On a roll with CicLAvia

In late April, some 200,000 people on foot and on cycles — most with two wheels, some with three or four and even one jerry-rigged to be two stories high — swarmed Venice Boulevard, clogging the roadway from downtown Los Angeles to the beach. They came from throughout the city, and they shared the road with grace, even under worse-than-rush-hour conditions. In its seventh incarnation, CicLAvia has truly come of age, its popularity reaching a level that defied even the highest of expectations.  

And so, it will happen again this Sunday, June 23, when the next CicLAvia takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., on a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard closed to cars to allow for pedestrians and cyclists to appreciate the shops, vendors and scenery of Los Angeles. Dubbed “Iconic Wilshire Boulevard,” the route will run from One Wilshire, at Wilshire and Grand Avenue downtown, to Fairfax, passing through Koreatown and MacArthur Park. Visitors interested in the history of the boulevard as they pass by can use a guide prepared by Catherine Gudis, an associate history professor at UC Riverside, which be available for free at the various “hubs” along the route. They can also download free podcasts by Edward Lifson, a senior lecturer at the USC School of Architecture, from ciclavia.org. Pedestrian areas at the beginning and end of the route will offer food trucks and activities sponsored by community partners and museums.

CicLAvia is modeled after a similar festival, Ciclovia, in Bogota, Colombia; both are intended to address the problems of traffic congestion and pollution that make it difficult for citizens to fully enjoy their home cities. In the spirit of promoting public space, participation in CicLAvia is free.

At least 100,000 people are expected to attend this weekend’s event, and Aaron Paley, executive director of CicLAvia, says he no longer worries about attracting a minimum number of people to the event, as it is the “largest event of its kind in terms of numbers in the U.S. and Canada.” He did not realize upon starting the project just how great the demand would be. CicLAvia’s success has allowed him to schedule two just two months apart, and he currently is working to make CicLAvia a monthly event, with new locations for in such places as Claremont, West Los Angeles, and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

“Iconic Wilshire Boulevard” will cost $400,000 to $500,000. According to its Web site, ciclavia.org, the nonprofit organization CicLAvia provides 40 percent of the resources for the event through donations from individuals, grants and corporate sponsorships. The city covers the rest of the cost, including such services as police, fire, traffic regulation and sanitation. 

Paley has devoted much of his life to creating and utilizing public space. He is the founder of Yiddishkayt, an organization that attempts to infuse modern life in Los Angeles with Yiddish culture, both to enrich Jewish life in L.A. and to keep Yiddish alive outside of academia. He is also the president of Community Arts Resources, which uses marketing expertise, a database and other outreach methods to assist cultural and arts organizations in attracting a greater number of people to events and festivals. 

“For me … what they have in common is how we as people deal with this city, and how we as Angelenos treat each other and think about each other. Those values are all based on how I was raised as a secular, left-wing, Yiddish-ist Jew in L.A.,” Paley said. “I was raised with a very strong sense of social engagement and a very strong sense that it is important to understand ourselves as Jews within the context of the society we live in.”

This time, he is especially excited for people to experience “the absolute beauty” of Wilshire Boulevard, which he calls “the spine of the city.” And he points to the Jewish architecture along the route, including the iconic Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Dunes Inn, the latter designed by Jewish architect Sam Reisbord. 

“A great Jewish outing in Los Angeles is to enjoy your city and your neighbors and to fall in love with this city all over again,” Paley said.

For more information on the upcoming CicLAvia, visit www.ciclavia.org.

From CicLAvia to Cedars Sinai: In sorrow and joy

To the woman who confronted me last Sunday at the Celebrate Israel Festival, ranting that airplane vapor trails are actually toxic secret government gasses:  You complain that journalists don’t take you seriously. They might, if you didn’t walk around wearing large posters of airplane vapor trails.

To the man who attacked me for not being outraged that some festival vendors weren’t kosher: My lack of outrage wasn’t because, as you said, I “don’t really care about Judaism.” I just pointed out that there were plenty of kosher options for people who wanted them.

To the woman who yelled at me about the Palestinians: For the millionth time, just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean I’m anti-Israel. I’m not even anti-you. Yet.

Ah, community.

Sunday, April 21, reminded us that you can’t live without your community, even if, sometimes, you wish you could.

In the morning, just a block from my house, the CicLAvia ride closed down Venice Boulevard from downtown to the beach. The massive sea of bicyclists — an estimated 150,000 people took part — proves that CicLAvia is a genius idea that taps into a deep Los Angeles yearning for connection. 

But it was also just so … crowded. The jam-up made me wonder two things: Isn’t there a way to create serious, substantial bike lanes (and bike shares) around Los Angeles all year round, so we can spread the enthusiasm out a bit? And: Can’t they close down Venice Boulevard just for me?

I’d planned my Sunday to go to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, on the USC campus, and then to Rancho Park, site of this year’s Celebrate Israel Festival, and then to Cedars-Sinai, where I was moderating a panel discussion on “Healing and Spirituality.” Having a traffic-free Venice Boulevard all to myself would have been like having my own heliport.

But I managed (passing on the Festival of Books, as I’d gone there the day before). At the Celebrate Israel Festival, I noticed attendance was down from last year. Maybe because of lingering fears over the Boston Marathon bombing, was one theory. Maybe because there were so many other things going on that day: CicLAvia, the Long Beach Grand Prix, the Festival of Books, the Lakers game. Maybe because the whole festival needs to be reinvented.

Whatever the reasons, it’s too bad more people didn’t show up. Once a year, it’s a good idea to bring together in one place as much as possible of our vast, unruly, cantankerous, diverse and colorful L.A. Zion, if only so each one of us can reconfirm that our particular synagogue, or political viewpoint, or level of observance, is the best — and that all those other Jews are probably nuts. 

The Israeli music blares, and, yes, there are all the types: men dripping gold chains down their chests, women in Chanel screaming Farsi into cell phones, Chasidic families all in black, earnest middle-aged women pushing brochures about eternal Jerusalem and Latino Jewish men strutting about with this sticker on their lapels: “I Tied My Tefillin Today.” It’s easy to think, “Who are these people? And — what does all this have to do with me?”

I stayed for a couple of hours at the Jewish Journal booth. The man who each year complains that we don’t print all his letters came by to complain that we don’t print all his letters. Another man said he looked for me at the Jewish Journal booth at the L.A. Times Book Festival, but I wasn’t there. “I’m glad you’re here!” he said — then proceeded to attack me over our story exposing a kosher meat scandal. That someone would drive 40 minutes to insult me felt like a compliment. 

Sure, most people who came by thanked us for putting out the Journal. So why is it that the complaints are what stick?

I let them linger on my thick skin as I drove to Cedars-Sinai to lead a panel discussion as part of the “Wisdom and Wellness” week of learning sponsored by the hospital and the Kalsman Institute at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. There was an overflow crowd in Cedars’ Harvey Morse Auditorium, come to hear Rabbis Ed Feinstein, Abner Weiss, Naomi Levy and Laura Geller discuss the Jewish path to healing.

The entire discussion is online — you can find the link at jewishjournal.com — and well worth listening to.  You’ll find the rabbis made one point over and over, in different ways: Healing so often begins with, and depends upon, community.

We mustn’t face illness alone; we need to be there for one another. Knowing others care — just bringing a roasted chicken to their door, in Rabbi Feinstein’s memorable example — is a way of showing that they matter, that their life matters.

Yes, it was a long, tiring, fulfilling, exasperating, funny and teary day.  In other words, a day in community. We might fantasize about having Venice Boulevard all to ourselves, but would that really make us happy?

“Here lies the very essence of our way of life,” Elie Weisel once wrote. “Every person must share in the life of others, and not leave them to themselves, either in sorrow or in joy.”

Click here for more on the Celebrate Israel Festival

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.