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Navel-Gazing in the City That Made It an Art Form

April 09, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The title had an imposing ring: "Los Angeles at the Millennium--Identity and Community in the 21st Century City." The speakers' lineup was stacked with literary and cultural heavyweights: Mike Davis, James Ellroy, Carolyn See. Even the official poster design conveyed a sense of momentous occasion: pointillist rows of L.A. city lights, blazing away toward an endless horizon under a purple-and-gold Wagnerian sky.

A tough billing, perhaps, for any conference to live up to. And, as it turned out, this inaugural public symposium sponsored by the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC only once or twice reached the level of high drama or revelation.

But for the speakers, panelists and several hundred other people who showed up at USC on Friday night and Saturday, the free symposium offered a chance to revisit some quintessential L.A. themes, exchange gossip with friends and colleagues, enjoy some lively impromptu street theater and take the pulse of a city that, in the words of California State Librarian and conference moderator Kevin Starr, "if it ever stopped trying to define itself would disappear from the face of the Earth."

Of course, as Starr suggested, this was hardly the first symposium dedicated to a metropolis whose civic motto could almost be, "We introspect, therefore we are." What made this one feel slightly different was the crowd. Yes, there were the usual scholars, journalists and public policy wonks who turn up at these affairs.

But there also were spoken-word poets from Koreatown, trade union leaders, aspiring novelists, community activists, MTA urban planners, artists, lawyers, screenplay authors and various and sundry bohemians. Though the panel groups contained many of the usual suspects, the thinking was predominantly left-of-center and the paradigms weren't exactly freshly minted, the atmosphere was refreshingly nonacademic and informal. "It's nice to see there's people with purple hair," observed Francis DellaVecchia, a one-time unsuccessful L.A. mayoral candidate.

Much of the conference discussion contrasted private and public visions of Los Angeles, the desire to engage L.A. at a meaningful personal level versus the need to collectively address its enormous social and economic challenges. There were calls not only for aiding the city's poor but for nurturing its imagination, for finding a shared "narrative" to express the city's unique history and prismatic sense of self.

Conceived as a bridge between town-and-gown interests, the 4-year-old institute had held previous speaker engagements, but none on the scale of last weekend's. "This time we wanted to take a series of issues that were far bigger than we could handle," said Steve Ross, a USC history professor and the institute's co-director with Steve Wasserman, editor of The Times' Book Review section.

But before getting down to the business of panel discussions, the conference absorbed an eloquent tongue-lashing from keynote speaker Davis, the neo-Marxist scholar, author ("City of Quartz," "Ecology of Fear") and MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant") winner. A longtime scourge of the city's boosters and shakers (City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, The Times), Davis, sporting a white beard and a tan, unleashed a vintage, scathing critique of L.A.'s social inequities.

Now back in Southern California after a few years on Long Island, Davis drew parallels between slummy, corrupt New York City, 1902, and the teeming immigrant mecca of Los Angeles, 2002. L.A., he said, is a place where the low-wage immigrant labor and "Dickensian poverty" of the many subsidize the "luxury lifestyles" of the few. Where childhood poverty and youth unemployment rates are at Depression-era levels, while crime statistics show L.A. to be "a far more dangerous place than the New York City of 'Godfather II.'" (America's biggest city was a frequent reference point throughout the conference, in what Starr later termed "the New York metaphor, almost the New York envy.")

Leaving no fat cat unflayed, Davis upbraided Playa Vista developers, "the secessionists of Sherman Oaks," and the recent spate of lavish cultural temples that look down on a decaying metropolis. He even chided the institute, which "in its bold attempt to create an Algonquin Round Table," he said, had missed an opportunity by not inviting Chicano studies professor Rudy Acuna, sci-fi/fantasy writer Octavia Butler or some other non-Anglo personage of letters to deliver the keynote address instead of him. He closed by exhorting Angelenos to start a social "revolution" so as to save their city from being "downsized by greed."

Well. While Davis joked that the purpose of his speech was "to ensure that I'd never be invited back," the Chardonnay-sipping, cheese-munching crowd ate it up. Most stood and applauded. One man yelled "Yeah!" from the back of the room.

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