From atop a hill in Echo Park, I marveled at a city awash in gold. It was July 28, the day that the late Jonathan Gold, who had died suddenly one week earlier, would have turned 58. To commemorate the loss, dozens of Los Angeles landmarks were illuminated in his honor, from the pylons at LAX to the crown of the U.S. Bank Tower.
Even when the Dodgers had nearly won the World Series a few months before, the city had not felt as saturated in blue as it was in gold for Jonathan that night.
As the lights faded, a mural of Jonathan was finished outside the Santa Monica restaurant Margo and a booth bearing his distinctive silhouette was dedicated at the new Guerrilla Tacos, which opened days after his death. And a conversation unfolded among Jonathan’s friends and colleagues about how else to permanently memorialize his many contributions to the city.
Chef Roy Choi, whose bulgogi tacos were championed by Jonathan early on, proposed a plaza in his honor. “It should be on Pico,” he insisted, referencing the street Jonathan famously ate his way down in his 20s.
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Jonathan’s Los Angeles Times colleague Carolina Miranda stitched together a poem from lines of his reviews, which now describes a fictional restaurant that a conceptual artist and experimental chef could collaborate on as the ultimate pop-up, interpreting a menu inspired by Jonathan’s lyrical writing.
Jervey Tervalon, an old friend who co-founded LitFest Pasadena with Jonathan, suggested turning his pickup truck—a hulking forest-green Dodge Ram that transported Jonathan and his dining companions over 250,000 miles to more than 1,000 restaurants—into an interactive, multimedia, mobile experience that would help people understand how Jonathan “saw our crazy quilt of a city as a coherent whole.”
Most of his readers know that Jonathan was more than a restaurant critic. He was a culinary geographer, mentor to young chefs, and cheerleader of many local writers. But he also leaves behind an indelible legacy on Los Angeles that is not as well-known: He worked to make food fair, just, and equitable.
In 2011, Jonathan’s brother Mark Gold, an environmentalist who often teased him publicly about his truck’s carbon footprint, begged him to write an op-ed condemning the Cantonese delicacy shark fin soup. State Assemblymember Paul Fong had introduced a bill banning the possession and sale of shark fins—often procured by “finning”: sawing off the fins of sharks and throwing them back to die—and Jonathan penned a persuasive argument on the “bitter taste of extinction.”
When the bill was presented, Jonathan’s op-ed was read on the Senate floor, the bill passed, and shark fins were banned statewide. Fong later said that Jonathan’s words “made the difference at a time when the cultural backlash was putting the bill in jeopardy.”
Jonathan’s prose changed food policy. It wasn’t the only time. About a decade ago, Jonathan helped LA’s leaders start to rethink the role food plays in the city’s public spaces.
In 2009, while I was the design editor at GOOD, I got a call from Paula Daniels, a public works commissioner. Paula was passionate about improving LA’s food system, and was bringing together a group of experts who would eventually become the city’s food policy council.
The plan was to kick off the initiative with GOOD co-producing a 30th anniversary celebration of farmers markets in LA, including a competition to design new solutions for farmers to get their produce to Angelenos. Paula was keen on having Jonathan—arguably the biggest food name in the city—announce the competition’s winner at the celebration.
At that time, Jonathan was still supposed to be an anonymous critic (it wasn’t until 2015 that he officially relinquished his anonymity). I assumed this meant Jonathan might take the podium just for a few moments to read the list of winners before he ducked back into the audience.
But Jonathan came to the jurying and gave insightful feedback that other judges took to heart. At the event, held on the lawn of City Hall, he not only added a few of his own thoughts about each winning project, he wrapped those thoughts into a mini-manifesto about farmers being an integral part of LA’s urban fabric.
As the ceremony ended, the crowd swamped the podium. I think then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa thought they wanted to talk to him, but they were all there to shake hands with Jonathan.
For Jonathan, being present at that event, standing up for LA’s farmers, was more important than hiding behind a disguise. LA’s most famous food critic was also our most eloquent advocate for the people of this city who grow, prepare, and serve the food we eat.
That’s why, when the food policy council was officially formed, Paula asked Jonathan to join its task force.
“I don’t think I would have considered any other critic,” she told me this week. “But the way he wrote about food and its role in Los Angeles, he understood communities and he knew what was important to each community.”
As the group convened to lay out its priorities for defining “good food” for the city, Jonathan changed the conversation around food again.
“I do remember Jonathan bringing up street vending in the very first meeting,” Paula told me this week. “None of us had really thought about it. But he was very impassioned about it. I could tell immediately how savvy he was about policy.”
After Jonathan’s insistence to include street vendors as a critical part of LA’s food system, some members of the council formed the LA Street Vendor Coalition in 2012, with a goal to propose an ordinance to legalize street vending. Rudy Espinoza, the executive director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network who is part of the coalition, remembers Jonathan tearing up after hearing a presentation to the task force about how vendors were being targeted by law enforcement.
“When he heard that some of the entrepreneurs he frequented were being criminalized, he was visibly emotional and in shock that the city would target these entrepreneurs,” Rudy remembers. “He recognized that the best food was often found in low-income neighborhoods and was made by street vendors.”
It was Jonathan’s support—and his writing—that helped city leaders recognize these entrepreneurs as a vital part of LA’s streets, agrees Paula, who now heads the Center for Good Food Purchasing. “Jonathan tilled the soil.”
The motion to legalize street vending was introduced in November 2013. Five years later, it has yet to become law—and the city continues to target vendors.
The Monday after Jonathan died, street vendors in Hollywood were told they would be cleared by police using a “bulky item” ordinance normally used to remove large pieces of trash from sidewalks. A protest was organized by vendors chanting “Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!” (“We’re here, and not going anywhere!”)
…the saddest moment in Boyle Heights street food, most aficionados would agree, was the evening the Breed Street vendors were finally chased from the scene. This group of carts and tables and propane-fueled infernos gathered after dark in a parking lot just north of César Chávez Avenue, swelling to more than 40 operations on busy weekends and sometimes drawing 1,200 people a night.
It was chaos, the Breed Street lot, intersecting fiefdoms of barbacoa specialists, crepe masters and steam-enveloped centers of pudding-soft tacos al vapor, the long table of Nina’s, whose gooey pambazos, huaraches and toasted-seed salsa de semillas were among the stars of the scene, and the other table belonging to Antojitos Carmen, whose pambazos, Mexico City–style huaraches and salsa de semillas were close enough and good enough to lend the lot a certain tinge of Hatfield and McCoy.
At the LA screening of the City of Golddocumentary, Jonathan confessed to me how bad he felt that his truck—that gargantuan, gas-guzzling monstrosity—played such a big role, almost a supporting character, in the film. I laughed and forgave him. Of course he needed the car to cover ground, to get from to Rosemead to Artesia and back again in a single day.
But, as I realized later, to be Jonathan’s passenger wasn’t about isolating yourself in a vehicle. It was about climbing, wide-eyed and open-minded, into his ongoing narrative of a changing city, a story carefully told by someone who had already walked blocks in search of a legendary paletas guy or asked the woman by the bus stop where she sourced her huitlacoche. No one taught me more about the potential of LA’s streets.
As many have noted,Jonathan championed unsung urban spaces like strip malls and swap meets.He showed us how curbs can become impromptu kitchen tables, with paper plates wobbling on precariously perched milk crates. He showed us that parking lots aren’t just for cars,they’re places for communities to gather, under a string of lights and over the hum of a generator, to share experiences.
Jonathan showed us why sidewalks should be expanded: to make room for more local ingredients, more neighborhood traditions, and many, many more rainbow umbrellas.
When the food policy council presented its official report to the city in 2010, Jonathan was tasked with writing the report’s introduction. He described LA’s food scene like this: “a frieze of fine dining overlaying a huge patchwork of immigrant communities big enough and self-sustaining enough to produce exactly the food they want to eat.”
In today’s LA, our food policy, as drafted, does not allow for these entrepreneurs to be self-sustaining. The hulking shadow of displacement and deportation now threaten the city’s immigrant communities like never before. As my colleague Meghan McCarron wrote so eloquently in the hours after Jonathan’s death, the Los Angeles that he championed is at risk.
It was particularly disheartening, as LA’s City Hall was illuminated in Jonathan’s honor, as the mayor of that city issued a statement praising Jonathan’s appreciation of food “whether served from a truck window or atop a white tablecloth,” that the lawmakers who meet in that building had still not validated a citywide practice that predates the existence of every single white-tablecloth restaurant in LA.
The draft recommendation will ban street vendors from some of the city’s busiest corridors, namely, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where the blocks are inextricably laced with the scent of bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
The city’s argument is that it’s too dangerous to have so many people scrunched into narrow, poorly maintained sidewalks, so the vendors should have to leave. The effect isprioritizing the driving and parking of cars over the lives and livelihoods of people.
A public celebration of Jonathan’s life is planned for August 26 in Downtown LA. Los Angeles lawmakers should use that date as a deadline to acknowledge the incredible outpouring of public support for his legacy and design more inclusive streets.
I urge our City Councilmembers to pass an ordinance that will legalize street vending for good—and fully realize the vibrant city that lives on in Jonathan’s words.