When the L.A.-based lecture series Zócalo Public Square held its annual fundraiser four weeks ago at Union Station, the scene evoked a trendy nightclub opening more than a gathering of bookish cultural mavens and public policy wonks.
The 400 guests, ethnically mixed and many younger than 40, were snappily turned out in Jazz Age attire. Nattering and flirting, they knocked back Manhattans and gin sours and feasted on duck rillettes and "post-Columbian gazpacho" curated by food critic Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly. At the edge of the small dance floor, KCRW music host Garth Trinidad served up chill platters of classic soul and funk.
Dashing among the partiers, Gregory Rodriguez, 44, Zócalo's effusive founder-executive director, was brimming with plans for broadening Zócalo's partnership network and making its brand of hip-but-serious, civic-minded intellectualism stand out from similar programs on both coasts. Talk series like his, Rodriguez asserts, are filling a niche left by the shriveling of newspaper op-ed pages, and represent a democratic (small "d") challenge to the corporate-membership men's-club forums of old that served the wealthy and well connected.
"We've benefited from the old models crumbling," says Rodriguez, a Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist; senior fellow with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute headquartered in Washington, D.C.; and author of "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America." "It's about tenor and tone. Our advantage is that we're on the ground."
Some cultural institutions are Olympian marble monuments, bestowing trickle-down enlightenment on the masses below. Others are storefront operations, quietly serving deeply rooted communities on bare-bones budgets. Zócalo, founded in 2003, could be compared to one of those gourmet Korean taco trucks restlessly cruising the L.A. streets, keeping its overhead costs low and catering to a clientele with cerebrally demanding, culturally mashed-up tastes. Highly mobile and virally networked, it mainly relies on word of mouth and Twitter feeds to publicize its product, which is just as well because it has no marketing budget.
In seven years it has hosted more than 500 speakers at 235 events with push-button titles ("The Curse of Oil," "Is Feminism Transforming the Middle East?"), the majority at roughly two dozen L.A. venues including the Hammer, the Skirball, the Getty Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile (the topic: "How Does Better Design Make for Better Health?") and Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang theater in Culver City. Coming up this month: "Can the Internet Stay Free?" with Columbia University law professor Tim Wu.
While screaming matches dominate talk radio and cable TV, Zócalo shuns intellectual bomb-throwing. It recruits speakers across the political spectrum, from the conservative Michael Gerson, former President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, to the liberal economist Paul Krugman.
Prizing civil exchanges and snark-free commentary, Zócalo sees its mission as "humanizing and broadening" tough subjects "rather than having people take sides," Rodriguez says. Councilman Eric Garcetti calls Zócalo "L.A.'s town hall." Robert Putnam, the Harvard University scholar and author of "Bowling Alone" and "American Grace" who spoke at Zócalo last month, has said that he hopes its model will be emulated nationwide.
While Zócalo trumpets those endorsements, Rodriguez concedes that his organization wrestles with some of the same challenges facing every cultural entity in attention-challenged, financially stressed-out times. "We're trying to figure out what everyone's trying to figure out," he says. "How do you get young people, how do you get nonwhite people?"
One way is to have a staff that resembles contemporary L.A. Zócalo is run by a three-woman administrative team: program director Dulce Vasquez, 24; media and field producer Laura Villalpando, 26; and Swati Pandey, 28, who spearheads Zócalo's website magazine, which includes book reviews, opinion pieces, podcasts, video interviews and poetry.
Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, which has produced events with the L.A. organization, says it's "thrilling to see" the youthful, diverse crowds that turn out for Zócalo events. "The irony in Washington and I'm sure lots of capital cities is that the real politics and the real policy is made by staffers in their 20s and 30s, and all the institutions are made for people in their 60s," Coll says.
Rodriguez and his colleagues are well aware that their profile gives them an advantage in tapping into a certain audience segment, "knowing that we're the faces, we're the people who take you to your seat," says Vasquez, a native of Tamaulipas, Mexico, who studied political science and philosophy at Northwestern University.