November 20, 2019

Building a stable sukkah, building a stable L.A.

Many years ago, my wife and I lived in a ground-floor apartment in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica, on a hill with a view of the bay.

When Sukkot came around, my wife naturally expected me to build the hut — the sukkah — in which Jews are commanded to eat, and even sleep, during the holiday. No problem, I thought — I’d watched every episode of “Gilligan’s Island,” and I even owned a hammer.

But I didn’t own a level. So, on the first night of Sukkot, we invited a group of friends into my homemade booth, a travesty of 2-by-4s, cinder blocks and PVC piping topped with bamboo and banana leaves. I made dinner — green corn tamales with black beans and crema — we all sat down to eat, and the sukkah collapsed.

Not completely, but it swayed so far left our view became a perfect trapezoid of horizon, and my friend Jim Morton suggested we grab the tamales and get the hell out. Jim is an architect.

Many rabbis will tell you the theme of Sukkot is the fragile, transitory nature of life and our ultimate dependence on something Greater Than Ourselves. All true.

But that evening I realized there is something else Sukkot is trying to teach us: how to build.

Maybe this lesson was self-evident to our desert-wandering ancestors, who could turn goats into goat-skin tents. But from the time we Jews decamped to the cities of Babylonia, Europe, Arabia and, eventually, America, it is something we’ve needed to remember. We are not here just to inhabit, but to construct, refurbish, improve. We are wanderers, yes, but wherever we arrive, we must also become builders.

This is especially true in Los Angeles, and it is especially incumbent upon us now.

I don’t know about you, but I look around the city and see the greatest momentum for progress I’ve seen in my lifetime.     

The major public-transportation initiative begun by former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is accelerating under Mayor Eric Garcetti. As much as its construction snarls traffic in the short term, I’m happy to finally see light-rail lines rising on the Westside, and plans for more rapid-bus lanes in the works.

Downtown is looking different, too. South Broadway has been redesigned to become more pedestrian-friendly, the first example in Garcetti’s “Great Streets” program. The late Ira Yellin’s vision for Grand Central Market as a hub of great food and urban life is coming to fruition under his widow Adele’s leadership.  

More importantly, Garcetti has spearheaded an ambitious multidepartmental, intergovernment project to reduce homelessness, beginning with L.A. County’s 6,400 homeless veterans. And I couldn’t have been prouder as an Angeleno than when the mayor committed Los Angeles to welcoming and housing the immigrant children detained after crossing the border from Mexico.

Meanwhile, the federal government just approved $1 billion for Los Angeles River restoration. As someone who has rafted a mile-long stretch of the river, I can tell you the waterway’s rebirth will bring business and recreational opportunity to the city in ways beyond our imagining.

There are bigger plans in the works, too, like the push to end L.A.’s dependence on imported water. Garcetti wants to cut our water imports in half by 2025, and as TreePeople’s Andy Lipkis and others have shown, it’s no pipe dream. There’s even a plan being developed at UCLA to make part of Westwood a showcase for driverless cars.

All these City Hall initiatives from above are being met by a new sense of urban activism from below. CicLAvia, which turns the streets of L.A. into bike- and pedestrian-friendly pathways several times a year, just wrapped up a hugely successful outing this past weekend. Neighbors in Santa Monica and Venice are on track to stop jets from flying in and out of Santa Monica Airport, residents near downtown have grand plans for a “freeway cap” that would create an urban park above the 101 freeway (and Grand Park in the city’s Civic Center itself is a new gift that the city is just beginning to enjoy). On Fairfax Avenue, young black entrepreneurs are revitalizing your bubbe’s storefronts as a center of urban design.  

Speaking at The Atlantic magazine’s CityLab 2014, which brought together more than 300 mayors from around the world to downtown last week, senior editor Richard Florida summed it up: “There’s something happening here. You can feel it.”

Not only can you feel it, you can take part in it. Beyond seeing these endeavors through, there are still huge challenges: fixing our education system, raising the minimum wage in a way that reduces inequality and protects entrepreneurship, bringing more local food to urban neighborhoods, addressing areas of hard-core unemployment and gang violence. At CityLab, developer Rick Caruso raised a pie-in-the-sky idea worth considering: What if business, philanthropy and government teamed up and focused all their efforts at once on a single neighborhood most in need?   

What if ? If there was ever a fruitful time to get involved in some way to help improve our city, now is it. Not all our labors will succeed, but as my first sukkah taught me, even when they don’t, you can still get a glimpse of the horizon.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can
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