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Thoughts on Los Angeles, a City of Paradoxes

As I’ve walked and bussed my way through Los Angeles each day during my one month stay here, I have tried to piece together a narrative in my head on my feelings and observations about this city, never quite getting a grasp on my understanding of it. Tonight, on one of my last nights living here, this mental puzzle comes together a little more, and I write this post in an attempt to express my thoughts on Los Angeles and my experiences here.

Going by foot and transit in L.A. has given me the opportunity to interact with people and see the neighborhoods far better than if I had been driving a car. Exploring urban gardens and food initiatives as part of a personal project has given me an excuse to explore the city and witness amazing instances of people working together to fundamentally transform a place and its food system. And working from home and out of coffee shops on my website, Apple iPhone Review (my business and primary “job”), has made me feel embedded in an entrepreneurial and creative culture that thrives here in Los Angeles.

The Bus

After meeting up tonight on Melrose Ave for dinner with my aunt (who visited from Orange County), I later took the bus home from my sister and her boyfriend’s West Hollywood apartment to my temporary Hollywood studio.

While waiting at the bus stop on Fairfax Avenue around midnight, I stood by the street curb and looked off into the distance, watching the still-steady stream of cars make their way through the streets, like blood ceaselessly pulsing through the city veins.

I reflected on my time here and on my plans for when I get back home to Gainesville.

Finally, my bus arrives. Fifteen minutes late.

I board the bus and sit in an empty seat toward the front. I slide down one seat, away from the aisle, so that another passenger can use the outside seat if desired.

One stop later, a man boards the bus and chooses the seat beside me. I cross my arms and move my left leg inward a bit, so that it is not touching his. He crosses his arms, too.

I look out the window and think about how strange it is to sit two inches away from a fellow human being and never acknowledge each other at all. This has been my experience in L.A. People rarely interact in public here unless they know each other or are doing business.

For the most part it seems Los Angelenos don’t speak on the bus, and they don’t make eye contact when they pass each other on the sidewalks.

I can understand how someone new to the city might feel alone, when people here are mostly focused inward, on their own lives and careers, and do not often interact with strangers. But I found that in the general absence of public interaction, offering someone a smile, a “Hi!” or a “Thank you!” goes a long way to building a connection. Despite the isolationist public attitude in Los Angeles, people generally do treat you kindly if you engage them.

Disinterest in strangers aside, Los Angelenos are highly networked in their personal lives and careers.

Unquestionably, much of L.A. culture is about meeting people and working creatively together. I met more people than I can count who are involved in theatre, acting, or some kind of creative production. Many people endure low pay, odd hours and an extremely competitive job market only to do what they love. Before he left town for the month, the guy who sublet me his Hollywood studio, Vinny, invited me to a showing of Much Ado About Nothing, which he directed for the eighth annual Shakespeare in Santa Monica. Vinny is a 27-year old from northern California who has until this year survived on only a thespian’s income all his adult life. He is currently in New York City auditioning for a Broadway play.

The energy surrounding “The Industry,” as they call it here, is transferred to other pockets of Los Angeles, and the result is a large community of passionate people working to better the city and its neighborhoods.

One of the things I spent some time doing here is meeting people who are working on innovative food initiatives, some of which I’ve documented on Urban Food America. As it turns out, there are a lot of people in L.A. working on the types of “inspiring community food initiatives” that I wished to document on the blog.

As I sit on the bus tonight, I think about how even though I was put off by it at first, I appreciate the space that people generally give each other in public. When you are always surrounded by people, it is nice to have your thoughts to yourself.

Nevertheless, I had some interesting conversations with people on public transit, including most recently on the subway with a man apparently in his 50’s who had moved from Spokane, Washington to pursue an acting career. When I spoke with him, he was coming back from playing a part as an extra in a new Seth Rogen movie.

Comfort of Community vs. Anonymity of the City

One thing I struggle with in Gainesville sometimes is the smallness of the place. While I cherish Gainesville for its tight-knit, progressive community, it can feel suffocating at times. Don’t get me wrong, I love how after living there for five years, I can go anywhere and there is a likelihood that I’ll stumble upon someone I know and maybe say hi and talk, the type of encounter that rarely happened in Miami where I grew up. But I have to admit that sometimes the Miami kid in me wants to walk around and not be recognized by anyone. The opportunity to reinvent yourself each time you go out is alluring, but absent in small towns.

What is better, the comfort of community, or the anonymity of the city? Before coming to L.A. this month, I was craving the latter.

It turns out that L.A. offers a sense of comfort, too, with its many different niches and community initiatives.

As I approach my bus stop on Hollywood Blvd and Highland, I reach to pull the yellow cable, which not only signals the bus driver to stop, but tells the passenger sitting between you and the aisle that you are about to get up. Pulling the yellow bus cable would be the only sign of communication exchanged between me and the man next to me, except that he cheerfully says “You’re welcome,” when I thank him for getting up.

L.A. Paradox

In an email exchange I had with one Jason, a native Alabaman who now lives in L.A. and whom I met at the Micheltorena Elementary School community garden the first weekend I arrived, he told me: “L.A. is a funny paradox: angelinos love organic food but are in conflict with earthiness!”

This remark stuck with me throughout my stay because it rang true to me and aligned with a lot of my observations of the city.

The paradox that Jason mentioned has unfolded before me this month: While Los Angelenos ignore each other in public, they are usually friendly and enthusiastic in personal interactions. While L.A. can seem massive and impersonal, it is home to a diversity of small neighborhoods, many with active markets and communities. And while the city revolves around an industry that is admittedly vain and obsessed with celebrity, there is nevertheless a remarkable sense of altruism and desire to do things for the public good.

There is a Death Cab for Cutie song in Photo Album, one of my favorite music albums in high school, that paints a poetic, albeit pessimistic, portrayal of Los Angeles. Originally, the song gave me a negative impression of the city, especially because it reminded me somewhat of Miami.

It’s a lovely summer’s day
And I can almost see a skyline through a thickening shroud of egos.
(Is this the city of angels or demons?)
Here the names are what remain…
Stars encapsulate the gold lame
And they need constant cleaning for when the tourists begin salivating.

You can’t swim in a town this shallow – you will most assuredly drown tomorrow.

— “Why You’d Want to Live Here” by Death Cab for Cutie

Chasing Dreams

In the late 1800s, pioneers pushed westward to arrive at California, where the promise of not only gold, but fertile farmland, lay before them.

Without overlooking the current culture of vanity and waste in L.A., my own trip to the west coast revealed a place with an enduring pioneering spirit, a diversity of people, and an urban agricultural movement that promises to inform the future of food in this country.

While the Death Cab song “Why You’d Want to Live Here” (cited above) had previously guided my perception of L.A., now that I’ve lived here and seen another side, I have developed a fondness for this city that is hard to describe. The perceived vanity in this city is also a self-reflection and a desire to be and do better.

I will soon be California Dreaming.

Update: The next day, I saw a shooting star in the middle of Hollywood as I was walking home at the end of the night. It was another strange L.A. paradox, given the light pollution; yet fitting given the symbolic setting. I will never forget it.

Grow Your Food

Since we planted our single 4×4 raised bed garden in the backyard last year, our once tiny organic garden has expanded throughout the back, into the front yard, and to both sides of the house. We have supported the whole operation with no amendments other than the compost we make from our food scraps and dried leaves.

As we work to expand our Gainesville organic garden, the question on my mind remains, “How much food can we realistically grow on this small property?”

My goal in gardening is to grow more food — and to do so in a financially and environmentally sustainable way.

To Grow Your Own Food is Empowering

I worked on a local organic farm for six months, and despite the meager pay and browbeating sun, I felt proud to do what felt like a patriotic act: to grow food for the benefit of people in my community.

Now that we have expanded our home garden and I’ve unquestionably caught the gardening fever, nothing has made me feel like I’m having a direct and meaningful positive impact like growing my own food.

When the average vegetable travels thousands of miles (aided by fossil fuels) to arrive at your plate, to grow your own food is environmentally sustainable.

When the far transportation of food relies on gasoline that is decreasing in supply and increasing in price, to grow your own food is economically smart.

When corporate farms are paying workers a wage that equates to modern day slavery, to grow your own food is humanitarian.

And when any of the above is bringing you down and you feel like your legislators aren’t doing anything about it, then to grow your own food is empowering.

In our efforts to grow more food around our small brick house in the Gainesville “Student Ghetto,” we have planted seeds in almost every spot that gets at least four hours of sun. We just mix the sandy soil with heaps of compost and plant seeds. Voilà. It works.

A Resourceful Gardening Approach

We are innovative, frugal and resourceful in our gardening approach:

  1. We use dead branches, fence posts and shovel handles for growing pole beans.
  2. We turn old five gallon buckets into hanging tomato and basil pots.
  3. We use old tires to grow tomatoes.

Who would have thought the best way to recycle something is to use it to grow food?

Friendship & Food

Another major benefit of growing your own food is that it enhances your friendships. When we have people over, the backyard is the obvious go-to spot, among the plants. People love it.

The garden ecosystem brings life to the atmosphere, and it’s a wonderful thing to show people. I love to give new friends tours around the garden because they are always so amazed — as am I — at the beauty and splendor of the garden.

I want everybody to see how easy, and how rewarding, it is to grow food.

Urban Farming

Because our current agricultural model is impossible to sustain, the evolution of farming is certain to bring on radical changes.

With 82 percent of Americans living in cities, the next few decades are likely to see a rise in urban farming. It is already happening, and mostly in the US’s most devastated areas.

In New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, Our School at Blair Grocery is educating and empowering at-risk youth by showing them how to grow food.

In Detroit, downtrodden lots are being turned into garden plots where poor single mothers grow organic produce to sell and support their families.

Update (Aug. 2011): I have recently begun a project to document inspiring urban food initiatives at UrbanFoodAmerica.org.

If we want to solve our environmental, social and economic problems, we need to grow our own food.

Don’t wait. Plant a seed today.

A Glimpse at Our Gainesville Organic Garden

Here are some photos of the garden(s) outside our home, a small brick house in the Gainesville “Student Ghetto” that has endured the torment of college students since 1929. No more.

With the knowledge, work and dedication of my former roommate Alex Mourant, we have turned a dull, dead landscape — front and back — into a flourishing and inviting space that is now the main attraction of our house.

Photos of Our Gainesville Garden

(Click on any photo to see an even more beautiful, high-resolution version.)

It all starts with the compost. We put our veggie scraps in a pile and mix them with dried leaves to produce a potent fertilizer that is black gold for our organic garden.

Compost Pile in Gainesville

This is our corn bed in the back:

Growing Corn in Gainesville

Growing Corn in Gainesville

Tomatoes spontaneously germinated from the compost on our corn bed, so we let them stay. We also planted beans, to semi-mimic the “three sisters” companion planting method — Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash together. The beans climb the corn, and the squash (or in our case tomato) shades the soil.

Corn, Tomatoes and Beans in the Gainesville Garden

These are probably cherry tomatoes in our corn bed:

Cherry Tomatoes in Gainesville

More tomatoes next to our raised bed.

Tomatoes in Gainesville

Trellised peas in front of our raised bed. If you just taste one of these peas off the vine, you will immediately understand one major benefit of growing your own food, the taste.

Peas on Trellis in Gainesville Florida

Some pots with basil, cilantro, tomato, and hot Czechoslovakian black pepper.

Potted Organic Plants in Gainesville

Alex adding freshly sifted compost to the front corn bed:

Compost, Gainesville Garden

This is our front yard corn bed now, with beans and squash interspersed. I planted sunflowers in the old tire (pictured below) but volunteer tomatoes came up instead.

Corn in the Front Yard, Gainesville Garden

Beans climbing up a post in our side yard. Something is eating the leaves. :-/

Growing Beans in Gainesville

Finally, this is our most recently planted bed, the Forget Me Not Plot, dedicated to my good friend and roommate Alex Mourant, who will soon depart to Fiji for a 27-month Peace Corps term. We planted a bunch of different seeds — including Forget Me Not flowers — in this plot and will let it flourish naturally, with little interference, in the spirit of Masanobu Fukuoka‘s ‘Do-Nothing Farming’ philosophy.

Forget Me Not Plot Dedicated to Alex Mourant

Mulberry Pickin’

Today as I was walking out of the Mother Earth market parking lot through the back entrance, I noticed a ton of squashed berries on the ground. I looked up to discover a tree full of ripe mulberries. So I got to picking and gathered myself a hefty handful.

Mulberries Gainesville

Yep, it’s mulberry season, and there are plenty to go around on trees throughout Gainesville. You can be a sucker and buy a $5 pack of blackberries from some farm 100 miles away, or you can step right outside the market and get local, organic berries for free.

Watch out, though, cause they stain like a mother.

I’m having the mulberries in my smoothie right now and they are sweet and delicious. Also keep an eye out for loquats, coming soon to trees near you.

What My Childhood Rock Collection Taught Me About Life

When I was a kid, I collected rocks. Wherever I went, I would stare at the ground seeking stones to add to my little box of drawers. Over the years, I accumulated (found and purchased) nearly a hundred small rocks from around the country — thanks to family road trips.

Amethyst Geode

Among my favorite rocks were the geodes, especially the amethyst. A geode is a sedimentary or volcanic rock with internal crystal formations.

What always fascinated me about my amethyst geode was the dual nature of this rock. On the exterior, it is rough, grey and uninviting, but crack it open and a magnificent cavern of vibrant violet crystals is exposed.

Geodes are like you and me.

As we grow up and we endure life’s elements, we may become worn and develop a harsh exterior. We might stop talking to people for fear of rejection, or stop taking risks for fear of failure, or become afraid to love and be loved because of the difficulties it may cause us.

Like Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel, we risk becoming rocks. As the classic ballad goes, we “build walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate.”

It takes work and care to chisel open a geode, but it is worth the trouble. What we discover when we get past the rough outer shell is a beauty and splendor we might never have imagined was there.

The No-Facebook Diet: Why I’m Giving Up Facebook for 46 Days

Social Notworking

Although not for religious reasons, I am participating in Lent this year by making the ultimate 46-day sacrifice. I am giving up Facebook.

These days, the idea of unplugging from the mother of all social networks seems downright, well, anti-social. Don’t we all have a Facebook friend or two who has at some point deactivated their account? The reactions of friends range from “This won’t last,” to “Now how will we keep in touch?” to “Is she crazy?”

It’s as though Facebook has a monopoly on our social lives. Go to the page in your Account Settings where you deactivate your account and the first thing you’ll encounter is five images of you with friends, just some of the people Facebook assures you “will miss you.” As if Facebook were the only way to stay in touch.

I’ve been on Facebook for only three and a half years, and — although I have curbed my addiction in recent weeks — I have no doubt spent thousands of hours on this single website. Having it on my mobile phone ensures that any instance of boredom can be cured by browsing my News Feed, commenting on friends’ photos and reading and “liking” interesting articles. I hope that giving up Facebook will free up this time and mental energy to devote to more productive and rewarding endeavors.

It’s not that I am against Facebook. In fact, there are many benefits to embracing your online life. And I am a proponent of the social web as a tool for democracy.

At the same time, I want to learn about my friends’ lives because they share things with me personally, not because I read their status updates and view their photo albums anonymously. I want to wish friends happy birthday because I remember their birthdays, not because Facebook alerts me. And I want to learn new things by seeking out knowledge, not by having it dumped on me in a massive, random stream of data shared by 500 different friends.

The truth is, most of my best friends rarely interact with me on Facebook anyway. We make contact over the phone and in person. We share experiences in real life.

While on the No-Facebook Diet, I will pursue my career goals, engage in real experiences and nurture new relationships the old fashioned way. I will maintain my actual social network without depending on an Internet company to manage my relationships. I anticipate a newfound sense of liberation in life without Facebook.

I’ve made some strong statements in this post, but the truth is I’m not sure exactly what effect this sacrifice will have. I’ve only been on Facebook a few years, and I can’t remember life without Facebook. That’s what disturbs me the most.

Be back April 24.

One exception: I reserve the right to click the “Share” button below my blog posts in the next 46 days to share stories from this blog on Facebook. Doing so takes me to a blank page and keeps my home page and News Feed out of sight.

Post to Facebook

Our School at Blair Grocery: Achieving the Impossible in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward

Compost at Our School at Blair Grocery

Last weekend while in New Orleans, I visited Our School at Blair Grocery, an alternative, hands-on school and non-profit organization focused on teaching youth in the Lower Ninth Ward the principles of urban farming and sustainability. Our School at Blair Grocery is not just some agricultural magnet school. Rather, it is a place of hope and empowerment for youth in one of the nation’s most impoverished and crime-ridden communities — the hardest hit in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

I first learned about the Blair Grocery initiative when it was covered in the New York Times last month. See: New Orleans School Sows Seeds in Lower 9th Ward. I was moved by the story and shared it with a friend who is a New Orleans resident.

A couple weeks later, I received an invitation on Facebook to a talk in Gainesville by someone with a familiar name, Nat Turner. Turner, as he prefers to be called, is the founder of Our School at Blair Grocery. At the event, he told of his journey from public school teacher in New York City to pioneer of one of the nation’s most inspiring urban agriculture initiatives in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

Dissatisfied with his job in New York, Turner moved to New Orleans to help with the restoration effort after Katrina. He described a period of uncertainty where he knew he wanted to make a positive impact but was not sure how to apply himself. Given a little time and a number of revelations — including the reminder that, whoa, food comes from the ground! — Turner taught himself all he could about growing organic vegetables. Meanwhile, he began offering free tutoring sessions to kids in the Lower Ninth Ward out of his now-iconic blue school bus, and acquired a plot of land from an old, rundown grocery store to convert to a school. That, in a nutshell, is how Our School at Blair Grocery was born.

Our School at Blair Grocery

Although class was not in session when I visited, it was evident that the school is a thriving enterprise. Upon arriving with a couple of friends, we were greeted by a group of people who were laboring to renovate the building’s exterior. After knocking on the classroom door expecting to find Turner and perhaps a few others, I was startled to see 10 or 15 adults turn their heads toward us as we interrupted a strategy meeting.

Turner was kind enough to take a break from the meeting and show us around. The tour began at the giant compost heap, which is comprised of food scraps that are acquired free from local restaurants and grocery stores. The scraps in the pile decompose and are then fed to worms to produce nutrient-rich castings. “Everybody poops, but worms poop gold,” Turner joked. This golden poop is the lifeblood of all of the crops grown at the school.

The compost pile was an appropriate starting point for the tour, given that compost is, as a hand-painted sign on the property reads, “the foundation of our food system and thus, the source of all LIFE.”

We were then shown inside one of the school’s many small greenhouses (or “hoop houses”), which contain shelves of sprouts that are sold at $20 per pound to high-end food establishments in New Orleans, including Whole Foods and Emeril’s Restaurant. The sprouts are an easy sell because businesses love the idea of supporting local food and disadvantaged children, Turner said. This revenue is an important source of funding for the school, along with earnings from a weekly farmers’ market, which we also attended on Sunday.

“You can change the world with every bite.” – Wise words painted on one exterior wall

It is clear that Our School at Blair Grocery is deeply driven to not only produce local food (and tons of it), but to enrich the lives of young people in the process. We were not fortunate enough to meet any of the students — since class is in session Monday through Thursday, and we visited on Friday — yet their presence was evident in the youthful character of the school. The school walls are painted with inspirational quotations and the property is adorned with signs that teach human values.

The students also play a role in tending the many garden beds and rows, and selling the produce to food establishments. They are taught important skills in the process. Composting teaches math, as students calculate the appropriate ratio of green materials to brown materials. Sign-making and sales offer lessons in marketing and entrepreneurship. And the students are quizzed on readings and films about food security and sustainability.

The students work hard, and they reap the rewards. Not only does the school award them fresh produce and a minimum wage — both of which help to support their struggling families — but they are taught that they can be somebody in a world that otherwise regards them as nobodies.

“Faith in the fact creates the fact itself.” – Quotation on the business card of Turner’s teammate Rob

In his talk in Gainesville, Turner spoke of the skeptics and nonbelievers who have little hope for the youth of the Lower Ninth Ward. In a community with such poverty and a serious juvenile crime problem, keeping kids out of trouble — nevermind inspiring them to lead rewarding and successful lives — is next to impossible.

Luckily, to Nat Turner and his team, “impossible” is not a forbidden territory, but an alluring challenge. One that they are seeing through.

Schoolbus NY2NO at Our School at Blair Grocery

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali

Follow Our School at Blair Grocery via the school’s blog and Facebook page.

Reposted on UrbanFoodAmerica.org.

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