Steve Lopez – The Soloist

Mom handed me The Soloist over Thanksgiving – one of her friends had just returned it.  I started reading it and simply could not put it down.  Like a lot of people, I hadn’t heard about the book until the movie (which I haven’t seen but I have heard it’s incredible) came out earlier this year.

The portrait that Lopez paints of Nathaniel Ayers is truly haunting.  The glimmers of brilliance that come through the veil of schizophrenia, only to be lost again.  It’s an unlikely friendship, and an interesting one.

I really did find myself questioning Lopez’s motives.  He wanted to help Nathaniel.  He wanted to call attention to the awfulness of Skid Row.  But did he really effect any larger change?  Would his efforts have been better-placed by focusing on something other than one individual?  Did Mayor Villaraigosa’s pledge to clean up Skid Row happen?  I don’t know; Lopez doesn’t tell us that part.  Beyond that, the ending feels unsatisfying, I want to know where Nathaniel is now.

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2 Comments

  1. Hey!

    I don’t know you, but I randomly came across this post while researching for an article I’m doing on the changing political climate in Skid Row. I’m a community organizer that’s been doing work in the arts community there for the past year or so, and this group I’m with is publishing a sort of d.i.y. magazine about issues affecting the homeless community as well as spotlighting some of the creative people down there.

    Anyway, I whole-heartedly agree with you in questioning the efficacy of Lopez’s method of focusing on one individual… while it is the kind of journalism that appeals to a lot of people by giving the conditions of LA’s homeless community a human face, it also makes Nathaniel look like a “diamond in the rough” while ignoring the vast array of talented and intelligent people who live there. Still, I think Lopez’s other pieces on Skid Row (the ones not focused on Ayers) and his pieces on public health in LA are among the stronger pieces that have been written for the Times in the past decade, so I don’t think the guy’s a tool. Unfortunately, since the publication of The Soloist, The LA Times have done some truly shitty journalism covering issues in Skid Row, blaming LAMP for problems that have existed long before LAMP even came around and just generally ignoring most of the debate about the Safer Cities Initiative… but I guess that’s just a gripe I have with the institution of the Times more than with Lopez as an individual, since he doesn’t really have anything to do with it.

    Anyway, as far as how Nathaniel’s doing, I see him every few weeks sort of arbitrarily when I’m walking around downtown. He appears to mostly be in the same psychological state that he was in the end of the book.. sometimes he plays in front of the abandoned theaters on Broadway and in Pershing Square and few people stay to watch. He recently played a street festival on 5th street along with some of the other fantastic musicians from the community and I think it was a good experience for him. He has also recently written “Steve Lopez” on his cart full of stuff to go along with “Beethoven”, “Stevie Wonder”, etc. To say that Steve and LAMP didn’t have a positive impact on his life on some level would be untrue no matter how you look at it.

    I guess one of my concerns, though, is that the book (and even more so the film) presented a vision of Skid Row to the world that was so overwhelmingly dystopic that it seems to treat injustice as inevitability. I’m not naive enough to think that we’re going to end poverty right away, but I think it wouldn’t hurt to start talking about ways we can work to make things better for the homeless in LA. I mean, we were just ranked as the “meanest city” to the homeless (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2009/07/law-center-slams-la-as-americas-meanest-city-toward-homeless.html). Can we at least aim to not have that title? Is that asking too much? With regards to The Soloist, I feel that no matter how eloquently or artistically we can describe the struggles that homeless people face, we have to start forming a more concrete vision of what we can actually do to uplift the entire community. There needs to be some more critical assessment of the role of the LAPD in Skid Row, the causes for the systemic socioeconomic inequality that bring people there, the lack of adequate services for the mentally ill that California has had since Reagan was governor. We have to start creating journalism that actually links people to some kind of action in a concrete way. I don’t think Lopez is wrong, and he’s certainly done a good job as advocate for the LAMP Community and as someone who humanizes those who have been so often demonized, but I think we need to take it a step further.

    Artists and musicians from Skid Row are still struggling to gain respect from venue owners in an increasingly gentrified downtown, which is kind of ironic, because usually once someone makes a movie about something then people suddenly care about it because it’s become commodified… but that’s not really happening amongst the homeless artists in downtown. I still see Ayers walking around Skid Row sometimes and he’s just one person among many. I don’t know what the solution is, how to get these artists the recognition they deserve and get many of the amazing people in Skid Row access to the same resources that other people all around the city have, but I think it’s going to take a much larger effort than what has been put forth so far. For their part, many of the artists and musicians in Skid Row have just recently decided to organize a Skid Row Arts Collective, and they’ll be doing something at The Exchange on 5th street in the upcoming artwalk, so if you’re somewhere around the LA area, you should check it out! You can email me if you want details.

    Peace and justice!
    Andrew

    • Andrew,
      Thanks for the detailed update! I’ll have to chase down some of Lopez’ other work on Skid Row. Sadly, I’m nowhere near LA, but the Collective sounds like a great development.


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