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Los Angeles: The Invention of Public Weather

As will be obvious to the reader, the writer of this portrait for the city of Los Angeles is a stranger, a recent addition to this city. The many ideas and remarks which follow, notwithstanding their accuracy, should be regarded first as the nodes along a line of thinking particular to newcomers, one which is best described as an education in anger which besets newcomers persistently hailed by the new city with the question: who are you?

Crawford Macpherson notes that the rights of private property are founded on the twin activities of permitting and prohibiting: parking here is prohibited, do not block this entryway, no dogs allowed, so on and so forth. Accordingly, the assumption is that ownership provides one with the right to withhold service and prohibit use. A guest may be invited to rest on a couch or be asked not to do so. These same twin activities apply to what are generally known as public spaces. Macpherson adds that in their struggle to win their civil rights, blacks had to argue long and hard against the owners of whites-only establishments, who countered that they had the right, as private owners, to withhold service from anyone. Equally relevant are women’s struggles against the many exclusive men’s clubs in England. Yet it is noticeable that such struggles are no longer occurring today. An exclusive men’s club or a whites-only establishment is not targeted as long as they do not threaten the already-acquired civic rights of women and blacks. In fact, opening a club for white men that caters to the sexual fantasies of non-white women would be a perfectly acceptable business endeavor. Today, exclusive clubs are prevalent: some are tailored for black women, others for Latinas, the elderly, or the obese.

These preceding remarks on the spirit and letter of the law are directly tied to the significance of building and sustaining public spaces at a time when such spaces are unavoidably governed by the laws of private property. In Los Angeles, the deciding factors which direct the use of public spaces are born of the general temperament of the residents, of their moral and political inclinations and, more importantly, of their racial or ethnic backgrounds—factors which narrow the function of public spaces and direct them away from promoting open-ended conversations. For if a conversation were to take place in such a space, it would inevitably be preoccupied by a number of fixed givens—national, racial, ethnic or other more reductive bonds. This is of course not particular to any one city. In Beirut, where once I lived, a conversation is always determined by various axioms. Yet what is worth pursuing is whether the construction of little cities within the administrative space of the larger city is unavoidable. Matters of tourism aside, a Little Italy or Little India, found in almost every major metropolis, is indicative of the limited paths open to conversation between the different races and ethnicities.

Relations between the central authority and these little ethnic cities are defined by a simple but dangerous equation: the former resides in a well-guarded and closed fortress while the inhabitants of the latter attempt, on a daily basis, to avoid any encounter with the apparatus of authority. It is an equation by which one is allowed to live freely under the law. But upon whom is this freedom bestowed? In America, one can live as an Armenian, an Iranian, an Arab, or a Jew without ever rubbing against the American way of life, which is kept hidden well within official quarters. Accordingly, civil rights activists have not accomplished the integration they fought so hard for. Even if any one person has now the right to live in the Mexican neighborhoods of Los Angeles, he or she must bow to and observe a number of rules and constraints ranging from conditions born of deep-seated interethnic fears to basic issues such as finding alternative foods to those prevalent for the dominant ethnicity. In consequence, this offers the police an immense moral authority to exact punishment. In itself, that exceeds the tasks and role of the law, or at least transposes the law onto the forcefulness of the police. It is common to find that the brutal repression of one particular ethnicity by the police is looked upon favorably by other ethnicities. Accordingly, the police are always admired and defended by one ethnicity or another, but never at any one moment by all. The social make-up of the city effectively turns into a spread of horizontal segregation tied together only by the brute force of the police.

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