by Joseph Mailander
The passing of longtime Los Angeles columnist Al Martinez early in the month brought to mind a time when writers actually enjoyed talking to ordinary citizens: the people who aren’t politicians, CEOs, lobbyists, activists, or operatives hopeful of having their back scratched offstage. There was a time when anecdotal evidence culled right in homes, streets, and even alleys was valued, and journalists like Martinez were in the habit of looking at the micro to better understand the macro.
The tradition of trying to explain what is happening to a community by looking at how it might impact a single individual is nothing new. There was a Jesuit exercise in Europe in the 1600s in which acolytes were asked to experience a day of ordinary life and then come home and note what made them feel best that day, and what made them feel worst. Then they would share the experiences, and sometimes try to fix what they perceived was going on that was wrong.
The nineteenth century Parisian concept of flâneur, the idler who spends much of the day looking at things and chit-chatting with anyone, was associated with loafing. Now they are among the best known figures of that French century: Baudelaire, Sainte-Beauve, Balzac.
The journalists we typically remember at a newspaper are not the ones who interview great and powerful politicians, but the ones who tell someone’s story that otherwise wouldn’t get told. When I was going to college in New York City in the 1970’s, I had a chance to watch some great ones ply their trade: Jimmy Breslin, Jack Newfield, Evans & Novak, and Nat Hentoff especially come to mind. All were eager to tell stories; nobody was eager to take any mess from people in power.
Today we mostly see this formula for civic progress inverted. Today, not independent voices but cynically motivated people of power go in search of seemingly “ordinary” stories to tell, and tell them their way. The stories they tell usually point to an action that includes a big payout to the man or woman who’s championing it.
The Northeast Valley has been rife with people telling the stories of others not in the interests of the powerless but of the powerful. Media aren’t much interested in the place. City Hall always asks what the Northeast Valley can do for City Hall, not what City Hall can do for the Northeast Valley. The stories that end up told too often serve someone’s veiled political agenda. It’s hard for ordinary citizens to choose their paths wisely.
Affordable housing is one such category in which the waters are routinely muddied. The concept of “Smart Growth” is another. It’s very difficult for an ordinary citizen to keep up with the arcane policy points that make or break a community.
After a while, it comes down to whose voice you trust. You get to trust a voice you know to have had a proven track record. Many trusted the voice of Al Martinez for that reason. It wasn’t that he was the greatest policy wonk at his newspaper. It was that he told simple stories that ended up being right.
One of Martinez’s last concerns at the Times was over an urban farm in South Central LA that had been shut down because of an elaborate private property argument in a US Court. His columns regarding the problem were often marvels of storytelling. They pulled absolutely no punches; they talked about an apparently greedy developer, accusations of misinformation, accusations of anti-Semitism, and “a no-guts City Council.”
The story wasn’t perfect—the Times was obliged to issue not one but two corrections regarding it-—but Martinez didn’t care. Ultimately the South Central Farm story would spawn dozens more. There are indeed not one urban farm but now a handful in South Central LA. The products of these farms can be had at farmer’s markets all over Los Angeles.
The City of Los Angeles now mostly tries to tell its own stories. Its City Hall staffers and operatives enjoy tying tin cans to the tails of people who tell opposing stories and otherwise disagree with them. The role of the “ordinary citizen” is not necessarily to keep up on all policy points, but to keep looking for dependable voices, and dreaming of a better place.