By: Tommy Vinh Bui
Beads of broken bottle chips crunch underneath my sneakers as I step under the yellow-white orb of the streetlamp. It’s downtown Los Angeles and the temperature kindly clement tonight as distant freeways shivaree me out of my twilight reverie. Above, new luxury lofts are stacked one atop another at an alarming rate whilst below homeless encampments continue sprawling seemingly ceaseless. Penthouses spread upward whilst Skid Row expands outward. It’s a tragic and inconceivable contrast of complexities that continually comprise the very contradictions that is Los Angeles.
It’s enough to make salty cynics of even the most empathetic of denizens. But gathering in front of the Central Library on Fifth and Flower Street is a group intent on removing any excess lack-of-sympathy. A running group that prides itself in restoring the compassion to the obstinately oblivious to the plight of down-and-out, weary Angelenos. BlacklistLA are a committed cadre of community advocates that strive to jostle any muddling malaise that might be hobbling folks. Their mission is to run around the city and reactivate public spaces and bring to light murals that may go unnoticed during daylight hours. Enticing people to get out of their cloistering cars and pause and really see their city. The group has expanded over the years from a few dozen runners or so to sometimes several hundred strong swiftly sprinting around boulevards under the cloak of night. All are welcome and every skill level and pace encouraged to toe the start line together.
The group takes its name from the artwork that features prominently during their runs. Front and center is the street art that resides on the margins of the traditional art scene. Artwork effectively blacklisted from conventional galleries and museums. Tucked away and hidden in alleyways and under overpasses. From utility box wheatpaste decoupage to outsized mosaics, no artwork is too far-fetched or miniscule to examine. In foot-patter rhythm with the marginalized and clandestinely suppressed artists, this rag-tag group seeks to amplify the under-seen and unnoticed. Making vibrant the hues and bolstering the voices of guerilla artists who grapple with their efforts of artistic expression being whitewashed and muffled by neon-vested city workers with paint rollers and graffiti-abatement accoutrement daily.
The term blacklist immediately conjures notions of silence and censorship and an expansive chronology of historical struggles toward free expression and intellectual freedom. But this is a blacklist, I’m fond of stressing, that reinforces concepts of positive community-building and challenging people to rethink how we live and see our urban environment. While the initiative is largely motivated by promoting the health-benefits of running, multimodal transportation, and bringing people together and inviting them to experience the city from a unique perspective, there’s also a strong social justice component. The group collaborates closely with city officials and policymakers to devise effective strategies to raise awareness of pedestrian fatalities and to promote Los Angeles’ Vision Zero Initiative as a top priority. Also, the artwork that is featured in each run strives to promote the works of young and emerging artists. Artists that are often people of color and represent the vibrant diversity of the city. The runs are also organized to be mindful of including a variety of routes to ensure that every enclave and neighborhood is fully represented. Especially regions that are under-served in terms of health advocacy and highlighting areas that may be erroneously perceived as unsafe or not worth re-examining culturally. BlacklistLA extolls that every neighborhood has a story to tell and there’s beauty everywhere if one is willing to lace up and sweat for it.
The BlacklistLA Rose Run is a particularly invigorating program. Each individual in the group is armed with a single long-stemmed rose and the objective is to jog and present the aromatic offering to a stranger along the route with a smile and kind word. Leaving behind a trail of petals and heartwarming comity.
So from the pores of the concrete under our feet: Poetry. From the asphalt a life-affirming amity. And a boulevard of flickering streetlights guiding us to the finish line home.
Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.