CicLAvia returned to Los Angeles this past Sunday with nine miles of closed city streets and we call it a success! This fifth edition, we feel, was better than earlier iterations despite hand-wringing about jettisoning the Hel-Mel and Hollenbeck Park hubs. The new route clearly tapped new transit opportunities with new hubs on rail lines and, not least, extended the route to the heretofore untapped neighborhoods of Exposition Park and Chinatown. But in past years, the 7th and Spring corridors proved to be the event’s main streets. With a crowd conservatively estimated at 100,000, a river of bikes, skateboards, unicycles and every other means of human-powered conveyance flowed through the center of Downtown to penetrate precincts overdue for a casual street-level reappraisal.
CicLAvia is that twice-yearly event that reminds us that civic spirit can indeed be found in the City of Angels. The caveat, of course, is that like any supernatural phenomena it must be summoned as if by shaman. It must be bidden to join us from whatever other dimension in which it ordinarily resides.
CicLAvia was the shaman and, once tapped, the civic spirits came out of hiding. From the beach communities of Venice and the Marina to the suburban precincts of the West Valley neighborhoods of West Hills and Chatsworth it emerged. From the northern reaches of Sun Valley and Sunland to the harbor’s San Pedro and Wilmington communities, it enveloped Downtown. And from yesterday’s Latino redoubt on the Eastside to today’s predominantly-Latino working-class neighborhoods of South Los Angeles it proved that for a couple of days a year, at least, we are one Los Angeles.
We started our ride at the westernmost hub at MacArthur Park on 7th Street. Today the corridor merely points the way to Downtown, but doing the slow-roll down past the small cafes and shops reminded us that this was a destination neighborhood made accessible by the Los Angeles Railway (streetcar). Back then, Westlake Park (later renamed for Gen. MacArthur) wasn’t yet bisected by today’s Wilshire Boulevard.
The beauty of CicLAvia is that it highlights the layered histories of Los Angeles. Seventh Street has got the broad sweep of any major 20th century Los Angeles boulevard but has perhaps yet to find its highest and best use as planners say. It’s got good planning bones (historic structures, proximate to the Red Line MacArthur station) and is ripe for a retail renaissance, but commercial property values reflect a neighborhood scarred by decades of economic disinvestment. Vitality is maintained only through the sheer entrepreneurial spirit of this community. Where is the urban Enterprise Zone for these blocks? The contrast between the AREI and Merrill branded tents and the merchandise on offer across the street was stark.
Our ultimate destination was one of the eastern hubs at Mariachi Plaza (a relatively new station plaza on the Gold Line) and indeed it was a lively locus of activity this Sunday: the Farmers Market was going strong; Libros Schmibros found a stead stream of would-be readers; and the singular Un Solo Sol Kitchen saw business ramp way up. The Eastside Luv bar on the Plaza couldn’t possibly keep up with the flow of customers looking to hydrate.
John Carlos de Luna – an artist and sometime doorman at Eastside Luv – had a front-row view and offered his perspective as he checked IDs (more than fifty in a five-minute stretch). “We’ve been here for six years, trying to build a good clientele to show people that Boyle Heights and East LA has a lot of class,” he said, “but usually we don’t open up on Sundays. Because of CicLAvia we’re tying to offer everybody a cold beer and a nice space to congregate.” And congregate they did.
We chatted de Luna up for a Bike Talk podcast about CicLAvia. We asked if CicLAvia had been good for business. “It definitely has,” de Luna said.
We’ve had as many people walk in here than we did in probably the past three days – and that’s just in the last four hours! And not only this business, but businesses on the corridor like Espacio 1839 next door. It is brand new – a book store, record store, and a radio studio and today there is the opportunity to meet and greet everyone. Ciclavia brings people into the neighborhood to see what we offer here…When you’re out there on a bike, you’re able to talk to people, to understand where people are coming from, to have a conversation.
We asked what made CicLAvia different.
It’s the whole idea of being in your car: there we tend to separate ourselves. We think we’re connected to what’s going on in the outside world. But being in your car is no different than being in your home. Here it is all these different people from all walks of life just riding a bike on a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles on one of the most beautiful days. That’s why we opened up: sit down, have a glass of beer, cool down and have a conversation.
What about holding CicLAvia monthly? “I think that would be great,” de Luna said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to meet up from different parts of Los Angeles.”
Hydration is important, but also is keeping that ride in working order. At Mariachi Plaza, Orange 20 bike shop hosted a free repair facility at the Plaza to deal with the inevitable hardware snafus.
In between the Eastside and Westside hubs was the heart of CicLAvia along 7th Street (Downtown’s former department store corridor) and Spring Street where a new green bike lane marks this bike route right by City Hall. Spring Street more than just a bike route, though; it is where the resurgence of Downtown is most keenly felt. Numerous bars, coffee shops and restaurants make this stretch home. And on CicLAvia day, it is crowded with riders and takes on the air of a parade ground. You’ll see everything here from tall Frankenstein rides to novel creations like this interactive drawing machine (at right).
This year, though, Spring Street took on new life as a junction where one spur extended north to reach Chinatown and the other branched west through Little Tokyo and on across the Los Angeles River to Boyle Heights. Not least, Spring Street put the city’s new Grand Park on the map too. It was as natural a place for rest and relaxation as any. With City Hall right across the street to provide a great vantage point, and nearby tents (including the LACBC where the CicLAvia event once germinated) and food trucks, this central city hub was where the whole event literally and figuratively came together.
Perhaps the spirit of CicLAvia is best summed up by Carlos Ortez, proprietor of Un Solo Sol Kitchen on Mariachi Plaza, whose philosophy provided a wonderful complement to a restaurant mural (by designer Raphael Escamilla). “Our philosophy to re-channel the world into the harmony of nature,” he said. “We can’t be driving life on fossil fuel – it’s not renewable. The sun is our history. I’m a mechanical engineer, an environmental regulator, but I’m also a naturopath, and I’ve embedded into the business the naturopathic way of life. We’re in the mode of transformation of society – the way people eat – it’s a true homemade food, all from scratch. By biking instead of burning fuel we’re much closer to nature – we’re burning our own fuel.” Carlos added that he offers a 25% (!) discount “if you make it to Mariachi Plaza by anything but a vehicle.” That’s incentive!
On this sunny Sunday, we all came out to participate in CicLAvia to remind ourselves that our metropolis need not be a fragmented puzzle of complex cultures and competing interests. The car-free holiday helped us recall our shared interest in making our streets ours again: ours to walk, to bike, or simply to express a philosophy or to individually represent ourselves to our fellow Angelenos.
That civic spirit, rediscovered and revitalized on a sunny Sunday, transcends culture, class, and almost every other everyday concern that ordinarily gets in the way of our enjoyment of the civic spaces that have been bequeathed to us. Doing the slow-roll through city streets reminds us that yesterday’s Los Angeles is still a wonderful, important city. With the collective spirit of civitas reanimated (if only on the occasion of a car-free holiday), we can look ahead to an even better city – one that is more friendly to every mode of transportation and more solicitous of unorthodox uses for civic space. See more pics on our CicLAvia gallery post.