What We Did: South Central Folk Art Tour

You see so much more from a bicycle seat. And this is why—despite long standing rumors to the contrary—a bicycle is the best way to explore Los Angeles. In L.A., there’s just so much to see.

I’m here in L.A. as part of a group of three arts journalists, that is myself, Michele Siegel and Alissa Walker. Our group, dubbed A Moving Experience, is itself part of a larger group of journalists who’ve gathered to explore new methods of seeing journalism itself.

Each group has its own focus, and ours is the journalistic equivalent of the Slow Food movement. By exploring the art and culture of greater Los Angeles—a city arguably built as much to accommodate automobiles as people—without cars,  we aim to take in a depth that wouldn’t be possible surrounded by the metal shells that are so much part and parcel of LA life.

What follows is a written and visual  journal chronicling the first of three days doing arts journalism by bicycle in LA.

 

South LA: History, Community, Carnivals & Piñatas

Personal Goals:

Day:

To Explore the art, culture and history of South Los Angeles by taking an eight mile bike tour with a group of cyclists, seeing a segment of the community not often documented.

Night:

To bicycle to an 8pm showing of Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE in Hollywood and write a brief review by midnight.

Journey One

We leave the hotel just after 10:00 am. It’s an unusually cold morning for Los Angeles, even in early November.  Rubber hitting road, we ride south on Hill Street through light traffic.

Despite longstanding rumors to the contrary, Los Angeles is an excllent city for cyclists, mostly flat with wide roads, at least this part of it. Three miles and fifteen minutes later, we reach the Mercado La Paloma, or “Dove Marketplace” on South Grand Street. The Mercado functions as a combination community center, small business incubator and food court.  Today it serves as the starting point for Folk Art Everywhere, a semi-regular bicycle tour organized by Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum exploring various parts of Los Angeles.

Today’s ride promises to mix an exploration of the art, history and unique community gathering spots of South LA.

With the full group yet to arrive, we explore the Mercado itself.  There is an art exhibit going on, and though I’m reminded at first of a Singaporean food court by the Mercado’s dozen-plus food stalls, I have to admit that for color and style the Mercado wins hands-down.

After a brief chat about route given by the Craft and Folk Art Museum’s Heidi Zeller, the 30+ assembled cyclists down last shots of espresso, fill their water bottles and hit the streets. Our group is drawn from various areas of  L.A.’s social and cultural tapestry.  I find myself riding alongside JJ, a film producer, avid bicyclist and bicycle activist.

JJ tells me she goes by the moniker  “The Navigatrix.”

Part of the group organizing this and other rides, and is responsible for making sure the group stays more or less together.  This, she says, has earned her another nickname, “Mistress of the Path.” As we take up the rear of the ride together, I’m struck by JJ’s passion for her adopted home city.

“In the 20 plus years I have lived in Los Angeles, I  may have experienced anger, frustration and sadness,” she tells me. “But I have never had a moment of boredom.”

Touring Los Angeles as part of a bicycle wolf-pack is an interactive activity.  The group turns heads and elicits remarks from folks on the sidewalk, almost all positive.  This is hardly surprising: With ringing bells and colorful clothes, our cycle-pack must seem like a quickly moving parade.

 

 

We ride through the piñata district, a colorful blur.  The pack is in motion, and not wanting to lose them I am unable to stop and explore. I make mental note to return later, commenting that any city with a piñata district is one after my heart.

The reaction from motorists, even those whose way the group briefly impedes, is surprising.  Instead of the expected honks comes verbal encouragement, and its not hard to imagine a certain level of playful envy from people stuck in traffic towards those seeming to transcend it.

We pass through the Jazz District and stop at the office of Community Development Technologies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting economic opportunities for low-income residents and communities throughout Greater Los Angeles. Dismounting, we pile into the ground floor office, where CD Tech’s Azusena Favela presents a mural created by local artists.

 

Leaving bicycles in office, the group takes a short walking tour of the neighborhood. Seduced by fragrances coming from a taco truck across the street,  I lose the group to a plate of shrimp ceviche. By the time I return to the CD Tech office the tour has left, and only Azusena is left. This turns out to be a good thing.  Having grown up in the community she now serves, she proves as excellent a personal tour guide as a travel writer could hope for.

 

Now separated from the group, we ride through a neighborhood about which few words in guidebooks (to my knowledge, at least) have been written. Most of what I know about this area comes from half-recalled hip hop lyrics.  From a bicycle the area is far more salubrious than the lyrics might lead one to believe.  As we ride down streets lined with palm trees past classical southern California type residences, free from traffic except for the occasional ice cream truck I find myself asking out loud the question I inevitably ask when passing through someplace pleasant. “Could I live here?”

“You’d be fine,” Azusena tells me. “As long as you don’t mind paletero music.”

We pedal together back towards the Mercado, where the rest of my group and most of the cyclists from the now-finished tour are hanging and replenishing burned calories.

On the way we cross Martin Luther King Boulevard, which has all the makings of a carnival save for one detail—it’s practically deserted.  Azusena tells me that the carnival begins at sundown, and promises to offer an even deeper slice of local color.  There and then I make the decision to scrap the night’s planned Hollywood film and excursion and return instead to South LA to make a film of my own.

…I think Polanski will approve.

Summation: This was the first of three days of journalistic exploration of L.A. by bicycle, from which I gathered not just the material above but also notes and photographs that will become part of a travel article promoting both bicycling in L.A. and the cultural and historical importance of South L.A.

Each day presented its own set of goals (both met and blown) and generated content and stories, both expected and otherwise.   Had I approached each day traditionally, that is,  with set agenda, I believe my experiences—and that of the reader—would have been diminished.

More soon…

 Next: Cultural Ecology

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