THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de la Porciuncula


a historical excavation by writer, performer, and artist Stacie Chaiken

mindmap3.jpg

For twelve years, I’ve lived on the fifth floor of the hundred year-old Higgins Building, on Second and Main. As time has passed, our corner of Downtown has changed: Saint Vibiana, once abandoned and tower-less, is now Redbird and Vibiana!

I look out the window at parking lots below; the few battered structures are the last vestige of what was once a flourishing Main Street. That block behind us is now the largest - as in, the most expensive - contiguous undeveloped area in Downtown LA. 

I wonder, What history is held in that one square block? Who walked those street before us?

Franciscan missionaries named our City Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de la Porciuncula (Our Lady of the Angels, of the Small Portion).

I am engaged in an excavation of this small portion; I am summoning forth her ghosts:

Third-century Saint Viviana, patroness of the now-desecrated  cathedral, 214 South Main. 

Nineteenth-century former slave, and midwife, Biddy Mason, 331 South Spring. Philanthropist: “If you hold your hand closed,” she told her granddaughter, “nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” 

Japanese-American band leader Linda Lea, had her own theatre, 251 South Main (now the Downtown Independent).

Howie Steindler, murdered (cold case 1977) ran the raunchy Main Street Gym (1933 to 1984) at 321 South Main, where Dempsey, Marciano, Frazier trained. Jeanne La Mar; Joan Crawford sparring in heels. Howie’s daughter Carol Steindler (trainer/corner woman) took over when he died. She’s still around.

New Jalisco Bar, 245 South Main. Formerly down-low; currently out, and Latino drag haven.

Indian Alley, 118 Winston. Sister Sylvia Creswell's post-WWII Soul Patrol for returning GIs; Baba Cooper’s 1970s United American Indian Involvement.

8.72: Fix Café

One of two Fix Café locations, which serves a variety of survival bites for no more that $2.50 and no less than $1.00. Photo by Dan Johnson.

One of two Fix Café locations, which serves a variety of survival bites for no more that $2.50 and no less than $1.00. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Believe it or not, I don’t get a large amount of fan mail.

That’s not necessarily an invitation. I appreciate it when people reach out to say they enjoy something I wrote, but one of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I can’t take a compliment.

Really, my favorite kind of feedback is hate mail. I savor hatred. The world truly needs villains. Assuming one’s villainy is rooted not in exploitation or greed, but the truest form of contradiction—defacing deeply entrenched assumptions of self-superiority rooted in complacency—we can treat earned hatred as productive and healthy.

I got a couple of especially nice pieces of ill-conceived hate mail last year that I found really invigorating. One in particular took the line that I am an ugly person trying to be funny so I can find someone who will fuck me. That’s a hell of a thing for one ugly person to tell another.

I would have loved to respond, but he blocked me on Zuckerberg’s magic dreambox. So I’ll have to save my well worded letter about the misuse of projection and the attendant impulse to load others with one’s own psychological baggage.

Up until January 16, his was the favorite letter I ever received regarding 8.72.

Then Heather Whittaker, communication intern at National Alliance of Safe Pest Control, rocked my world.

In a compact, but cogent communique that concluded with a call to action admonishing me to “share this information with your audience at Get Downtown,” Heather filled me in on the roach epidemic currently blooming across the US.

Bad news guys, apparently LA is amongst the top ten most infested places in the country. This should come as no surprise. The climate is warm, the streets are cracked. Besides, this is a place for survivors.

Once you peel back the myths of health and happiness beneath the warm Southern California sun and disabuse yourself of the notion that the Southland is a honeypot just waiting to shower you with oodles of riches, I think you’ll appreciate the fact that the common cockroach is the perfect emblem for Angelenos.

Most of us may not be changing the world, but damn it, we’re still here. In this day and age, that’s something.

I can’t speak to a roach’s inner-most desires, but I can’t help but think that they’re mostly in line with our collective hopes and aspirations. They clearly like to reproduce and nest. They make due and, damn it, they like to eat. Sounds pretty human to me. We’re less apt to survive a nuclear holocaust, but trim away the niceties and we’re downright roachist in many ways.

We tend to get in trouble when we assume our presumptions of natural superiority are accurate. The corollary in this trap of cognitive dissonance is that we think we are special and thus deserve special things.

Think roachy, friends. It’s not about what we deserve or even want. It’s about what we need.

A little honesty is nice from time to time. I’ve seen a lot of renderings of “future, awesome Downtown” recently. Happy (predominantly white people, incidentally) saunter through well-landscaped retail space in between their well-furnished homes and whatever bombastic food location stakes their claim on the ground floor.

How exciting! Won’t that be neat? In the meantime, if you’re looking for an emblem of Blattodea reality hinting at the actual quality of life in Downtown Los Angeles circa Anno Domini 2018, check out Fix Café.

DTLA: check. Snacks: check. Always fresh daily: check. Fix Café has everything you need exactly when you need it, but only in small helpings that tide you over until you are forced by withdrawal symptoms to return. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

DTLA: check. Snacks: check. Always fresh daily: check. Fix Café has everything you need exactly when you need it, but only in small helpings that tide you over until you are forced by withdrawal symptoms to return. Photo by Dan Johnson. 

Downtown has two locations now. One on 7th St between Hill St and Olive St and another at 7th St and Broadway. With a name that winks at the fact that we’re caught in a perpetual opioid epidemic, Fix Café sells what you need and only what you need.

I’m in no way suggesting it’s roach infested, but the Fix Café I experienced gave every indication that it supports a bare bones lifestyle. Everything inside is priced between one dollar and $2.50. There are nuts and generic pastries and some of those yogurt parfaits.

The whole thing feels like a realistic compromise between the late-in-the-month, check-to-check skim of desperation and the libertarian future where everything is pay-to-play. It embraces our ever-evolving inhumanity and serves it dutifully.

Fix Café proves that the old swan-dive into dystopian oblivion can yield some practical adaptations. To wit: cheap sandwiches that are not at all filling, but contain enough nutrition to keep you alive and at your job for another eight hours.

The clerk wanted me to know that everything was made fresh that day. I have no reason to doubt him. My turkey sandwich had crisp lettuce and firm tomatoes as well as some sliced olives that had yet to stain the bread. The turkey didn’t have that waxy shine that usually precedes an “oh fuck” moment when you sink your teeth in and realize you’re eating nearly-rancid poultry.

In the event of major catastrophe, Fix Café will likely serve as the feeding hole for the Downtown roach-residents that survive. Photo by Dan Johnson.

In the event of major catastrophe, Fix Café will likely serve as the feeding hole for the Downtown roach-residents that survive. Photo by Dan Johnson.

It was pretty decent. It tasted like an actual sandwich. It was cheap as hell. I spent maybe two minutes tops in Fix Café.

It’s fast food, really. Especially fast food because there isn’t much of it. The turkey ration is one slice. It goes down quick.

Forget your humanoid presumptions of what constitutes a proper meal. We’re living in roachtime here—small bites taken at intervals of necessity throughout the day.

It’s nice to think that we’ve earned some truly revolutionary fast food options that will confirm our own civic apotheosis. It’s a whole other thing to reconcile that line of thinking with the reality of life in an imperfect city filled with people who are dimly aware that life is short and by no means a fairy tale.

I celebrate Fix Café with a “1” on the binary and a hearty welcome to 7th St’s “Restaurant Row.”

8.72: Café Nine

Café Nine, on the ninth floor of the Spring Arts Tower, is the perfect place to escape the ubiquitous noise of Downtown without actually having to leave the area. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Café Nine, on the ninth floor of the Spring Arts Tower, is the perfect place to escape the ubiquitous noise of Downtown without actually having to leave the area. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Among a bevy of superlative qualities, my single favorite aspect of Café Nine is that I have never seen any of you there.

Inevitably, some of you have patronized the ninth story haunt in the Spring Arts Tower over the many years they’ve been providing low-cost, but quality food items to building residents and locals with privileged knowledge of its inner sanctum.

I’m willing to bet we’ve come close to crossing paths there. Maybe we’ve missed one another by a margin of mere seconds.

The important thing is that Café Nine remains a temple where I am free to worship at the altar of solitude.

Pack up and leave for a weekend. Take that centrifugal journey outwards towards new geographies. You will notice that everything is quiet when compared with Downtown. Most of us who have been here long enough can tune out the noise. The sirens and shouts and boom box bull shit and screeching tires are standard fare. It’s our median line.

Even if we don’t always hear it, Downtown is obscenely loud. It is exhausting. Sound comes at cost. It is a physical energy that requires a certain amount of calories to process correctly. Otherwise the heightened effort stoops the body and drains the mind.

Ask anyone in Guantanamo who had to listen to Metallica’s St. Anger on high-decibel repeat. Noise will erode the consciousness you took for granted in a march to reveal something uglier and more animalistic.

These are things you don’t have to worry about at Café Nine. It’s Downtown at its best. Empty and elevated. From nearly 100 feet up, the happenings on Spring St look microscopic and hypothetical.

Others are hip to this trick of perspective. The Goodyear blimp trains its camera eyes downwards on something that resembles reasonable. Photographers climb spires and mount inaccessible helipads to revel in a skyline that scorns the horizontal daze of street level. Boosters and bloggers and commercial real estate players love the rooftop bar because the chaos of a tense city takes on a certain clarity from the top.

Down on the pavement, things seem less benign and mystic and more malevolent and grim.

Treat yourself. Ride that slow-haul elevator up from the lobby adjacent to the Last Bookstore. Café Nine understands its appeal. A sign on the counter happily reminds you that this isn’t McDonald’s. The production of food is contingent on industry best practices hedged on future circumstances that exist in a realm of unpredictability. It will arrive when it arrives.

Café Nine has all of the trappings of a first-floor establishment, but it is anything but. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Café Nine has all of the trappings of a first-floor establishment, but it is anything but. Photo by Dan Johnson.

A motley assortment of seating including some long-tenured plush chairs dappled in dubious stains that invite you to park your ass and take a moment off.

There is a canvas print of a curious 1894 Birdseye map of Los Angeles. It’s on-brand. If you grow tired of peering down at today’s Downtown, you can always train your gaze on the euphoria of days gone by when Downtown appeared cartoonishly small and deceptively peaceful. Rail lines snake in and smoke bellows out. The city of the past looks like a model carefully constructed by an idiosyncratic retiree.

It is distorted, of course. We tend to treat the past with the kid gloves of nostalgia. These renderings are too often mistaken for ideal and pastoral relative to our present circumstances.

The past was a horror show. People were dying on the streets of Downtown even then. Substance abuse and gun violence and racial tensions and endemic greed and bitter disagreements about the future course of individuals, cities, civilizations and species were all the rage then too. It was noisy as hell. I guarantee that.

Like us today, the people who lived in that little cartographic village had no idea what was coming their way. Some would ascend rapidly to the heights of renown while most were carried away by the avalanche that was the American Century.

They could have used a Café Nine.

Alas, I’m one of the few lucky ones who stand beside Café Nine on this narrow stratum of time. Everyone who came before is shit out of luck. This bacon, potato, cheese and pepper breakfast burrito with attendant cups of pico de gallo and sour cream is for me and mine. Luckily, on this particular day, it was all for me.

On this particular visit, the author not only received a breakfast burrito for less than eight dollars plus tax, but also an entire ninth floor DTLA unit to himself where he didn't have to deal with any of us. Photo by Dan Johnson

On this particular visit, the author not only received a breakfast burrito for less than eight dollars plus tax, but also an entire ninth floor DTLA unit to himself where he didn't have to deal with any of us. Photo by Dan Johnson

I know a lot of Buddhists who strive to emulate Siddhartha sitting there all taciturn and vacant beneath the Bodhisattva tree. Talk about good PR. Buddha’s story, however beneficial, is as much about a rich guy who ducked out on his family to go slack off in the woods as it is about enlightenment. As much as I envy him, I also worry that too much solitude is unnatural and ultimately ugly. The noise keeps us grounded in its own way.

Don’t let the Republicans fool you—we are as much a herd species as we are rugged individuals. Like the debate in physics that led to the enshrinement of the particle wave, we are solitary components enlisted in much larger waves of energy than we can ever appreciate.

We all have our fated place. That can be a tremendous burden. History, like Downtown itself, is god-awfully loud. Still it is essential to find a place where you can be quiet and alone, if only for a few long minutes.

I award Café Nine a “1” on the binary and quietly mourn Groundfloor Café.   

8.72

8.72: Anson's Eatery

The multicolored "Open" sign is the most exciting thing at Anson's Eatery...and that's ok. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The multicolored "Open" sign is the most exciting thing at Anson's Eatery...and that's ok. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I intended to write about Glatt Kosher on 9th St between Broadway and Main St, but a quick perusal of their menu revealed an unbecoming selection of unaffordable items. Go figure.

Instead, I popped into Anson’s Eatery next door. It’s the small glass front bistro with the multi-colored “OPEN” sign. The polychromatic letters are possibly the most exciting aspect of the Anson’s experience.

I’m not even disappointed. I’m content.

Of the absurd menagerie of addictions afflicting addled 21st century Americans, I rank entertainment next to outrage and sex as the most pernicious.

Our collective national identity is hitched to a notion of exceptionalism. We’re special. A special people deserve special things. Now more than ever, we’re so accustomed to having our minds blown that we actually use “acceptable” or “sufficient” in the pejorative.

This is a mindset that we tend to associate with the fast-living of city life. It is by no means a recent phenomenon. The 1920 census was the first American survey in which more people inhabited cities than the countryside. Shit went wrong long before that, but strictly speaking, this is the beginning of an important historical continuum, the ass end of which we inhabit.

Why? It’s complex, but Michael Lesy did a pretty swell job of nailing that hide to the wall in the conclusion to his epic of American neurosis, The Wisconsin Death Trip:

“The people who left the land came to the cities not to get jobs but to be free from them, not to get work but to be entertained, not to be masters but to be charges. They followed yellow brick roads to emerald cities presided over by imaginary wizards who would permit them to live in happy adolescence for the rest of their lives. By leaving the land, they disavowed a certain kind of adulthood whose mature rewards they understood to be confusion and bereavement. By going to the emerald cities, they chose a certain kind of adolescence forever free from frailty, responsibility, and death. It is this adolescent city culture, created out of the desperate needs and fantasies of people fleeing from the traps and tragedies of late nineteenth-century country life, that still inspires…”

Boy, that sounds familiar. Especially in the context of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, where every relationship is defined by the excitement it generates and the worst fate is to become unenviable.

I’ve been swishing this idea around my mind a lot lately given the rapidly degenerating quality of our national discourse and the abundant attacks on the scattered remnants of the middle class and the internet.

Here in the cities, we took it for granted that the terms of our entertainment were not subject to modification. This is the height, after all, of every possible human ambition. Look at our technological savvy and inspired morality. Sweep the crazy beneath the carpet and hush hush the questions about the suicide epidemic. Never mind the horrors—look at all our cool shit!

It’s time for a most welcome gut check: what if this $7.95 diet burrito bowl from Anson’s were all I have to look forward to from here on out? What if I woke up tomorrow morning and all the pleasant fuckery of Facebook and the happy hour beers and abundant media were gone and in their place was a circular medley of steamed vegetables, brown rice, salsa and some avocado?

This is what we deserve for all our inspired morality and technological savvy. Photo by Dan Johnson.

This is what we deserve for all our inspired morality and technological savvy. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I would probably survive.

The zeal of living in Downtown would certainly change, but that’s already happened for me. The “gee, wow, you wouldn’t believe” letters home to Ma and Pa are long departed. I’m beginning to doubt their authenticity in the first place. I’ve replaced this sentimentalism with a calculated Libra impression by which I try to weigh good against evil without tipping over or confusing the two.

Cue BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Now the name of the game is a less-than-enchanted search for all-too-elusive nutrition, metaphorical and literal.

To borrow from once and former Downtown bard Timothy Turner, it’s like someone turned off the sunshine. Once you move past the lust for fame and fortune, the true dimensions of Los Angeles reveal themselves. The palm trees fade and the models exit stage left. This city’s soul feels like an endless night sometimes. So many lost people wandering about in darkness, destined never to find their way. The acknowledgement of that Los Angeles will change you fundamentally.   

Here I am. My life is this meal. It is cheap, wrapped in plastic and pretty hearty, actually. I’ve got some spinach and zucchini and broccoli and sprouts. The avocado is meager, but it’s well sliced so that none of the fleshy brown rot remains.

It’s enough. It feels like a relief to say that. It’s enough.

It’s not the feast you imagined yourself digging into as a child, but fuck your childhood self (not literally…hate that I have to qualify that statement in this day and age especially with the prospects for lunatic owned time machines increasing every day between Moore’s Law and tax breaks for the wealthy).

Most of us don’t even fathom how unrealistic our expectations are. Americans grow up living in a world where reality is just an inconvenient obstacle to the things sitcoms and magazines and movie told us we could achieve in America if only we have the gumption to make the right friends and fuck over the right people.

As a nation that acts out on its every picayune desire, however immature, because we deserve it because grandpa shot a Nazi and Coca Cola and jazz, we’re widely out of step with the trajectory of the world and possibly doomed because of our ignorance to that fact.

Anson's Eatery's wall decorations remind customers of the bucolic scenes they left behind for a rousing city life that never quite panned out. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Anson's Eatery's wall decorations remind customers of the bucolic scenes they left behind for a rousing city life that never quite panned out. Photo by Dan Johnson.

My big worry is not that we’ll wake up one day with nothing but $7.95 diet burrito bowls for our enjoyment, but that we will spend every day of our lives afterwards trying to get back to a place where we can almost, just about, not quite grip the things we think we deserve.

I award Anson’s Eatery a “1” on the binary and encourage you to stop by and enjoy their pastoral landscape design flourishes while applying some culinary balm to the crucifixion marks on your ego.

THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

A Ruthless Ending for LA Weekly's Staff: Q&A with Gwynedd Stuart

The world of Los Angeles journalism and media was dealt a shocking blow when 9 out of LA Weekly's 13 editorial staff were abruptly fired. The timing came immediately following the purchase of the weekly print and web publication by an undisclosed company called Semanal Media, with just one identified manager, Brian Calle. We chatted with Gwynedd Stuart, Arts & Culture Editor at LA Weekly who was amongst those fired, to ask what happened, hear her and the team's feelings, and get a sense of what the future might be.

GDT: Did you know that this was coming in any way?

GS: We found out the sale was coming back in October. Ever since then, there’s been such a stunning, staggering lack of communication from the new company. Everything’s been dealt with in a pretty malicious way. So I didn’t have high hopes that much of the editorial staff would stick around.

GDT: What were you and staff able to learn about this new company?

GS: We learned nothing. They wouldn’t say who it was. We found out pretty immediately it was a new LLC called Semanal Media, but beyond that there was no information. Eventually we found out marijuana attorney David Welch was listed on the LLC. But we didn’t find out that Brian Calle was involved until an LA Times article came out where he was touting all his big plans to be so “creative and innovative”.

GDT: How did the firings actually go down?

GS: We had individual meetings. No one from Semanal was in the building yet. As soon as the sale went through, our previous owner VMG was responsible for dealing with all the firings. It seemed undignified that no one from the new company even knows who any of us are. From my understanding, all they requested from VMG was a list of employees and their job titles. I don’t think they cared or knew who they were laying off. Though I’m personally glad I didn’t have to meet those people because I don’t want to! It would not have been terribly pleasant for them to deliver the news. Instead it was a VMG employee and our editor Mara Shalhoup in the room, which was so big of Mara because she was canned too. After finding out she was fired, she had to sit there and be part of firing the rest of us one by one. And our publisher Matt Cooperstein, after being laid off, had to do the same on the business end.

I’m essentially third in command on editorial staff, so I felt vulnerable because I figured they may not want to have people in top editorial positions there anymore. But as I was standing in my office, cleaning stuff up, I’m seeing everyone come out one on one and give me the thumbs down, it was like… holy shit, it was a fresh shock each time. Each time someone would come out of the office and tell me they were canned, I thought, oh god, they really really went for it. The whole thing has been unpleasant from the get go. They really don’t know us and are not at all familiar with the work that we do.

GDT: It seems even ickier that a few select staff weren’t laid off...

GS: Well they kept our copy chief Lisa Horowitz, which makes a lot of sense. If they plan on publishing anything immediately, they need her. She knows how to put out the paper. They kept a few people in production, which could indicate they plan on continuing to put out a print publication. And they kept Hillel Aron, a news staff writer. I guess they figured they need a writer.

GDT: So you think there will be a paper next week?

GS: It’s confusing, I don’t know. This week’s paper is on the streets today, but not a lot for next week’s issue has been filed. We don’t know if they’re going to be moving forward with this skeleton staff or if they have a new staff starting immediately. It seems like Brian Calle has his big ideas and could have been secretly staffing up a paper this whole time. Or maybe they’ll have only a couple managing editors with lots of freelancers.

I really don’t know if the paper can survive this. I hope so, for the sake of all the great freelance writers who need an outlet to write for. LAist just closed, so there goes that. If there’s no LA Weekly…

GDT: Now that everyone is starting to know what happened, and our Facebook feeds are filled with “RIP LA Weekly” status updates, do you think there’s hope that LA Weekly could somehow recover from this?

GS: I think we’ll see as we learn more. I’m really hoping information starts trickling out. I mean, we have former coworkers in the office today. Once we know who these people really are, we can get a better idea of what they’re intentions are.

What we’re seeing happen everywhere is hostile takeovers of independent media, for nefarious reasons, to, frankly, destroy these things. I obviously hope that’s not the case. But, of course, I don’t think the paper is the same without the staff. We’re all represented in our editorial in such a positive way. Andy, our music editor, is so savvy and so hard-working. Our film critic (April Wolfe) was laid off, and she’s one of the top film critics in Los Angeles right now. She’s not replaceable. She’s up for Journalist of the Year at the LA Press Club Awards this Sunday. I’m also up for awards, Andy’s up for awards. We as staff are up for 20 awards total. I really don’t know if the paper can survive this. I hope so, for the sake of all the great freelance writers who need an outlet to write for. LAist just closed, so there goes that. If there’s no LA Weekly…

GDT: Have you been speaking with other fellow employees?

GS: Yeah, most of us stuck around yesterday after we all got the news. After everyone was ready to leave the building for the day, we went down to a bar down the street and commiserated. Everyone was shocked and upset, but I think, like me, people knew this was a possibility and had prepared in some way shape or form for the emotional difficulty of it. Then again, as much as that’s the case, though everyone felt vulnerable, I don’t know if anyone could have known the cuts would be this deep. The justification is just so… I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it, that they would just eviscerate the staff like this.

GDT: Though we’re speaking only the day after this happened, is there anything you’re hoping Angelenos out there will do to help support you and the rest of the team?

GS: I’m hoping everyone who worked at LA Weekly lands on their feet and finds ways to get their voices out, hopefully in other LA-based organizations. So continuing to support local media is hugely important - there’s nothing more important than that. And it’s easy, and fun! Just read! These are interesting stories that people are telling, written by people who are deeply dedicated to keeping Angelenos abreast of what’s going on in our city. It’s just so important.

A screenshot from LA Weekly today, capturing the questions staff and the rest of us are all asking about the newspaper's new buyers. (screenshot via LA Weekly)

A screenshot from LA Weekly today, capturing the questions staff and the rest of us are all asking about the newspaper's new buyers.
(screenshot via LA Weekly)

 

8.72

8.72: ABC Chinese Fast Food

We're surprised it took this long for Dan to review ABC Chinese Fast Food — it is perhaps the most 8.72-worthy establishment in all of Downtown. Photo by Dan Johnson.

We're surprised it took this long for Dan to review ABC Chinese Fast Food — it is perhaps the most 8.72-worthy establishment in all of Downtown. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

At ABC Chinese Fast Food, cut-rate philosophy is also a powerful advertising tool.

When you mention the bargain barrel noodle house at 7th St and Main St amongst polite company, you are guaranteed to receive a horrified reaction. Locals of all stripes accept the consensus that ABC is a dump and should not be handled with a ten-foot pole.

After all, the signage is crafted from cheap-o stencils, the stock ceiling fans wobble precariously and the seating is a motley array of repurposed articles that suggest salvage from thrift and clearance outlets.

We are meant to assume that the food is equally shitty because we are a society that does not know how to distinguish between the way something looks and the way it actually is. Enter influencer culture, which has established its headquarters at the opposite end of the block from ABC where Little Damage inspires people to wait in line to get a photographable cone of melt sugar.

Yet, an ABC lunch hour spent at a fold out table by the grease flecked sneeze guard revealed an extremely brisk business. Locals of all stripes packed themselves cheek to jowl in an assembly-line model of food service efficiency.

Have these people not heard the scoffs? Are they worried about the potential blow to their image if they’re seen entering the premises? Have they given up on their personal brand???

No. Because that’s not how the actual world works. Décor is nice. Right? But is it worth paying for? Not especially. Not unless you’re trying to get laid or you need to convince a loved one that you’re doing alright psychologically.

I enjoy sitting inside Don Francisco, but I can’t help but wonder what the cost of that nice interior design works out to on a per sandwich basis. These are not calculations anyone at ABC is worrying about. Because it’s clear that rent and utilities and possibly some disinfectant are the only overhead.

That’s the draw. Plain and simple. Combo A gets you fried rice or chow mein with one dish. Combo B gives you the same prerogative with two items instead of one. It’s three bucks for another item and two bucks for a heaping side of fried rice.

Cheap prices and speedy service means a crowded restaurant. At ABC Chinese Fast Food, the food doesn't get a chance to sit around for very long. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Cheap prices and speedy service means a crowded restaurant. At ABC Chinese Fast Food, the food doesn't get a chance to sit around for very long. Photo by Dan Johnson.

With this savings should come reasonable questions about the basic ingredients. I don’t feel as if this price point accommodates the best in organic or even fresh meats and vegetables. Quite the contrary. I feel as if perhaps the owners might be inclined to stretch a buck here and there and make something last or acquire an item that may be past its prime.

With that in mind, I played it safe with an enormous five dollar helping of wonton soup and aforementioned side of fried rice. I’ve been burned by orange chicken before. Badly. Moreover, I felt nervous about the orange hue of the chow mein. In a week devoted to gluttony, why fuck up my play with a quick taste of medium rare poultry mixed with radioactive noodles?

The result was strongly in the positive. First, I had to wait five minutes for my wonton soup, which is an eternity at ABC Chinese Fast Food. The name does not lie—customers get processed within a minute. It’s a model of streamline possibilities that also ensures a deceptively large volume of customers trudge through in any given day.

(This, incidentally, is a strong refute to my earlier qualms about old food. Items do not seem to sit beneath the heat lamps for long enough to go bad.)

Second, the carrot, broccoli and onion broth was populated by fresh vegetables. They had nice coloration and a strong crispness. The wontons themselves were abundant and not chewy-weird.

The wonton soup at ABC Chinese Fast Food is chock full of fresh vegetables and not-chewy-weird wontons. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The wonton soup at ABC Chinese Fast Food is chock full of fresh vegetables and not-chewy-weird wontons. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Third, the only issue I experienced in the hours afterwards was the customary sodium dehydration. Foodies will knowingly look down their brow at me and ask “what was I expecting from Chinese food?” Really, that’s cheap food in general. Salt and sugar are the actual bottom rung of the food pyramid in this country and, if we’re being honest, the true gateway drugs at the root of our nation’s substance abuse problems.

The more I think of it, the more I suspect all of the ABC detractors are actually long-time customers who don’t want to out a decent restaurant with limited seating. It’s an effective trick for ensuring that a low-rate institution can continue doing business without getting sideswiped by trendiness.

We should try it on a large scale. When someone asks you if you like living in Downtown Los Angeles, tell them it’s a shit pit where twelve-foot tall crack heads walk around collecting the skulls of retail managers and armored cars circle the blocks at night looking to abduct dogs whose owners don’t pick up their shit.

That will keep the hordes at bay for a bit.

I award ABC Chinese Fast Food a “1” on the binary and thank brewmaster Peter Mumford for being a steadfast proponent of his kung pao secret spot.

THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

Why We Rent Strike: Boyle Heights Mariachis' Fight to Stay Housed

On Friday, November 17 at The Smell, a lineup of great bands played a benefit show to raise money for the legal fees of the tenants of 1815 E 2nd St in Boyle Heights tenants who are at serious risk of eviction and have been on a rent strike for several months. For some context for the show and the struggle, here’s an edited transcript of a conversation that aired on IndyMedia on KPFK (90.7FM) between host Chris Burnett (CB), Fernando, a member of the LA Tenants Union and Unión de Vecinos, and Francisco, a tenant at 1815 E 2nd St who is participating in the rent strike.

Donate to help the Mariachis and their fellow tenants pay legal fees.

Mariachis and tenants protest unjust rent increases in their Boyle Heights neighborhood. (Photo via Timo Saarelma)

Mariachis and tenants protest unjust rent increases in their Boyle Heights neighborhood. (Photo via Timo Saarelma)

CB: Fernando, maybe you can explain to our listeners what's happening and some background here:

Fernando: 
I’m part of the LA Tenants Union, the East LA Chapter and also Unión de Vecinos. We’re actively fighting against gentrification and displacement in Boyle Heights and all over East LA. We linked up with other groups, other activists in the area and we’ve been actively fighting and organizing against unjust rent increases that are happening, against the displacements... 

...We’re fighting to try to keep people in the community. We’ve had some victories in the past, where we have maintained buildings under rent control where landlords had tried to evict unjustly tenants that were under control, which is illegal. We’ve also helped other tenants that are not under rent control, buildings that have faced major increases, unjust increases, helped to come up with a plan to unite all the tenants in their building, to join the LA Tenants Union, to launch a campaign against their landlord, and they have won...

...Right now we have the Mariachi building, 1815 E 2nd St, another example of a building that’s not under rent control, and basically you have this corporate landlord buying it and literally raising the rent unjustly over $800. This is happening all over LA, from Crenshaw to South Central to Boyle Heights to East LA to Inglewood, all over... This is a housing crisis in LA and no politicians are actually about gentrification or ever trying to help the tenants that are facing illegal evictions like the Mariachis, so that’s why we really have to depend on the community and I think the Mariachis and Francisco, right here, and his building are setting the example for that.

CB: Francisco, why don’t you explain what happened with your building and with this new landlord BJ Turner.

Francisco: In my building where I’ve been living for 12 years– and there’s a lot of other people living there for 25 years, 27 years, 21 years– most other people are Mariachis, because it happens that my building is a block away from Mariachi Plaza, where are the Mariachi bands play and gather so they can work as Mariachis. This year, BJ Turner and Steve Goodman bought my building...and we got a letter saying “New landlord” and that we’re gonna get a rent increase of 80%, which is up to $800 more than what we’re paying right now. Unreasonable right? Who can pay $800? We couldn’t do anything about it. We didn’t know our rights, what to do...

...So the next thing that we did was get together with the LA Tenants [Union] and Unión de Vecinos to do something about it. So we’re doing some protesting, trying to negotiate with BJ Turner and Steve Goodman, and no success. Nothing. We’ve been doing protesting all over LA. We’ve been in Beverly Hills in Boyle Heights, in Hollywood, the rent strike…There is a group of people doing the rent strike and it’s been for 4 months already, and we’ve been doing this [protesting] for 8 months already.

CB: My understanding is that was that there was going to be a protest near BJ Turner’s house a few weeks ago, it was cancelled [because Turner said] that they were ready to negotiate and meet, but [after] they met, apparently we went immediately to court and filed papers, is that correct?

Francisco: That’s correct... Finally, after months of protesting...he gave us a letter...[with] unbelievable requests. One of the things that he wanted was to meet one-on-one. We’re a union and we want to meet him as a union, as union members. But he decided not to do that meeting. Instead of postponing, or agreeing with what we want for him, he sent us to trial basically. And in this past week… – after having posters outside of our homes, protesting again, being part of the newspaper, on TV– he wants to negotiate again. Then last week, or two weeks ago, he just walked away from us. He didn’t negotiate...

...I just want to tell you one thing about not having rent control. This is for the people who live in non rent control buildings. This is a wake up call. We cannot just stand there and be quiet about it. We have to speak out, we have to find someone that can help us, and that’s why we’re doing all these [actions]. This is for a wakeup call for a lot of people. We’re doing a protest in BJ Turner’s community, which is going to be Tuesday November 28, at 5:30 at Manning and Pico Blvd...This is protesting for the landlord, so he can listen to us, listen that we are not alone. There’s a community that is behind us…

Fernando: Like Francisco said, this a wakeup call. If you’re a renter, a working person that rents in LA, you are in jeopardy of being displaced, your rent being raised dramatically, especially if you live in working class communities, so the best solution is to get active, get organized...

THOUGHTS N FEELINGS

Seeking Out Swifts in Downtown LA

A Q&A with Jeff Chapman, Senior Manager of Interpretation and Training at the Natural History Museum of LA County

Every early autumn, and again in the spring, the late afternoon skies in Downtown LA become dotted with Vaux's swifts - a species of small, fast-flying black birds who make temporary residence in Downtown along their migratory path. Though this year, we didn't notice the same concentration of them as in other years. To learn more about the birds and what's changing their habits, we spoke with Jeff Chapman from the Natural History Museum (NHM).

GDT: Tell us about Vaux’s swifts. Why is it that they migrate through Downtown LA?

JC: Vaux’s swifts are really cool birds - they’ve been described as cigars with wings. Like a lot of birds, they migrate from the south where they winter to the north where they breed their young. In the spring months they travel from Central America and Southern Mexico up through Mexico and along the Pacific Coast heading towards Canada, and we just happen to be a great stop along that route both coming and going because of food resources and other things the birds need to survive. They eat primarily flying insects, which there are tons of in the sky, that they feed on all day long. They fly all day long, they never perch and never land, until at night when they form these amazing roosts we see in Downtown LA, which they do in other places too like Downtown San Diego or along the San Francisco Bay, and up through the whole Pacific Flyway.

GDT: Do they specifically seek out urban environments like Downtown LA?

JC: It’s kind of a coincidence that we have the habitat requirements they need. Not only do we have an abundance of insects, but they also require these cavernous cavities to roost at night. Because we’ve deforested and our habitat has changed over the years, they’ve found old brick chimneys to be analogous to roost in say a burned-out redwood tree. Historically they likely used sycamore trees or cottonwood trees that would have been found along the LA River.

GDT: How did you come to learn about and track these Vaux’s swifts?

JC: I formerly worked for the Audubon Society in Los Angeles. I was contacted in 2010 by someone who was organizing people along the entire West Coast of the US looking for these birds. He was very interested where the birds were seen in Los Angeles. I also connected with an artist named Mark who lives down near Santa Fe and the 10. The birds used to roost in the Nabisco Building down (in the Arts District) and he used to watch them there back in 2006. Around that time, that building was renovated and the chimney disappeared, so Mark was also on a parallel mission to find where they had gone. He located the roosting site at 5th/Broadway at the Chester Williams Building in 2010.

GDT: What chimneys are the swifts currently living in?

JC: The only site we know of at this point is the Spring Arts Tower, located behind the building off the alleyway on 5th St. I’ve watched the swifts from Spring St Park, that’s a good vantage point to see them roosting. 

GDT: There are of course a lot of changes happening to the Downtown environment - a lot of construction, changes of use. Is this impacting the swifts?

JC: I’ve been documenting this process with my colleague at the Natural History Museum, Kimball Garrett, who has been watching swift's here since the 90s. He would track them at a building at 9th and Hill. That building chose to put up barriers to keep the birds out of the building. Then the Nabisco Building changed uses and the swifts were unable to roost there. In 2010 is when we located the roosting site of the Chester Williams Building. At the time, it appeared to be vacant. But slowly we started noticing more activity and it was of course converted into a residential building, so then the owners put a barricade over that chimney. And, frankly, the Spring Arts Tower has erected a barrier to exclude the birds from entering as well. I’ve met with folks from these buildings, and it’s tough because when you have 20,000 birds in a chimney, hanging out on the walls, they’re pooping, doing other things, and that can be really not a pleasant thing for people who are living and working in a building near these chimneys.

GDT: But even with the current barricade on the chimney, birds are still getting in?

JC: To some extent, yes. I noticed some this season but nothing like the amount we used to see historically. So they may have spread out a bit and are using new locations we haven’t determined yet.

A brick chimney in the Historic Core was for several years a temporary home for Vaux's swifts. (image via LA Weekly)

A brick chimney in the Historic Core was for several years a temporary home for Vaux's swifts.
(image via LA Weekly)

8.72: Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken

Fortunately, you don't have to go to the South for decent fried chicken and biscuits any more. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Fortunately, you don't have to go to the South for decent fried chicken and biscuits any more. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I can’t rightfully call myself the biggest fan of chicken and biscuits that chicken and biscuits ever had.
That title is reserved for someone already laid low by the potent magnetism of oven-baked flour meal and oil-crisped chicken breasts. Given my relatively inadequate body mass, the throne of superlative chicken and biscuit fandom is beyond me. Still, I count myself among the multitude of Southern expats who treat chicken and biscuits as a sort of demi-religion.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Virginia. Not just any Virginia, but northern Virginia. With their public schools and their economy and their “highways,” northern Virginians often earn the ire of the more-geographically envatted southerners.

They are fond of saying that Virginia is not a part of the South. To be fair, our embrace of quality public education, tech economies, science and an acceptance that we are indeed in the 21st century does lend credence to the notion that we are divorced from our cheap symbol fetishizing, ten commandment adoring, overtly racist, ephebophilia defending colleagues down in the former Cotton Kingdom.

In this day and age, declaring oneself as Southern is akin to treading a tightrope by which you retain your mannered individuality without succumbing to the well-deserved stereotypes of a region intent on falling over itself to reembrace backward nostalgia as a redemptive pursuit.  

There is no safer identifier for the reluctant Southerner than chicken and biscuits. It is a universally beloved instrument of southern culture. It is a simple pleasure that doubles as a litmus test for culinary quality.

This should come as a shock to no one, but chicken and biscuits are incredibly easy to screw up.

It’s often a product of laziness. Day old biscuits or biscuits left too long in the oven have that nigh-on-lethal dryness that works only if you are deeply malnourished and in a survival situation. The fried chicken itself has to skirt dual hazards: undercooked salmonella threats and stomach afflicting grease.

There is a happy middle ground that shouldn’t be too hard to find. And yet, the all-too-often result of a chicken and biscuits meal is either some pink-on-the-inside, shit-for-days fraud or a Popeyes throat-closer mess of desiccated dough.

Don't worry, you won't find an arid, throat-closing biscuit à la Popeyes here. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Don't worry, you won't find an arid, throat-closing biscuit à la Popeyes here. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Also important is price point. Chicken and biscuits should not be expensive. Despite aforementioned experience and supply costs, a slab of fried meat on a fresh-made biscuit should not be cost-prohibitive.

Praise be to on high, Astro Doughnuts have proven themselves capable of satisfying all demands placed on chicken and biscuits. For $6.02, you too can get a breakfast sandwich hewn from juicy meat, crunch-rich breading and a cheddar biscuit that ordinarily retails for $2.75 on its own.

Not since Semi Sweet entered the abyss has there been a readily available Downtown biscuit of this caliber. Still more exciting is the $7 two-piece dark meat option and the $8 white piece two-fer that includes a breast and a wing.

Best of all, I didn’t have to go to the South to get it. No offense to people who choose to make their lives there, but the South, like most places, is at its finest in the imagination. The entire crux of Southern literature is coming to terms with the crushing weight of history in a punishing physical landscape overwritten by the psychic topography of a people forever cursed to reconcile myth with a wildly divergent reality. Faulkner wasn’t wrong.

Not to say we here in the West don’t have a similar problem. Blessedly, our region is imbued with a sense that there is an innovative way forward from the impasse of tradition. The trick for Californians dead-set on chucking the past into the dustbin of history is knowing a good thing when we see it and keeping that baby from going out with the bathwater.

I salute Astro Doughnuts for doing the good gospel work of preserving quality chicken and biscuits in a form that is still relatively affordable. They have earned a “1” on the binary and a special 8.72 merit badge for having an abundance of hot sauce.

8.72: Asian Fast Food & Grocery

Don't expect a freelancer-designed, Grand Central-esque neon billboard to beckon you towards Asian Fast Food & Grocery. You'll have to read the fine print – or better yet – go inside to see what it's about. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Don't expect a freelancer-designed, Grand Central-esque neon billboard to beckon you towards Asian Fast Food & Grocery. You'll have to read the fine print – or better yet – go inside to see what it's about. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Asian Fast Food & Grocery is not outwardly impressive. It employs a bare minimum of signage. Had a reader not recommended it, I would have never known the hospital adjacent point-point joint existed. The condolences oriented florist next door is easier to find.

Despite having a less-than-obvious profile, it is a substantial and busy node of pan-Pacific cuisine served up in keeping with the finest traditions of the Filipino people who have been an essential if understated aspect of the Angeleno experience.

First, I don’t mean to trigger the herd of ostriches currently known as “the American electorate,” but our national prestige has almost nothing to do with our culture, morals or freedom. It has everything to do with advantageous geographical positioning astride two major oceans and the particular fortune of having established ourselves on aforementioned plot of land with equal parts cunning and propensity for violence against categorical others.

Anyone with a difference of opinion is welcome to howl their thoughts into the bajillion grains of sand surrounding their earth-implanted head or wake the fuck up.

The history of California (and really the United States in general) is inexorably linked with the Philippines. Here in Los Angeles, we are surrounded by quiet reminders of the link between the shared histories of America and the Philippines.

Much of early European activity in Alta California has a strong relationship with Spanish maritime traditions in the Age of Discovery. They were looking for wealth (and souls) and they had an abundance of nautical knowledge with which to project their national ambitions westward from the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

Thanks to oceanic currents, the annual Manila Galleon and its rich haul of gold wound up hitting the West Coast of North America somewhere north of Point Conception, which encouraged Spanish development along the littoral. This in turn encouraged English privateering a la Sir Francis Drake. It begins a precedent of double-edged wealth extraction that has come to define the relationship between the two land masses.

The American people, who are historically enamored with their own supposed value in God’s eyes and thus predisposed to assuming that the world is there plaything to extract value from at whatever cost, eventually established themselves in California and industrialized. Eyes were soon set on the Spanish holding in the Philippine Sea.

In the late days of the 19th century, an ambitious Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Roosevelt instructed the sea service to draw up plans to capture Manila Bay should things come to blows with the Spanish as they did in Cuba in 1898. On May 1 of that year, Dewey’s ships creamed the living fuck out of the Spanish defenders there and America’s military officially purchased its first overseas colony (shhh! We say client state these days!).

Greater Los Angeles is home to over 600,000 Filipino Americans. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Greater Los Angeles is home to over 600,000 Filipino Americans. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Almost two years to the day after the capture of Manila, then President Roosevelt traveled to Los Angeles where he mounted a stage at the corner of 6th St and Olive St and addressed 50,000 people on two subjects: western conservation and the importance of developing a Pacific fleet with which to establish ourselves.

Blah blah blah…so what? Well, because we love extracting natural resources and have the financial wherewithal to build business mechanisms with which to convert those resources into finished goods, the Americans on the West Coast were well positioned to invest heavily in the Philippines. Once invested, we were loath to let what we viewed as a financial fiefdom go to seed.

Our city bears the stretch marks where that monetary commitment sagged into a military burden. Pershing Square bears the name of the general who made his fame fighting the Moro Insurrection. One of the few statues in our esteemed park honors the Californians who fought in the Philippines.

More importantly, Los Angeles the metropolis owes its identity as a budding mega-city to a military industrial complex that was developed here to fight off the Japanese Empire that deigned to separate the resource-rich Philippines from the American interests that benefited from it.

Libraries have been filled with accounts of those campaigns and figures like Douglas MacArthur whose experiences in Southeast Asia established strategic precedents that caused America to commit to war in Vietnam decades later. Thanks to that conflict, countless American service members reacquainted themselves with the Philippines through lurid stories of the shit that went down at bars near Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base.

That’s the tragedy of America’s understanding of the Philippines. It’s all too frequently seen in relation to the maintenance of American influence across the ocean. When, in fact, the American narrative is undergirded with the story of Filipino people who today represent over 1% of the national population. They are a mainstay of American life and an important touchstone of cultural influence in a California that increasingly sees itself as a Pacific entity more than a continental force.

Often burdened with a stereotype of anonymity and over-accommodation, Filipino Americans remain somewhat invisible to a broadband of insensitive Americans who register Asian identity on a binary. Though our city is stocked with important Filipino-owned institutions that stretch far beyond Temple St, it is not always readily apparent how bedrock the Filipino people are to Los Angeles life and culture.

They are mainstays. Undeniable participants and partners in the experiment we call civics. Were I a reddit-binging bigot, I might say they “infiltrated American society.” The fact is that Filipino-Americans have earned their strong presence in our nation’s life. They are historically endowed with a marvelous versatility.

The Philippines themselves are located an important crossroads between the Western Hemisphere, Mainland East Asia and Oceania. These islands have been a venue for cultural cross pollination. The Tagalog language is stocked with “loan-words” that attest to linguistic borrowing and adaptability, but also a stalwart commitment to the foundations of Filipino culture. So too is cuisine an indication of an interplay between essence and influence.

At the corner of 6th Stand Lucas Ave, Asian Fast Food & Grocery is a textbook example. The squat turo-turo joint gives no outward indication that is of Filipino derivation. This is perhaps a survival mechanism to help it blend in with the latino oriented tax business and liquor store across 6th St and the Pacific Dining Car across Lucas Ave.

The chop suey is indicative of the "mélange" at Asian Fast Food & Grocery: the chop suey tastes more like the winding road of history than chop suey, and it's delicious. Photo by Dan Johnson.

The chop suey is indicative of the "mélange" at Asian Fast Food & Grocery: the chop suey tastes more like the winding road of history than chop suey, and it's delicious. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Here’s how you know. The menu offers up both silog items and merienda. That’s what we call a mélange folks, one that offers culinary homage to a tradition slung between Filipino tastes, Iberian influence and a knack for Pan-Asian adaptation. This goes-aways in explaining why my single item combo of garlic rice and chop suey did not quite taste like chop suey, but was delicious nonetheless.

That’s $5.75 of history for you. One that was exceptionally filling. One that tasted like a true blue collar meal and not some steak and eggs, Bruce Springsteen-adoring, United Auto Workers ’83 Detroit bull shit, but some actual carb-stocked power bomb.

I award Asian Fast Food & Grocery a coveted “1” on the binary and to the community of Filipino-Americans that have made Los Angeles, California, the West and America undeniably better for their contributions, I doff my cap.