The Angeleno Who Got CicLAvia Rolling Doesn’t Just Produce Festivals; He Aims to Reshape L.A.

Aaron Paley sits down for a Speak Easy Q&A

Inspiration can be fleeting in a metropolis with the landmass of several major cities combined and demographic diversity of hemispheric proportions. But where many people have found L.A.’s scale—the distance between neighborhoods—disheartening, Aaron Paley found a catalyst. The sense of belonging he felt growing up in a tight-knit Jewish community in Van Nuys during the ’60s stood in stark contrast to how cut off he felt from the rest of the region; a nearby set of tracks from what used to be the Pacific Electric Railroad commuter network left him wondering about how to reconnect the city.

Decades before launching his best-known project, CicLAvia, Paley was organizing events intended to bring broad swaths of L.A. together. In 1987, he put on the first Fringe Festival here, a monthlong affair with 457 events scattered among far-flung neighborhoods. Through their company, Community Arts Resources, he and his business partner, Katie Bergin, have mounted a massive 30th-anniversary celebration for the Music Center, created the ongoing series of family festivals at the Getty Center, and produced the inaugural Glow 2008 in Santa Monica, which attracted 200,000-plus people between dusk and dawn to celebrate art-driven incandescence.

Fun, sure, but that’s not Paley’s central goal; rather, he wants to light the way to a Los Angeles that lives up to its potential, and CicLAvia has been his most successful vehicle yet. The first took place on October 10, 2010, bringing out an estimated 100,000 people who pedaled, skated, and strolled along seven-and-a-half miles of car-free streets between Boyle Heights and East Hollywood. And Angelenos have continued turning out in such numbers that CicLAvia is going quarterly this year, with routes all over the county. Here, a conversation with Paley at his offices in the historic Wiltern building in Mid City.

You’ve said in the past that you weren’t really part of the bicycling scene before CicLAvia. How did the event get started?
The irony is, the thing that launched CicLAvia in many ways is the [June 2009] Los Angeles magazine issue which has mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on the cover and “Failure” written across it. Villaraigosa is about to start his second term, and Kit Rachlis, the editor at the time, calls me and says, “We are asking a range of people to write something about what they believe the mayor should do in his second term.” I had just discovered the idea of Ciclovía from Bogotá a couple weeks before.

It had been going on in Bogotá since about 1974.
Right. So I write this little paragraph that says, “I’m calling on the mayor to do something like Bogotá does, which is to close streets to traffic and open it to people and create this network.” A group of people reads the article, and they call me up and say, “Hey, we’ve been working on this since last year.” So I meet with four really interesting young women from a committee that is working on this project. They already have a name for it—CicLAvia—and a logo and a PowerPoint presentation. We start working with the committee in the way we write our grants and present ourselves. So there’s this fusion. At the time the hard-core bicyclists who didn’t drive and only got around on public transportation and bicycles were part of this nascent community in Los Angeles and really fighting for a sense of respect through all the different projects like Midnight Ridazz and Critical Mass.

CicLAvia is, of course, about more than bikes, though.
We said, “There’s four major elements here that we’re looking at: We’re looking at alternative transportation that includes bicycles and pedestrians. We’re looking at how this impacts health. We’re looking at how it impacts the environment. And we’re looking at how this impacts public space. CicLAvia is going to do all those things, and it’s much bigger than just this bicycle event.”

Villaraigosa was game?
We make our presentation at the mayor’s office to David Freeman, who’s the head of DWP at the time, and Romel Pascual, who’s the deputy mayor for the environment, and they’re like, “The mayor really wants to do this, and we’ll cover all the city costs. How soon can you cover your costs? You’ll have the full force of the mayor’s office behind you.” It was astounding what they were proposing to us. This was something that was going to be on the scale of the city and going to capture people’s imaginations.

A hundred thousand people showed up on October 10, 2010.
10/10/10. I can honestly tell you none of the other work that Community Arts Resources has done ever got that kind of traction.

Is closing down a street significant to you because it’s creating a public space that hadn’t been there before, or because it’s just such a stunning act in Los Angeles?
Both and more. It was radical to take cars off the street. It was radical to create a public space where Angelenos would come together and talk to each other and be able to encounter each other, because that doesn’t happen. It enabled people in Los Angeles to see their city in a whole new way. And this happens at all CicLAvias now: You get this sense of “Oh, I didn’t realize it was so close between that and that. I didn’t think I could ride my bike between this neighborhood and that neighborhood or navigate the city that easily.” It offered up the city in a brand-new way. Suddenly you’re looking at the street and all these places that you just drive by and go, “Oh, this is actually really pretty here,” and then you understand that all of these neighborhoods fit together.

How did you come to your company, Community Arts Resources?
I wanted to be an urban planner. I graduated with an architecture degree from Berkeley and started working at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in 1982, where I met Katie Bergin, who is now my business partner. The two of us were working on the Festival of Masks, which was the first universal festival in Los Angeles that said “We are going to deal with all the different cultures here, and we’re going to bring them all together.” This was October 1982. It was a two-day festival set in Hancock County Park, which is where the tar pits are. The thing that amazed me was walking out on Sunday, when they closed Wilshire Boulevard for a parade for the festival. I was like, “This is amazing. You can close Wilshire Boulevard!” We created Community Arts Resources a couple years later.

Being a native, when did you start thinking about what L.A. needed in order to become a better place?
I grew up in Van Nuys, and I don’t know why I had this sense that I was looking for something, but I was. When I was five, I went with my parents to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. I got on the monorail and was blown away. I just thought, “This is so incredibly cool. Why don’t we have this in Los Angeles?” Another major thing was Disneyland; it was this place that wasn’t like any other in L.A. It wasn’t suburban. It was a real place where things happened, and there were lots of people hanging out. I got the chance to go to Europe in 1971; I’m 13, and all I could think of was, “This is like Disneyland.” I had no other point of reference. I had been in Paris and London riding the Metro, riding the Tube. I got back to L.A., and I was struck by the fact that we didn’t have that and that the city was very difficult to navigate. I was obsessed with, Why isn’t L.A. like other places? Why don’t we have a transportation system? Why can’t we get it together?

What inspires you when you travel abroad?
Great public space. It can be beautiful plazas in Rome or Paris or Prague. But it can be simple things, too. There are such great public spaces in the urban areas of Mexico—simple public plazas and parks. In India I love the reverence for trees. If you look at old trees in cities, there’s a little shrine under them. There’s space for people to sit.

Do you have other cities in mind when you put on events here?
Coming of age in the ’80s, what I remember in particular were all these references to other cities, like “This is how they do it in New York,” “This is how they do it in Paris,” “This is how they do it in London.” I ended up getting a button that said, “We don’t care how they do it in New York”—because I’m a native Angeleno. Katie’s a native Angeleno, and we wanted to respond to this place, and this place does not look like other cities. The solutions for Los Angeles needed to look different.

What do you believe makes the monthlong Fringe Festival you put on in 1987 so significant?
We were sitting around thinking about how we could create a countywide impact. For the Fringe Festival we created something called “24 Hours of Art,” where there was an event happening every hour on the hour in different parts of the city. We wanted to do something to break down the barriers people have to going to different parts of the city. We said, “Well, if we put them on the bus, they’ll go wherever the bus takes them.” People did this 24-hour marathon, going from event to event. It started at the Korean bell in San Pedro. At midnight it was at Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. And at dawn it was at the Santa Monica beach. We worked with 10,000 artists and about 400 venues.

You’ve been putting on events long enough to have seen a whole range of administrations and mind-sets in City Hall. How do you characterize L.A. city government?
When you have visionary leadership somewhere in city government, lots can happen. So what you saw under Tom Bradley was the Olympics and the Olympic Arts Festival, which I believe was a major turning point for Los Angeles. The festival was the thing that, I think, gave Angelenos confidence in themselves as an audience. And once it happened, Bradley said, “Now we’re going to create a biannual festival. It’s going to be called the Los Angeles Festival.”

How was that a turning point?
The Olympic Arts Festival led to the kind of programming you see at UCLA in Royce Hall on a regular basis; it led to REDCAT. It led to this adventurousness that opened L.A. up to the world and allowed L.A. artists to see the world. So that vision led to the 1987 festival, which is the first time Cirque du Soleil comes out of Canada. It led to Peter Sellars running the 1990 and 1993 festivals, which led to Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Phil, which led to Gustavo Dudamel.

It seems like the city is at another crucial time of change, with all the money going into mass transit from Measure R.
Even before Measure R. It was Proposition A in 1980 that leads to the Red Line getting constructed. Measure R is the thing that expands it, but without this giant investment, which goes back to Bradley’s vision, this new city wouldn’t be possible.

This new city?
You have to understand that I believe 10/10/10 was another turning point for Los Angeles. It marks where the city starts looking at the streets as places where all these other functions can happen; it’s not that these sorts of things weren’t happening, but it’s all coming together. How do people walk? How do people bike? How do people socialize? How do people enjoy this space? How can it be a place that functions so that it’s a better place for all of us and not just a street to move cars? And that makes better business sense, better economic sense, better neighborhood sense, better human sense. People are going to be happier in a place where they can have access to a real sense of gathering. I really think this new city is being created. You see it in the way people are using downtown. You see it in the way restaurants are being designed, the way housing is being designed. It’s beginning. It’s beginning.