What World Cup Soccer Tells Us About Using Public Space in Los Angeles

Join 4000-5000 people watching South Korea

How often does Los Angeles find 4,000-5,000+ people assembled in public space? Come to Wilshire Blvd. and Serrano Ave. in Koreatown, on Thursday June 26th at 1 p.m. and experience it. If South Korea can upset Belgium on the 26th, there could be additional outdoor viewings, which grow bigger and bigger as Korea progresses toward the final. Larger image and full K-pop audio experience at Radiokorea.com

I assume that most Streetsblog readers who have any interest in sports turn elsewhere for insightful sports coverage. We barely cover competitive bike racing here. I don’t claim much in the way of sport expertise, nonetheless, as a somewhat-closeted soccer fan, I am going to try my hand at writing about the World Cup Football. It’s not Football in the American sense though, it is, of course, Soccer.

For the uninitiated, there’s a big international soccer tournament that’s being played right now in Brazil: World Cup 2014. It is already being watched by record numbers of television viewers worldwide.

LA Mayor Garcetti Talks World Cup from KPCC on Vimeo.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, in the above video, connects the World Cup with Los Angeles traffic. He suggests that if just enough people skip work and instead watch the games, then L.A.’s streets and freeways could flow more smoothly.

But, there are some other aspects of World Cup Soccer that get me thinking about L.A.’s streets and public spaces.

First off, let me acknowledge that there are plenty of serious downsides to all this. This is the guys cup, the women’s will take place next year and will be awesome and receive virtually no attention. Plenty of folks from the host nation, Brazil, are protesting the warped priorities of spending billions on stadiums while ignoring much-needed stuff including housing, transportation, health, etc. Streetsblog readers have seen the way big sports stadiums plague neighborhoods and create massive parking craters. The international soccer governing body, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association,) is a corruption-plagued old-boys-network, and they’re raking in the dough on this tournament. Like other sports and many other aspects of daily life, there’s plenty of racism expressed by soccer fans.

So, what’s the upside?

Soccer crosses cultures and national boundaries. As Mayor Garcetti mentions in the above video, Los Angeles is home to huge populations of immigrants from many of the nations playing in the World Cup.

Most days, it’s not easy for me to strike up a conversation with immigrants from Mexico, Korea, Cameroon, etc. in my neighborhood. Now, when my family is out walking, we’ll spot people proudly wearing their national team’s kit (soccer-ese for shirt) and we’ll at least have a short conversation about how their team is doing.

Nationalism and patriotism can be really destructive, generally, and especially in support of U.S. militarism. I find nationalism comforting, though, when it takes the form of immigrants proudly supporting the soccer team from their home country. Latin Americans get behind colonial teams overcoming their imperialist colonizers. African immigrants similarly rally behind teams from their continent. Though there’s never quite a level playing field, there are upsets. The U.S. is fun to root for, precisely because we don’t dominate soccer the way we do other sports and other arenas.

I watched many 2010 World Cup games at the home of a Guatemalan neighbor. His friends asked me, in Spanish, where was I from? I responded, my Spanish not so great, that I was born here in the United States. No, they pressed, where were my ancestors from – before they came to the U.S.? Well, mostly Germany I responded, but that was a long time ago. Then I should root for Germany in the World Cup. From then on, to them, I was “the German.”

I think that being a sports fan is can be similar to being a pedestrian. When someone is driving, all other traffic is just in my way. Walking is the opposite. Walking is a lot better, safer, and more inviting, when and where there are a lot of other pedestrians walking in the same area. Watching sports is ok when it’s just me and my screen, but it’s much better to be out somewhere with other folks watching and getting enthusiastic about the same things that I am.

For many fans in the U.S., we can watch with fellow aficionados at local bars and restaurants. In most places around the world, though, the World Cup is just so popular that it spills out of these “public houses” and into public spaces: our streets, plazas and parks. From Argentina to Zurich and in big cities in every continent, public spaces fill up with fans watching and cheering on their teams. In some places, for example Iran, the public taking to the streets can be a little threatening. The USA may be slightly late to the game, but an estimated 20,000 showed up for a street-closure public viewing yesterday in Chicago.

What about Los Angeles?

There are guides to restaurants where fans gather – such as watching Chile at Rincon Chileno, Brazil at Cafe Brasil, France at Taix, etc.

But I really recommend seeking out free public viewing. Public viewing comes in a lot of flavors, from big to small, from semi-public to fully-public. Sometimes it’s a neighbor with a decent sized television that’s set up in a front yard or street-facing window. Sometimes it’s thousands of people camped out watching a jumbotron.

There’s an organization, called World Cup L.A., that’s promoting small-scale “pop-up” public viewing. A few community venues, including Mercado La Paloma in South L.A., have been hosting pop-up viewing events.

I haven’t found any L.A. public spaces specifically for cheering on the U.S., though the L.A. Times covered a gathering at Lot 613, a large warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. Like many other aspects of using public space (and as James Rojas has long taught), L.A.’s immigrants are leading the way, and teaching the rest of us Angelenos how to use our public spaces.

Here are two of my personal favorite free places to view World Cup soccer with fellow Angelenos:

The biggest and best public World Cup viewing I’ve found in L.A. is watching South Korea. Ever since South Korea did surprisingly well in the 2002 World Cup, L.A.’s Korean-Americans close a few streets and gather by the thousands to cheer on their Red Devils. See the photo at the top of this post.

Unless Korea can upset Belgium, this Thursday’s game could be their last. Watch South Korea vs. Belgium at a mass public viewing at 1pm Thursday June 26th at the grassy area in front of 3700 Wilshire Boulevard. That’s at Wilshire and Serrano, just one block east of the Wilshire Western Metro Purple Line Station. The game shows on a 2-3-story tall screen, plus on the adjacent electronic billboard. Finally a good use for those electronic billboards!

For the rest of the games, when I’m not, ahem, working, I’ve enjoyed watching some of them at a smaller free public viewing at Niky’s Sports in Pico-Union, not far from MacArthur Park. The address is 1536 West 7th Street.

Mini-soccer pitch, mostly used for soccer-volleyball in between televised games, at Niky's Sports on 7th Street in Pico Union. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Mini-soccer pitch, mostly used for soccer-volleyball in between televised games, at Niky’s Sports on 7th Street in Pico Union. Jumbo screen in the center. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The soccer shop has re-purposed the front parking area of the adjacent body shop at 7th and Union, re-configuring it with 200-300 seats worth of bleachers, a mini-soccer field, and a 20-foot tall screen. Entry is free, but it is first-come first-served. This is a predominantly Central American immigrant neighborhood, so it fills up early when Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, and other Latin American teams play. Once it fills, viewers spill over into the adjacent sidewalks.

At Niky's Sports, big screen to the left, working auto to the right, behind a fence. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

At Niky’s Sports, big screen to the left, working auto shop to the right, screened off by a fence. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

At Niky's Sports, during  Holland vs. Australia. The stands weren't too full for the 9am kick-off game that didn't feature any team from Latin America. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

At Niky’s Sports, during Holland vs. Australia, last week. The stands weren’t too full for the 9am kick-off game that didn’t feature any team from Latin America. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Readers – In what public spaces do you enjoy watching World Cup games? Is there a great free/public space in L.A. to watch and cheer on Team U.S.A.? Let us know in the comments below.