The colours of Los Angeles

As I sat having a fusion dinner with Ashley Dunn, an editor at the LA Times, Kim Murphy and my mentor K***, they spoke passionately about their city and how it had changed in the last twenty years.

Three factors, they explained, define LA today – clean air,  cultural diversity and a return to the city – and all three have happened recently.

In the 1980s Los Angeles had serious air pollution issues stemming from the exhaust fumes from vehicles. The thick smog in the air was so dark and heavy that the Santa Monica mountain range was only visible on a good day.

Aggressive policy action by public bodies and the move to unleaded fuel eventually cleared the skies and today Los Angeles is a new city with only a ribbon of grey smog hanging over the skyline.

Walking around the city on Saturday afternoon, I exited the Central Library and found myself otside Aon centre where the American Lung Association was holding a street concert to raise awareness about the clean air initiative.

Two young rockers from False Puppet were on the stage alternating between original songs and some Michael Jackson classics, and a cluster of groupies sat in the front room and mouthed the words with them.

It was impossible not to be infected by the energy and youthfulness in the air. Like myself, others walking by were drawn in by the music, and they perched on benches and metal chairs with bottles of water and beer and whooped along with the crowd as the two musicians leaned into their mics and swung their guitars in the air.

If the 1980s were characterised by pollution then Los Angeles in the 1990s was defined by the infamous race riots and drug wars that revealed a seething underbelly of drugs, crime and racism. After hitting rock bottom with the riots, which saw a predominantly white police force beat an unarmed black man – Rodney King – in the streets of the city, today LA is a fruit salad of cultures and races.

East coast Americans deride LA and their West coast behaviour for being too image conscious (and the West coast calls the East uptight) but my day at the Taco festival at Grand Park only showed the beauty of communities living together in a way that I have never seen in Nairobi which is still a city that is defined by its class and race divisions.

The easy and open engagement between the Latino, Caucasian, Black, Asian and Mexican communities was incredible – across both child and adult relationships.

And while the crowd had its share of blond haired, tanned and sculpted mannequins, there were also those who had long lost the struggle against obesity – large swathes of their skin were decorated with multicoloured tattoos – and rather than mourning the defeat seemed to have accepted it and were happy.

As I meandered down Alameda street and Olvera street (Olvera St musicians) the next day with its stalls of Mexican memorabilia, and danced in the public squares with old Spanish men and women (El Pueblo de Los Angeles), I grew more and more amazed by the rich history of the city of Los Angeles and the multitude of cultures that were living together.

Yes each had their corners – Chinatown with its gate of dragons, Paseo de la Plaza for the Spanish and Mexicans and Little Tokyo for the Japanese – but there were no boundaries and over the weekends, everything seemed to blend into one.

And the third factor that defined contemporary LA and set it apart from what it used to be is the revival of the downtown area. Like Nairobi’s CBD, downtown LA was once a place that turned into a ghost town after 5pm. Sharp office building angles and cold grey cement characterised every corner. It was dark, unsafe and dead.

But a small step at a time – with each taken by a different developer who individually applied for a permit change on a property – the downtown area started to accommodate lofts and residents, and as they moved in and neutralised the business suits, restaurants and a vibrant social scene followed.

Today, downtown LA has a myriad of restaurants and shops, and is safe to walk in well into the night because its streets are filled with people, music and laughter. And alongside skyscrapers are colourful murals  painted on the walls. And green parks with pink benches. And an arts, culture and fashion district. All of them breathe life into a city area that used to be cold stone and marble.

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