Coal ash & breaker boys

March 27, 2016 § 2 Comments

Anthracite FieldsEarlier this month, when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presented the West Coast premiere of Anthracite Fields, Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio about coal mining, it was the sort of performance that leaves you stunned, riveted to your seat—until you leap to your feet to applaud.

Perhaps Anthracite Fields resonated so deeply because I grew up in Central Pennsylvania when coal was still king.

Every fall, a driver for Arnold Fuel Co. backed one of its orange dump trucks perpendicular to the house, thrust a chute through a ground-level window, and released its load. Those small, oily black chips flooding into our coal bin fascinated me. In them was the mysterious power that kept us warm, a material substance transmuted by fire into heat, leaving rough pebbles of ash that my brother would shovel into tubs to be placed at the curb for disposal.

Anthracite was prized because it’s high carbon content and low level of impurities caused it to burn cleanly, which did not prevent a film of gritty black dust from accumulating on interior window sills that my sister and I had to dust every Saturday.

The word “oratorio” suggests Baroque stylings of Handel’s Messiah. Anthracite Fields, in contrast, is a contemporary piece, majestic in its own way, full of dissonance and surprising harmonies, spoken word, recitativo, and video projections. Singers were accompanied by a sextet of amplified instruments and implements that included bicycle wheels whose spokes provided the sound familiar to every kid who’s ever clipped a playing card to the fork of his bike.

Anthracite Fields takes us into the world of the men and boys who brought anthracite to the surface and of the women who labored to sustain households under the ever present threat of loss occasioned by cave-in or explosion. In fact, Wolfe begins her composition with a sung list of names she culled from an official compendium of all who died in coal mines between 1869 and 1916.

Consequences of coal mining were commonplace throughout the Pennsylvania of my youth: massive spoil piles of waste rock, rivulets of bright orange acidic fluids streaming from old mine sites, sudden ground subsidence, underground fires that could burn for decades.

Mining put so much debris into waterways that by the time the Susquehanna River rolled by Harrisburg, there was profit to be made sending a barge along the shore to dredge coal waste for resale. Swimming in the river from City Island’s concrete beach meant stepping into mushy piles of granular coal.

By Lewis W. Hine - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

By Lewis W. Hine – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05473.

What I did not know until hearing Anthracite Fields was that until the 1920s, boys as young as 8 or 9 worked 10 hours a day, six days a week plucking debris from the torrent of coal pieces pouring down chutes in the breaker mill. The oratorio memorializes these “breaker boys” who earned, c. 1902, 65 cents a day, which might be reduced to as little as 25 cents when rent was deducted.

You would be forgiven for imaging that Anthracite Fields refers to a world that no longer exists. Yet in many parts of the U.S., residents can boot up their computers and recharge their cell phones, turn on a light or put clothes in the dryer, only because somewhere, coal is being burned. In Los Angeles, coal supplies 33 to 40 percent of the electricity provided by the L.A. Department of Water and Power, our city-owned public utility.


Navaho Generating Station. Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

True, here are no more breaker boys and pollution control devices have significantly reduced the amounts of sulfur and ash that once poured out of power plant smoke stacks. But every year, the two generating stations serving Los Angeles* spew into the air more than 700 pounds of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, which makes its way into our waterways and up the food chain into us. Other by-products include massive amounts of carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen and sulfur oxides.

Anthracite Fields includes an excerpt of testimony given by John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, before Congress in the mid-1930s. It’s worth considering his words:

If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families if they die.

To which I would add that we must also protect those who live with the environmental consequences of mining and burning coal. And, of course, the Earth itself.


*Intermountain Power Plant, in southern Utah, and the Navaho Generating Station in northern Arizona.

You’ve got to free your mind!

March 3, 2016 § 1 Comment

BigErn  On occasion, you encounter someone whose life experience is so different from yours that it forces you to recalibrate your understanding of humankind.

That’s how I felt meeting the Lakota counselor at a summer camp where I worked. And that’s how it was with Big Ern.

His full name: Ernest Shepard III and his reputation preceded him. About three years ago, my partner Joe told me he had met this amazing guy. “He spent 45 years in prison and now he’s working with Youth Justice Coalition.”*

Meeting the formerly incarcerated wasn’t anything new—Joe himself was a Vietnam-era federal prisoner, in for draft resistance, and is deeply involved with criminal justice reform movements—but forty-five years! I couldn’t imagine it.

Plus, a hefty sentence like that might mean an unnervingly hefty crime, though it was hard to know. Sentences often don’t match the violation and it’s a breach of prison etiquette to ask, “What are you in for?”

Anyway, Joe said Ernie was okay and that was enough. We invited him to our Christmas open house and were delighted that he came.

It was immediately clear how Ernie got his nickname— he was tall, robust, muscled—and seen on the street, he could appear intimidating. In fact, he was gentle and kind.

That Christmas, Ernie mentioned that his father had been a musician, that a clip of him playing with the Duke Ellington orchestra was posted on YouTube. I pulled out a laptop and we all watched a performance of “Take the A Train,” with an extended solo by Ernest Shepherd pere playing the bass and scat singing. The man was good! And his son was so proud.

ErnSpeakingIn the months afterwards, I’d get reports about Big Ern from Joe when he’d run into him at demonstrations or county supervisors’ meetings where Ernie spoke up on behalf of the formerly incarcerated. One Saturday, I tuned into Geri Silva’s KPFK radio program, “Think Outside the Cage,”   and heard Ernie’s warm baritone. He sometimes spoke haltingly, not because he didn’t know what to say but because he was reaching deep inside himself to access wisdom that had come from decades of struggle.

fair-chance-project Through the grapevine, I learned Ernie was was working with the Fair Chance Project, “a movement led by liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men and women), prisoners and loved ones of term-to-life prisoners organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices.”

That’s what Ernie was doing on Friday, February 19, waiting for an elevator that would take him to a Fair Chance meeting, when untreated cancer claimed him. He had celebrated his 71st birthday only the week before.

Since his death, I’ve learned more about Ernest Shepard’s life. He grew up in segregated Los Angeles, in the Black community surrounding Central Avenue. He was academically accomplished, but, as he told YJC students, “Like a lot of Black youth, I wanted to be a student, but I was forced to be a fighter.”

In one of those fights, another man died, and though manslaughter would have been an appropriate charge, the prosecutor called it second degree murder and demanded the death penalty.

Ernie spent three years on death row, but studied the law, filed a writ, and was granted a new trial. He then represented himself in court, getting his sentence reduced to 7-years-to life. Lamentably, “tough on crime” policies kept him in prison decades beyond seven years.

I last saw Ernie at a theater performance by former prisoners. During the panel discussion that followed, he said that to remain whole while locked up he’d had to do a lot of inner work. To be free, he told us in an impassioned voice,  “You’ve got to FREE YOUR MIND.”

Coming from anyone else, this would have sounded New Age-y and glib. But from Ernest Shepard III, with a lifetime of struggle behind him, it was Truth with a capital T.

The panel ended shortly after Ern’s pronouncement because what more was there to say?

A memorial for Ernie will be held on Saturday, March 5, 2016 in Hardy Hall, 6501 Crenshaw Blvd., Inglewood.


You can see Big Ern yourself in this five-minute video interview shot in 2012 by Robert Corsini.

* From their Facebook page: “The Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) is working to build a youth-led movement to challenge race, gender and class inequality in the Los Angeles County juvenile injustice system.” Their continuation high school is located at Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 E Redondo Blvd., Inglewood, California.


January 26, 2016 § 18 Comments

homelessThey’re everywhere: beneath freeway overpasses, lining city streets, across from City Hall, the tents, tarps, bedding, and shopping carts letting us know that Los Angeles residents who have no other place to lay their heads have moved in. Although nearly a quarter of our homeless population clusters downtown, there’s not a council district in the city without people in need of permanent housing.

A few facts and figures:

Every two years, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a joint city-county agency, sends volunteers out over a three day period to survey the unhoused wherever in the county they can be found. Last year’s count identified 25,686 homeless in the city of Los Angeles, a 12% increase over the previous census. While some of these folks had temporary refuge—in their cars, RVs, or shelter beds—nearly 70 percent were on the street. Single adults make up 82% of this population, but nearly 4500 are family members and 197 were unaccompanied minors. Men out-number women 2 to 1.

About one-third are chronically homeless. More than a quarter are 55 or older. Mental illness and/or addictions plague a third of the total population.

Almost half of the homeless are African-American, but overall, the disadvantaged in our county are a rainbow of white (22%) and Latino (21%) with small populations of Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

Veterans account for 11% of the total.

I guess a lot of residents have been complaining to City Council members and other officials that “Something ought to be done,” because Silverlake’s Neighborhood Council recently held a town hall on homelessness with an array of government representatives, service providers, and advocates. Judging from questions directed to panel members, “something” can mean either “How do we get those people out of our neighborhood” or “Let’s get these folks humanely housed.”

Big, beefy white guys make me nervous so I not did not have high hopes for the meeting when I entered the town hall venue and found a half-dozen LAPD officers back slapping and glad-handing.

Which, I later recognized, is just as unfair a prejudice as the sort many residents have towards people camped out on the street. What I learned from the Senior Lead Officers of Northeast and Ramparts Divisions is that police officers are the front line in the homeless crisis. They actually know these individuals, where they hang out, what they’re up to. They work within limitations placed on them by lawsuits over seizure of property. They know that the solution is not more policing, but political will to house every resident.

I also found out that city and county agencies are “doing something,” though their “something” doesn’t translate into more housing. The Bureau of Sanitation sent two representatives to the town hall who described how encampments–those large concentrations of homeless individuals– are cleaned and sanitized once a month, which often entails guys in hazmat gear handling human waste. Council District 13 staff go out every other week to collect trash and sweep around camps. Non-profit service providers do persistent outreach to people on the streets. Prosecutors from the City Attorney’s office made it clear that while criminal behavior in encampments is prosecuted, simply being homeless is not a crime. However much some residents would like to see the problem just go away, jailing people is not the answer.

Four walls and a roof would be, but, in a city where developers rule, housing for all remains a pipe dream.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, with the help of 6,000 volunteers, launches it homeless count this week. I’m not a betting person but if I were, I wouldn’t place money on the city’s total being less than last year’s figure.

Rams 1, POTUS 0

January 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

The first Black president makes his final State of the Union address, and it’s spunky. He vigorously bats down Republican-peddled untruths about the economy, Muslims, national security, and foreign policy. He expresses regret at his inability to defuse the inter-party rancor that’s led to a Congressional logjam. He tells us to take care that our future workforce is well-educated and ready for technological challenges.

And how did our Newspaper of Record, the Los Angeles Times, report the President’s words? With a three-inch headline announcing that a professional football team will take up residence in Los Angeles. A story about the president’s address, meanwhile, was way down the page, below the fold.

LA Times

Granted, the SOTU story carried inside to a two-page spread–news reporting accompanied by an analytical piece—but with more than half the space taken up by photos.

The football franchise, in contrast, got two front page stories occupying two-thirds of that page. These continued inside with more column inches of text than the POTUS received.

Why do I even bother with the outrage?

The LA Times has been flailing about for years and not just because of massive changes in the media world. The decision by third and fourth-generation scions of the Otis-Chandler family, which had controlled the newspaper for 125 years, to sell off the business in a highly leveraged deal sent the paper into bankruptcy. Lay-offs, buy-outs, and other cost-cutting has resulted in far less actual news, fewer features, and enormous headlines and photographs to make up the deficit.

One of the photos placed with the football story exemplifies these dispiriting tendencies. Men decked out in team jackets, jerseys, and hats displaying a team flag, banner and even an enormous cut-out of the new team owner’s disembodied head were identified in the accompanying caption as “jubilant Rams fans.” Maybe some of the guys were locals excited about NFL’s return to L.A. but please don’t tell me they’ve been keeping all that gear in the closet for 20 years, waiting for the Rams to return. It was a pep rally equipped by team marketing managers, a non-event created for the media, which the Times reported as news.

Pretty shabby, no?


Movie mesa

December 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Never thought I could put Gone with the Wind, nuclear waste, Spanish land grants, and the California red-legged frog together in a sentence without creating a string of non sequiturs.

Then I joined a hike into the Upper Los Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a 3,000 acre section of the Santa Monica Mountains. Hollywood studios loved this area.


The rolling hills, grasslands, stands of valley oaks, and sycamore-bottomed canyons have stood in for the Crimea (Charge of the Light Brigade), the Great Plains (too many Westerns to name), and, yes, the Georgia ridgeline where Scarlett O’Hara raised her fist to the sky and swore she’d never be poor again.

groupMike Malone, a retired National Park Service ranger, led us up onto Lasky Mesa, named for Jesse Lasky, the early movie mogul who formed the partnership that became Paramount Studios.

LightBrigade  At film sites along the way. Mike augmented his informative briefings with enlarged movie stills and off-camera production candids.


Upper Las Virgenes was one small part of a 1795 land grant of more than 110,000 acres, stolen from the Chumash and Tongva nations who were its first inhabitants. Beginning in the 1960s, a succession of companies attempted to develop the land, meeting decades-long resistance from local environmentalists and open-space advocates.

Ultimately, the land’s proximity to the former-but-still-toxic Santa Susanna Field Laboratory site was the developer’s undoing. The closest extraction well to the proposed 3,000 luxury homes reportedly held traces of the solvent trichloroethylene that were more than 480 times federal limits.

It didn’t help that the area was home to that red-legged frog, the San Fernando Valley spineflower, and Southwestern willow flycatcher, all on state and/or federal threatened species lists.

In 2003, the final private landowner sold the property to the Santa Mountains Conservancy for a below-appraised price of $150 million, mostly paid by funds from California conservation bonds. The preserve was dedicated the following year.

Someday is Now

November 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Two Ladies of a Certain Age were telling a clerk in the museum gift shop how they had been students at Immaculate Heart College when Sister Mary Corita taught there. “Oh yes,” she says, “we hear that a lot.”

someday is now It was the final day of Someday is Now: the Art of Corita Kent, a massive retrospective of the print-maker’s work at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Scores of visitors moved through the spacious gallery pausing to gaze at the large, colorful silkscreened prints. In one sheltered corner, a biopic of the artist, Primary Colors, played to a rapt, standing-room-only audience.

Like the Ladies, I, too, have a connection with Sister Corita, though more tangential and, perhaps, more complicated: From 1992 to 1995, I taught at Immaculate Heart College Center, the graduate-level successor to Immaculate Heart College, which closed in 1981. As a welcoming gift, I was presented with a framed Corita print and came to learn about the artist’s tenure with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic religious order.

Long before I came to Los Angeles, however, I knew Sister Corita’s art from the covers of Daniel Berrigan’s books, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine  among others, and, of course, the 1985 LOVE stamp she created for the U.S. Postal Service (at 700 million impressions, the most reproduced artwork ever).

Born as Frances Kent in Iowa at the end of WW I, she became Sister Mary Corita in 1936 when she joined the IHMs in Los Angeles. She graduated from Immaculate Heart College and began teaching there in 1947, but did not learn the silk screen process until 1951, as she worked on a master’s degree in art history at the University of Southern California.

 Someday is Now was heavily weighted towards Corita’s political serigraphs of Corita_Web_074_1024x1024the late 1950s and 1960s and the playful Alphabet and Circus prints from the period after she left religious life in 1968 until her too-early death in 1986.

Only a few of Corita’s early, distinctly religious works were displayed. This included one of her first prints, “The Lord is With Thee,” which surprised her by winning a first prize in printmaking at a 1952 juried LACMA exhibit. Another, based on the New Testament “wedding at Cana” story (John 2:1-11) reflects Corita’s association with a wide swathe of the artistic avant garde: She depicts First Century wedding guests seated in wire side chairs designed by noted mid-century modernists Charles and Ray Eames.

This lacuna left me wondering what kind of art Sister Mary Corita was making before she found serigraphy. And I thought about her in those pre-Vatican II days working in the college art studios in black habit and veil with stiff white wimple. How did she balance the demands of religious life with college teaching, lecturing, and art making? (With difficulty, apparently; her insomnia was legendary.)

Answers to those questions lie in the plethora of books about Corita and her art published this year: Someday is Now, the exhibition catalogue (already out of print); a biography by April Damman, Corita Kent: Art and Soul; and Corita Kent and the Language of Pop, a more scholarly examination that positions Corita within a wider artistic and social context.

Anothermothersunflowerlogo  This is as good a place as any to clarify that the iconic, Vietnam War era sunflower poster proclaiming, “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” was not the work of Corita Kent but another Los Angeles print maker,  Lorraine Schneider, who was active at the same time.

Both artists, however, donated their work and royalties to nonprofit organizations. Poster-sized reproductions of “War is not healthy . . .  “ can be ordered from Another Mother for Peace. Medallions, stickers, infant t-shirts, bumper stickers and embroidered patches also are available. You can peruse the large catalogue of Corita Kent’s work on the website of the Corita Art Center, maintained by the Immaculate Heart Community.

Stop shopping, start sewing!

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

FFuniform This is what I knew about the woman calling herself Frau Fiber: She was a former East German garment worker who went around town showing people how to repurpose clothing, like turning an old dress shirt into an apron. At times she used a bicycle-powered sewing machine that she brought to the site by, yes, bicycle. Also that last year, she opened a store front in Long Beach that she called Institute for Labor Generosity Workers and Uniforms, ILGWU for short.* Oh, and that she usually showed up wearing a uniform made of reworked denim that looked not a little like the old Girl Scout leader’s uniform replete with self-designed, embroidered badges.

Though curious, I wasn’t able to catch up with die Frau until last month when I received notice that she would bring her Sewing Rebellion (Stop Shopping, Start Sewing!) to Atwater Village. She promised to show us how to construct a knock-off of an H&M jersey dress.

Thank You For ComingAt the appointed time and place, Thank You for Coming†, I arrived cradling my venerable Kenmore sewing machine with a cloth bag of bobbins, scissors, tailor’s chalk, etc. over my shoulder. There, in the flesh, was Frau Fiber along with three Faux Fraus, young women aides sporting the same denim cap as the echte Frau. The narrow work space slowly filled to capacity and the crowd was pleasingly diverse (though mostly women).

Frau FiberIn a high, breathy, unaccented voice, Frau Fiber showed us a finished dress, pointed us towards fabric and copies of a brown paper pattern, and set us to work. Amidst a mixed level of skills and multiple projects, die Frau was a calm center, patiently answering questions and, as needed, sitting at a participant’s machine to skillfully solve a problem.

Although required to take Home Economics throughout junior high school and having made a number of blouses, skirts, and dresses, I’m not a confident seamstress. I prefer knitting garments to sewing them. Which perhaps accounts for the fact that after tracing and cutting out the pattern, of the three seams I sewed before quitting time, I had to rip out two because I had sewn the wrong pieces together.

The biggest lesson of the night, however, was learning that Frau Fiber is actually the alter ego of Carole Frances Lung, a fashion activist with a B.F.A. and M.F.A. in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a member of the Fashion and Textiles faculty of CSU-LA’s Art Department. Her c.v. is five pages long, filled with lists of exhibitions, grants, artist residencies, and honors. And she’s from North Dakota, not East Germany.

It’s easiest to let Lung explain. Her artist’s statement says that she created Frau Fiber in 2006 as a former East German Garment worker, whose textile job was lost with the fall of the Berlin Wall. . . . Frau Fiber represents the Lost Generation of workers, who failed to assimilate to the new united Germany and never had the economic success of the communist times. Embodied in the uniforms she wears and context in which she appears, Frau Fiber transformed herself into a textile activist, drawing attention to the labor behind the label of the garments we wear. Her work is grounded in generosity, commemoration, and gestures of work.

Fiber art as cultural criticism and social activism sweetened with sly humor: just my cup of tea!

ILGWULung writes that she designed Frau Fiber’s various projects, such as the ILGWU and Sewing Rebellion, to deliberately expose the time, process, and labor that garment production requires. Using skills sharing and sewing instruction to foster micro-economies and provide an alternative to the global garment industry, asking participants to exchange their leisure time for production and mending of ones own textile and apparel goods. She reveals the collaborative aspects of piecework, and its ability to help create social bonds. These works are firmly connected to historical instances of organized labor, and are a vehicle to think about self-sufficiency, self-empowerment, communal experience and happiness in work, as well as a tool for fighting poverty and oppression.

I haven’t made much progress on the H & M knock-off since that night, but that’s okay. Frau Fiber said she’d be back and in the process I became reacquainted with my sewing machine, wondering for the Nth time, why I don’t get it out and plug it in more often, an inquiry die Frau would no doubt encourage.


*Readers of a certain age will recognize ILGWU as the acronym of the former U.S. needle trades union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, whose label had to be in any clothes my union-supporting parents would buy.

†Thank You For Coming: Yes, that’s the name of the store front restaurant cum art studio (or art studio cum restaurant) on Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village, just west of the railroad tracks. It will get its own blog post, just as soon as I figure out what it’s all about.



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