Thursday, June 9, 2011

Soccer in the City of Angels Part IV: at home with being out of place

Michael Wells, from a series of portraits of games in Lafayette Park, published in Municipal de Fútbol
Many of my recollections of this experimental league could be shaped like a scene from Crash, minus the sentimental recuperation of collisions between racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. Other memories tap into a very different experience of Los Angeles. An LA not in a state of constant battle. A place of movement and collaboration. Today's installment in this series focuses on that, in an effort to think - or write, or feel - "positive."

For those readers who have never spent time in the city, let me paint you a picture of our field’s  beauty.

Los Angeles is much hillier than people outside the region tend to realize. The Hollywood Hills are not the only hills in the city – far from it. Downtown LA sits on land that ripples and then slopes gently toward the ocean. The field at 7th & Union rests on that coastal decline. Standing on the turf, facing 7th St., the downtown skyline rises up to your left. At night, that portion of the sky is lit up by high-rises. Space opens up to your right. On a clear day the westward vista takes on the aspect of “big sky” and you can feel the Pacific on the wind. It’s the kind of place in California that feels “continental” in a geological sense. You can feel that you are standing on one of the planet’s great tectonic plates. The whole world is in motion.

Some of the biggest complexes of fields in this part of LA county are built next to its freeways – the Ferraro fields in Griffith Park are so close to the 5 and the 134 you can hardly hear your teammates over the traffic (no exaggeration). The Glendale complex is nicer, perched in the hills above the 2. It is so high up in those hills that it feels like a kind of heaven – but it’s so isolated those with no relationship to the sport have no idea it’s there.  

The field at 7th and Union is unusual in that it’s a full field (appropriate for 11 on 11) in the middle of a dense neighborhood. Just east of downtown, it is easily accessed by the city’s major freeways (110 & 101). But it isn’t so close that you worry about your lungs sucking in the fine particulate matter sprayed around the neighborhoods that edge those roads.  And, as I’ve indicated in other posts, the field is in a real neighborhood – it’s not tucked into a large park or hidden up in the hills. If you don’t live in the neighborhood, you can take a bus, or the metro, or – as did a lot of the guys on my team – you can ride your bike. 

It’s the sort of location that could host a small soccer-specific stadium. If there were a meaningful city-wide league in Los Angeles, you would have no problem filling seats for matches staged here.

This field, however, is part of a middle-school. As much money as went into it, no one seemed to think of putting in seating. There’s room for it. I can imagine reasons for not doing so: there’s cost, and LAUSD is grotesquely under-funded – it barely teaches our students the minimum of anything. Arts and sports programming must seem like so much “extra,” as if these two huge areas of our lives were mere trimming.There is a broad allergy by those managing the neighborhood's property and resources - they get itchy at the mere idea of public gatherings of people in this part of town.

Such an enterprise would break with all habit: Imagine a public field that served the middle school during the day and hosted high school and adult competition at night – a field with stands, free admission for students and their families, and very low-cost tickets for the public, with concessions run by local businesses – tacos, pupusas, agua fresca, decent churros. Why can’t we have something like that in Pico Union? An LAUSD field that would perhaps generate a revenue, provide income for local businesses on a small but sustainable scale...

Anyway, back to the scene that is there: Two blocks behind us, on 6th street, you’ll find one of the busiest pedestrian scenes in the western U.S.  Swap meets line the strip with small Guatemalan, Hondoran and El Salvadoran storefront restaurants, carnicerias and bodegas. There are also more soccer shops. There’s a large supermarket and drug store. At night, people sell all kinds of things from blankets spread on the sidewalk.  

At one of our night games, however, one hardly noticed all this is going on just two blocks away. That scene pulls life to it, draining pedestrian traffic off adjacent streets. Shops on 7th close up around 8:00pm.  Who would have a night business on 7th and compete with the 6th St.’s massive vibe? Why walk down 7th when you can soak in the energy of 6th

These are the things that I would think about driving to and from our field. There is just so much going on – out in the streets. It feels like a city to me in way that most of Los Angeles does not. For me, 6th St, Alvarado along MacArthur Park - these blocks recall 1970s New York (I grew up in New Jersey).  

The pleasures I associate with the fútbol scene in Pico Union took me by surprise. A few years ago, I would never have imagined that a field and a sports scene would matter so much to me.

Of course I stand out – along lines of gender, race, class and age. But there are others in these spaces who are similarly “out of place,” and more whose "out of placeness" is less visible. I am not “out of place” alone. In fact, given the high density of recent immigrants in the neighborhood, the feeling of being “out of place” is likely one of the things that most people have in common with each other. 

It's no accident that one of the best queer bars in the city is in that part of town (see Wu Tsang's forthcoming documentary Wildness) - it's the kind of place that welcomes people living in exile from everywhere else.

Our fútbol scene was distinctly cosmopolitan – much more so than the spaces one usually links with that term (cafés, galleries, etc - which are rarely integrated in terms of class especially). Our game included set designers, musicians, students, truck drivers, museum staff, artists, restaurant and factory workers. The labor, creative, and professional class was on the field (management? not so much).

If you learn about a person's job in this setting, however, it's usually by accident. You might know a person through this sport for years before discovering how they make their living. All sorts of details comes up in the details that spill out of us while we are lacing up our shoes. Sometimes it's where we are from, who is visiting us, our struggles with injuries, griping about FIFA or MLS or last week's game - and sometimes it has something to do with work. But the latter is not as common as the other stuff. 

Pickup soccer and basketball share the ability to create a collective experience from a minimum of networked connection. A good game can form around people who are linked by nothing more than an awareness of the fact that there is a game at a certain place and time. They might have learned this by looking at a window, walking down a street, or by striking up a conversation at a bar.

So, I'll try to honor this side of my experience with the league, and recall some of the truly glorious players I got to know - and whom I also don't know at all, really. So before I recount a tale involving an African American security guard, an elderly Korean woman and a bottle of sunblock (told you this stuff sounds like the script for Crash - or Falling Down?), let's turn our gaze to more pleasant vistas.

Next up: Manly Love - when a whole team crushes out on the same guy, for good reason.

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