Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Our Long Beach Story: Part One

Ben in his Long Beach backyard garden
Once upon a time in the 1980s, a young family lived in a little house by the ocean in the city of Long Beach, California. They ran a business buying and selling machine tools - lathes, Bridgeports and the like. The couple had two beautiful, tyrannical boy toddlers and the unstoppable optimism of true Californians.
Optimistic as they were, they didn't see much hope for this corner of Los Angeles. Crime was up and the neighborhood wasn't what you would describe as "livable". The oil industry owned what parts of the city weren't gang territory, and there were no open spaces for two incredibly energetic kids to roam.
So the young family, my mom and dad and older two brothers, packed up, sold their Ocean Boulevard home and industrial properties, and set out for the (relatively) wild and unsettled coast of Oregon.
That was in the winter of 1986. That summer, I was born a happy, pollution-free Oregon child and never suffered a blistering sunburn, had a close call in traffic or heard the distant sound of gunshots. Raised on tales of how overcrowded and dangerous the Los Angeles area had become, I never had the urge to check out my ancestral home.

Twenty-six years later, I find myself on a bicycle cruising down an eerily deserted path along the sandy shore from Santa Monica into Redondo Beach, California. The entire western US saw record low temperatures this week, and in Southern California that means highs in the 50's. Those who did brave the windy beaches were bundled in down jackets and Ugg boots. For us, the cold weather meant that riding into Los Angeles was a whole lot easier than everyone said it would be.
Once we got into the city proper, things got trickier. To get to our destination in Long Beach - where we were scheduled to catch the tail end of a work party that morning at a nascent urban garden - we needed to zig-zag inland to avoid the harbor and come in from the east. Unfortunately, we missed our turn down Torrance Boulevard and ended up in Palos Verdes, the belly button of land that forms the north side of Long Beach Harbor. Rather than squint at my iPhone screen to figure out where we were, I flagged down a fellow cyclist in a parking lot.
"You want to go where?" he asked. Despite his spandex outfit and snazzy helmet, he'd obviously never heard about anyone actually biking through L.A. I realized that he was in a parking lot because he'd just unloaded his bike from his car. We explained that we were on tour and just come from Santa Monica.
"You should bike around Palos Verdes, it's really nice," he offered.
"But it won't get us anywhere," I told him. "Look." I pointed at the map on the iPhone, which showed the road dead-ending at the harbor.
"Yeah, you're right," he admitted. He told us how he would get to Torrance Boulevard if he was in a car. It was a start. We thanked him and rode back down the hill we'd just climbed. Via the Pacific Coast Highway, we found Torrance Boulevard, and headed out into the endless suburbs of Los Angeles. We didn't see another cyclist until we got to the L.A. River.
We had been warned about this monstrosity of engineering, but we didn't quite believe it until we saw it. It's a concrete trench about a hundred feet wide with a few feet of brackish water at the bottom. Think of the car race scene in the movie of the musical Grease. It was filmed here. A bike path runs along the edge of the "river", high above the residential streets below. We took the path to 7th Avenue, passed through a homeless camp and soon arrived in downtown Long Beach.

In this city, an interesting co-evolution is taking place. In an effort to combat the urban blight that has emptied out inner cities across the United States - and young families like mine away decades ago - the city has taken steps over the past few years to create a favorable environment for artists, urban farmers and cyclists. These things are the things that young, white, hip people are into, and those people don't do drive-by shootings or sell drugs, or so the logic goes.
Urban cyclists and urban farmers have many of the same needs. They need space - bike lanes and empty lots - tolerant people, some agreed-upon rules, and the supplies to keep them on the road or in the dirt. I didn't know it, but that day we would meet some of the new pioneers in the urban farming and cycling movements.
The work party, though, was long over by the time we finally found the Chestnut Lot in downtown Long Beach. We leaned Cynthia and Edith against the chain-link fence and called Ryan. Ryan Serrano directs the nonprofit Foodscapes Long Beach, which is developing the property as an urban farm. He was off to teach a workshop elsewhere in the city, but he directed us to his house, which was just a couple blocks away, and said his roommate would probably be out working in their backyard garden.
Following instructions, we rolled down the alley, crossed the street, continued down the alley and turned right at the dumpsters just past the apartment building. There was a small parking lot, a white picket fence, and behind it a flourishing jungle of plant life. A couple of guys were standing out behind the small greenhouse.
"Is one of you Ben?" I asked. He was. He let us in the gate, introduced us to Frida the chicken, and sat on a colorfully painted stool next to the fire pit while we locked up our bikes and unloaded our bags. Hesitantly at first, Ben answered our torrent of questions about how and why he and Ryan were building a food oasis in the middle of the concrete desert. Then he showed us the garden, and it was like stepping back into the Whitaker neighborhood in Eugene. Ben's girlfriend Mikki is an artist, and they have incorporated a variety of found objects, including yarn, bicycle wheels and a grate from a truck, to build fences and trellises. Skunks are a constant problem in the city, digging into the soil and uprooting crops, so many of the beds were covered with chicken wire or other barriers. Their crops included amaranth, an ancient grain, bananas and other fruit trees, greens, artichokes, holy basil and cacti. It was a study in contrasts - look up, depressing city. Look down, an explosion of life and the fruits of creative, attentive labor.

Mikki drove up, all wild hair and adorable stockings. After a brief discussion, it was decided that the two of them should give us a tour of Long Beach's urban farming scene. Generous, considering that we had sort of dropped out of nowhere on their roommate's recommendation. I checked my phone - we were well into the afternoon. This was a problem. I had also committed to meeting up with my half-brother Michael that day. Michael is my dad's kid from a previous relationship and he stayed back in the L.A. area with his mom when the rest of the family migrated north. The last (and only) time we've hung out was 13 years ago, when Michael came to Oregon.
Biking from Santa Monica to Long Beach, receiving a crash-course in the Long Beach urban farming scene, reuniting with long-lost family - it hadn't occurred to me that this might have been too much to pack into one day.
Another problem: We weren't yet sure where we would spend the night. Our Warmshowers.org host, Bernadette, had offered us a place to crash via email a couple of days ago, but I hadn't yet received a phone call or a message from her with her actual address.
But there wasn't much we could do but wait, and we couldn't say no to these kind and fascinating people. I texted Michael that we would have to meet up "later" and hopped into the car.

To be continued...

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