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Antonio Villaraigosa

City Throws a Party. Press Throws a Fit. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.

This Friday, the City of Los Angeles is throwing itself a party in Grand Park from 5 pm to 10 pm. There will be music by local acts, student groups and celebrity musicians. Chefs, some of whom are on television, will give healthy cooking demonstrations. There will be food trucks. There will be free nachos.  President Bill Clinton will speak. Wanda Sykes will tell jokes. Ryan Seacrest will do whatever it is Ryan Seacrest does.

To see the full schedule for Celebrate L.A., click on the image. 

It's the kind of event some people will remember their whole lives.

The hefty price tag, well over a quarter of a million dollars, for the event is being picked up by local businesses and foundations, except for $75,000 for police and other city services. There is no cost to attend. All of the entertainers, from Sykes to Placido Domingo to the Plaza de la Raza Youth Mariachi, are donating their time.

Naturally, this relatively low-cost public event caused a massive media freakout with the Daily News, L.A. Weekly and other conservative news outlets proclaiming that the "Mayor was throwing himself a party on our dime" or something to that effect. In fact, the Mayor's office pooled money from several of the city's cultural events budgets to make one large event, one that thousands of people could, and will, enjoy.

"The city has done a really great job in leveraging minimal city funds to create a great event," claims Aaron Paley, the President and co-founder of Community Arts Resources (CARS). "It’s a great event, that’s free, that’s going to bring people together o celebrate the city. It’s a really great L.A. event, and we really don’t have enough of them."

CARS is in charge of the logistics for the event, and is known locally for its role planning large public events such as CicLAvia and last weekend's Santa Monica Festival.

And while the press is focused on the politics of the event, breathlessly wondering whether or not Eric Garcetti will attend, they're missing the point. It's not just cool that the City is throwing a party in Grand Park, it's actually good policy, too.

“It’s really important," said David Sloane, professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy. "I believe that civic events, social events, that break down silos and bring together residents of a city play an enormous role in creating relationships and making people realize the kinds of relationships they have in the city.”

Or put more simply, holding events that celebrate what makes a place significant and original is just something that great cities do.

"One of the principle functions of cities historically has been as places for people to gather for festivals, fairs and market days," explains Mark Vallianatos, Professor at Occidental College's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute. "Here in Los Angeles, private back yards have inadequately filled in for public space, contributing to a lack of civic identity. Seems to me it's worth celebrating a new park, a mayoral transition, a trend towards rediscovering the public realm."

Sloane and Vallianatos echo the famous work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Mark Schuster. In his groundbreaking series of articles and presentations, "Imaging the City," written in 1998, Schuster explained how holding public events was a crucial way for communities to grow culturally and economically.

“It’s unfortunate that the event has been tied to the incoming Mayor and outgoing mayor in the press," Sloane continues. "It’s important to celebrate the people of the city, the diversity of the city and the coming together of that diversity is particularly important for a global city such as Los Angeles”

Indeed, it seems to be Mayor Villaraigosa's name that is drawing so much ire. After all, nobody complains about the Dennis P. Zine Fireworks Extravaganza organized and partially paid for by his office, or smaller events, such as Bill Rosendahl's office paying for a children's movie series in Stoner Park.

"The stories we’re seeing seem to be 'let’s criticize the mayor any way we can' without using all the facts," Paley says.

One of those facts, is that events such as Friday's Celebrate L.A. are exactly what Grand Park was originally created for. Eli Broad referred to the park as the city's "front lawn" -- a place where people from all over the city can easily get to and from with or without a car; a large public place facing City Hall, where people can gather.

“Where it is, at the great Grand Park, is very symbolically important," continues Sloane. "The Grand Park has had a number of smaller events, but it’s important for us to use that park as a place for city-wide events. Not just for the residents of Downtown and the office workers around it, but to brand it as a city place. It is potentially a great symbolic place, but that is only possible if we use it.”

While the city is criticized for its five-hour, free event, we can also see what outdoor events look like when profit driven. This weekend, Los Angeles also hosts the Jubilee Music Festival, a two-day event with a $30 daily admission fee. While I certainly don't begrudge a music festival for charging admission - Placido Domingo and Pepe Aguilar can't do every performance for free - it's a sign of a world-class city when some great entertainment events can be opened to the public without an admittance fee.

So this Friday night, some media figures will get their laughs at the Mayor's expense and thumb their nose at an event that will bring together thousands of Angelenos for a memorable night in our memorable park. Cynically mocking the city's attempt to do something nice and fun, might be fun in it's own right, but I bet the attendees at Celebrate L.A. will literally be having the last laugh.

Disclosure: Celebrate L.A. and Streetsblog L.A. share a major funder, the David Bohnett Foundation.

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