This past weekend, I participated in The Great Echo Park Cleanup – an event created and organized via twitter by Jovelle Narcisse, a local resident, and Josh Post, an attorney and candidate for the Los Angeles City Council district 13 seat. Of course, there were other people whose invaluable efforts made the event a possibility, but I’m writing today to talk about something I see growing within the culture of LA.
Los Angeles has been hit hard by the recession. I, like thousands of others, lost my teaching job in 2008 and like tens of thousands of others, I struggled to find another position. Jovelle is a real estate agent – not the ideal job of 2009 to put it lightly.
I’ve always been interested in the history of our democracy and when I think about the purpose of government, I go back to Thomas Jefferson. He described the perfect government as ‘one in which every person feels that he is a participator, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” I like that because as I see it government should be engaged with the people who create it.
Like I said, we’ve had tough times in LA and in many ways, the road ahead is still quite difficult. But I’ve been talking with people – neighbors, parents of my students, casual acquaintances, close friends, and perfect strangers – and I’m finding a level of perseverance, solidarity, and creativity that really surprises and inspires me. I say it surprises me because these last 5 years have been challenging – to say the least. We’ve been hit hard by the recession here in LA. Our tax base has declined precipitously, unemployment remains extraordinarily high and it seems as though city services have been cut beyond the bone.
But at a point in our history where it seems as though we should crumble – we haven’t - and after talking to people, I’m beginning to know, in my heart, that we aren’t going to crumble.
Instead, we’ve rediscovered the value of community and lost the pretenses that kept us from reaching out to each other for support. The Great Echo Park Cleanup was a success in a couple of ways. First, we got a bunch of trash off the streets of Echo Park. That’s great, but there’s something better.
More than five years into the devastation of the Great Recession, LA hasn’t degenerated into the land of Mad Max. In fact, Jovelle is starting to sell houses again. We’ve got a candidate for city council whose honesty, big-thinking, and integrity have hoisted him to the front of the pack in this race, but he still came out that day and got totally, disgustingly dirty picking up cigarette butts and used needles. There were a dozen or so others there too, rolling up their sleeves and spending a couple of hours to make their neighborhood better.
My point is that it’s easy to do the dirty work when you are down and out. When Jovelle doesn’t have a lot of work to do, she can turn out to do a clean up. What else is there to do when you don’t have money? And Josh can turn away from the neighborhood clean-ups if he wants to because people will remember him for doing the first few. So, what’s the point of doing another?
Civic engagement. That’s what it’s all about. Through the mess of these past 5 years, we’ve managed to rediscover our love for connections with each other and through that, we’ve developed a better sense of responsibility for our city. It turns out that people really do blossom in the face of scarcity and because of that, I think LA’s greatest days are ahead of us.