Sunday, November 17, 2013

The County

Monrovia, California

November 17, 2013

In my last posting I talked about someone I call Diabetes Woman, and I want to give you an update on her. Following my two less than amicable encounters with her I continued to pass her from time to time on my way down to the parking lot on Hill Street.  I'm not certain what her hours of operation are, but on my way into work at around 8:00 a.m. she's not yet at her post, and when I work all day at the downtown location she's not there at 4:30 in the afternoon when I go back to my car.  However, many times my day on the job is split between the downtown complex and a satellite County office.  The downtown complex includes the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, named after a man named Kenneth Hahn, and the Los Angeles Central Superior Court, named after Stanley Mosk.

Kenneth Hahn was a mildly interesting man.  He was born in Los Angeles in 1920 to Canadian parents who had just moved there, and spent his entire life as a resident of the area, dying in 1997.  In addition to serving for forty years on the County Board of Supervisors, from 1952 to 1992, he also designed the current seal of the County of Los Angeles, which was modified slightly in 2004 to eliminate the Christian cross with which he had adorned it.  (Hahn was very a religious Protestant, often quoting scripture.)  Although Los Angeles was founded by Spanish priests and named for the Virgin Mary, it is now under the fortunate umbrella of the nominally nonsectarian American government, so removing the cross was a good move, albeit a tardy one, on the part of the County.

Stanley Mosk served as a California Supreme Court Justice for 37 years, from 1964 until his death at the age of 89 in 2001.  Prior to that he served as state Attorney General.  Of politically liberal Jewish heritage, he and his family moved to Los Angeles from Rockford, Illinois during the Depression after his father's business failed.  Mosk became the longest-serving state Supreme Court justice, and after his death the central downtown Superior Court building was named in his honor.

The two buildings named after these guys occupy most of a large block whose boundaries are Hill, Temple, First, and Grand Streets, with a narrow public area called Grand Park between the buildings.  They are connected by an underground parking lot where the Superior Court judges and other court officials as well as the higher-ups in the LA County administration park.  The satellite office I often go to is located in East Los Angeles, and is named for Gloria Molina, the County Supervisor for that area.  That office, a modest two-story building, is at the corner of Sunol Avenue and East First and we refer to it simply as "Sunol."  It is on my walks back to my car during the middle of the day to drive to Sunol--anywhere from about 11:00 a.m. to noon--that I see Diabetes Woman.  However, occasionally in the morning I would see her sitting high on the steps that go up the hill to the top of the Fort Moore Memorial.  I assume she slept somewhere up there then would come down to Hill Street to take her post in front of the entrance to the parking lot connected to the Cathedral.

Here let me digress again from Diabetes Woman to say a few words about the County of Los Angeles.  LA County is vast, both in area and in population.  At over 4,000 square miles it is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.  And its population of over 10 million (some estimate it to be closer to 11 million, since many of its inhabitants do not wish to make themselves known to the authorities lest they be subject to deportation) makes it the most populous county in the United States, with more people than 42 individual states have. The majority of the population lives in the southern half of the county, while its northern region is thinly inhabited mountains and high desert.  For you Michigan folks, think of it this way.  Pack three times the population of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties combined into the same area those counties occupy, then add another area the same size that is mostly empty.

LA County's population is diverse though heavily Mexican, as you might expect (appropriately so considering that this area was part of Spain and then Mexico from its "discovery" by Europeans in the 1500s until the middle of the 19th century).  The general demographic breakdown is about 48% Hispanics, 28% non-Hispanic whites, 14% Asians (mostly Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Japanese, in that order), and 9% African Americans.  Languages other than English and Spanish often heard include Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Armenian, Tagalog, and various Slavic tongues.  For those who no longer speak any language, the County contains the largest cemetery in the U.S., Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, and of course two of the most famous--the Forest Lawns of Glendale and Los Angeles.

Human diversity aside, the County is rich in geological, botanical, and biological variety as well.  Its highest point of elevation is a little over 10,000 feet and its lowest is sea level.  Cacti of a number of species abound, as well as native evergreens, sycamores, cottonwoods, oaks, and wildflowers, and a plethora of non-native plant species, including several varieties of palm trees, eucalyptuses, ficuses, citrus trees, and more ornamental lawn trees than you can count.  Up in the mountains and deserts as well as at the edges of the cities there are coyotes, mountain lions, bears, deer, foxes, bobcats, vultures, bald eagles, feral parrots, black widow spiders, and rattlesnakes.  Little lizards are everywhere.

Los Angeles County encompasses the City of Los Angeles, but also no fewer than 87 other incorporated municipalities and over 140 recognized unincorporated regions that account for over 65% of the County's area.  Apart from the 3.3 million people of the City of Los Angeles, the County contains at least 14 other cities with populations of over 100,000.

It is in one of the unincorporated areas, East Los Angeles, just outside the city limits of LA, where Sunol, the satellite County office I referred to above, is located.  East Los Angeles, bounded on the west by the City and on its other sides by Monterey Park, Montebello, and several other municipalities, has a population of over 125,000, more than 97% of whom are Hispanic. It would rank as the tenth most populous city in the County, except that it isn't a city, just a piece of County land.  I am not sure why this area, essentially a Mexican ghetto, does not belong to the City proper, since it is geographically just an extension of the Boyle Heights area of LA, also known as East Los Angeles.  At any rate, because it isn't part of any city, it is directly governed by the County of Los Angeles and policed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the largest sheriff's department in the United States.  The County itself is politically administered by a Board of Supervisors, consisting of five elected Supervisors, who hire an executive director, and each of whom presides over his or her own fiefdom, with primary jurisdiction over the unincorporated areas and sometimes concurrent and overlapping jurisdiction over the incorporated cities.  Many of the smaller incorporated cities contract with the County for police and fire services in lieu of having their own.  Supervisor Gloria Molina, as far as I can discern, is the de facto mayor of East Los Angeles, its alcalde.  The other four County Supervisors are Zev Yaroslavsky, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Michael Antonovich, and Don Knabe.  It is in the upper atmosphere of the vast Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration where these Supervisors wield their power.  My office, the Department of Consumer Affairs, is down in the basement, away from cell phone reception and natural light.  That is one of the reasons I enjoy going over to Sunol.  There I have a nice naturally lit desk by a window on the second floor, my own direct phone line, and out front a truck that sells tacos for a dollar apiece.

Well, that's a boatload of statistics and miscellaneous information, and really, what county doesn't have lots of stuff you could say about it?  I guess the point of it all is to emphasize that LA County is much more than the television and movie industries.  (To give it its due, however, Hollywood does a pretty good job of depicting the one and two story stucco sameness of the tightly-packed urban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, barred windows and all, usually when it does one of its many "tough corrupt cop" movies about the LAPD or the County Sheriff's Department.  Tough and corrupt are reputations both police forces have worked long and hard to earn.)  In fact, although media production is a big part of the economy, it's only the most famous part.  The rest of what makes the place run is what the average person does every day everywhere (other than driving snowplows, maybe).  In fact, holding up Hollywood and the wealthy neighborhoods of the west side hills and their glittering, privileged denizens as representing the essence of LA is little like trying to understand Detroit by examining Bloomfield Hills, or equating the south side of Chicago with Evanston, or driving around in Westchester County to see what the Bronx is all about.

It is, as I said, to East Los Angeles that I often journey about halfway through my day, and that is when I walk past Diabetes Woman on my way northward down the hill to the parking lot in Chinatown.  Not long after I wrote the last blog posting, I saw her at her usual post, still holding the sign whose efficacy I had had the temerity to question.  As I went by I expected her to stare yellow-eyed reptilian daggers at me or mutter something obscene.  Instead her eyes were bright and she smiled and held up a key that was attached to a blue lanyard around her neck.  "Look," she said proudly, "I got an apartment!"  She was beaming, and I was momentarily nonplussed by her unexpected display of joy.  I slowed down just enough to answer back, "I'm happy for you."  Our past animosity was forgotten by both of us in this moment of her joy.  It was obvious that she felt she had attained a new level of respectability, one that would elevate her status in the world in the eyes of suit-wearing types like me.  I wouldn't dream of disabusing her of that notion, though I can't say it makes much difference to me.  But it certainly was making a difference to her.

So Diabetes Woman no longer lives among the scrub in the abandoned ancient graveyard at the top of the Fort Moore steps, sleeping, as I imagine it, huddled in a blanket or two and surrounded by her small collection of worldly possessions, one of the more than 58,000 homeless people in the County, enough to fill Dodger stadium.  As I began crossing over the freeway I glanced back and saw her making the same happy boast to another well-dressed passerby, speaking to her warmly, like a friend.  But she still panhandles at her spot.  I suppose she now has at least a small amount of rent and/or household upkeep to pay for in addition to whatever she needs to do to obtain food and clothing.  A person, after all, has to make a living.

At the outskirts of Chinatown I passed a few more familiar denizens of my walk, including the funky always-smiling young Vietnamese guy who runs the parking lot, whom I once saw wearing bright red lipstick and eyeliner for no reason I could discern.  I also passed several of the same superannuated Chinese men and women I see shuffling slowly past me in shapeless pants and dresses, making whatever slow progress their long day requires, up the steep hillsides to the small apartments overlooking Hill Street, whose balconies are hung with drying laundry and red and gold talismans of luck and hoped-for prosperity.

This time I didn't think of the depiction of the perverse and treacherous diversion of the wealth of Los Angeles played out in Chinatown by John Huston and Jack Nicholson.  Nor did I dwell on the baldly hypocritical and insulting praise of the Mormon Brigade chiseled in the stone and glorified in bas relief on the Fort Moore Memorial, honoring the Pioneers who bravely "settled" Los Angeles for the country in the mid-1800s.  Instead I was reminded of the many souls who have journeyed to the County with no political or economic agendas other than to try to escape the terror and bigotry and degradation of their native lands, whether from south of the border, from across the vast Pacific, or out of the American deep south, most to a better life but some to something less than the promised land they expected.  Some were homeless and found homes, however modest; others left homes and became homeless, out here in the land of big dreams and often much smaller joys.

I thought of the final lines from "Lapis Lazuli" by William Butler Yeats, where he describes the images of three ancient Chinese men, climbing toward a little house:

There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes, mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

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