With the pending release of a new video game called Bad Day L.A. in which the city gets tsunami’d, earthquaked, meteor’d along with other natural and unnatural disasters, Mack Reed over at L.A. Voice is echoing L.A. City Nerd in wondering and cataloguing what’s perhaps the definitive worst day in L.A.’s history.
From my perspective I’d say it’s dead even between the riots of April 29, 1992, and the earthquake of January 17, 1994. Regarding the latter, I long ago posted my elaboration of that terrible day in Sherman Oaks, but I’ve never gotten around to making an online version of the column I wrote for the school paper at Pierce College in the aftermath of the riots.
It’ll take some more digging into the archives and/or the decidedly poorly managed stringbooks, as I haven’t been able to unearth it and transfer it to the digital realm. In the meantime, the crux of it was how on the day and at the time the riots broke out I wound up at the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills, far away from Sherman Oaks and definitely too close for comfort to the flashpoint of Florence and Normandie.
Why was I there at that very horrendous point in time? Why wasn’t I hunkered down behind the relative safety of the Santa Monica Mountains in the relative safety of the San Fernando Valley? Because of something as incongruous and innocuous as an assignment for my beginning photo class at Pierce (and I can’t find that end result either, dammit!). The theme was something like “Man’s Impact” and for whatever reason I decided that a shot of the bobbing oil derricks that can be seen uglifying the hills on either side of that stretch of La Cienega Boulevard would do the job.
So I hopped aboard my Kawasaki 1000, cruised aaaaall the way over there. And it just wasn’t going to work out. The light was wrong and I was too far away from the derricks and all I had was a 50mm lens so I couldn’t pull the image in the way I’d wanted. Frustrated at having made the long trip for nothing I wandered into Kenny Hahn Park and parked the bike and took to seeing if clamboring up a hillside could get me any closer. It couldn’t. Ultimately I wound up at a horseshoe pit there with a handful of daisies that I stuck into the damp sand and then stepped on all but one. Voila: “Man’s Impact.”
In the midst of shooting this masterpiece from various angles I didn’t notice a middle-aged black woman approach me until she sat down neaby on the pit’s wooden backstop. I nodded to her and she nodded back and then watched me doing my thing for a few moments. I figured that maybe being the only white person in the place made her curious, until she finally spoke up and what she said required no further explanation and chilled me immediately.
“Haven’t you heard?” she asked. And when I looked up she told me “I’m black and I’m leaving.”
The impending verdict in the trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King had been looming over all of L.A. and I knew immediately what she was telling me: the cops had been acquited.
I just looked at her and said “You’re kidding?” And she shook her head very gravely and by the time she stood up I was already on my way back across to where I’d left my motorcycle. It was then I heard sirens in the distance, but not too far away. It was then I knew I was in the war zone.
I made it to my bike, stowed my camera in the saddlebag and as I was pulling on my helmet, a pick-up cruised into the lot. Besides two young black men in the cab there were several more in the bed and when the truck slowed down to pass me they were all looking at me as if I had a huge bullseye painted on my chest. I could feel the hatred like heat.
I tried to play it as if I hadn’t even seen them, cinching my helmet a little bit tighter in hope of keeping it from being beaten off my head quite so fast. I turned to the bike and slid the key into the ignition, working the choke as I swung over onto the seat. When I looked up the truck came to a stop just past me but instead of anyone getting out, I saw their attention had been diverted to law enforcement vehicle with SAFETY POLICE painted on the door and parked at the far end of the lot with an officer behind the wheel, his back to us and unaware of what was going on.
Safety Police? I had no idea what that agency did or why one of its black-and-whites was there at that particular moment, but I credit it with ensuring my particular safety in giving me enough time to escape injury or at least avoid a confrontation. The guys in the truck looked at the cruiser and then back at me. Then the cruiser again, then back at me. But instead of waiting for what they might bring, I pushed the ignition button and the bike fired up. Seconds later I was northbound on La Cienega, speeding past the old Fedco store on Rodeo Road that was already on fire. It was surreal, as if the world was turning upside down and I was left splitting lanes of backed-up and mostly oblivious commuters trying to outrun being enveloped in the doom.
Back home to Sherman Oaks and a citywide curfew in full effect, I spent the next days glued to my television in despair as the city burned and so many lives were destroyed. It was a few days later in the dark room at Pierce developing my film that I realized the images I got wereones I could have made just as easily in the relative safety of my own backyard.