A lawn sign in Hancock Park expressing support for the LA Community Eruv. Photo credit: Ira Belgrade.
FROM THIS EPISODE
There are all sorts of prohibitions against working on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, including pushing a stroller or wheelchair, or carrying a baby or a cane. And the rules apply differently whether you’re in a private or public space. The eruv, a ritualistic fence, makes everything within it a private space. The word eruv literally means “blending” in Hebrew.
The eruv dates back 3,000 years to the reign of King Solomon. The West LA eruv is one of the biggest in the world, and it covers about 100 square miles.
A maintenance and repair team oversee the eruv, including a four-person crew of checkers that are rabbis who specialize in the law surrounding the eruv, and a three- person maintenance crew that fixes the breaks.
About three quarters of the wall is made up of fencing and hillsides around the freeways. The other quarter is poles and heavy fishing wire. There are all sorts of reasons for breaks in the eruv, said Elliot Katzovitz, the board chair of the Los Angeles Community Eruv.
“Cars run into fencing in poles and take them down. Trees grow over the lines that need to now be cut back. When you're talking about the twine itself, it gets old and brittle and breaks. When there's construction along any of the streets that our eruv runs along, contractors will naturally take down whatever is in their way which includes our eruv lines,” Katzovitz said. “At times things that we're using disappear quite literally. So when they were widening the freeway, the 405, which is one of our boundaries, all of our fencing went away and it had to be recreated.”
He added that the eruv was only down for Shabbat three times in the 15 or so years since it began.
And in fact there were news stories then reporting on how Caltrans helped out and it raised questions about taxpayer expenditure on what is a religious practise.
The eruv is paid for by donations, and some synagogues actually build their fees into their membership dues.
There are eruvs all over the world. Just here in Southern California they exist in the West Valley, Orange County, Long Beach and at USC.
The eruv has come into community opposition in the past. About a decade ago there was an effort to create a coastal eruv in Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey. But environmental activists worried that endangered birds would get caught in the wires, and that the poles used to prop up the lines would ruin their views of the beach. An activist group of three people sued the California Coastal Commission, entangling the project in costly environmental impact studies.
Now to someone who is not of the community, it may sound bizarre.
Na’amit Nagel, a modern Orthodox woman and resident of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, relies on the eruv every week.
“At times I do feel silly. The ridiculous minutiae of it makes me ask, ‘What am I really doing? I’m a rational person.’ But other times I think there’s a lot of value in the laws and our traditions. And I think there's something fun about the creativity that's involved in working with tradition and modernity together and trying to meld these two worlds,” Nagel said.
So there’s this question: are we just looking for loopholes here? Are we ignoring the commandment for our own convenience?
“I am not one who believes that you please God by observing the eruv or offend God by not. But there are many Jews who do think that, who think that the minutiae on this level does impact, elate and irritate the creator of the world, and how you do it. That's not my approach but I'm one rabbi,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am.
If the West LA eruv goes down, the folks who run the eruv update their Facebook page and send out an email every week, and you’re supposed to check it every week. Of course not everyone does. So they’ll also call synagogues and they’ll call their members.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea, a modern Orthodox congregation, said that if the eruv is not operable it creates a challenge for the communal and social character of Shabbat.
“It is because of the eruv that whole families can come to synagogue, bringing strollers and carrying children and what have you. It is because of the eruv that people are able to bring wine or challah or other food to one another's homes when they have a Friday night meal together or the Shabbat lunch together,” Kanefsky said. “And were it not for the eruv, it would be impossible to transport any object at all.”
Some ultra-Orthodox do not use the eruv, including Doniel Berry, a Hasidic Jew who belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, because of the possibility that the eruv may go down on Shabbat.
“So for that extra precaution I am not alone in the community that we choose not to use it, basically just out of an extra layer of protection that in the event it should go down, we won't accidentally be transgressing the prohibition of carrying on the Sabbath,” Berry said.
There are other ways Orthodox Jews get around the laws of Shabbat. For example, what if you’re in an area without an eruv but you need to carry your child? You are allowed to carry three steps without the eruv, so if the child can walk you put them down, let them walk one step, then pick them up again.
“There's a way around functioning without an eruv, but it’s hell,” Katzovitz said. The fishing line that makes up part of the West LA eruv. Photo credit: Frances Anderton.
Yosef Kanefsky, B'nai David-Judea
Elliot Katzovitz, Chairman of the Board, LA Community Eruv
Na'amit Nagel, Resident of Pico-Robertson and a writer who teaches English at Shalhevet High School
Doniel Berry, Orthodox Jew and piano accompanist at Los Angeles Jewish Community Children's Choir
Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am
Freedom Within Bounds: Inside L.A.’s Eruv Communities
100 Square Miles of Los Angeles Are Surrounded by a Hidden Religious Wall
Los Angeles has a 100-square mile religious wall hidden in plain sight
LA Jews meet resistance to eruv wall
The Nearly Invisible Wires That Enclose Nearly All Major Cities of The World
Massive 405 Freeway project respects the boundaries of a Jewish tradition
In Los Angeles, streets, freeways, train tracks and the LA River form boundaries that many of us aren’t aware of. These are the boundaries of gang territories. Back in the 1970s through the ‘90s, just wearing red or blue was contentious. It could have even made you a target.
The colors were, and still are in some parts of LA, flags for the Crips and Bloods, LA’s two dominant gangs.
And back then, the neighborhoods of South and East Los Angeles could have drawn their gang territories.
Things have cooled down a bit because of gang injunctions and safety zones. Lots of families have been priced out of their neighborhoods, moving further away from the urban core. And some of the action has moved off the street and gone online.
But, there are still certains parts of LA where gang borders form “invisible walls” that delineate who goes where and who does what.
Without clear markings, many LA residents don’t even know these barriers exist. But these boundary lines are there and they carry a lot of weight for the residents who live among them.
Like Skipp Townsend, who was born and raised in West Adams in South LA. For many years he was a member of the Rollin 20s Bloods. He’s now a gang interventionist. And he says people in the communities where he works are well aware of the gang boundaries.
“You have to be aware of where you are at all times. I mean your life depends on it. So knowing what area you’re in, knowing what gas station you stop at, knowing what liquor store you're in, even watching the cars as they roll down the street and being able to identify certain people. That's always how a person stays alive, you know, just having your head on a swivel,” Townsend said.
Townsend isn’t alone in being concerned with the price you pay for living within gang boundaries.
“If I'm a young person growing up in a particular neighborhood and the closest movie theater or the closest shopping mall is claimed by a rival gang, whether I'm a gang member or not, I'm not going to feel comfortable, I'm going to have to spend more time on a bus, put more gas in my car, to travel to other areas,” said George Tita, a gang criminologist at UC-Irvine.
Alex Alonso is an adjunct professor at Cal State University-Long Beach. He has mapped the overlay of gang boundaries on the map of Los Angeles.
“I noticed that the built environment does play a role in defining these gang neighborhoods. When I say the built environment I'm talking about primary roads, your large streets, your freeways, highways and train tracks and rivers. You know, very rarely are you going to find a gang turf on two sides of the L.A. River,” he said.
And patrolling these invisible walls is no longer confined to the streets. It’s also gone digital. Alonso founded StreetGangs.com, a venue for news, videos, history and chat forums all relating to gang activity across the US. Alonso has seen social media impact gang life.
“Rather than getting on the phone and talking, basically social media and the Internet is the phone now. The beef is now being facilitated through a different manner, through a different tool,” Alonso said.
“I don't think it takes away from the physical space. The physical space is what gives the gang its existence. Without that physical territory you pretty much don't have an identity.”
Alex Alonso, gang researcher and founder of StreetGangs.com. Photo credit: Avishay Artsy.
The End of Gangs
If You Want to Know About L.A. Gangs, Don't Ask a Cop — Ask Alex Alonso
An Ecological Study of the Location of Gang “Set Space”
Remapping gang turf: Math model shows crimes cluster on borders between rivals
Gang map of LA
Physical structures can define status but so can the non-present boundaries created by zoning.
“When you walk from a commercial street and you walk into a neighborhood, you can see the line where the commercial ends and then the residential begins. It actually is visible but not a wall,” said David Sloane, a professor of planning at USC.
DnA’s story about zoning starts on the observation deck on the twenty-sixth floor of Los Angeles City Hall, the tallest building in Los Angeles from 1928 until building height rules changed in the late 1950s.
From there you can look at Los Angeles in every direction, and Ashley Atkinson, section director of the American Planning Association’s LA chapter, points out how the region is subdivided by zoning into distinct portions of activities: industrial by the river in Boyle Heights, institutional around Grand Park, high-rise housing in Hollywood and single- family in the hills, and so on.
Zoning has given LA its distinct form, and it has created invisible walls between homeowners and renters.
Zoning has been the defining tool for city planning for the last century and some planners are rethinking how to zone. Atkinson said some are increasingly drawn to “form-based zoning” or “form-based codes” which privilege a building’s appearance over its use.
But separation by use originated with good intentions, said Sloane. When polluting industries made developing East Coast cities foul places to live, civic leaders determined it was necessary to break up cities into manufacturing, residential, agriculture and commercial areas.
The initial goal was not to sort people but it became a sorting mechanism, economically (it separated single family homes from rental housing) and racially (zoning was overlaid on subdivisions with covenants that excluded people by race and on neighborhoods that were redlined, denied access to mortgages, on the basis of race).
“What we're doing is we’re making it harder for people of color to generate the wealth that white Americans can generate. Because housing is so important,” said Sloane.
Los Angeles now faces a housing crisis but is still zoned for the last century, in a way that aimed to keep the city low-rise, spread out and car-based.
In a Housing Development Toolkit published by the Obama administration in 2016, the authors wrote: “Los Angeles provides a clear illustration of the impact of the primary barrier to development – restrictive zoning. In 1960, Los Angeles was zoned to accommodate 10 million people; after decades of population growth and increased demand, the city is today zoned for only 4.3 million people.”
Now efforts are underway to mix up our urban environment, to have more live-work spaces, more housing onto the commercial strips and ADUs (or “granny flats”) into backyards. The City of Los Angeles Planning Department is working on re:code LA, a revision of the City of Los Angeles’ Zoning Code, which was first adopted in 1946.
Its aim is to come up with zoning solutions specific to different neighborhoods and better suited to today and tomorrow’s needs.
But not everyone supports this, said David Sloane. In fact, critics of density and growth argue that the problem is not the zoning but the fact that developers invariably get variances and changes to the zoning.
“Zoning is a barrier to everything that we want to do to make the city more multimodal, make it more heterogeneous, bring together work and live play. It is a very strong barrier to doing any of those things, which is why Los Angeles has worked hard on its community plans and why it's working on its re:code, and there are good developers beginning to think about that.”
Ashley Atkinson, section director of the American Planning Association’s Los Angeles chapter. Photo credit: Frances Anderton.
Bridges and Walls is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency. And special thanks to NPR’s Story Lab.
Follow this series at KCRW.com/BridgesandWalls
A Brief History of Planning & Zoning in Los Angeles
Back To The Future: The 1970 Los Angeles Centers' Concept Plan
Exceptions Rule: The Dirty Little Secret of L.A.'s Zoning Code
The Birth of Zoning Codes, a History
L.A. isn’t a suburb. We need to stop planning it like one.
Forbidden City: How Los Angeles Banned Some of its Most Popular Buildings
We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Zoning and the World Is Getting Worse
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