Talk on food and place-making Nov 26

Poster for talk.

Poster for talk.

I’ll be speaking from 2-4pm on November 26th at the Suginami Ward Public Library on some of the food justice & community-building things I worked with in LA. While the concept of “food justice” doesn’t have the same ring in Japanese, and it is not as geographically based (e.g. food deserts) as in the US, many people are aware of stratified access to good, tasty, fresh affordable food. And are starting programs and informal orgs to deal with it. I touch on some of those common connections, and on some neat projects I found in a recent trip to Alaska, in this talk…no reading required, but a reservation is good–call the library at the # on the poster.

spring 2014 @ UCLA: urban ag, again



Because I grew up in the middle of big big-scale corn and soybean farms, I have to admit that sometimes, I have qualms about the term “urban agriculture” or “urban farming.” The scale here just seems different–less vast, but responsive to different things. I think we need a new term, like we need a new term to displace the awful eradicating phrase “food desert,” which we should know better than to use in LA! Maybe this Quarter we will find a way! The link to the course blog is here.

korean TV shoot in s la

This weekend I helped coordinate a photo shoot for a Korean crew visiting some of the gardens in S LA built by the organization I work with, Green Grounds. The “PBS of Korea,” EBS, is making a two-part series about various food justice movements in the US.

The two-guy crew was able to follow our hosts, Roberto, Sandra and young Lee Aguilar as they worked in the very lush space that has replaced their front lawn. The crew was were pretty eager to see some vegetables which are apparently very pricey in Korea growing like weeds in this lawn, and also quite curious about how the movement for parkway gardening was able to succeed in LA.For my part, I was interested in hearing about the very active scene of urban gardening in Seoul.

Two of the gardens that GG worked on in S LA have been catalysts for changing the LA City Code after plantings on the lawns ran afoul of technical language that only allows a very small group of plants and a few edibles to reside on  a parkway (the strip of land between the street and sidewalk which is even “double-wide” some places in LA).

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Et in Arcadia Ego

From an arcade-ful of cool refrigerated kitties on a hot day in Arcadia. Photo: Dan W
Grab the ball, not the kitty! From an arcade-ful of cool refrigerated kitties on a hot day in Arcadia. Photo: Dan W

No, not death, silly (as in the famous paintings with the skull casting a shadow on the pastoral scene of what should otherwise look Arcadian), but kitties kitties everywhere, especially here in Arcadia, tucked away in a coffee bar–literally, an end-to-end row of pink kittyness whose vanishing point leads you to a giant plush panther.

Pardon the radio silence. I’m mostly on hiatus, translating up a storm, teaching media translation to wonderful Japanese exchange students and industry people, and diving into the slowly ratcheting heatfest that is full-on summer. Oh, and I started a small press, to launch this fall, so stay tuned.



cabbage bouquets

Here is a shot of two of my lovely students from the Urban Ag class @ UCLA this quarter. They are holding bouquets of cabbages, gai lan, and lettuce, veggies with an interesting backstory.

In front of the student garden @ Sunset Canyon Rec Center

In front of the student garden @ Sunset Canyon Rec Center

The” bouquets” are partly sourced from our very own garden. But the explicitly “Asian” ones come from a farmers’ market. Two other students in the class went to do their “fieldwork” assignment for the class at a gleaning operation located at a farmers’ market. The project has the mandate to recover food at markets which might not be sold, then re-distribute it to shelters and food banks: a win-win situation in which the farmers can recoup some costs for their goods, and the recipient organizations can get fresh produce they might not otherwise get.

One thing that the students, who were all Asian American, remarked, is the high quotient of Asian vegetables in the array of leftovers. They surmised, after seeing the selecting and talking to other volunteers, that the selecting organizations “didn’t know what to do” with the Asian vegetables–which are, like most greens, composed of leaves, stalks, and, on occasion, flowers (in the case of tine bouquet on the left, yellow flowers). We were all intrigued that these veggies would be so illegible to people who have a love of good, fresh, healthy good–though it was a “win” for the students, who brought bagsful of them to distribute to the class, and no doubt fed some happy stomachs.

I think we all agreed that given the boom in Urban Ag and homesteading in LA, the spread of “technical” information about growing things seems to be spreading apace. But that cultural information lags behind, about how to treat and eat “foreign” veggies without being intimidated and just throwing them away (insert yellow peril joke here, based on historical legacy of displacing Asian farmers in Southern California). They made a nice stir-fry at my house, and I enjoyed them, while feeling slightly rueful that more people who needed them did not have the know-how of how to do the same.

Course blog for “Urban ag in LA”

My class has officially started, with the building/installation of eight raised beds in the UCLA garden, and 25 students enrolled. We will be starting our first seeds on Thursday–and sheltering them like crazy until this unseasonal cold spell fades away. Students will be posting their grocery store reviews, tracking the garden’s progress, and folding in current events posts and links here.


Griffith Park observatory, sunset, December 21

Griffith Park observatory, sunset, December 21

With about a bazillion of my fellow Angelenos, temporary and trans-planted, I walked up to the top of the Griffith Park lookout to watch the sun set on December 21, down to the last cloudy filaments. Then kept going for a bit, till true darkness fell. I’ve been doing this a number of years, and the solstice hike is one of my favorite urban nature rituals. This year there was an extra kick because of the Mayan calendar turn–essentially the reset back after 144,000 days. Pretty awesome that it happened on a solstice.

I’m kind of susceptible to the idea, because Japanese calendrical systems affect everything from reign names and their gloss on auspiciousness to formal letter salutations. In language school, for example, we learned one such gloss of season (in these days of brisk cold…etc.), that was delinked from its poetic context and the saijiki manuals that might give you seasonal words for haiku, to be bundled with an apology for returning a late library book. How ever will one apologize with the proper amount of rigor if global climate change causes a rupture in ritual relation to accepted calendrical time? I guess it has already happened once, in 1873, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced for the purposes of commerce, and “new year” calibrated to January 1.

a tale of two engines

It was a bright Friday morning, and I was puttering around the farm at Muir Ranch, the 1.5-acre working garden at John Muir High School, in Pasadena. Temperatures hovered at about 98, but students on their lunch hour were milling around the vacant field part of the campus, waiting for the Endeavour space shuttle to fly by. A couple of teachers were there, having hollered to people to come out, and this is what it looked like.

The shuttle, as it buzzes in to salute JPL, the motherland of sorts. Yes, the shuttle itself is deliberately a bit hard to see in this photo, while the humans are foregrounded.

As I watched the shuttle go by, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. Mostly because it just looked like a couple of piggybacked airplanes and not a futurist vehicle; I suppose that boils down to a feeling that a certain kind of pragmatics trumped imagination. The conveyance that passed by looked a lot like what we see on the tarmac at LAX any day of the week. There were, though, people on the nearby freeway who stopped–a lot of them, on the 210. It seems there was enough consensus that this was an “event” that no one got slammed.

I couldn’t help feeling ambivalent, though. Pasadena, as a city, has more students in private school than any other city in the country–36%. Never mind the “digital divide,” the kids in public school in the remaining 64% are cordoned by literal mountains from the technology that is literally flying by them.

It really made me wonder: what are people slowing down for? what are they in awe of? Given that my discipline is founded on the results of the atom bomb, it is a professionally relevant question–it is entirely possibly to revere something absolutely awesome that is really not in your best interest, such as Little Boy or Big Bertha.

I think that what bothered me is that it is some abstract notion of “technology” that holds sway; this vision celebrates technology as a sublime force of big budgets. Socal has a long attachment to the aerospace industry, especially in the South Bay. The Pasadena public radio station focuses quite keenly on goings-on at JPL. It’s nice to see a locally-sourced transportation infrastructure that works, in these days where 60% of LA sidewalks are broken and “carmageddon” hysteria is hobbling the westside commute. The element of civic pride sparked by spotting the Endeavour was visible in the way its visit affected the traffic on nearby freeways–people pulled over on the 210, put on their blinkers, and just watched, motors humming. There was clearly enough of a consensus that it was an “event” that no mad honking or pileups occurred, even on a typically impatient Friday.

My worry is that while everyone is mobilized to admire the shuttle in a blue sky that belongs to no one, something else is being celebrated. This “something” is actually a faith in exploration of faraway unknowns at the expense of locally present terrains that, in fact, may be equally unknown. That to “explore” is actually to abandon. Rhetorical question: have we (rhetorical we) done so well with the resources on our planet that we merit carte-blanche access to any- and everyplace else? I am not sure about this.

I am sure the funding of space projects is complex and answers to many masters, a process that deserves close attention. I am sure that basic research generates many insights and practical applications of science and contributes to a more general archive of what we may know. What bothered me was not the dreamy attitude to an abstract future, but the concrete policy decisions of bringing the shuttle back “home.”

After it finishes its greetings to JPL and the rest of the coast, the Endeavour is scheduled to journey from LAX through S LA to its final destination, the CA Science Museum. A lot, a lot of trees will be cut down to make that that swath of transit possible in Inglewood and S LA. This is already a part of the city, a massive geographical part, that is green-poor, park poor, tree-poor. It’s been record-hot temperatures in LA this last week, just hot hot hot, and I can’t imagine why you would want to cut down any form of respite against that.

The repetitions of environmental racism that I am familiar with from “food desert” geography are depressingly chronic. Whack the trees, the promote the modern.

Yet, there are outliers. Along the lines of swords into ploughshares, I ran into an interesting concept the other day–swords into pizza ovens. Rather than summoning a bunch of at-risk high school students to genuflect to a bunch of resource-intensive technology they might never get a crack at, though it be next door, why not think about what a jet engine can do–given its druthers.

People, meet Sparky, the pizza oven, made from a re-tooled jet engine into a customized portable fire-breathing pizza-creating animal. I first heard of Sparky at a fundraiser dinner for Rootdown LA in S LA, an organization that teaches local kids to make and eat healthy food using quite cutting-edge “technologies,” like the pirate crate of molecular gastronomy. Its programming challenges the idea that a technology must be huge, expensive, and dependent on large institutions.

The full Sparky.

If not swords into ploughshares–an image which seems a bit too earthy and hippiesque for this era–why not engines into pizzas.



interim spaces / pasadena

The Woodworking Bus, part of the Alternate Routes project. Source:

Talking to urban planners, lawyers and urban ag/community health and garden advocates lately, I have found that opinions differ wildly on the value of vacant lots as interim spaces. One POV feels that any way in is a way in, and that finite contracts on a year-to-year basis that may be revocable are well worth the effort developing. Namely, this is because they allow something to be done NOW, and the benefits of urban gardening can be evident to all in the very near future. Another opposing POV feels that too many times urban gardening has reclaimed vacant and neglected spaces, remediated the terrible soil quality, introduced foot traffic, made the land productive both emotionally and in terms of mental/physical health payoffs, and made the formerly ratty and abject place a place where people want to go, as opposed to want to avoid~~only to be booted out when property values make developers lick their chops. I think opinions hinge also to some extent on the availability of said land (it being felt to be even lousier to be kicked out if there are few or no other options).

Enter…the mobile workshop and garden, a way of allowing some flexibility into this fairly strict-seeming set of options. Thanks to the kind invitation of my friend M, I toured an example of such movable thinking last night, night of the blue moon: an art opening at Side Street Projects in northwest Pasadena. Here is what the space looked like at about 5pm, before people started coming in.

Picnic tables, soon to be garnished with flowers, BBQ and homemade pickles. Airstream studios in the background (my finger in the foreground…oops!).

It must have been 100, 120 people at one point. I found that the project managers had done some very smart long-term thinking about how they occupied the land. It’s rented from the City, and sits between a Church’s Chicken and an old abandoned Victorian house that the City is going to move somewhere else, as it is historically significant. “Rent” is paid in sweat equity, through the workshops and open events that SSP sponsors. And as is typical with such arrangements, there some rules–no performances, for example, and most strikingly, no gardening. I think the fear is that people would get too attached to the space, and occupying the land would morph into Occupying the land. The design solution is to make many things mobile. Here is a picture of picnic-goer S doing his thing at a station in the Woodworking Bus, one of several types of movable teaching studio on the lot.

Desk-like stations, each outfitted with tools, line each side of the Woodworking Bus, which also includes a teacher’s station for use during workshops.

Other such conveyances include: a FEMA trailer that has been re-purposed into a hanging garden, and several Airstream trailers that serve as studios, workshop spaces, and gathering spaces for artists/community folks who may need to have meetings outside of their living spaces. Future plans include mobile raised-bed gardens that could be “transplanted” into a new space, in the event that their interim use expires.

The mobile spaces of the SSP presented some really inspiring solutions in a two-birds-one-stone way (sustainability, land use). Also, the pickles were sublime, and the crowd very amiable. So much so that I forgot to take any further pictures…