March 20, 2009
The Messiah Was Here, and Traffic Is Still Bad
Friday morning at The Foundry on Melrose Los Angeles Magazine convened a klatch of writers, pols and activist Angelenos for a discussion on the city in the age of Obama. The timing was perfect, as the President Himself had just swept through town on a 48 hour dazzle that included a town hall appearance yesterday with Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger and 45 minutes on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
The speakers were John Emerson, a Clinton White House advisor who is now Senior Vice President of Capital Guardian Trust Company and Chairman of the Board and CEO of the Music Center, and Gregory Rodriguez, author, creator of the public lecture series Zocalo, a New American Fellow, and pretty much a one-man salon. (Greg’s offices are in the same Koreatown building as ours, and as wonderful it is to run into him and his first-rate staff in the elevator or at Trimana, I’m always dreading my brain just won’t be able to keep up with his. Of course, there’s no need to worry, because it can’t.)
Pre-speech breakfast was a pleasure, considering that there’s not a lot of free lunches left in this town. And organizer Donna Bojarsky pulled together a good group of people to eat with: Los Angeles mag publisher Amy Saralegui, Councilmembers Wendy Gruel and Tom La Bonge, author and columnist Gina Nahai, Kathleen Brown, Rabbi Jason Ablin, LAobserved.com’s Kevin Roderick, Aaron Paley and a few dozen more. Los Angeles magazine Editor-in-Chief Kit Rachlis, who usually moderates at these events, was home sick, so Steve Oney stepped in.
Oney’s first question was about what the two men have to say about Obama’s visit.
“We’re in the grips of Obama-philia,” said Rodriguez. The unmasked adulation is a refreshing change, but Rodriguez cautioned that as with the heaps of praise piled on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he took office, there’s bound to be a let down after the first crush.
One specific let down Rodriguez pointed to was the way Obama withdrew its consideration of Tom Saenz as Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice based on pushback from anti-immigration rights groups. The move enraged progressive groups, but Emerson counseled perspective: a new administration is bound to make a few slip-ups.
But the conversation quickly moved off Obama to a more general group-gripe about what’s wrong with L.A. It was important conversation, but not completely unfamiliar to anyone who has been to any gathering of more than two civic-minded Angelenos anywhere in LA any time in the past 20 years.
It is a huge, horizontal city made up of discrete immigrant, ethnic, socioeconomic and interest groups that don’t operate with a sense of larger civic pride.
“There are so many worlds in LA it’s almost naive to thing we can come together in that first generation of immigrants,” Rodriguez said.
Emerson cited a dearth of great corporate or civic leaders. He recounted how the Music Center was founded when Dorothy Chandler brought the heads of major LA companies into a board room and went around the table extracting million-dollar-plus contributions.
“Those companies don’t even exist any more,” he said.
Big-pocketed donors do—he mentioned Eli Broad, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Gloria Kaufman—but Emerson said that doesn’t amount to civic leadership.
“None of them but Eli Broad has a sense of tremendous civic responsibility,” he said.
(Side note: the major donors to LA institutions that Emerson cited happen to all be Jewish. Anyone out there care to discuss whether this is just a wild coincidence?)
Rodriguez and Emerson said Villaraigosa may not have lived up to the media’s overhyped expectations, but he has been a decent enough mayor. What he needs to do, both men agree, is to get out more as he did early in his adminstration, and drum up civic pride.
“I miss Antonio,” said Rodriguez, who said he felt the mayor cut back on his public appearances following the news of his extra-marital affair. “I think he should come back.”
Emerson said he is a friend of the mayor’s, but criticized his extended campaigning during the presidential election.
“He got a little too enamored about that,” Emerson said. “One thing he can use is his bully pulpit.”
So in the end it wasn’t about Obama, but about us. How will LA come together to fix its festering problems? How will we build a city-wide sense of community, across all our cultural and economic barriers? Where will we find a new generation of civic leaders?
We are a city,” Rodriguez said. “The extent to which we’ve forgotten that is a great civic failure.”
Obama came, impressed us… and left us to figure this all out, again.
a) The International Worker
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