A conversation with Jeremy Rosenberg

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Thank goodness for Google. If it weren’t for that omnipresent and perhaps all-too-omnipotent search engine, Jeremy Rosenberg would not have found out about the California Historical Society Book Award contest, and we wouldn’t have had the winner that is Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles.

The book’s title takes its name from a public artwork called Under Spring that repeatedly transformed an underpass below LA’s North Spring Street Bridge between 2006 and 2013. Jeremy worked alongside Under Spring creator Lauren Bon and her Metabolic Studio team, recording people’s interactions with the artwork and exploring the underpass’s past lives including (but in no way limited to) homeless encampment and graffiti hotspot. His interviewees connected the underpass to LA’s ever-changing transportation history, the indigenous presence that has existed since before LA was named in European tongues, and the role that art plays in making a space an intentional place. The result is a dynamic text that demands our engagement with it; that demands that we, too, examine the sites that hide in plain view, even in the heart of our own cities.

I recently called Jeremy at his new digs at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and we talked about the unwieldy task of streamlining sixty-six voices into one volume; radical public art; and why Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles needs to be read not just in LA, but all throughout California.

How did you get involved with Under Spring?

Lauren Bon invited me to be a member of an interdisciplinary team, and so I was embedded there for a period of time and working on various projects as an employee of the Annenberg Foundation, Under Spring being one of them. As a journalist, I was used to having to go out and find all the stories and find all the people who were doing interesting things, but in this case they all came to this spot. One day there would be somebody with a heroin needle in his arm. The next day, some real talented graffiti artist. The next day, an ex-mayor. The next day, a city council member. The next day, a famous artist. The next day, someone just trying to walk their dog, or take a lunch break.

I spent probably two years getting intimately familiar with that space before I decided, hey, what this needs is an oral history. Let me rephrase that. The space demanded an oral history. And again, I didn’t write this book. I listened to it.

I went through the interviews really old-school. “All right, this looks good,” like a sculptor, right? You know, whittle it down, little by little.

In late 2008 I said, “I’ve got to get all the voices of all the people who are coming down here and record them and turn this into an oral history.” Lauren was good enough to allow access unfettered to her team and to the project; I took full advantage of that and interviewed anyone and everyone I could. I tracked down some people who had been homeless under the bridge, got access to the diary of someone who had worked there who gave great details of the efforts made by the team to help a junkie who had been nodding off and dropping out under that bridge. I had total editorial independence in who I talked to, and what shows up on the page.

I set out to tell the story of this project in the only way I thought it could properly be told. And that was by listening and presenting this tone poem of an oral history, where the voices and stories weave in and out in the same way that being under the bridge, that experience, was like that. It was an enormously flexible and enormously exciting and enormously vibrant few thousand square feet, and I just wanted to let the rest of the world know about this amazing project and the people who came there. 

How do you differentiate your journalism and this curated oral history? Or, to what extent is Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles a piece of journalism?

I was never an investigative reporter, so I often accepted assignments that were more feature in nature: that rely on more stylish and stylized writing. So the jump between doing that and doing more of a tone poem-style oral history isn’t that great. But the skills of a journalist—of going out and talking to people, and of knowing what the great quotes are, and of knowing how to ask a question in ways that will bring back usable answers—those are all the bread and butter of a journalist.

Did you compile all the interviews first and then try to arrange them, or did you put the book together piecemeal?

The former. I knew some people I wanted to find and I knew some people I needed to talk to. I knew certain people had certain stories I wanted to get recorded. Others would show up and I would just be chatting with them. I would say, “Okay, hold on a second. Let me get the recorder here, okay?”

There are seventy-five interviews that were done for the book, the great majority by me but a couple of others that people helped me with the translations. And then a few are taken from recordings of various gatherings or interviews that happened there.

I had stacks and stacks and stacks of papers, and I went through really old-school. I printed them out, I wanted to feel them and see them. “All right, this looks good,” like a sculptor, right? You know, whittle it down, little by little.

As you were remixing people’s stories into one narrative through line, did you feel overwhelmed by these disparate, occasionally contradictory stories that people were telling?

I never felt overwhelmed. I love it! I don’t think I’d be a Heyday author if I didn’t have a high capacity for weirdness and, what’s the other word I’m looking for? Vibrancy? If I didn’t have a high capacity for weirdness and vibrancy I don’t think that Malcolm and you and everyone else would have picked me out.

What I was doing was setting out to share with others what I was already witnessing. I mean, all of us are either storytellers or people who love listening to stories. And so I think that anyone reading this would have done the same thing I did. These are stories that could not just be consigned forever to what one of the lead characters in the book calls “The Tombs.” These stories had to get out.

What nuances of Under Spring did you get to explore that you hadn’t been able to appreciate before?

Even in a book with sixty-six voices, this was a narrowing. Heyday would have had to give me a four-volume book to get everyone in. So in a way, believe it or not, sixty-six voices in a tone poem—or maybe tone prose, we should call it—helped me focus on some of the big-picture ideas that were the undercurrents of this artwork. Questions such as, What is public space versus private space? What should be done with interstitial spaces, brownfields, alleys and urban voids? What is the question of how to best address homelessness? Questions about the proper future of transportation in formerly car-centric Los Angeles. I think the book helps bring those out more.

Formerly car-centric Los Angeles?

I realize that to your Bay Area readers that will come off as either laughable or at best aspirational. You might be right on both counts, Readers! But things are changing and they are changing fast. And with the billions of dollars in bond money that is being spent to improve public transportation and all of the efforts over the years to improve bicycling and pedestrian access, Los Angeles is in the midst of extraordinary transition. This city was synonymous with cars, but all sorts of new urbanist types have ascended to positions of power and are making change after change after change to make a more livable, walkable, bikeable city. (And remember, there’s precedent in LA for this – the region used to have perhaps the nation’s best streetcar system.)

The distances involved make cars and infrastructure involved make cars still the prominent majority. But every day seemingly brings new developments in rail, in subway, in bicycle. And why that matters to this project is that the reason Under Spring ended as an artwork in 2013 is because the North Spring Street Bridge, is being earthquake retrofit. Okay, we all understand that. And it’s being widened. And there was a huge debate about why in the world would we widen an automotive bridge.

To clarify, widening just for more cars, not for bike lanes or anything like that?

My recollection is that, originally the idea was to basically have this stretch of what was considered no-person’s-land by the powers that be to be doubled in number of lanes for cars and trucks only. It was thought to be a connector from one freeway to the next. Many, many people rallied against that, and the result is that the bridge isn’t going to be as absurd as it was originally planned. But the clear majority opinion among people who are part of the new Los Angeles, the transportation revolution around here, is that the end result of the bridge widening is still a failure. Or, still an epic fail.

Down with all the kids’ language?

Thank you.

Oh yeah. In the section called Concrete is Fluid, Joe Linton’s comments give some background to the history of the bridge as an architectural object and transportation object. I think it’s so poignant when he talks about the bridge’s Art Deco features; how the bridge had been designed to be looked at, compared to just making sure that the pavement is workable and that it holds up seismically, these very necessary but solely utilitarian things. It got me thinking a little bit about the relationship between art-making and intentionally inhabiting place, whether it’s architectural or graffiti or a huge harp that reverberates with the earth or whatever art installation piece of the week there was at Under Spring as a theme in this book.

Well I think you’ve hit on a movement that I covered as a writer, which was artists doing work that I would call civic art: artists doing work that in other context you would expect a government to do. In a way, you’re talking about the other side of that, which is that when the government made these bridges during the City Beautiful movement nearly a hundred years ago, they made them beautiful. Now in leaner times of government, where expectations are lower and budgets are starved and voters don’t have much respect even for local government, all these artists are stepping in to do projects that challenge existing laws.

The real purpose of that is to inspire other readers—whether in LA or beyond—to not just accept these interstitial spaces as what they are.

The book talks about the fruit tree policies of the city. One of the groups mentioned in the book, Fallen Fruit, was up to that. Another person quoted in the book, Ari Kletzky, is from Islands of LA, which was the name of an art project about forcing the hand of governing bodies to take care of the traffic islands in the middle of the roads. Under Spring was necessary because we had an abandonment of responsibility, either in the design of the underside of the bridge or in the keeping track of what was happening down there, by government authorities. Another example is Lauren’s project Not a Cornfield that took place when the state didn’t have the funds to put up a thirty-two-acre park, that the voters had approved the bond money to purchase the land on. This is right across the street from the bridge. She stepped in and put together a big team and made a park. LA was the meeting grounds for lots of the people who were doing these kinds of projects. These civic-minded artworks. The artist wouldn’t necessarily call their work civic-minded but I identify them that way.

One of the questions that I’d actually written down was, how would you make the case for Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles as a history book, other than the fact that the artwork Under Spring is no longer extant? The more you’re talking about your work, though, the more I’m hearing how this project ties into not only larger trends of what’s going on in LA, but also how that plays into what our heritage should be. The idea of determining what we want to remember and be proud of. That’s not a question, I’m sorry.

The reason that this is a history book is because the aim is to tell an energetic and intriguing place-based story—or stories—but at the same time to have readers come away with an improved sense of history of this most enigmatic of American metropolises. The characters in the book talk about everything from the ethnographic history of the city, the transportation history of the city, the infrastructural history, the botanical history of the city, the sustainable-or-not history of the city, graffiti history of the city, the geographic history of the city, the roots of the city. My hope is that people will enjoy the story and enjoy the ghost story here and there, and so far it’s been true with the people who have read it, is that it’s not just all ghost stories in there. It’s an energetic way of telling the city’s history.

But the real purpose of that is to inspire other readers—whether in LA or beyond—to not just accept these interstitial spaces as what they are. To not accept these urban voids for what they are, but to see what other people have done in them. And whether you love or hate what Lauren Bon and her team did, well, go out and do something the same or better in your own neighborhood.

I did not just want this to be, “Oh, it was a great art project. Hooray!” Who cares about that? It was to honor the great art project by having people in serious conversations about serious topics and sharing savvy observations, which one could agree or disagree with, and histories that one might not know.

On the flipside, do you have a favorite story or a favorite part from an interview that didn’t make it into the book that you wish you could have included?

That’s a secret between me and the great editor Gayle!

Ooh!

You can print that. But clichéd or not, I’ve got to say: the way that people can’t choose between their favorite child, I really can’t or refuse to choose between which character I like the most. Again, the only issue was I had to slice off details of some of the stories that other voices would have added to, just to keep the stories moving. If the whole book was about one story we would have had twenty people on the same subject, but I had to pick representative voices sometimes.

I’m going to include an excerpt of Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles as another feature in the Heyday newsletter, and I wanted to know if you had any guidance getting oneself oriented into this mix of people—this chorus of voices.

If it seems in any way intimidating, there’s a cast of characters at the beginning, and maybe if I had any advice it’s just read that over twice. That way you get a sense of the breadth and depth of the kind of folks who are interviewed in the book. And if anyone has any questions, they’re welcome to tweet me at @LosJeremy.