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Make Your Own America

“A mass audience in the United States is not an audience for a collectively generated idea, welded together by the power of that idea and by common debates about it. Mass audiences are created…by the marketing of excitements that take the place of ideas, of real collective debate, vision, or catharsis; excitements that come and go, so fast that they serve only to isolate us in the littleness of our own lives—we become incoherent to one another.” —Adrienne Rich

Live Nation produced a huge festival last month, Made in America. Created by Jay Z in 2012, the sponsor-heavy MIA was streamed simultaneously from Philadelphia and Los Angeles this year in a Labor Day-weekend orgy of corporate entertainment. Some in Los Angeles were unhappy about Made in America, not least because the mayor negotiated with Live Nation privately and pushed for downtown’s 2-year-old Grand Park as a venue. Some questioned whether, at the end of the day, the costs of security and cleanup would outweigh the benefits. But also, LA residents and particularly those who live near the park questioned what goodwill accrues to their  community when the family-friendly, alcohol-free “people’s park” is rented for a $100-per-day event sponsored by Budweiser.

Chiwan Choi, writer, small-press owner and longtime downtown resident, was blistering in his criticism of the decision to bring the Live Nation event to Grand Park. “They’re leeches,” he told me, painting with one brush the corporate promoters who arrive from somewhere else, make their money and move on, leaving nothing of enduring value behind. Creating value and building community in downtown LA are uppermost in Chiwan’s mind this summer, as he and his three partners at Writ Large Press established #90for90, a series of 90 consecutive, free cultural events.

The Made in America concert was important, said Mayor Garcetti, to LA’s economy and image, and mainstream media treated it accordingly, with advance coverage everywhere. Contrast the roster of corporate sponsorships and high ticket prices behind Made in America for a second with #90for90. Ninety events in a row. Free to the public. Night after night. No sponsors, no merch, no dressing rooms or Cause Village. Just one local business working with another to welcome people of all colors and backgrounds to discover and build their own culture.

I’ve been watching gentrification dilute and disperse the artist community of Bushwick, Brooklyn, this year, after being displaced from it myself by rising rents in 2013. When Chiwan told me about #90for90, I felt something special about it; I saw it as a social experiment in resisting gentrification and dispersal, and I thought his project might spark conversations that could empower other communities to take initiative in their own neighborhoods.

I pitched an interview to a publication, got the assignment, and we did the interview around day 30 of 90—when Choi was still coming up the steep learning curve of the project—sleep-deprived, questioning what he was doing (shelving most of his income-producing work, for instance), and yet uplifted by word-of-mouth support from the public.

I turned in the interview August 5, three weeks before the Live Nation event. The publication sat on the story for 2 weeks, without killing it or offering feedback. I was frustrated. The editor had been supportive in our initial conversation about the scope of the interview, but he clearly wasn’t behind it, so I thought maybe it had a better chance elsewhere. I asked for the story back, something I’d never done before.

Funny thing happened on the way to elsewhere. I emailed another editor I knew to say that I had completed a (timely) story.  Made in America was still a week in the future; I thought Chiwan’s criticism was relevant to conversations about that event, but his comment on the concert was only a small part of the interview. An editor familiar with my work for this second publication helpfully offered to post the story online, possibly later the same day. Since #90for90 had now passed the halfway point, I made a quick call to Chiwan to check in, updated the interview, and sent a revised manuscript.

And I never heard from that editor again.

As I write this, #90for90 has passed day 70 (it ends September 26, 2014). It is drawing crowds that spill out of its venue, Traxx bar, and into Union Station despite being mostly ignored by the press.  Made in America, now over, was covered exhaustively, which confirms age-old truths about money and politics but says little about local culture. All summer I watched the former run over the latter, all over America.

I lived in LA for 20 years before I moved to Brooklyn, so I’ve heard plenty of outsiders and especially New Yorkers sneer at LA’s showbiz image, dismiss the city as “shallow,” and say LA has no culture. By the time I spoke with Chiwan last night, he and his partners had hosted 70 consecutive evenings of free art, poetry, literature, discussion and workshops. What do you call that? For Mayor Garcetti to overlook the fact that downtown’s culture is revitalizing itself without benefit of his million-dollar deals, something is definitely broken. The media system is broken. The culture system is broken, and not just in LA.

A critique of Made in America or media has its place, but ad-supported media is not that place. You cannot speak out in an ad-supported publication against the vertically integrated knot of relationships that is the Live Nation-Jay Z-Budweiser octopus. I was naïve to think one can voice criticism of a thing, from within that thing.

I imagine all of the conversations we aren’t having because too-sharp words sit on an editor’s desk for a couple weeks, or become blunted through editing. With staff positions all but gone, I imagine writers everywhere, isolated scrappers parked in front of laptops pitching softer, happier stories with broad appeal, aiming to get past editors’ filters in search of a dime. I imagine that finally, all the news is good and important questions are no longer asked, because unpleasant answers never go viral.

“We’re pretty confident this is the right place to be. MIA stands for this all-American product in the heart of great urban cities, and that’s exactly what we are branding L.A. to be. This is the most creative city in the world, and it’s our moment.”—Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, in the Los Angeles Times.

Oh, fuck it. I guess I’m a publisher now.


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Update #1: #3WTotal


Last week I requested information about 3rd Ward’s debts. I asked instructors, members & students to share their stories. Thank you to everyone who has sent me information for this ongoing project.

What’s the total?
To date, I have received claims against outstanding memberships, course fees and instructor invoices of: $38,450. This is an estimate, and not a final total.

What else?
Brooklyn media has been supportive and encouraging and is helping spread awareness about this project. Here are some links:

Brooklyn Magazine
Brooklyn Paper

A note on bias:
I am researching this story as a writer & a former instructor, but I do not have a financial claim. One of the stories above suggests that teachers are seeking revenge. That isn’t what the project is about for me. I’ve been a freelancer for most of my life, and it is hard to make a living when you are financially exposed to risk by your clients. This project is about collecting and sharing research, and it was probably the experience of being a freelancer that inspired me to start the project, but I’m open to hearing all views and experiences.

Please share this project with anyone you know who might want to contribute their experiences. Confidentiality and privacy will be respected. I send project updates via mailing list, so please subscribe if you have not already. Email me with your questions or stories at:

Thank you for your support.

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New “community” project

I am doing some research.

No one ever reported how much 3rd Ward owes its teachers, members and students. The amount owed to any one person might be $100 here, $3,500 there. But all together, was thiscommunity” stuck with a bill for $20,000, $50,000, more?

Who cares?

The debts 3rd Ward owes to teachers & students & members are an underreported but important part of the legacy and myth of 3rd-Ward-the-brand. Besides, when a company as large as Livestream starts name-checking “the 3rd Ward community” to rebrand itself “Brooklyn,” isn’t the community’s fate, well, relevant?

Here’s a link to the email I sent to teachers+members+students. Please forward this to someone who might want to contribute. Thank you.

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New post on Tumblr: #I Am Afraid

I posted a short essay to Tumblr yesterday in honor of Michael Brown. Please check it out, share if you like it.  Thank you.

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Two Guns: New essay up now at Vol. 1 Brooklyn

I’m thankful to Vol. 1 Brooklyn for publishing my latest essay, here. We don’t need to share a single point of view, but you’re welcome to walk a mile in my shoes.  Here’s the first paragraph…

Two Guns

On July 10, 2013, around 5:30 PM, an old friend of mine, Teddy Days, was sitting or maybe laying down inside an old hearse he owned that was parked on the side of his small house in Yucca Valley, California. It was about 100 degrees. That kind of heat was probably bearable to Teddy, who had lived in the desert for about nine years. But sitting or laying in this white hearse with the doors closed and the windows rolled up like he was doing—well, anyone might have been heat-crazy. That is probably why he kept opening and closing the hearse’s back doors in those hours he spent trying to decide whether or not to shoot himself like he’d planned to do before his friend called the police, who were now present.

Read the rest at Vol. 1 Brooklyn.


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