Essay

Happy 10th Birthday, Zócalo, Unlikely Child of Passion

I Used to Be a Happy Loner. Now I Host L.A.'s Public Square.

It’s amazing what you can do when somebody ticks you off. A decade ago, I was a solitary writer whose idea of community was pretty much limited to tequila-infused evenings with my cronies at the HMS Bounty on Wilshire Boulevard. My days were spent alone in my home office researching and writing a book that took me years to finish. Neither a proper journalist nor a proper academic, and never given to heavy identification with causes or clubs, I didn’t have a constituency, professional or otherwise, to call my own.

In other words, I liked my solitary writer’s life. Every spring, I’d attend the annual retreat of the New America Foundation, the Washington-based think tank that supported my work, and that was about all the intellectual community I claimed to need. My closest colleagues, who tended to live thousands of miles away, were a phone call or an email away.

As I look back now, though, it’s clear to me that I longed for some sort of intellectual fellowship closer to home—not an echo chamber, but somewhere I could rub shoulders with thoughtful people of any stripe and hear smart folks expound on things I knew nothing about.

I wasn’t thinking about that in 2002 when I accepted an invitation to attend a snooty L.A. gathering of writer types. I was honored to be a part of the mix, looking forward to some interesting conversations. Instead, a small, untoward comment would wind up shaking me out of my solitary life.

Someone jokingly asked me, in front of a cast of strangers, whether I had been invited “under the Mexican quota.”

It wasn’t like such incidents hadn’t happened before, from time to time, since grade school. But this time it may have been the gap between expectation and reality that set me off. I laughed the comment off in the moment. But within the hour I found myself speeding up the Harbor Freeway, venting on my cell phone to a good friend in New York.

“Goddamn it,” I recall telling her. “What was that, high school?”

And then I blurted out a bizarre pledge that was, to that point in my life, completely out of character. I told my friend that was I going to create and host an intellectual space where no one would be singled out derisively and everyone would be welcome.

Even more shocking is that I followed through. I had the gall (where did that come from?) to meet with the people and organizations around town—some I knew, some I didn’t—I thought could help me make things happen. A filmmaker friend designed a trapezoid logo and gave me a copy of a 19th-century drawing of Mexico City’s zócalo to use for posters, which we had made up at an affordable print shop on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park. The name Zócalo was meant to convey that the organization would be all about openness and generosity and inclusion. I felt the symbolism of a grand, all-embracing central plaza—the type of public space we long for in L.A.—was perfect.

This founding ethos gave birth to a few principal tenets. The events would be free to the public. Books would be sold, but no one would be obliged to buy one. Every member of the audience would be invited to a reception with speakers where beer and wine and soft drinks would be served, for free. At Zócalo, everyone’s invited to the after-party. (From the beginning, the party included music. For the first however-many events, I borrowed a boom box from a friend and carried it to the venues.) And the events would be about ideas rather than preaching to choirs or heavy-handed advocacy. We’d strive to be inclusive by being broad and general rather than narrow and targeted.

From the beginning, Zócalo strived to mix things up and defy expectations. A lifelong lover of bookstores, I knew few greater joys than entering a shop with one topic in mind but accidentally stumbling upon another. In an age of self-selected, like-minded physical and online communities, Zócalo has sought to preserve a healthy dose of eclectic serendipity. We cater to people who are curious not just about things they already know but also about things they don’t.

I confess I took a perverse pleasure in selecting Adrian Wooldridge, a tweed-bound Brit who is now the management editor at The Economist, to give Zócalo’s first lecture, on the history of the idea of the corporation, before a huge crowd on April 9, 2003 (the gall paid off). From that very first night—10 years ago today—it was clear that Zócalo filled a gaping void in L.A.’s social landscape.

Since then, what started as a lecture series has evolved into a full-fledged Ideas Exchange, with both a physical and a digital platform. In 2003, Zócalo presented four events at one venue in L.A. In 2012, we put on 70 free events in 11 cities and published over 600 articles. We now publish original content every day on our site, and, in keeping with the original goal, we are as proud to curate the voices of neighbors and other community members as we are to publish bold-faced authors. We’re a staff of seven and expect to grow.

I never dreamed of this little project lasting so long or evolving the way it did. Although I’ve learned to enjoy working with other humans, I’ve spent many an hour wondering how the hell my hobby overwhelmed my life and changed the way I spend my days. Fundraising is exactly as fun as you might think it is, and in my darker hours of non-profit angst—believe me, they exist—I sometimes curse our generous partners and our ever-expanding audience for encouraging my accidental activism.

But then I come to my senses and feel grateful. The greatest satisfaction I derive from Zócalo’s story is that the fit of anger that started it all has long since been drowned out by the passion, intelligence, and aspirations of my Zócalo colleagues, past and present. It’s fun to go to work each day with a bunch of cool, creative people—to have helped build the community I never knew I wanted to find. And it is a privilege to play the role of host, both online and on the ground, to audiences across Los Angeles and the world. Zócalo’s success over the past 10 years means I no longer have to lug the boom box, poster, and reservation list to each and every venue by myself. But I would do it again if I had to; it’s all been worth it.

Gregory Rodriguez is publisher and founding director of Zócalo Public Square.

The “Connecting Los Angeles” series is supported by a grant from the California Community Foundation.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo by Aaron Salcido.

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