When the L.A. Riots broke out in the spring of 1992, I was the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist and my new guidebook to the city’s hiking trails, “Walk Los Angeles, Adventures on the Urban Edge,” was at the printer. I observed the city burning from a trail in the Hollywood Hills and, after this heart-breaking hike, wrote an essay, “Walking on Edge,” that at the last minute was added to the book and is presented below in condensed form.
Walking on Edge by John McKinney
I stood at the edge of the city, watching it burn.
Mayday, 1992. Los Angeles was ablaze, up in arms and up in smoke, whole city blocks set afire by people angry enough to burn down their own neighborhoods and the neighborhoods nearby.
From my view atop Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park I could see fires consuming Koreatown, Hollywood and South Central L.A.
Hundreds of times have I walked up one of the mountains above the metropolis and contemplated the city. Sometimes it’s the summit view that inspires me, sometimes it’s the walk itself, but always I return to the bottom of the big basin with a slightly different perspective on Los Angeles.
It’s my job, as Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, to encourage readers to follow in my footsteps—to climb the aerie heights, to walk to the edge of the city and view L.A. quietly, slowly from a pretty place.
This fire was not a natural occurrence in a natural world, it was a wholly manmade creation in a wholly artificial world. Apocalyptic it seemed to me. Sinners in the hands of an angry God. Maybe what I was watching wasn’t the end of civilization, but it was damn close—civilization’s farthest edge, its meanest edge.
I stared into the flames for a very long time, wondering how a city that had long sold itself as an Eden could so much resemble The Inferno.
Truly, I am way out of my depth as a sociologist to explain the breakdown of the city’s social systems—the racial polarity, economic disenfranchisement, crime and violence. I shall leave it to better minds than mine to produce the sort of political-socio-economic treatise that can move governments to action.
And I might be a bit out of my depth, (scientifically speaking anyway), as an ecologist to explain how the city’s once healthy ecosystems—clean air, clean water, green space—became befouled. Or why.
What little enlightenment I can offer comes from having walked the land we call L.A., from studying it in its many moods. I am interested, fascinated by the less-explored, wild side of Los Angeles.
I’ve resided in many parts of the city: Hoover Boulevard by U.S.C., Silver Lake, Topanga Canyon, Whittier, Downey, Glendale, Venice, East L.A. and West L.A., Santa Clarita and Santa Monica. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where the people were as bland as the whitewashed walls of their neat stucco homes, and in neighborhoods where the sights and sounds reflected the full cultural diversity of L.A. Wherever I have lived—I’ve walked, trying to get to know the land, the faces on the land.
I’ve walked some of the world’s other great cities, too: New York, London, Rome. And I’ve walked cities far, far more divided than Los Angeles: Berlin before the wall came down; Nicosia, Cyprus, where the so-called green line divides the capital city into Greek and Turkish sectors. I know what barbed wire and barricades bring.
Always it’s been my experience that the best way to explore a city—even a divided one—is on foot. It’s the best way to explore the countryside too, as I’ve discovered while hiking. You get the most from nature, and the best of human nature, when you journey afoot.
No matter how far I roam, I keep coming back to walk L.A., a native son who can’t stay away.
The edges of this city fascinate me, beckon me to explore: the edges hidden from view, the edges between populous valleys and lonesome mountains, the edge between the shore and the sundown sea, the edges between neighborhoods and between neighbors of different colors.
Especially fascinating to me are nature’s edges—the rag-tag elements of the natural world that surround the metropolis. Edges are places that don’t quite fit, anomalies of metropolitan life.
Ecologists say many of the most interesting and dynamic habitats are on the edges: places where the forest meets a meadowland, where the land meets the sea, where the city meets the country. Here plants and animals confront conditions that give rise to increased variety. And increased tension, too, as distinct ecological communities such as chaparral and pine forest compete for light and space.
These areas of transition between ecological communities are called ecotones: their existence depends on two differing environments, yet they also create a world unto themselves. States George Clarke in his classic text, Elements of Ecology: “As a rule the ecotone contains more species and often a denser population than either of the neighboring communities and this is generally known as The Principle of Edges.”
The ecotones of human life—places where various cultures and ethnicities meet—are also enriched with variety but filled with tension. In today’s multicultural metropolis, various ethnic and economic groups have learned, after a fashion, to get along with each other, although there is still often tension.
People feel on the edge. Pastor Cecil L. Murray of the First AME Church, home of Los Angeles’ oldest black congregation, said after the riots: “The people have been fed sour grapes and their teeth are set on edge.”
To which I would add, some of the sour grapes are a result of letting nature die on the vine, of allowing neighborhoods to become concrete jungles without trees or pathways.
City leaders have called for the “greening” of disadvantaged areas; by green they mean the color of money, which should be spent, they say, rebuilding burned-out and riot-torn areas and increasing economic opportunities. Certainly greenbacks are needed to revive these areas, but I’d also suggest adding another kind of green to the city: green space in the form of parks and pathways.
As we restore the city, we must restore the land. You can prune and shape a tree, but it won’t thrive if its roots are rotten. Somehow, in all this talk of Los Angeles as first world or third world, we forgot about the green world.
Green streets are not mean streets. Places where people walk—city plazas or mountain parks—are common ground, an environment where we can come together. The more green the ground, the gentler, the more fruitful, our coming together is likely to be.
Making the urban scene more green requires work on a number of levels. It means just saying “No” to developments high on precipitous slopes and in the bottom of pristine canyons. It means adding parks and leaving open spaces in the older, more developed parts of the metropolis. It means restoring the Los Angeles River to some semblance of a natural waterway, with a greenway alongside of it, to link, literally and symbolically, the diverse neighborhoods of the city.
Like the tenacious chaparral that rises from the ashes stronger and more beautiful than ever before, may Los Angeles flower once again.