June 13, 2013
As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s dads this weekend, how’s this for a heroic (not to mention exhausting) feat of fatherhood? For three consecutive months in mid-2005, Los Angeles County social workers delivered three tiny foster children to a couple who’d once tucked away any hope of being parents.
The oldest of the children was 18 months. The middle one was 4 months. And the youngest had been in the world for just 3 days.
“We made it through that glorious summer, a scorcher without air conditioning,” says John Ireland, as he recalls the diapers and feedings and joys of it all. “It was such a tremendous, intensive parenting experience”—one made even more complicated by the demographics of the household. For there were two men of the house, “Dad” and “Daddy.” John is married to Duncan Ireland, his partner of 20 years.
Like many gay men, John, 42, says he’d come to believe the subtle and overt messages in society that parenthood was out of reach for people like him. His own parents, he says, “let go” of their hopes of having grandchildren through him after he “came out.”
But all that changed, John says, after he and Duncan talked to social workers from L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services and the Southern California Foster Family & Adoption Agency during an informational fair at Plummer Park in West Hollywood.
“We were not only welcomed, we were actively recruited,” John says, noting that he and Duncan, 40, promptly underwent nine training sessions for certification as foster parents. That training included an emphasis on family transparency. “What they need is honesty. You don’t avoid any topics with a foster child,” says John, who was wed to Duncan in 2008, before California voters banned same-sex marriage through Proposition 8, which is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In all, the couple provided foster care to four children, eventually adopting a sister and brother, now 8 and 5, respectively. “We would have adopted them all, if we could have,” says John, a consultant and fundraiser for non-profit groups who served as the stay-at-home dad while Duncan continued his law practice. Today, John helps lead an organization called Raise A Child, which works with the county and others to spread the word about opportunities for gays and lesbians to become foster and adoptive parents.
County child welfare officials know that some people may not approve of the government actively seeking gay and lesbian parents. But those officials say the county needs every willing and qualified adult possible to provide a safe and caring environment for the more than 16,000 foster youth who must be removed from dangerous homes.
“We need to recruit everyone who can help us”—including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples and individuals—says DCFS supervising children’s social worker Bryan Miller. “The LGBT community has been an underutilized resource for many years. We’re just catching up.” Miller says a UCLA study last year concluded that foster children do equally well when placed with gay, lesbian or heterosexual parents.
As for the critics, Miller offers this challenge: “If you’re going to complain, I want to see you at our next foster/adoption orientation.”
In recent years, the county’s foster care system has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for sometimes failing to protect the welfare of children living in group or individual homes. Just this week, the Board of Supervisors voted to end a decades-long relationship with Teens Happy Homes amid allegations of financial improprieties and child abuse detailed in the Los Angeles Times. But what rarely rises to the surface are the many profound and touching stories of success. As John explains: “These victories are small and only celebrated by those of us observing them happen.”
The experiences of John and Duncan, both as foster and adoptive parents, deserve a wider celebration.
As foster parents, John says, you’re trained to brace for the reality that the children you’ve grown to love may be reunified with relatives. That’s what happened with two of those first three youngsters to enter the couple’s life in rapid succession—Marisol and her infant brother, Isaías. Five months after coming to the Ireland home, the children were adopted by an aunt living near Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. “We thought we’d never see them again,” John recalls.
When he and Duncan arrived at the aunt’s apartment, siblings in tow, she asked whether they had a keepsake photograph of the children and their foster parents. In fact, John had stashed a framed picture in their suitcase. He dug it out and handed it to her. To the men’s astonishment, she removed an image of the Virgin Mary from a wall and replaced it with the new photo.
“You are part of their lives and we want you to be part of our family,” she told them, a vow to which she’s stayed true during the past eight years by inviting the couple to birthday parties and other special occasions. “That was the best thing for those children,” John says in hindsight. “It worked exactly as the foster system was meant to be.”
As for baby No. 3, Emma, the couple adopted her in late 2005, six months after she first came to their home. And she remained an only child for nearly seven years, until John got a mid-morning call while driving along Laurel Canyon Boulevard. “Pull over and turn off the car,” an excited social worker advised. Emma’s 4-year-old brother, she reported, had entered the foster care system. Little Giovanni, who joined the family as a foster child in July, 2012, was adopted last month.
“He was so excited about being adopted,” John says, “that for two weeks when he woke up in the morning he’d ask: “Am I still a foster kid?” I’d tell him, ‘Nope, you’re no longer a foster kid.”
John is under no illusions that his family choices will be widely embraced, especially by those outside “the bubble” of Los Angeles. Not only are there two dads, but they’re white with African American children. “We don’t walk into a restaurant undercover,” he joked.
Asked what unique challenges gay couples confront, John says: “The biggest challenge is helping our kids navigate a society that is very focused on us. The spotlight is trained on our families. It’s still very controversial in our culture for gays and lesbians to parent.”
“The hardest part,” he continues,”is when we go into public. The kids are old enough to see the looks or be posed the questions in school. ‘Why do you have two dads?’ We have to prepare them to answer those questions.”
Two weeks ago, he says, he and his husband took the youngsters to a gay pride festival in the Antelope Valley. Along the road to the fairgrounds were protest signs warning, “Homo sin. Turn back.”
“How do you prepare a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old for that? We tell them that people have the right to express themselves. Some people do not agree with our family. Some people do not like families with only one parent.…The truth is that every kid has something they can be picked on about. Kids need to be taught resilience.”
This Sunday, none of those questions or pressures will be in the air when John, Duncan and their two high-energy, toothy-grinned kids who love handball and running attend “The World’s Largest Gay Father’s Day Celebration,” which includes brunch and a children’s concert.
The event is sponsored by, among others, John’s Raise A Child group, the City of West Hollywood and the Pop Luck Club, an organization of gay dads, prospective dads and their families. John is the current president, with duties that include storing the club’s banners in his garage and making sure there’s plenty of Capri Sun juice boxes for monthly potlucks.
Says John: “I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world…besides my husband.”
June 6, 2013
Deborah Murphy’s first experience with CicLAvia was no smooth ride. She was walking her Jack Russell terrier down the sidewalk in East Hollywood when she decided to make a move to the car-free streets.
“Get out of the road with your dog, lady—this is for cyclists, stay off the street,” she remembers someone yelling.
When the next CicLAvia brought more shout-downs, the long-time pedestrian advocate and founder of Los Angeles Walks decided to form WalkLAvia, a group aimed at staking pedestrians’ claim to a share of the roads during the events.
“This is an open streets event and people should be out there walking or on bikes or doing cartwheels or whatever they want to do,” Murphy said.
No one would love to see that more than CicLAvia’s organizers, who’ve been pushing for that kind of inclusivity from the beginning. To make that point abundantly clear, they’re billing the upcoming
June 23 event along Wilshire Boulevard’s “Miracle Mile” as “the most walkable CicLAvia ever!”
“This all feeds into the ultimate purpose of CicLAvia—to connect people with their community in a way that is not possible in a car,” said CicLAvia spokesman Robert Gard. “On bike and, more specifically, on foot, you are really able to interact with your fellow Angelenos.”
But turning that long-held aspiration into a reality has proven increasingly elusive as the event’s popularity has grown. The last event, which opened a 15-mile stretch of streets from downtown to Venice Beach, drew a crowd of about 180,000 people, according to Gard. The overwhelming majority of them were on bikes. “There are so many bicyclists now, walking appears to not be part of it,” Gard said.
Unlike the last route, however, the new one along Wilshire Boulevard will be just 6 miles, with pedestrian-only zones at each end. Although architecture tours and other walker-friendly activities are planned, organizers think the location itself may lure more walkers. The Wilshire route will offer more street life and more sights—from MacArthur Park to Koreatown to “Miracle Mile,” with its museums and vibrant arts scene.
Of course, any event with “cycle” in its name is bound to attract a bike-heavy crowd. But part of the challenge is simple growing pains, Gard said. CicLAvia was inspired by ciclovías in Bogotá, Colombia, which began in the mid-1970s. L.A.’s first event was held just three years ago, and local cyclists jumped at the chance to freely ride streets, where automobile traffic normally makes biking nerve-wracking, even perilous.
Once people realize CicLAvia events are here to stay, bike riders won’t jump at the chance to ride every one of them for fear they’re missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “In talking with our peers in Central and South America, once they were more established, people understood it better,” Gard said. In time, serious bicyclists came to accept that ciclovías were for riders of all ability levels—and for pedestrians, too.
Alissa Walker, a member of Los Angeles Walks’ steering committee, said attitudes have already started to change.
“It has gotten a lot better,” Walker said. “At first, people didn’t understand that it wasn’t a race or something. It was possibly dangerous.”
CicLAvia organizers, in hoping to encourage that evolution, highlighted the problem using a video of a disabled man describing how he was verbally abused and directed off the streets because he was on a special, motorized device to accommodate his disability.
The City of Los Angeles’ first-ever pedestrian coordinator, Margot Ocañas, has participated in all six CicLAvias—sometimes on foot, sometimes on bike. She believes that continued, heavy interest from cyclists will mean that the roads “below the curb” will probably remain dominated by bikes, while pedestrians will take the sidewalks. For safety’s sake, she said, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Creating more pedestrian-only areas could help bring out more walkers, Ocañas said. She also envisions using the main route as a “launch pad for walking activities that tentacle off into other areas.”
No matter how CicLAvia evolves, everyone agrees that it should keep on rolling, stepping and hula-hooping.
“The fact that the bikes and pedestrians are having that conversation,” Ocañas said, “I’ll take it any day over bikers or pedestrians having that conversation with a car.”
June 5, 2013
A hotly contested proposal to ban wood burning in Southern California’s iconic beach fire rings appears to be going up in smoke.
An official with the South Coast Air Quality Management District said in an interview on Wednesday that “an alternative proposal” had been developed that would continue to allow bonfires on the region’s beaches so long as certain measures were undertaken by June, 2014, to minimize the known harmful effects of burning wood.
“From our standpoint, we have better and more information than we had two months ago,” said AQMD project manager Tracy Goss. “A one-size-fits-all doesn’t necessarily apply in this case.”
And that’s good news for the popular pits at Dockweiler State Beach, which, under the earlier proposal, would have fallen victim to a dispute flaring 50 miles south, where Newport Beach officials are determined to remove 60 fire rings. Some residents there have complained of respiratory problems and smoke-drenched homes. At Dockweiler, the neighbors include LAX, a sewage treatment plant and an oil refinery, and they’re not complaining.
Restricting fires at Dockweiler for health reasons “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Goss acknowledged, noting that the latest proposal would take a more nuanced beach-by-beach approach based on such things as topography, wind and proximity to homes. Goss declined to provide specifics until the plan’s public release, scheduled for Thursday. Already, the agency has two “public consultation meetings” set for next week on the new proposed amendments to Rule 444, which regulates “open burning.”
Of the national attention the AQMD’s earlier proposal attracted, Goss, a 25-year veteran of the agency, said: “When they make a political cartoon of your issue, that doesn’t happen very often.”
Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director of L.A. County’s Department of Beaches and Harbors, welcomed the news that Dockweiler’s fire pits will likely be spared. “We’re delighted,” she said. But she questioned why they were ever at risk. “On the scale of what’s bad for us,” she said, “fire rings at Dockweiler wouldn’t be the first thing I’d be talking about.”
She said the concrete rings have been there since at least the mid-1970s, when the county began running the beach at the foot of Imperial Highway. As much as 43 percent of Dockweiler’s annual parking revenues, or $570,000, comes from fees after 4 p.m., Silverstrom said—clear evidence of the popularity of the rings. “They provide a low cost recreational opportunity for a diverse population,” she said. “We see it as an access issue.”
So did the staff of the California Coastal Commission when, in February, it recommended denying Newport Beach a permit to remove fire pits that the mayor and city council contended were jeopardizing residents’ health. (Critics accused homeowners of simply trying to discourage undesirable outsiders from flocking to their affluent neighborhood.)
The commission staff stated that the removal of the rings would “deny the public access to this popular form of lower cost public recreation.” It also said the city had failed to demonstrate that the rings were “directly responsible” for health problems.
It was around this time that the AQMD entered the fray at the urging of board chairman William Burke, who also sat on the Coastal Commission—a job from which he’d resign as questions arose in Sacramento over a potential conflict between his positions on two agencies at odds with each other.
More specifically, Burke’s departure came after he said during an AQMD meeting in February that a nighttime aerial picture of the Newport fire rings reminded him of “carpet bombing” in Viet Nam, where he’d served in the armed forces. “This is Viet Nam revisited,” Burke said, but then quickly added: “Now it’s not really that bad because Viet Nam was horrible.”
As the AQMD continued to push for a regional ban, other cities pushed back, most notably Huntington Beach, which said its fire rings were a source of pride and commerce; they help “surf city” reap $1 million annually in parking revenues.
On Tuesday, the city’s community relations officer, Laurie Frymire, appeared before members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “Our fire rings have been enjoyed for more than 60 years by folks from all over,” Frymire said, as she thanked supervisors for passing a motion by Don Knabe, whose 4th District includes Dockweiler Beach. The motion called on the board to oppose any action by the AQMD to ban fire rings region-wide and to leave such decisions to local jurisdictions. The Orange County Board of Supervisors, among other local government bodies, had earlier passed similar measures.
Now, given the shift in position by the AQMD staff, it looks increasingly likely that, at least in L.A. County, fire pits will no longer be a burning issue.
May 30, 2013
Los Angeles was a hard-partying hick town when top-hatted civic leaders opened its first museum, toasting it with water from the then-day-old Los Angeles Aqueduct. The fairground where the new landmark stood had been a nest of saloons and gamblers. L.A. was so culturally young that, for its first acquisition, the museum touted a goldfinch nest from the San Gabriel River bottom.
But a century can make such a difference.
On June 9, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County will kick off its centennial with a day and night of hoopla in the rowdy ex-fairground that is now called Exposition Park. The festivities—with kid-friendly activities, food trucks, garden tours, live music, scientists and a nighttime concert by DEVO—will not only honor one of the nation’s largest and best-known natural history museums, but also will mark a milestone in the decade-long renovation and restoration.
The museum’s hallmark 65-foot fin whale will welcome guests from the top of a dramatic new glass entrance. Two Expo Line Metro stops will ferry visitors who prefer to arrive via L.A.’s burgeoning mass transit system.
A 3.5-acre Nature Garden will blossom outside a companion, state-of-the-art Nature Lab, where visitors can study wildlife, see it in action and then collaborate with science lovers region-wide in crowdsourced “citizen science” projects. Nearby, the museum’s acclaimed new Dinosaur Hall and award-winning Age of Mammals exhibits, both already opened, will be joined in July with the unveiling of the renovation’s final piece, “Becoming Los Angeles,” a permanent installation on the development of Southern California.
Meanwhile, visitors will be able to get a local history fix in the halls and rotunda of the 1913 building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and which has been restored and seismically strengthened.
“If you haven’t visited the Natural History Museum in a while, you should be prepared to find a vastly different institution,” says President and Director Jane Pisano. “This is a museum that has transformed itself.”
Pisano says the remodel arose from a change of philosophy at the museum.
“The old philosophy was very typical of natural history museums everywhere,” she says. “It was all about us—how we do research, how we take care of collections—and we changed that mission to focus on the visitor.”
The new aim, she says, is not to be “a book on a wall,” but to inspire wonder and a sense of discovery and responsibility in those who come to the museum. “We were doing a good job on wonder, but not so well on discovery and least well on inspiring a sense of responsibility for the natural world.”
Nor, she says, was the museum working as well as it could with Southern California’s natural landscape.
“There are very few cities that have the kind of climate we have,” she noted. So with the help of a new, county-funded garage that has consolidated parking, acres of paved land were transformed into wildlife habitat and gardens. Meanwhile, the building’s grand architecture was tweaked to create an easier flow between indoor and outdoor wonders.
Now visitors can take in the museum’s longstanding highlights—the dinosaur bones, the marine fossils—but also enjoy workshops led by master gardeners in the edible garden and unleash their kids in a “Get Dirty Zone.” The remodel also has set the stage for a long-term “citizen science” study of local biodiversity that museum experts expect to stretch throughout the Los Angeles Basin.
“This is a place where living things will come in and we can appreciate them in the wild,” says Karen Wise, the museum’s vice president of education and exhibits. “We don’t have to just have dead things on display.”
The new Natural History Museum isn’t the only cultural institution in Southern California to be reimagining the museum experience ways that are more authentic to L.A. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art under Director Michael Govan also has taken a more indoor-outdoor approach with installations such as Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” and Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” on its campus. In fact, on the same day as the Natural History Museum celebration, LACMA will unveil a proposed architectural remodel that would make the county’s 50-year-old art museum literally transparent to visitors.
“I love letting the light in,” says Pisano. “I think it changes everything about the museum. I love that it’s fun, and I love that it has become a destination where visitors of all ages can come and spend the day and still not see it all.”
And, she says, there’ll be more to love as the next century gets underway at the museum. Pisano says the renovation has upgraded about 60 percent of the public space on the campus, with plenty of projects on the horizon.
“We need to redo the auditorium,” she says. “There still are exhibit galleries that need to be re-presented. We need to redo our Gem and Mineral Hall. We’ve talked about a Hall of the Americas for a long time.
“There’s a lot to be done,” says the museum director, “but I’m so optimistic about the future of this place.”
May 14, 2013
“How’s Kobe doing?”
The question came from 97-year-old Stella March, a stalwart Lakers fan for decades. And it was directed at someone she thought would know—Kobe Bryant’s teammate, Metta World Peace.
“He tried to fight through it, but he couldn’t,” Metta said of Bryant and the Achilles tendon he tore on the eve of this year’s NBA playoffs. “He’s doing better now,” he assured March.
“I felt badly for him,” she said softly.
Then March turned the conversation toward Metta—and her observations had nothing to do with hoops. “What you’re doing for the kids, it’s very meaningful,” she told him. As they talked, they held hands.
From outward appearances, these two—the tiny white-haired woman with the walker and the towering player with the muscular arms—might seem like an odd pairing for a meeting of the Board of Supervisors. But as both would be quick to tell you, you can’t judge what’s inside from the outside. For they share a mission that transcends their cultural and generational divide; both are committed to destigmatizing mental health problems and treatment. And in that respect, both are very much on their game.
March and MWP, as the former Ron Artest likes to be called, were honored Tuesday by the board to kick-off “Mental Health Awareness Month.”
March is widely recognized as one of the nation’s preeminent advocates for families whose lives have been touched by mental illness, a crusade she began in the late 1970s after her son, a UCLA student, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Among other things, her efforts led to greater government and pharmaceutical research, ultimately helping to produce a new generation of medications. She also was the driving force behind building the National Alliance on Mental Illness and initiating its “StigmaBusters” program to combat inaccurate representations of mental illness in film, television, print and other media.
In those early years, she says, mental health treatment and research was so bad that many serious sufferers “were wandering around on the streets with nowhere to go. They were shunned and stigmatized as dirty street people.” With her organization’s help and support, she says, many of the severely afflicted “learned the basic skill of telling people how they recovered. Each one had a different story of recovery. It was fantastic.”
Metta World Peace understands the power of that message. Ever since he made headlines by thanking his therapist on network television after the Laker’s 7th-game championship victory in 2010, the once-troubled player has openly talked about his counseling for anger and family issues. In December of that year, he teamed up with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to produce a public service announcement aimed at encouraging young people to seek help. “Talk to somebody about it,” he says in the PSA. “I did. Take the first steps. Be a champion.”
Since then, he’s also made his pitch during high school assemblies here and across the country and has created a website called Limelight that promotes mental health treatment. A new public service announcement campaign between Metta World Peace and the county—called “Talk it Out”—was launched earlier this month and will continue throughout May.
Before their Tuesday appearance before the Board of Supervisors, March, a fan of MWP’s moves on and off the court, asked to meet him in a small conference room behind the board’s dais, where he was signing posters for the new campaign. Helped into the room by her daughter, Joella, and officials from the mental health department, March was greeted by the 6-foot-7 player with an embrace, as though she were the star. He then took a seat beside her so she wouldn’t have to strain looking up at him.
“Thank you for what you’ve done to help,” she told him. “We’ve got to keep advocating for people.”
She needn’t worry. As Metta World Peace told the audience in the board’s hearing room: “This is a lifetime work.”
May 9, 2013
“Men’s Shorts Now $49.50.” The sign at the J. Crew was clear. But when the knee-length summer pants were rung up last year on a Tuesday morning, the scanner read $64.50.
It was a costly mistake—for the merchant. The “shopper” was an inspector from the county’s “Buyer Beware” program, and the $15 error, along with a mistake in the store’s favor on a pair of T-shirts, added up to a misdemeanor. Now, more than $3,200 in fines and investigative costs later, Mother’s Day bargain hunters will find a different eye-catching sign in that J. Crew, in Glendale’s Americana at Brand shopping center.
“Notice of Overcharge Conviction,” it says.
Signed by the county’s Agricultural Commissioner/Director of Weights and Measures, the 8½-by-11-inch notices have quietly become a part of L.A.’s shopping landscape in the decade since the county first began mandating their display.
Today, the county has 16 full-time inspectors working on price verification, funded by some $2 million a year in fees, says Deputy Sealer of Weights and Measures Katherine Takata, who oversees the program. Inspectors have found overcharges everywhere from supermarkets and drug stores to the handbag department of the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus, where, in late 2011, scanners were caught charging $990 for a Prada handbag that was supposed to be on sale for $910.
Some inspectors visit retailers as anonymous shoppers or respond to consumer complaints; others show up unannounced and conduct annual spot checks.
Diplomacy also is part of the job for the inspectors, who, like traffic cops, never know what they’ll encounter.
“People cry,” Takata says. “People get angry. We’ve had people try to hug us if they pass the inspection. Someone fainted once when the inspector identified herself. Another time, an inspector asked a store manager in the Beverly Center for an ID and the man excused himself and came back a half-hour later, all sweaty—he’d run all the way back to his house to get it.”
The job does have its entertaining moments.
“We’ve had celebrity sightings,” she says. “We’ve been in store parking lots during shootings. One of our inspectors was at a Victoria’s Secret once, checking prices, and one of the clerks asked him if he wanted a changing room.” Two inspectors once foiled a robbery at a Rite-Aid by blocking the exits, she says, and several undercover inspectors have themselves been mistaken for shoplifters.
When the inspections pay off, however, they can yield serious victories for consumers. Early this year, for instance, the legwork of L.A. County inspectors helped win a multi-county, $875,370 ruling against Best Buy. As part of the settlement, the retailer has to give California customers a $3 discount if they discover any more erroneous charges.
“Most overcharges occur because of human error—things like expired price tags not being taken down or updated in the system,” Takata says. “Sometimes it’s just a regularly priced item sitting on their shelf, and you bring it to the cash register and it rings up incorrectly. Sometimes it’s clearance items that haven’t been marked properly in the system.”
Innocent as the errors may be, however—the store manager at the J. Crew cited a computer malfunction when a routine spot check turned up those overcharges—the state holds retailers responsible for the accuracy of their prices. State law forbids merchants to charge more than the lowest price advertised.
Overcharges of less than $1 are infractions, carrying fines of up to $100 per violation, but overcharges of more than $1 can be prosecuted as misdemeanors, with penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.
“It may seem like a small thing,” says Takata. “But for, say, a retiree on a fixed income, even a dollar is significant. And for big companies like Ralph’s or Best Buy, these fines are a drop in the bucket. These overcharges add up. When Macy’s overcharges by dollar for a tie, it isn’t just that one tie and that one dollar. It’s all the people who buy that tie at Macy’s.”
Last year, she says, the program collected nearly $271,000 in fines from misdemeanor prosecutions, nearly $67,000 for investigative costs and nearly $99,000 in civil administrative penalties. At the moment, she says, notices are fluttering from the doorways of about 80 retailers across the county.
Over the years, Takata adds, those signs have been a special source of consternation for some merchants, who complain that they deter business. Because they are specifically written into the county ordinance that created Buyer Beware, however, businesses must display them.
“We try to work with people, but there’s not a lot of wiggle room,” she says.
The county’s overcharge notices, required by law to hang within five feet of a retailer’s front door for 60 days after a conviction, were conceived in an effort to ensure accurate pricing after Supervisor Gloria Molina complained about overcharges at a Macy’s and a Kmart during the 2001 holiday shopping season. At the time, only one full-time inspector had been assigned to monitor pricing accuracy at the more than 10,000 merchants who do business here.
A subsequent investigation found overcharges at two-thirds of 108 retailers sampled around the county, and that spawned the Buyer Beware program, which requires stores to register price scanners and pay a fee that, in turn, underwrites the scanner inspection program. The blue-and-white overcharge notices—variously regarded as something between a restaurant grade and a scarlet letter—were added at the end of a yearlong grace period after the inspections were launched in 2002.
ACWM spokesman Ken Pellman compares the signs to speeding tickets. “The enforcement prevents larger problems and keeps things orderly,” he says. Like speeding tickets, he adds, they have also worked well as a deterrent. Last year, only about 17 percent of the 8,459 retailers inspected were caught overcharging.
Overcharging, he says, “is still unfortunately a common problem, but it’s less common than it used to be.”
April 23, 2013
With a promise of transforming Los Angeles tourism, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is coming to Universal Studios as part of the company’s $1.6 billion expansion of its theme park and backlot. But there’s another attraction coming, too—with a constituency as fanatical as any Hogwarts crowd.
In a deal pushed and brokered by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, NBCUniversal has agreed to put $13.5 million into an effort to revitalize the Los Angeles River and complete a miles-long stretch of the river bikeway. And while the price-tag may seem small compared to the giant numbers behind the Potter venture and backlot expansion, it promises to be just as transformative in the worlds of alternative transportation and river restoration.
“It’s huge,” said Eric Bruins, planning and policy director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. The development of the Los Angeles River and bikeway, he said, “creates a place where families can go and step away from the city while still being close to home.”
The recreational and commuting potential of the existing Los Angeles River Bikeway has been undermined by a nearly 6.5 mile gap between Griffith Park and Studio City. In negotiating a development agreement with NBCUniversal, Yaroslavsky pushed the company to focus its “community benefits” efforts on completing that vital stretch of the bikeway—despite the entertainment conglomerate’s earlier resistance to the idea.
“This project presented a singular opportunity to ultimately create a seamless bikeway from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley,” Yaroslavsky said Tuesday prior to the board’s unanimous endorsement of the company’s “evolution plan.” “A big gap in this dream was the segment adjacent to NBCUniversal. Both the county and NBCUniversal seized the opportunity to solve this problem. Thanks to all involved, we can now look forward to planning and constructing the next generation of bikeway for our region.”
NBCUniversal has agreed to provide Los Angeles County with funding to fully complete an initial leg of the bikeway between Griffith Park and Lankershim and Barham boulevards, near the Universal Studios backlot. The remaining amount of the $13.5 million would then be used for the planning, regulatory and construction needs for the remaining stretch to Whitsett Avenue in Studio City. The company also has agreed to build a nearly 1-acre trailhead park along the river.
Among the groups who’ve long pushed for the expanded bikeway was Friends of the Los Angeles River. Its founder and president, Lewis MacAdams, applauded NBCUniversal’s “unprecedented generosity.” The cooperation between Universal and the environmental community, he said, “has set a very high bar for the rest of the media companies that line the banks of the river’s ‘Studio Stretch’ in the years to come.”
The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp. also was instrumental in the public-private coalition that led to the unprecedented funding by the studio, which has been located along the concrete-sided waterway since Hollywood’s earliest days of filmmaking. The non-profit organization’s executive director, Omar Brownson, called the proposed bikeway extension the “cornerstone for the connectivity for all 51 miles of the L.A. River.”
But just as important, he said, the entertainment company’s involvement also sends a powerful message about “how we see and invest in our river. For a long time, it was looked at as a liability. Now people are looking at it as an asset.”
April 18, 2013
Danny Farahirad predicts Sunday’s CicLAvia will be “awesome.” The last time the cycling extravaganza took to the streets of Los Angeles, his family-owned Downtown L.A. Bicycles fixed more than 150 flat tires and rented about 40 bikes in a single day.
But Farahirad is in the central city, where the car-free event has been a rousing success for three years now. Less optimistic is Hyun Dong, who manages a t-shirt stand at the end of this weekend’s new route, on the Venice Boardwalk.
“Bicycles? Bad for business,” Dong sighs, mulling his customer-less shop from behind the cash register on a recent weekday. “Just like the events with the joggers. No one buys anything.”
As L.A.’s favorite car-free movable party ventures out of the city core on its first-ever push to the ocean from Downtown Los Angeles, a mixture of excitement and apprehension awaits on the city’s populous Westside. (Click here for a map.)
As many as 200,000 people are expected to participate in the event, which promises to be the biggest, longest CicLAvia so far; more than 15 miles of asphalt will close to motor vehicles from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to make way for a free-flowing crowd of cyclists, walkers, skaters, wheelchair riders, skateboarders and others.
Advance word of the event has been accompanied by high hopes that its street-fair atmosphere will continue to travel with it, but there also have been scattered concerns that it could deter sales and jam traffic in one of the densest areas of the city. Complicating the picture are lingering jitters from this week’s Boston Marathon bombing.
“There are nuts out there who are intent on hurting people,” worries Venice resident Linda Kadi, “and after what just happened, it’s scary to think about having a huge bunch of people here in one place.”
CicLAvia organizers say they expected Westside merchants and residents to need some reassurance, and that they have been doing outreach in the community for several months.
“It’s a new route,” says volunteer coordinator Martin Lopez-Iu of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. “We’ve never done this before, so some of the reactions have been kind of confused. When people in L.A. hear that you’re closing streets and taking away parking, it’s easy for them to think, ‘Oh, my God, you’re taking away business.’ But when people slow down, they’re actually more inclined to stop into their local coffee shop or restaurant.”
He notes that most communities are welcoming the excitement. For example, in Culver City, where the first phase of the new Expo Line ends, the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Association have co-sponsored one of several “hubs” where participants can gather.
But at the end of Venice Boulevard, where the route empties into a parking lot abutting the Venice Boardwalk, shopkeepers predict that CicLAvia will draw foot traffic away from their wares on the weekend, when they make most of their sales.
“That’s gonna be a loss of fund-age, absolutely,” predicted a clerk selling glass pipes next to a marijuana dispensary who would identify himself only by his first name, Gary.
“And business has been slow already,” chimed in a neighboring jewelry merchant. “Even spring break came and went and I didn’t even notice. It was our worst spring break in 25 years.”
Lopez-Iu notes that Venice Boulevard is a popular attraction in its own right, and says CicLAvia organizers have worked with businesses before to overcome such worries. In 2011, for instance, merchants in the downtown garment and piñata districts complained that CicLAvia street closures would disrupt business on their busiest weekend day.
“Those guys do a lot of business on Sunday, and it requires people to come in in cars, and the first time we did the event there, they had a lot to say about it,” says Lopez-Iu. “So the next time, we worked with them. Some of them built bike-shaped piñatas that we promoted on our website. And we listed all the businesses there, and the fun things to do there. And they got a ton of business, because 100,000 new people had just found out where they could get piñatas and wholesale fabric in L.A.”
Organizers say that street closures will be less onerous than they might seem. For example, although much of Venice Boulevard will be taken over by CicLAvia, it will only be closed to motor vehicles on one side of the divider, and cars and trucks will be able to cut across the route in more than 30 places.
“The south side of Venice, from Crenshaw Boulevard west, will still be open to eastbound traffic,” says Lopez-Iu. “This isn’t going to bisect the city like with the marathon.”
He also notes that security will be ramped up in the wake of Monday’s bombing, not only for CicLAvia, but also for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and other events that are expected to draw crowds over the weekend. In fact, he says, so many deputies and police officers are being deployed that he’s had to muster extra yellow-shirted CicLAvia volunteers to prevent crowds from feeling intimidated.
“I try to balance the police presence with volunteer presence, to put out a friendlier face,” he says.
Meanwhile, CicLAvia fans are eagerly anticipating Sunday’s big ride—even if the event hits close to home. (For FAQs, click here.)
“I will be riding the entire length of it and getting all my friends to come,” vows John Kurtz, walking his dog, Delilah, outside their Venice Beach apartment. “I wish they would do it every weekend. It lessens the impact of the car culture and opens the streets up to people, and lets people know that they don’t have to drive everywhere, that the things they need are right in their neighborhood, a short bike ride away.”
April 11, 2013
As art collections go, it’s impressive, from famed sculptor Jonathan Borofsky to activist/artist Judy Baca to renowned Eastside painter Frank Romero.
The catch? You have to be traveling to see it. Oh, and a lot of it is literally underground.
The sprawling exhibition of public art that Metro has built in L.A. County’s subway, bus and commuter rail stations will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. (Take a virtual tour in our gallery below.)
Launched in 1989 with a half-percent set-aside from rail construction costs, Metro’s award-winning collection of public transit art now encompasses work by some 120 artists in 100 stations, plus posters, photography, poetry and other temporary installations by another 180 artists. Last week, eight California artists were selected to create work for the second phase of the Expo Line, which will run to Santa Monica from the end of the first segment at Culver City.
“Art brings a unique vibrancy and vitality to L.A.’s Metro system,” says Maya Emsden, deputy executive officer for creative services at Metro, who is one of a handful of co-authors on a forthcoming American Public Transportation Association “best practices” paper on integrating art into public transit.
“Art was an integral part of the Metro rail planning process from the very start.”
Metro’s collection kicked off in 1990 with a now-highly-collectible poster by Romero to commemorate the opening of the first Metro rail line. That inaugural artwork, which depicts an old Red Car morphing into the Blue Line as classic cars, blimps and airplanes whiz around it, was followed the next year by “Unity,” a glowing, blue-and-white permanent installation of 82 fiber-optic light panels in the subway tunnel between the Metro Center and Pico Stations by Thomas Eatherton, an artist from Santa Monica.
That piece led in 1993 to a series of now-iconic permanent artworks: Borofsky’s “I Dreamed I Could Fly,” a collection of life-size fiberglass figures suspended from the ceiling of the Civic Center station; Terry Schoonhoven’s Union Station mural of “time-scapes” from Spanish galleons to Carole Lombard, sitting on a suitcase; Joyce Kozloff’s ceramic tile “film strip” murals in the 7th Street/Metro Center station; Stephen Antonakos’ hanging neon artworks at the station below Pershing Square.
Since then, the program has expanded with L.A.’s transit system, says Emsden; the new commissions for Phase 2 of the new Expo Line were selected from some 400 submittals and include such artists as Shizu Saldamando, Abel Alejandre, Susan Logoreci, Nzuji de Magalhaes, Constance Mallinson, Carmen Argote, Judithe Hernandez and Walter Hood.
Though the half-percent of construction costs that L.A. reserves is substantially smaller than transit art set-asides in Boston, New York, Portland, and most other cities with such programs, Metro has been able to stretch its allotment by integrating the artworks as much as possible into the station construction.
“One of the ways we’re able to maximize the limited budget is through early involvement in the project,” says Emsden. “This also ensures important art-related things like lighting are integrated into the station plans.”
The added efficiency of building art into a station, as opposed to going back later and retrofitting, is just one of a number of art lessons Metro has learned in the past 24-plus years. Art program staffers have learned to work closely with architects, engineers and maintenance staff to situate pieces so that maintenance of the art is taken into consideration—a matter that can be trickier in, say, a rail station than in a museum.
“The Borofsky piece, ‘I Dreamed I Could Fly’, is one of my absolute favorites,” says Emsden. “But if we were to do it again we’d make sure the figures, which are actually self-portraits of the artist, were hung in a way that we could lower them for cleaning.” The flying fiberglass figures—like everything else in the stations—get covered over time with magnetic steel transit dust that can only be removed with specialized equipment and cleansers, says Emsden.
“So every five years or so, we get up there and clean them between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.”
Another lesson: Some kinds of art fare better in transit settings than others.
Eatherton’s 1991 light piece, for instance, has been out of order for about six years, due to the technical challenges of maintaining aging electrical elements in a hard-to-reach space. Part of a Jacqueline Dreager sculpture at the Blue Line’s Wardlow station had to be taken out because it was too close to a landscaping sprinkler and was slowly being decomposed by the water. A set of Gilbert Lujan benches at the Hollywood/Vine station had to be refurbished and then eventually removed altogether because vandals kept tagging and carving their initials into the sculpted bench backs.
However, the vast majority of the Metro projects have fared well, says Emsden, adding that even delicate images have been made transit-worthy by rendering them in materials that are sturdy enough for public artwork.
“We’ve commissioned a couple of artists whose whole body of work is on paper, but there are some amazing artisans in L.A. and elsewhere who can translate those artist’s visions into very durable materials,” says Emsden.
For example, one Canadian studio that specializes in mosaics has made detailed lino-cut prints by Sonia Romero and Daniel Gonzalez, paintings by Samuel Rodriguez and photos by Pitzer College associate art professor Jessica Polzin McCoy into intricate Metro panels made of ceramic tile.
Meanwhile, she says, the program has yielded some pleasant surprises. One was the groundswell of interest among local culture enthusiasts asking to do guided art tours. The result, in 1999, was a Docent Council whose volunteers have introduced more than 30,000 people to the art of the Metro system. Notes Emsden: “We’re the only transit agency with volunteer docents and free Metro art tours.”
Perhaps the nicest surprise, however, has been the way in which some Metro pieces have worked their way, just by word of mouth, into the public imagination. “There’s a light piece by the artist Bill Bell that, if you say a secret word into a tiny hole in the wall at the top of the escalators that go down to the Red and Purple Lines at Union Station, the piece will speak back to you,” Emsden says.
There’s no sign. There are no instructions. The artist, by design, held back the “secret word” (the names of any of the various celebrities depicted, from Rin Tin Tin to Dizzy Gillespie) and left no clue that any extra magic might be found there. “But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone going past there—a security guard, a commuter, a business person—and saying to the person next to them: ‘You gotta check this out!’ ”
Public art and public transit come together in the following gallery. All images courtesy Metro.