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For Lack of Shared Imagination

The recent travails of the Los Angeles Dodgers have led to frenzied reporting by members of the local media, with many column inches dedicated to recounting the hubris of Frank McCourt. Most seem to invoke nostalgia for a time when the Dodgers were perched atop the National League and Los Angeles’s sporting scene. However, none is as penetrating as D.J. Waldie’s take on the McCourt saga and the implications for Los Angeles. Growing up in Lakewood, Waldie and his brother “listened to Vin as a boyhood gift, but his voice was (and is) just another opportunity for branding a commodity,” he writes. “From the beginning, the Dodgers’ arrival in L.A. wasn’t an embrace. It was a deal.”

After dismissing Vin Scully (!), Waldie indicts McCourt for his avariciousness but also includes Major League Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig and Sam Zell, who purchased the Los Angeles Times in 2007 and has overseen its diminishment from Chicago (though the once-venerable daily is now apparently an asset moving its way through bankruptcy court in Delaware). But Waldie doesn’t stop at sports and newspapers: the city’s transit organization, the school district, and the good, ole L.A.P.D. have all experienced oversight or takeover in recent history.

Too many deals have soured; too much of the city has been taken into receivership. Even our citizenship – already problematic – has been foreclosed. Deals under duress have taken too many of our civic institutions from local control and put them in the hands of monitors and special masters, raising another question we would prefer to duck: Do we have the capacity to govern ourselves?

Pretty damning, when you play it out like Waldie does. There’s no better illustration for his conclusion than the fractured state of planning across the city and especially in downtown, where corporate entities seems to dictate the terms and even physical space of the city. I like even better his conclusion:

Truthfully, we never needed a shared moral imagination until now, when so many desertions from the common good have shown us how little loyalty the once powerful had for this place. And no deal, no special master, no court-ordered monitor can supply what we lack.

Los Angeles, for all its wonders, is still an exercise in balkanization, despite the fact that its strengths may lie in its multiplicity of experiences. But what we might need is more of “shared imagination,” some form of common identity or experience. But when almost half the city of L.A. is flushed out every ten years (according to the anecdotal comments of a local sociologist, as relayed by Doug Saunders, author of the intriguing Arrival City: Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World), it’s hard to create a sustainable sort of shared imagination. Waldie invokes the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, as well as other contemporaries (Matt Weinstock, Jack Smith, Art Seidenbaum, and Charles Champlin). Who has stepped up to fill this space, to invoke a real sense of Los Angeles now, just as Murray spoke to sports fans of his day? Who will bear the burden of understanding the history and nuance of the city?

For one, I look to someone like Ry Cooder. With an impressive resume (Captain Beefheart, Rolling Stones, Buena Vista Social Club, etc), Cooder has frequently impressed me with his craft, choice of projects, and insight. In the Times rather bland overview of the Dodgers’s relationship with Los Angeles, he impresses with his sense of place and unsentimental recollection, a rare thing indeed for these parts.

“I think McCourt is a junior G-man compared to the O’Malleys,” said musician Ry Cooder, an L.A. native whose 2005 concept album “Chavez Ravine” evoked the rich Mexican American culture that was swept aside when the neighborhood was razed, creating an open space that came to house Dodger Stadium. “Professional sports is not a holy institution,” Cooder said. “It’s a money thing and always has been.”

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