Updated: Oct 13
Okay, so this isn’t one of my scary stories about getting a knife pulled on me, dodging pickpockets in Rome or how my experiences as a doorgirl at a strip club help me handle out-of-line Uber drivers.
Instead it’s a reminder about human-to-human connection that are still possible in dense, public and urban space.
I live in Los Angeles, in the highly dense Hollywood neighborhood. The bedroom window of our apartment overlooks a city park and community center. I work from home and during the summer and after school the sounds of kids playing fills the air and really brightens my day. I missed those sounds when the center shut down due to Covid. Now that they are back their sounds of playing help set a delightful rhythm to my day.
A few months ago, at the height of summer camps at the community center, something new happened. Starting at around 7am and for the next 4 hours or so, the constant sound of leaf blowing and weed whacking started. The hours-long racket from the machines was frustrating, but I was so happy to have the joyful sounds of the kids back I wrote off.
But when the kids went back to school and the nearly 4 hours of leaf blowing didn’t stop, I became less forgiving.
One thing I should clarify here: the area that was being tended to was all concrete with a single tree. There is some bamboo along the fence line that needs pruning from time-to-time, but overall, 4 hours of leaf blowing and weeds whacking empty concrete is not a great use of city resources.
So when the leaf blowing started up one morning before 7am it really took the biscuit. My husband, Brian, woke up before me and he was ready to chew the scenery. He went down to have some words and apparently several other fed up neighbors also came by to complain.
I was slower to get up. By the time I got dressed Brian was back and the noise had stopped. But more than anything I was curious: what the hell is this guy doing for 4 hours everyday with a weed whacker on empty concrete?
To find out I threw on some workout clothes and headed outside. The community center was not yet opened so I settled into an out-of-the-way nook on the side walk to do a light workout. I practiced judo footwork and throws using the chain link fence and the curb as step ups. While I worked out I spotted the gardener, I’ll call him Mr. G, now looking defeated after his dressing down from the neighbors.
I tried to attract is attention to chat but he ignored me. Only when he saw me taking pictures of his work vehicle and him leaf blowing empty concrete he came over to talk to me. I kept my tone light and friendly and let him do most of the talking. That was when I learned his boss simply told him to spend 4 hours a day there doing... whatever.
Oh dear. Talk about government boondoggles. There is plenty of cleanup to do in this city so leaf blowing empty concrete for hours struck this tax payer as pretty frustrating.
I left Mr. G on good terms but I was aggravated with the poor management by the city and debated what to do next. So I did the usual:
I posted an absurd video on social media of Mr. G. leaf blowing an empty, locked alley that is never used by the kids and tagged my council member, the city and the L.A. Parks Department
I left messages with both offices of Hugo Soto-Martinez, my city council member.
I filed a report with the City’s 311 app
Spoiler alert: My outreach above was completely ignored.
And here’s where I felt stuck:
Optics: I’m a middle aged white woman. Mr. G. is a middle aged Hispanic man. The last thing that would help is the optics of me being a Karen and making an already untenable situation worse.
Goal: I want the place to look nice for the kids! My request wasn’t to stop maintenance altogether but to be a bit more mindful of the neighbors, the timing and to be a bit more strategic rather than run a leaf blower on empty concrete for hours on end.
Goal: There are a number of homeless encampments in the area and Mr. G’s efforts make the whole neighborhood nicer, not just the community center’s property. So again, I wanted him to stay!
Ignored by city bureaucrats, I bypassed formal channels and made it a point to connect human-to-human with Mr. G.
On that first day I shared the problem with him as I experienced it. From there I always make a point to say hello when I see him and occasionally bring him bottled water on hot days. He still leaf blows and weed whacks, but it is now more in proportion with the amount of debris on the ground. I’ve thanked him profusely for his kindness and thoughtfulness and we’ve had positive change for a month now. 🤞
Nope, this isn’t my usual story related to high stakes interactions with strangers on the street.
it’s a reminder about human-to-human connections that are still possible in dense, public and urban space.
it highlights the sound and fury of social media and technology. Posting on social media might make us feel like we’re doing something. The city tells us to use the app so they can feel like we have an outlet. But in this case, both were pretty useless.
it’s a reminder to examine our own limitations (the optics of looking like a bitchy white woman) and goals (to have the work done more mindfully, and not to go away altogether) and how to make them all come together.
Ultimately, only Mr. G. could help me out and restore some sense of peace and quiet in this raucous city.
Thanks all for your kind messages since my most recent post about walking away from teaching Asphalt Anthropology as a self-defense course. I’ve heard from many of you about your own journey with the Asphalt ideas over the years. It’s so rich and rewarding to hear about the impact it has had for you.
I also appreciate those of you who have signed up to continue to receive my random blog musings. Since deciding to no longer formally teach groups I’ve noticed my own thinking expanding around the ideas that served as the foundation as Asphalt and those are the ideas I want to explore more fully - like the article above. As Asphalt continued to grow when I was teaching, I found myself having to frame my ideas to fit mainstream, middle America, I’m-afraid-of-everything-that-moves-suburban-thinking.
That was never my intended audience.
While my recent blog post may have been harsh, I found it necessary to boldly push away folks who may have mixed me up with your garden variety self-defense instructor who wants to empower you with pop-psychology.
At its core Asphalt Anthropology is about shifting a mindset of fear that people have of public spaces. Women in particular receive constant messages to be afraid but are not given skills to navigate environments that provide them with the most opportunities for living. By that I mean very specifically cities – which by their very nature provide more cultural, educational and professional opportunities allowing people to expand their horizons. At its core, Asphalt Anthropology is about sharing skills with women who want to boldly explore their world.
By now, I’m sure you’ve put together I have a strong bias against the suburbs* – both their physical layout and their provincial* mindset. And that is yet another reason I am pulling back with Asphalt. The current cultural climate in the U.S. is very loud about how big and bad and scary cities are. I can’t state this strongly enough: anyone who buys into this line of thinking, Asphalt Anthropology is not for you.
I get it. I’m swimming upstream. The idea of women’s self-defense has always been, and continues to be, targeted at white women in the suburbs. Between that and the current anti-city moral panics I’m more inspired than ever to explore ideas that keep women in fear.
So that’s why I’m switching things up. I took my original break to support some family members with some ongoing health issues. And that break gave me some time to think about what I’m really interested in exploring learning about and sharing. So far it looks like this:
How people are now interacting with cities since Covid and the increase of work from home.
The impact of self-defense as pop-culture empowerment targeting suburban white women – how it helps and how it harms.
The death of expertise and the rise of the influencer: how digital marketing is amplifying fears and making people less safe.
How we can make women’s personal safety women-led rather than a pink version of what dudes think women should know. Hint, here’s a place to start.
My own experience as an aging martial artist and how that has changed how I view personal safety.
The militarization of self-defense since 9/11.
I'm not going to shy away from the current cultural wars. They are at the heart of women’s perception of fear and how they relate to the world. I (tried!) to avoid political conversation while I was teaching, but now I don’t have to hold me tongue. I’m feeling like Asphalt is becoming more of what it was always meant to be – looking at structures and systems and leaving all the “tips and tricks” of self-defense to others.
I’m also excited that I get to bring in my day-job professional expertise to some of my analysis. In 2012 I graduated with an MBA with a focus in digital media management. It was exciting and heady days in my MBA program as we examined and tried to predict much of what our digital world would bring us. As I’ve watched it unfold in the field of self-defense, one that I have been in since the 90’s, I’ve got lots to share with you!
In a world that is currently in the grips of moral panics and being attracted to strong authority figures (can you say daddy issues?) the self-defense field answering with fantasy role playing known as "urban combatives".🙄
(Honestly, how is a city girl not supposed to roll her eyes at that?)
But for now I leave you with my story of Mr. G. While this was not a self-defense situation it was an opportunity to find human-centered solutions over paranoia. I'll be looking for more of those opportunities and I hope you do too.
❤️ ❤️ ❤️
*In the context of Asphalt Anthropology, I use suburbs and provinces interchangeably. These are public spaces with low population density and are characterized by the dominance of single family dwellings and private cars as the primary form of transportation. For contrast, Asphalt Anthropology is designed for folks living and working in high density environments.