An open letter to Los Angeles: How much worse does it have to get?

Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to most Third World cities — The City of Angels is on the precipice of anarchy — Yet people keep electing the same politicians who got us into the mess in the first place — What will it take for us to wake up?

Photographs by Christopher LeGras, unless denoted “*”

Dear Los Angeles,

You know I love you. I was born and raised here, fifth generation, and I can’t possibly imagine living anywhere else.

I love your mountains and beaches, your sprawling open spaces and endlessly multifaceted neighborhoods and enclaves, the myriad hidden and not-so-hidden places where collective history lives and breathes and writes its own chapters. Your contradictions, your make-believe. I love how you are a place where people can endlessly reinvent themselves, the rare global metropolis that perpetually forgives and (mostly) forgets. I love four million maniacs from every corner of the globe, speaking every language known to humankind, that make us the teeming, evolving, constantly striving people we are. I love how sometimes driving north on PCH when there are no other cars around you can gaze at the rocks above Point Dume where the highway swings inland and imagine what this place was like before civilization. I love even your tortured history, because it’s a story of human progress and potential, frailty and fallibility.

All of which is why it breaks my heart to see what’s happening to you. Or rather, to see what you’re doing to yourself. You are in desperate need of help, an intervention. Maybe just a good old-fashioned smack upside the head. What in the hell is the matter with you?

Over the last five years you have broken my heart a hundred different ways….

Over the last five years you have broken my heart a hundred different ways, from your callous disregard of the hundreds of thousands of homeless languishing on the streets to the rampant crime wave consuming our neighborhoods to the garbage, graffiti, and vandalism that have become the hallmarks of our once-great open spaces, parks, and even highways. It breaks my heart to drive down the Arroyo Secco Parkway to see it tagged and crumbling, dying trees and green spaces that once made it a parkway and not just another slab of tarmac.

It breaks my heart every time I see another human being reduced to weeping or screaming through their days and languishing in their own filth at night. Those who are lucky to snatch a few hours of actual slumber, that is. Quality sleep is a rare commodity in Hell. You break my heart when I see those people and know that you offer me no way to help them — in fact, quite the opposite. You have created a system that actively impedes people from helping their neighbors.

Long past the blame game

With apologies to Leo Tolstoy, these days America’s broken cities all are broken in the pretty much same way. Overrun with political hysteria, teeming with politicians professing obsession with centuries-old transgressions that haven’t been relevant to actual human beings in decades, while pursuing policies that create the very harm they claim to remedy. They and their cronies come into office trailing the odor of campus politics and the paranoia, secrecy, expedience, and corruption that stain the modern political class. Cities awash in dubious and flat-out illegal campaign money that flows from quite literally every corner of the country and globe through a system no one even dimly comprehends. Entire ecosystems of overfunded, ineffectual, and self-dealing “nonprofits” like PATH, SPY, St. Joseph Center, Homeboy Industries, and the rest. Government bureaucracies with org charts like MC Escher sketches, populated by self-interested, unaccountable employees whose sole interests are keeping their jobs and protecting their pensions.

Those are the ingredients, these are the inevitable results:

Officially, more than 1,300 homeless people died in L.A. last year, an increase of some 30% over just two years earlier. The real number, like the actual number of homeless overall in the city, is several times higher. Based on the fatally flawed annual point in time (“PIT”) Count the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reports there were 41,290 homeless people in the city, and 66,590 in the county. Those are the kind of too-precise government numbers that obscure a far more horrifying reality. According to the Los Angeles Unified School District, as many as 75,000 children experience homelessness every year.

Let that number sink in a minute: 75,000 homeless children in Los Angeles. If you can read that sentence and not taste blood, you and I do not occupy the same place in reality. If you can imagine the tens of thousands more children in this city living in marginal conditions and abusive households, experiencing food insecurity, walking with their heads on swivels in their own neighborhoods, and not want to roast Mayor Eric Garcetti’s political career on a white hot spit, I no longer understand you as a human being. What is it going to take?

Let that number sink in a minute: 75,000 homeless children in Los Angeles.

At this point we all know the responsible parties — just re-read the first part of this essay. We know that the people we have elected are nothing more than career politicians for whom talking points and hashtags are more real than reality, a majority of whom have never held real jobs in their lives. In other words, parasites. We all know that illegal encampments in public spaces, which have engulfed virtually every corner of the city, are a profound, historic societal failure. And we all know how we got here, or should.

Which is when the heartbreak begins metastasizing into something else, something darker: Rage.

Which is when heartbreak begins metastasizing into something else, something darker: Rage. Because the thing is, it no longer matters whose fault it is. We are too far down the rabbit hole, conditions on the streets have deteriorated to post-apocalyptic mayhem. It’s no longer a matter of assigning blame, it’s a matter of dismantling those people and the bureaucracies, and replacing them with a new generation of — dare we say it? Actual leaders.

The frightening thing to consider: Looking at how bad things have gotten, and no one has yet risen to the challenge. When did we Angelenos become so meek?

Worse than the Third World

Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to many Third World cities. I’ve traveled fairly extensively in developing countries. Nothing I saw over the years in places like Nepal, Morocco, Indonesia, Tanzania, or Xinjiang Province, China prepared me for what I encounter quite literally on a daily basis in the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. I use that phrase often, for the simple reason that it can’t be emphasized enough.

Look at the picture below. It’s a still from a resident’s security camera in Venice Beach in 2018. Taken at 1am, a naked toddler holds on to a wrought iron fence to stand up while her mother lays next to her in a drug-induced stupor. This is Venice, the place that gave the world The Doors and Gold’s Gym, where God alone knows how many thousands of movies and TV shows have reflected, refracted, and amplified the beach as one of the most free spirited, open-minded places on earth. And it’s home to scenes that you would expect to see in places like Port-au-Prince on late night infomercials from Children International.

Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to many Third World cities.

Look at the pic, then look at the IRS filing from one of the organizations that’s “fighting homelessness.” For $40 million a year they can’t so much as ensure that homeless babies have someplace to live. That’s not hyperbole or melodrama: Organizations like St. Joseph Center are predatory, seeking out the weakest and most vulnerable in our society the way carrion beetles seek decaying flesh. In the midst of the COVID pandemic they enjoyed an $11 million year on year funding increase, good for nearly a 30% boost at a time when thousands of real businesses were dying.

Actually, that’s unfair to carrion beetles, who serve an essential purpose in the circle of life. There’s something hideous about what the homeless nonprofits do: They conduct “outreach” in encampments and on the streets, usually going wherever the local councilmember directs them to go. They log people’s identities and whatever information they can extract, then toss those helpless souls into the maw of the machine, the Homeless Industrial Complex that views them not as human beings in desperate need of a simple helping hand but as “clients.” Chits to be logged into intake software and tallied on spreadsheets, then agglomerated into funding requests when the season comes. They do it by the hundreds of thousands.

It is, in a word, fucking monstrous. And, fellow Angelenos, clearly you are just fine with it.

It is, in a word, fucking monstrous. And, fellow Angelenos, clearly you are just fine with it.

I know this, because you’re not doing anything about it. I know as much because you keep voting for the same people. You may give your annual charitable contributions (probably to the very nodes on the complex that perpetuate the misery, but I digress) and go about life. Maybe you volunteer for a couple of hours at a soup kitchen from time to time.

It isn’t enough. Nothing you have done, or are doing, is enough. Unless you are one of the vanishingly few who have dedicated your time to your community and your city, you are not doing enough. And even if you have dedicated that kind of time, it still is not enough. Were it not so, but it is.

At the end of the masterful miniseries Chernobyl, Dr. Valery Legosov tells Dr. Ulana Khomyuk, “I went willingly to an open reactor. I’ve already given my life. Isn’t that enough?” To which Khomyuk replies, “No. I’m sorry, but it is not.”

We are at the same precipice today, we in the City of Angels. The reactor core is open, spewing poison everywhere. Like radioactive fallout the political poison is itself invisible, though its effects quickly, hideously manifest. The difference is radiation poisoning kills in days or weeks, while the Complex tortures people for years and decades. Meanwhile every hour of every day we are all in mortal danger, whether we realize it or not, starting with the most vulnerable among us. The body count already is in the tens of thousands, and it grows — every hour of every day.

The only remaining question, then, the only one left for a sane person to ask, is what each of us is prepared to do about it.

Very truly yours,

Christopher D. LeGras

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