaleidoscopic homes in the form of geodesic domes—their larger social visions influenced their sense of space and decor, and vice versa. Whatever forms we might invent in the future, these benches point to a politics of seating in which the purpose of seats is not to bolster authority and coercion but to recuperate the city for the oppressed. While plain and easy to overlook, they are among the many signs that rebellion is alive and well in Oakland.
(first published on Project Oakland on April 17, 2012)
Politicians and financial experts typically describe Oakland’s links to banks and other institutions of finance capital in a language that conceals relationships of domination and exploitation. The spreadsheets, flow charts, and jargon about “best practices” and “fiscal responsibility” make the ongoing extraction of resources from the city and the impoverishment of its residents seem as natural and immutable as the laws of gravity. Of course, beneath all of this are material, tangible interactions between people, which we can name, criticize, and—if we wish—abolish.
A group called the Coalition for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) launched an important challenge to Oakland’s ties to finance capital at a meeting of the Oakland City Council last February. Led by Minister Daniel Buford of the Allen Temple Baptist Church, members took the podium to condemn a “rate swap”deal that Oakland signed with Goldman Sachs fifteen years earlier. Declaiming this swap as immoral, they ruptured the supposedly “value-free” language customarily used to characterize such deals and implicitly created a context for a much broader discussion of the city’s economy. This is a historic achievement that we must build upon, but, to do so, and to ensure that the coalition’s challenge is not emptied of its richness, we need to put the rate swap in the context of a broad, critical perspective on the city’s economy and its relation to finance capital. This is true for at least two crucial reasons that I will describe below.
But, first, the “rate swap” at issue is an arrangement between Goldman Sachs and the city, in which the financial giant converted $187 million of city debt from a variable rate debt to one held at a fixed interest rate of 5.6 percent. At the time, this “rate swap” seemed like a prudent way to avoid anticipated increases in the interest rate, but subsequent federal intervention in the economy has pushed rates far below 5.6 percent, thus obliterating the fiscal advantages that Oakland had hoped to reap. The pact has turned out to be a bad deal for the city and one that will likely continue costing it several million annually, until its contract with Goldman Sachs expires in 2021.(1)
The CESJ sees the swap as an expensive injustice and argues that the city should extract itself from it. It is unjust, the group contends, because Goldman Sachs accepted funds from the 2008 bank bailout—using taxpayer monies to insulate itself from the financial chaos of the time—but has not renegotiated its contract with the taxpayers of the city of Oakland. In other words, it hoarded all the benefits of federal intervention for itself when it should have shared them. This is especially egregious when one considers that the city has been in continual fiscal crisis due to revenue shortfalls and has had to cut basic services as a result. “If Oakland has $5 million a year to throw into the hole that is Goldman Sachs’s pocket,” Buford told the council, “let’s use that money to build a clinic out in East Oakland, do job programs in West Oakland. Let’s use that money for some constructive purpose, rather than to line the pockets of Goldman Sachs.”
However, it is critical to recognize that the Goldman Sachs deal is not an anomalous case of bank abuse. Nor is it even the most harmful financial injustice afflicting Oakland. Rather, it is one instance of a much broader trend in which elites have compelled cities and their citizens to bear the brunt of their fiscal recklessness—that is, they caused the 2008 economic collapse, but force us to pay the bill. The tsunami of foreclosures that hit Oakland is another example of this. Though banks’ risky lending practices led the housing market to implode, private homeowners are the biggest losers: one report claims that Oakland homeowners will forfeit 12.3 billion in home values as a result of the calamity.(2) With respect to the city budget specifically, the foreclosures are an immense drain: there is disappearing tax revenue but also the vast costs associated with blight, evictions, and homelessness, to name only some of the most onerous burdens. As with the Goldman Sachs rate swap, the banks have been bailed out, but the citizens of Oakland are still paying.
Second, even if Oakland manages to extricate itself from the Goldman Sachs rate swap, international banks and lenders will still have a decisive—and coercive—power over the city’s economy. This problem did not arise because Oakland politicians handed over the city’s fiscal reigns in an act of cowardice or corruption, but rather because of changes in the nature of municipal finance. Specifically, cities have lost millions in revenue as a result of the federal government’s retreat from urban policy over the last thirty years—long gone are the days of expensive programs like Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative—and, in California, because of the passage of Proposition 13, which greatly reduced access to income from property tax. These developments, in turn, have prompted cities to take costly risks with bonds, rate swaps, and other mechanisms in an often vain attempt to meet obligations and fund basic services. Sometimes these risks work out well for a city, many times they do not (they have not for Oakland), but, in either case, cities are gambling their fortunes in a game that has rules set by inaccessible, unaccountable financial institutions designed to serve the 1%. Oakland’s relation to Goldman Sachs is only one manifestation of this.
CESJ’s efforts are suggestive of the last time that Oakland’s economy was radically politicized. This was in 1973, when the Black Panther Party ran Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown for Mayor and City Council (respectively). Seen as part of the Panthers’ “Base of Operations” campaign, they enlisted the party’s newspaper and countless community events in a vast project of popular education on the nature of the city’s economy, one designed to help people see how it functioned and for whom. Though neither Seale nor Brown won office, their candidacies helped break the grip of the white elite that had run the city for decades and led many to imagine what a truly just, equitable Oakland might look like.
Oakland faces a new constellation of obstacles and possibilities today. The CESJ have done an enormous service by changing the discussion of municipal finance, if only momentarily, and by taking issue with the city’s ties to the world of finance capital. Their refusal to accept the rarified discourse of urban finance reminds us that we have the ability to identify, judge, and terminate relations of injustice. We must do this in the case of the Goldman Sachs rate swap, but that should be just one step in a much broader effort to extract the city’s economy from the grips of finance capital and to reconstruct it in such a way that it will truly serve the people of the city.
~ Chuck Morse
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1. Darwin BondGraham has authored the most extensive and well-informed articles about the Goldman Sachs rate swap. You can find his exemplary work in the East Bay Express and also on his blog.
I indulge in a big restaurant meal every Saturday. Basically, I go full hulk — I eat whatever I want — and then immediately return to counting calories for the rest of the week. This is how I fight the war against dadbod while enjoying some delicious meals and learning a bit about LA. Although I’m a second-generation Angeleno — my late father grew up in Pasadena during the World War II era — I was born and raised on the East Coast and have only lived here since April, so there is a lot to explore.
Finding a viable eating strategy is important to me because I’m really interested in food, particularly in restaurants and how they comment on social issues. For instance, I’m fascinated by how LA’s Mexican restaurants address the subordinate position that people of Mexican descent occupy in LA and the fact that the city was part of Mexico before the US took it over in 1848 — in other words, how they deal with exploitation and colonialism. The new, foodie restaurants tend to be quite self-aware, but they can get a little overwrought. Last week I was in the mood for something straightforward, so I decided to give El Cholo on Western Avenue in Koreatown a try. Founded in the 1920s, Bill Esparza describes it as an LA “institution.”
El Cholo markets itself as “historic” but really sells nostalgia for a time when the subordination of Mexican-Americans seemed more natural — that is, before the 1960s, when Civil Rights and anti-imperialist activists launched their movements against American racism and colonialism. As a “Spanish cafe,” its name points to a time when Mexican food was sold as Spanish to placate the white supremacist anxieties about “the Mexican.” Its amber-hued interior brings to mind the haciendas of the old California Missions or, more exactly, a period when restaurants nonchalantly used such décor without acknowledging the missions’ racist colonial nature. Continue reading →
The origins of radical food in Los Angeles When Jonathan Gold named Locol the LA Times “restaurant of the year,” he emphasized its commitment to serving the people of Watts, where it is located. It offers them inexpensive-but-healthy food as well as job opportunities in an environment that is as hip and multicultural as Los Angeles itself. Gold lauded Daniel Patterson and local hero Roy Choi, the two culinary luminaries who started the restaurant, for their sense of social purpose and commitment to changing the landscape.
What Gold did not say is that Los Angeles has a long and fascinating history of socially engaged eateries and that some of them are far more radical than Locol. Consider the Luna Sol Café, which operated near MacArthur Park from 1996 to 2003. It provided low-cost, nutritious fare and had deep roots in the multi-ethnic, underground scene of its time, but, crucially, it was a worker-owned cooperative, in which responsibilities and privileges were shared in a horizontal, egalitarian way. It is the only restaurant of this type that LA has known and one of very few in California’s history.
From Occupation to Full-Blown Restaurant Luna Sol emerged at a moment when the credibility of the city’s establishment had reached new lows, and many felt that it was necessary to rebuild society from the ground up. Everyone had seen LA’s Black and Brown masses turn the world upside down during the 1992 rebellion, forcing themselves into the discussion, and many had watched with frustration as politicians responded to this with bogus promises, plans, and programs. There was sort of a running battle between the old guard and the newly energized forces of change. For example, the LA Conservation Corps ran a youth-oriented jobs program that treated the kids like cattle; in response, the youth seized the program’s building in 1995 and transformed it into an activist hub known as the Peace and Justice Center. Continue reading →
When Little Damage Ice Cream opened in downtown recently, I imagined it as another boutiquey ice cream shop in a city that is already full of them, albeit one that generated more media attention than others thanks to a buzzworthy flavor of soft serve that they sell: charcoal almond. However, after visiting the store, I realized that there is a lot more going on there. It is a very cerebral place that is compelling not only for what it puts into our stomachs but also for what it puts in our minds: its ability to comment on our evolving relationship to food in these digital, social-media-heavy times.
When customers first enter the brightly lit shop, they face a marquee that presents them with a choice of just four ice cream flavors. These apparently change over time, but of course I arrived knowing that I wanted the charcoal almond, which has made a splash on social media. This dark grey swirl came piled into an equally dark grey cone, also made with charcoal. I requested a white coconut flake topping, which gave the dessert a two-tone aesthetic—goth but with some ska thrown in.
This peculiar flavor actually has a point to make: it criticizes the old industrial attitude to the world that held sway throughout the twentieth century and affirms the new, information-based economy. Consider the ingredients. Charcoal evokes all the grit and grime of heavy industry. To make a food out of it, particularly a dessert, is a way of showing that the remnants of the old industrial landscape can be reimagined and even made into sources of pleasure. We see something similar with other projects that “repurpose” the built environment: food trucks that turn vehicles into restaurants, fancy lofts built out of old factories, and even some fitness regimes (like parkour). All of these things validate our ability to reimagine the physical world and highlight the industrial outlook’s rigidity, which was too narrow minded to grasp its full potential. The presence of almonds is an important counterpoint: if charcoal conjures up twentieth century industrialism, which wanted to remake everything but was inflexible, these little gems, which do not need cooking to be edible, remind us that sometimes we don’t need to do anything to find rewards in the world. The idea is that we need to be creative but also sensitive. These are resonant points in downtown, which is increasingly a hub for high tech firms that make billions in the post-industrial, information-based economy.
As I bit into the ice cream, I first noticed that it was not saturated with sugar like most American brands—it was sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. This made it much more palatable. In fact, I could have had two servings without feeling sick, which is not something that I can say about Ben and Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs. It was also less granular in texture as a result, even for soft-serve. It reminded me of machine-dispensed frozen yogurt, although it was more dense, which likely reflected the use of high-quality ingredients (and that it wasn’t filled with air). The charcoal was mostly tasteless other than a hint of alkaline; this put the faint, buttery clarity of the almond in relief. This combination definitely worked well. More than just a vehicle for sugar delivery, and more than just strange, it was good, interesting ice cream.
However, something else captured my attention: everyone was snapping photos of their ice cream, of themselves, and of themselves with their ice cream, which they were clearly uploading or would soon upload to Instagram or some other site. This was happening inside and immediately outside of the store. Most were using their phones, except for one woman, who came armed with a huge DSLR camera, which she piloted around the establishment. The shop even had a photo booth of its own, just in case you had come unprepared. I admit that I smirked when I became aware of all of these documentarians, until I realized that I was also photographing my ice cream and thinking about posting the pictures online. I hesitated before snapping a picture of the counter area—I feared that would feel invasive to the woman working there—but she seemed indifferent to it all. Presumably she had accepted that this digital exposure is part of her job like it is, for example, for the women working booths at tech trade shows.
This was so pervasive that it made me wonder about Little Danger itself: is it really an ice cream shop or actually in the business of selling edible props that people use to enhance their social media profiles? And what does this say about the impact of social media on food generally? If we typically ask whether a food is healthy or tastes good, perhaps we will now start taking into account its ability to help us get new Twitter and Instagram followers. Do we need to rebuild the food pyramid with social media in mind? It appears that food is starting to please us and nourish us in new, essentially digital ways.
Pondering these admittedly abstract questions changed my feelings about all the photographing going on. In the context of an increasingly digitalized, post-industrial economy, maybe this was not as indulgent as I first thought. If data and ideas—not things—drive the economy now, then it makes sense that we would frantically generate data for social media companies and try to find clever ways to position ourselves in the digital world. Perhaps we were all working at Little Damage or at least preparing to work. Certainly the ice cream flavor pointed to the new economic context and the shop itself is highly attuned to today’s links between information technology and food.
I admit that I wanted to like-but-not-like Little Damage. I knew that the ice cream would be unusual and I assumed that I would enjoy it, but I expected to leave feeling annoyed by the shop’s boutiquey quality. That would be a comfortable posture for me: sure, I might be a little fatter for the experience, but I wouldn’t feel implicated in its quaint, preciousness, which seems to be spreading all over LA. Instead I felt engaged and drawn into its commentary on industrialism and illustration of our changing approach to food. And that is the genius of this genuinely challenging soft-serve ice cream shop.