through the angel rain, through the dust and the gasoline…

Quote is from “Detonation Boulevard”, Sisters of Mercy. Although there was no angel rain on Friday, there was a lot of dust and gasoline, as I biked with three other Westside Critical Massers the twenty miles across Los Angeles, from Venice Beach to Rampart, via West L.A., a corner of Culver City, Beverly Hills, the Miracle Mile, Mid-City, Koreatown and MacArthur Park.

Hm. Maybe I should have quoted Donna Summer instead. MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark…someone left the cake out in the rain…

On Friday, it was Santa Monica Critical Mass. There’s four major Mass rides in L.A. – Westside, Pasadena, N.E. L.A. and L.A./Hollywood. This is in addition to Midnite Ridazz and 310, which are rides sponsored and coordinated by the Bike Kitchen downtown. Critical Mass is a political movement for cycling rights, a visionary advocation of more bikes, less cars. Ridazz, which starts in Echo Park, and its Westside version, the 310 ride, is really just lunacy on wheels.

Critical Mass Santa Monica, always starts at the Santa Monica pier and goes around Santa Monica, past the Promenade and sometimes as far east as the Montana shopping district. It comes back down through Venice, along Abbot-Kinney, around the Windward Circle (aka the Merry Go Round) and then back north up the Venice Beach boardwalk to Cha Cha Chicken, Official Dinner Destination of the ride. But we barely looped the beach area, this week, as the ride ended early for the benefit of those of us who were going to BikeKitchen’s BikeWinter (http://winter.bikeboom.com/) opening party. Events are listed at http://www.bikeboom.com/webcalendar/month.php for those curious, but basically, it’s three weeks of rides and races and bike related parties. And the opening night party, the same night as the ride by the ocean, took place twenty miles away Rampart. And I decided it was high time I found out if I could put my money where my mouth was, and bike that distance from the beach to downtown.

We set out a little before eight, west on Venice. “We” is myself and my guy roomate, along with two other Westsiders, a UCLA grad student and a woodworking professional, both in their late twenties like me. We all chatted and introduced ourselves. And then decided, after half an hour going west, that it was time to stop and refuel at the Culver City/West Los Angeles border at Venice and La Cienega, where there was a convenience store with a taco truck nearby. And after each of us consumed two tacos and a can of Spark (caffeinated malt beverage!), we were ready to take on the next two thirds of the ride.

I love crossing Los Angeles. I do. I love that I know the streets and freeway systems from here to Downtown as well as I do. I love that I can put a ride across the city into historical context, that I can follow the city’s history back in the time, back through the twentieth century, as I go east through it. We cut up through the edge of Beverly Hills, and then turned down Wilshire. We crossed Fairfax and the edge of Little Ethiopia, formerly the old Jewish ghetto. We rode down the Miracle Mile, the shopping district built in the 1920s when cars first became common, a decentralization of downtown led by the Bullocks department store. We passed LaBrea, and turned up into Hancock Park. We flew down Sixth on the eastern side of Koreatown. And then, when we saw MacArthur Park come up, we stopped again to recharge on liquor.

I’m fascinated by the district that includes MacArthur Park and the Rampart area. Westlake (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westlake,_Los_Angeles,_California) used to be one of the city’s worst areas. But as prices in housing across the city have gone up, crime has gone down. Westlake’s neighborhoods are textbook cases of White Flight At Work, and Westlake itself has fallen prey to the revised memories that Norman Klein discusses in his book, Los Angeles and the History of Forgetting, which I’m reading this week. Los Angeles’ perception of the area is hazy at best, a vague concept of a bettering, but still dicey neighborhood. But this city has problems accurately perceiving many of its eighty-seven neighborhoods, and history has been whitewashed and glossed over in favor of the areas that occupy much much more of L.A.’s projected image.

Beyond the general perception though, the Westlake neighborhoods used to be exclusive white American neighborhoods (hence the large two and three story houses and brick apartment buildings). Built on former swampland, Westlake has two of Los Angeles’ most classic parks – Echo and MacArthur, each with its own lake, fountain and boathouse for the genteel early twentieth-century residents to rent boats from, in order to paddle around the park. But since World War Two, the overpasses and roads, 101 and Wilshire, all divide the two public green spaces that were meant to be connected long ago. Instead of becoming another Golden Gate Park, MacArthur and Echo are separated by blocks of houses built in the boom of the 1910s, and after being further degraded by white flight, freeways and police scandale, the parks are just a series of crime-riddled green spaces in a high-traffic area.

In the last eighty years, each neighborhood in what was Westlake has fallen prey to different fates. Freeways and major arteries have sliced through Echo Park and MacArthur park. Waves of lower-income Angelinos have come through Rampart after Bunker Hill was razed to the ground in 1963, in the biggest displacement of Los Angeles citizens since Chavez Ravine six years before. And Lafayette Park Square has gone completely forgotten because it’s not a white neighborhood anymore, although it’s absolutely gorgeous, and reminds me of the Garden District in New Orleans. So this is why it fascinates me. How does a neighborhood go from being the “Champs-Elysees of Los Angeles” in the ’20s, to being a ghetto zone by 2000?

However, historical exploration wasn’t the point of the evening. The point was to get to the BikeWinter party. And we did, finally, just as my legs were actually getting tired. And there were people on bikes arriving by twos, threes, half-dozens. I have no idea whose house it was, although it seemed to be the sort of communal party house that was common enough in Vancouver, like the Animal House up on Dunbar, or cracksmurf‘s current home. But there were a few hibachis in the backyard with boxes of Dodger dogs and Costco burgers, and a DJ spinning some basic house, and, after midnight, a really decent live hip-hop outfit called Rebels Against the Grain. And so, we stayed until almost two in the morning, and then left to ride our bikes the mile south to Venice Boulevard and pick up the bus going west back towards the beach.

Coincidences galore related to the L.A. Bike Community have been following me this weekend though. First, the first girl I met at the party was visiting from Vancouver, where she lives downtown on Robson. Then, later, I was introduced to another Canadian, who was now completing grad school at Caltech in Pasadena. He had grown up in Victoria. Five minutes of small talk later, I found out he had escaped the Island and gone to UBC. Where he was in classes with my ex-boyfriend. How big is the West Coast again?

Then the next morning, I was coming back from hiking with my friend Kate in Runyan Canyon when we got back to her building and there was a guy just leaving it on his bike. I recognized him after a few seconds – from Critical Mass and Midnite Ridazz rides. He and his girlfriend had been some of the first people I’d really talked to on the rides, and we talked for a few minutes, during which time I learned that they’d broken up and she wasn’t on rides as much. Then, twelve hours later, she turned up as the date of a friend of a friend at Bar Sinister. It was a truly strange coincidence series.

But the whole weekend has made me feel more grounded in L.A. First of all, I biked across L.A.. I traced the streets of the city in my mind, and then rode through them, at ground level, where I could see and read the neighborhoods and their history and wave at the people who live there. I feel much more connected to my surroundings when I’m on the bike than I do when I’m on foot. And as for the running into people (and I didn’t even mention running into a co-worker from my team at Runyan two minutes after entering the park), you can’t have those kind of interconnection coincidences happen unless you know enough people to connect the dots, unless you’re established in your city, unless you have been present and socially active enough in your community to have a network behind you.

So. Thus concludes a very sociable weekend. And now I’m going to get some work done. Night all!

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