Opinion: Riot/Ride

Last Sunday, my wife, our daughter and I hitched our bikes to our car, drove toward downtown and parked just across from MacArthur Park, otherwise known as Langer’s Deli adjacent.

There, we hopped on our bikes and joined more than 100,000 other bicyclists, walkers, stroller-pushers and roller skaters for the latest CicLAvia.

I’ll try to describe it, but, trust me, you had to be there.

Ten miles of L.A. streets from southeast Hollywood to Boyle Heights were closed to automobile traffic. We were able to leisurely ride toward downtown on Seventh Street, turn onto Spring, through El Pueblo de Los Angeles and Little Tokyo, and then over the Los Angeles River.

A sea of L.A. humanity flowed with us — of all colors, shapes and sizes. Occasionally we’d pass DJs blasting trance music, or mariachi bands, and even groups playing giant games of street chess. For several hours we got to take in the unhurried beauty of L.A.: the boat-like Coca-Cola Building, the art deco Oviatt Building, the view of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains from atop the Fourth Street Bridge. 

If the Los Angeles Riots, whose 20th anniversary we mark on April 29, realized the darkest vision of what L.A. could become, CicLAvia represents the brightest.

“Twenty years ago, we were rioting in the streets,” Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources (CARS, ironically) and a founder of CicLAvia told me, “and now we’re riding bicycles through them. It is radically different. That’s why I am so inspired by how things have changed in 20 years.”

The idea for CicLAvia originated in Bogota, Colombia, where Ciclovia (Spanish for “bike path”) is now a weekly event that takes over some 80 miles of city streets and draws a million people. Paley first heard of it in 2008 and joined forces with another group to try to bring it to Los Angeles.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got behind the project after one meeting, and his support smoothed the way for the ultimate car city to host the first CicLAvia on Oct. 10, 2010. Today, it is the largest open-street, car-free event in America.

For Paley, it was the realization of a lifelong dream to find the one event that would bring together the city he loves. For years he imagined calling on all Angelenos to gather by the Los Angeles River. Then, he realized, “The river is just one place, but the streets are everywhere.”

Yes: The streets that so often divide us, annoy us, frustrate us — on CicLAvia, they entertain and connect and amuse us.

“We proved that we can all come together,” Paley said.

That, in a sentence, is the story of post-riot L.A.

In our compelling panel discussion put together by Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim and excerpted in these pages, Joe Hicks and David Lehrer cite a study that named Los Angeles the least-segregated city in America.

But most of the other panelists argued that while that may be factually true, L.A. often doesn’t feel that way. Our lives butt up against one another, but they do not intersect.

“It depends on where you’re talking about,” countered civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “It’s gotten more complex. Have we desegregated? Yes, we’re probably the best-desegregated big city, other than New York — but there are very few what I would call integrated communities.”

One possible solution, Rice suggested, is for the private and public sectors to engage schoolchildren in drama, arts and music together, across geographic boundaries:

“You learn music at symphony hall or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion,” Rice said. “But you have a school from Granada Hills, a school from El Segundo, the South Bay, from Watts, and those four areas learn music together.

“When kids learn together something that’s fun — art, theater or they do sports together or mix up the debating teams, the decathlon teams, by income and by neighborhood — you naturally get a mix that exposes them to one another, and a lot of the walls come down.

“I’ve never understood why we don’t use the rich civic and arts infrastructure that we have to help our kids learn about one another and really achieve integration.”

In other words, a kind of educational CicLAvia.

Meanwhile, Paley and the organizers of the street-level one plan to build on its success to make it a monthly event, rotating among different L.A. neighborhoods. 

Paley, by the way, is also the organizer of Yiddishkayt LA, the annual citywide festival celebrating all things Yiddish. What’s the connection between bicycles and Yiddish?

“Me,” Paley said.

That, I suppose, and the idea of connection itself: a people to its past, and people to one another. 

At the end of CicLAvia, I rode back to where our car was parked on Alvarado.

People really need to wake up to the possibilities of this city, I thought. They just need to wake up.

As if my little reverie had an Elmer Bernstein soundtrack, I suddenly heard the blast of a shofar. I thought it must be a weird car horn, but there it was again — definitely a shofar.

I looked around and saw a man not 20 feet away, on the sidewalk. He was Latino, short and squat, and dressed in a too-large cheap blue suit. And he was blowing a long, twisted Yemenite shofar. He let loose a chain of staccato bursts, sounding more Herb Alpert than Yom Kippur, then he let the thing fall to his side and shouted in Spanish, “Wake up! Jesus is coming. Wake up!”

Except for the Jesus part, I had to agree with him. We do need to wake up, and CicLAvia is a great beginning. Let it be only the beginning.

The next CicLAvia is Oct. 14. For video and more information, visit this column at jewishjournal.com.