Newsletter: L.A. rabbis navigate politics from the pulpit, and more in the week ahead

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Sept. 30, and here’s a quick look at the week ahead:

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Sound the shofars: Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, began on Sunday evening and ends on Tuesday evening. (Yom Kippur will begin at sundown the following Tuesday, Oct. 8.)

As the High Holy Days begin, L.A. rabbis have been grappling with the politics of faith — and whether they plan to bring those politics to the pulpit during the best-attended observances of the religious year. My colleague Sonja Sharp spoke to numerous rabbis across the ideological spectrum about a decision that has split synagogues in Los Angeles.


[Read the story: ‘None of us are prophets’: After a turbulent year, L.A. rabbis wrestle with the politics of faith in the Los Angeles Times]

Tuesday is the deadline for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to qualify for the October debate.

The annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans will be published on Wednesday. Bill Gates was unseated from his No. 1 perch for the first time in more than two decades last year, when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos topped the list for the first time.

Friday and Saturday: The Service Employees International Union and “Fight for $15 and a Union” members will hold their Unions for All Summit in Los Angeles with a slew of 2020 presidential candidates in attendance.


The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival will be in Golden Gate Park this weekend.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


Gentrification is defining the race for county supervisor in South Los Angeles: The last time there was an open seat for the 2nd District on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, it was 2008 and South L.A. was a very different place than it is today. Now, after generations of disinvestment, the area is in the midst of a renaissance, driving up housing costs and homelessness and leading many voters to worry about the future of one of California’s last black enclaves. So far, these issues have dominated the campaigns of the eight candidates — including L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson — vying to replace termed-out Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and represent a district stretching from Culver City to Compton. Los Angeles Times

See also: More than $2 million in campaign donations have flowed into the hotly contested 2nd District supervisor race. The money has come largely from neighborhoods outside the district. Here’s a look at where that money is coming from. Los Angeles Times

A quick plea: If you live in Los Angeles and can rattle off the details about faraway congressional races but don’t know who is representing you on the Board of Supervisors, you’re making a mistake. These five people (long nicknamed “the five little kings,” although they now have a historic female supermajority) wield enormous power despite their relatively low profiles. Counties, after all, are “the chief entity responsible for basic human services: public health, public safety, jails, parks, hospitals, transportation, sanitation, care for the homeless, the jobless, the abused and neglected, and more,” as this paper explained in an editorial a few years back. You can enter your address here to see who represents you.


A horse died at Santa Anita on the second day of its fall racing season. The death is likely to intensify the debate over the safety and viability of horse racing in California. Los Angeles Times


The Los Angeles Police Department opened an inquiry after a recruitment ad went up on the right-wing website Breitbart, saying such a job listing would conflict with the department’s “core values.” Los Angeles Times

An L.A. County supervisor avoids traffic with helicopter rides costing up to $9,500 an hour. Reaching far-flung destinations in Kathryn Barger’s huge district can be cheap or quick, but rarely both. Los Angeles Daily News

It took two years to arrest Democratic donor Ed Buck despite shocking allegations and red flags. Why? Los Angeles Times

Scooters and bad sidewalks aren’t the only hazards for disabled people in the city. Columnist Nita Lelyveld identifies bad sidewalks as the tip of the iceberg, and looks at the other, less obvious challenges. Los Angeles Times

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Tijuana’s call centers offer a lifeline to deportees struggling to live in Mexico. Los Angeles Times



No state will play a more pivotal role in the impeachment process than California as House Democrats launch their inquiry into President Trump. Los Angeles Times

Nancy Pelosi

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), pictured with Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). Other prominent Californians on both sides of the aisle include Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, and the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes of Tulare.

(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

After months of controversy and debate, Assembly Bill 5 (the so-called “gig worker bill”) has been signed into law and will take effect in January. So businesses will automatically reclassify hundreds of thousands of contractors as bona fide employees with benefits, right? Not so fast. Los Angeles Times

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg is fuming over a video showing Yolo County sheriff’s deputies dropping off an unidentified homeless man at a McDonald’s parking lot in the city. “I am concerned this is not a single, isolated incident and is more of a widespread practice,” the mayor said. Sacramento Bee

Suicides in California prisons continue to rise, despite decades of effort by federal courts and psychiatric experts to fix a system they say is broken and putting lives at risk, a Chronicle investigation has found. San Francisco Chronicle


A Sonoma County man fled police by running into one of Northern California’s largest corn mazes. Worried about getting lost in the complex maze, the officers in chase asked for maps from the farm’s employees. The suspect was apprehended after a two-hour search. Mercury News


A tornado touched town in Davis amid thunderstorms sweeping the Central Valley. One family caught it on video. Los Angeles Times

A historic proposal to allow limited boating at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park is being considered. San Francisco Chronicle

A student vaping epidemic has California schools frantically mobilizing. Los Angeles Times


The molecular science behind the famed blueberry ice cream at a Larkspur shop. San Francisco Chronicle

Skydivers keep dying at this Lodi business. The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board wants to know why it hasn’t it been shut down. Sacramento Bee

The reopening date of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has been tentatively delayed one week to Oct. 7 because of a faulty part. Desert Sun

Is it time to rename John Wayne Airport? The cowboy movie star was, by his own admission, a “white supremacist.” Orange County Register

A viral photo in her cap and gown standing with her immigrant parents on the edge of a strawberry field has brought this San Diego State University graduate a new career as a motivational speaker. San Diego Union-Tribune


Los Angeles: sunny, 74. San Diego: sunny, 71. San Francisco: sunny, 64. San Jose: partly sunny, 68. Sacramento: sunny, 68. More weather is here.


This week’s birthdays for those who made a mark in California: Dodgers player Kenley Jansen (Sept. 30, 1987), actress Julie Andrews (Oct. 1, 1935), former slugger Mark McGwire (Oct. 1, 1963), Rep. Devin Nunes (Oct. 1, 1973), my mom Lucy Fisher (Oct. 2, 1949), musician Gillian Welch (Oct. 2, 1967) and Rep. Karen Bass (Oct. 3, 1953).

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.

Buffalo Bills’ Sean McDermott escorts New England Patriots staffers off field, including Bill Belichick’s son

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott was clearly upset that two New England Patriots staffers were on the field during the team’s pregame warmups Sunday before their matchup.

McDermott may not have known that one of the staffers was the son of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Brian Belichick.


Video posted on social media from New Era Field in Buffalo showed McDermott and one of the staffers going back and forth while the coach was escorting them off the field.

It wasn’t clear what the Patriots staffers were actually doing on the field when McDermott was rushing them off.

However, the Patriots have been penalized in the past for some controversial practices, including in 2007 for videotaping an opposing team’s defensive coaches’ signals from an unauthorized location while Tom Brady was suspended four games for his alleged role in the Deflategate controversy in 2014.


Nonetheless, the Patriots got the better of the Bills 16-10.


New England moves to 4-0 on the season, while Buffalo drops to 3-1 and lose a pivotal division game.

What a shot! 26 amazing sports photos

Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jaylen Waddle gets knocked out of the end zone by Ole Miss defensive back Kediron Smith during the second quarter of their NCAA football game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on September 28. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The car of NHRA pro mod driver Rick Hord bursts into flames as he crashes during qualifying for the Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway. Hord was not injured. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Petra Martic hits a forehand return during her WTA Wuhan Open quarterfinal match against Ashleigh Barty in Wuhan, China, on September 26. Cheng Min/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

Green Bay Packers tight end Mercedes Lewis hurdles over Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Nathan Gerry during the second quarter of their NFL game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on September 26. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando Pride forward Sydney Leroux holds her child on the pitch after a soccer match against Sky Blue FC in Harrison, New Jersey, on Sunday, September 29. Leroux returned the field for Orlando for the first time since giving birth three months ago. Steve Luciano/AP

Belarus’ Volha Mazuronak and Portugal’s Salome Rocha pour bottles of water on their head during the women’s marathon at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 in Doha, Qatar, on September 28. Dylan Martinez/REUTERS

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl checks Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi into the boards during the first period of their NHL hockey game Montreal, Canada, on September 23. Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Staples of Western Kentucky University celebrates with his teammates after winning their NCAA football game over the University of Alabama Birmingham in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on September 28. Silas Walker/Getty Images

Braima Suncar Dabo of Guinea-Bissau, right, helps Jonathan Busby of Aruba across the finish line in the men’s 5000 meters heat during day one of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium, in Doha, Qatar, on September 27. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Alisa Efimova and Alexander Korovin of Russia compete during the pairs short program at the Figure Skating-ISU challenger series in Oberstdorf, Germany, on September 26. Matthias Schrader/AP

Jaycee Horn and Sherrod Greene of the South Carolina Gamecocks attempt to intercept a pass intended for Asim Rose of the Kentucky Wildcats during the second half of a game at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, on September 28. South Carolina defeated Kentucky 24-7. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Jessica Fox of Australia competes in the women’s kayak WK1 event during the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in La Seu D’Urgell, Spain, on September 26. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Sandi Morris celebrates mid-air during the women’s pole vault final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, on September 29. Morris placed second in the event. David J. Phillip/AP

Argentina’s prop Mayco Vivas is hit in the face by the ball during the World Cup Pool C match between Argentina and Tonga at the Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashiosaka, Japan, on September 28. Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matt Judon is introduced prior to an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore on Sunday, September 29. Nick Wass/AP

Dejected Australian supporters react following Australia’s loss to Wales in their Rugby World Cup Pool D match in Tokyo on September 29. Jae Hong/AP

Henry Frayne of Australia competes in the men’s long jump during day one of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 in Doha, Qatar, on September 27. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Baylor Bears defensive end James Lockhart strips the ball away from Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy during their NCAA football game in Waco, Texas, on September 28. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus celebrates victory after her semifinal match against Ashleigh Barty of Australia on day six of the Wuhan Open in Wuhan, China, on September 27. VCG/Getty Images

West Ham United’s Issa Diop tackles Manchester United’s Daniel James during their Premier League match in London on September 22. Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper stands in the dugout prior to the Phillies’ game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., on September 24. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Naomi Osaka of Japan reacts during her match with Jessica Pegula of the United States at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday, September 29. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Wales’ George North competes for the ball with Australia’s Kurtley Beale during their Rugby World Cup match in Tokyo on September 29. Matthew Childs/REUTERS

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott warms up prior to an NFL game against the Miami Dolphins in Arlington, Texas, on September 22. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Why a woman’s brain started leaking after Pilates

Most people who suffer workout injuries incur a sprained joint or pulled muscle. But one 42-year-old woman received a Pilates injury that caused her brain fluid to leak.

The injury happened when the woman was attending her usual Pilates Reformer class, according to her 2014 case published in the Journal of Medical Case Reports.


During one Pilates move, the woman felt a distinctive pop in her neck, states the case study. But she felt no other symptoms—until she started experiencing regular headaches later. The first headache began about an hour after the telltale popping sound.

According to the case study, the woman’s headaches became more severe over 4 weeks’ time, during which she sought medical help. She went to the doctor several times after an initial diagnosis of a muscle injury. Still, her painful headaches weren’t responding to pain medication.

However, a condition called spontaneous intracranial hypotension (SIH) is known to cause headaches when a person is upright, reports the case study. Because the woman’s headaches were relieved when lying flat, the case study’s authors suspected this condition.

SIH is often caused by a cerebrospinal fluid leak, according to the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD).


Eventually, that leak causes low brain fluid, which leads to headaches when standing or sitting as the brain has less fluid to cushion it.

Although likely an under-reported condition, one number estimates 5 cases per 100,000 people, states the NORD. Typically, fluid leaks through a small tear in the connective tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord, called the spinal dura.

In this woman’s case, doctors confirmed their suspicions when they saw pockets of excess fluid on an MRI of the spine. A CT scan also showed localized bleeding.

The study authors noted that most cases should identify where the tear happened so that doctors can treat it with a blood patch. The patch would use the patient’s own blood to repair the hole in the connective tissue.


But in this case, the woman’s symptoms improved with only bed rest and caffeinated drinks. She was released after 2 weeks in the hospital and showed no abnormal signs or images in her follow-up appointment.

Now only one question remains: does Pilates pose a risk for leaking brain fluid? It’s possible. But the case authors state that this is the first case of its kind.

73-year-old woman dies in Granada Hills fire

A 73-year-old woman died early Saturday morning when a one-story home in Granada Hills became engulfed in flames, according to Los Angeles fire officials.

It was unclear what started the fire, but officials said “excessive storage conditions” fueled the flames. Video posted by the fire department showed chairs and other furniture cast about outside the home.

More than 70 firefighters worked nearly an hour to extinguish the blaze, officials said. The fire destroyed the house in the 10400 block of Densmore Avenue, and the roof partly collapsed, according to fire officials.

Officials said there was no working fire alarm that could have alerted the woman and her 76-year-old husband, who managed to escape the blaze.


The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but officials said it doesn’t appear to be suspicious.

WHERE WE LIVE: Rio Bravo didn’t win the university but it kept the character

Rafael Avenue just might have the best view in all of Bakersfield and, by extension, the entire San Joaquin Valley.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask Rick Kreiser, businessman, concert promoter and resident of Tuscany, the 15- to 20-year-old development that occupies some of the highest ground in easternmost Bakersfield’s picturesque Rio Bravo valley.

From their backyard-slash-ridgetop, Kreiser, wife Lorie and black Lab mix Ubu can look out upon the western face of the Sierra Nevada and down onto Kern Canyon, Lake Ming, the Kern River and almost all the way around a mountainous outcropping to Hart Park.

“Best views, easy,” says Kreiser, well known around Bakersfield for his popular Guitar Masters concert series. “The north and northwest face of Rafael, from top to bottom, has the best views in Bakersfield.”

But in the entire San Joaquin Valley?

For that, we rely on an admittedly biased but knowledgeable expert, the late George W. Nickel Jr., the grower, developer and water baron. Nickel’s vision and, perhaps ironically, his single most disappointing defeat made the Rio Bravo valley what it is today. 

And his take? “It is the most beautiful agricultural area in the San Joaquin Valley,” Nickel told family friend Jamy Faulhaber in an October 2000 oral history interview for the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Nickel died in August 2004.

In 1965, Nickel offered the trustees of the California State University system 300 acres along the Kern River for the establishment of “Kern State College.” Unfortunately for Nickel, so did seven other groups, most notably the Kern County Land Co., whose founders, James Ben Ali Haggin and Lloyd Tevis, had been persistent business rivals of Nickel’s famous great-grandfather, Henry Miller. Three of the eight were eventually elevated to finalist status: one put forward by Standard Oil of California (precursor of Chevron Corp.); the Kern County Land Co.’s Stockdale proposal, as it was known; and Nickel’s Rio Bravo plan. In Nickel’s mind, it came down to Rio Bravo vs. Stockdale.

We all know how Miller-Nickel vs. Kern County Land Co., the sequel, turned out. Today, Cal State Bakersfield’s presence is the single biggest reason west Bakersfield has grown and thrived as it has — and Rio Bravo, despite its attractive vistas and more temperate climate, has largely remained a rural basin of scattered settlements.

But Nickel’s (and, one might argue, Bakersfield’s) loss is Rick Kreiser’s gain. And his neighbor’s gain. And the gain of the 20,000 people who now reside in the valley located roughly between Morning Drive and the imposing western wall of Kern Canyon, at Bakersfield’s eastern boundary.

Development came slowly at first, but it came, and today Rio Bravo is home to several upscale and midscale neighborhoods among the clusters of farmhouses that have been here for decades. They include Rio Bravo Country Club, Canyon Country Estates, the Solera-Del Webb retirement community, City in the Hills, Vista Finestra, Mountain Meadow, Morningstar, Cattle King Estates and Tuscany.

What has not come to Rio Bravo, however, has been commercial development. Tony’s Firehouse Grill and Pizza, situated on Kern Canyon Road/Highway 178 near what was once the site of Mesa Marin Raceway, is a survivor to be admired; for years, the steakhouse-style building was a black hole of failure upon failure. Rio Bravo’s population wasn’t sufficient to support it, and the drive just seemed too much for everyone else.

Rio Bravo is only now getting its first market on Kern Canyon Road, its main drag — a small, boutiquey store/gas station that opens in October next door to the area’s first fast-food restaurant, a just-opened Taco Bell.

Otherwise, if Rio Bravo residents want to stock their cupboards, they must plan ahead. There’s no Vons, no Foods Co, no Albertsons.

“On this side of town, you have to be a list-maker, you have to plan,” says Carol Kurtis, who built a stately home on the eastern edge of Rio Bravo Country Club with her late husband, Arlen Frank Kurtis, a boat and car builder and son of the founder of the legendary, 1950s Kurtis Kraft racing-car design company. The Kurtises moved into their new country club home in 2004; Carol’s husband died in December 2016.

“But the trade-off is so well worth it,” she says. “The views are spectacular. The moonrise, when it comes, lights up the entire hillside. So you put up with the distance into town. You grocery shop a little longer, you put stuff in the freezer, you have a plan.”

Her moonrise wouldn’t look the same today had a state college come along and brought civilization to Rio Bravo, whitewashing its lunar glow with thousands of streetlights, storefronts and electric hearths. 

Chuck Tolfree went to work for Tenneco West in February 1968, just a few months after the company, which grew out of Tennessee Gas Transmission Co., acquired the holdings of Kern County Land Co., which two years before had pledged land to the state college system. The trustees’ decision to go with the KCLC’s Stockdale proposal undoubtedly made its sale to Tenneco West in late 1967 substantially more lucrative. A half-century later, that investment has proved itself many times over, thanks to Castle & Cooke, which purchased Tenneco West’s holdings in 1987 and soon gave us Haggin Oaks, Seven Oaks and a dozen other major residential developments within a short drive of the state university.

“The situation with the utilities was better” on the west side than at Rio Bravo, Tolfree said. “It was cheaper. And of course you had more control over the surrounding land uses.”

The competition had been stiff. Standard Oil offered 300 acres in what was then considered northeast Bakersfield; Tejon Ranch offered 600 acres of its White Wolf Ranch near Caliente Creek; two Tehachapi-area ranchers made separate offers of undetermined size; the new desert community of California City offered 580 acres; and the city of Delano put together a bid, which it withdrew early in the process.

The trustees whittled it down to Standard Oil, KCLC’s Stockdale property and Rio Bravo.

Nickel, whose family, led by son Jim Nickel, still operates Rio Bravo Ranch and Rio Bravo Realty, was confident he had the superior offer. Rio Bravo, almost 1,000 feet higher than the other two, typically had cooler temperatures than the valley floor and was not subject to its winter fog. And the vistas were not remotely comparable. In fact, the state college committee that visited each of the three finalist sites downgraded the Stockdale proposal for its lack of “beauty, spirit and feeling.”

But the Kern County Land Co., according to Nickel, “did a lot of politicking.”

“I will never forget,” he told Faulhaber, “how this thing finally got decided.”

Nickel attended the trustees’ meeting, held March 21, 1966, at the El Rancho Hotel in Sacramento, to witness the final vote. Nickel brought his wife, Dodo, and good friend, Dean Gay. Head engineer and eventual president Bill Balch represented the Kern County Land Co.

The trustees in attendance were split on whether to approve the Kern County Land Co. bid, which the committee had recommended. Rio Bravo still had substantial support and the vote was tied 6-6. It all came down to the vote of Lt. Gov. Glenn M. Anderson.

“I do not know what influence the Kern County Land Co. may have had with the lieutenant governor,” Nickel said later, “however, it broke my heart. … I have never understood this decision (to choose Stockdale). … It’s an uninteresting, flat piece of land.”

Some have argued that the transfer of land from KCLC/Tenneco West to the state college system resulted in the loss of a great portion of the valley’s most valuable economic resource, its prime farmland. Rio Bravo, on the other hand, is rocky, uneven land with challenging pockets of clay — difficult to farm, so no great loss in that respect, but for that same reason not the easiest land on which to build a college.

In any case, the deal was done. 

There’s no telling what the city of Bakersfield might have looked like if CSUB had been built in Rio Bravo, but it certainly would have been different. That Kern County Land Co. acreage might still be a carrot field, Bakersfield’s inevitable sprawl might have tilted toward Edison and Lamont, and the treacherous road through the canyon to Lake Isabella might have demanded ambitious improvement.

After the verdict, Nickel recalibrated. He invested heavily in citrus in and around his Rio Bravo Ranch, creating what today is a dense, remarkable landscape of orange trees. In 1970, just as the new state college was welcoming its first modest cohort of students on the west side of the city, the Nickel family was considering plans for a Rio Bravo Tennis Club near Lake Ming. By late 1974, the new club was attracting members with fine dining and the support of Bakersfield native Dennis Ralston, who’d advanced to the finals at Wimbledon a decade before.

Over time, though, interest waned and the club was razed to make way for new, upscale homes.

Nickel also helped develop the Rio Bravo Country Club, a golf course and sprawling clubhouse just a few miles east of the tennis club. Today, however, it, too, struggles.

Kurtis, for one, prays it regains its health.

“If the golf course doesn’t keep going and people don’t support it, it will affect the complete east side,” she says. “It will be catastrophic to home values. They’re trying: It’s open to the public now and they’ve opened a bistro in the clubhouse.”

Come on out, she says. Please.

Otherwise, she says, life in the Rio Bravo valley is good. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Kurtis says.

Kreiser agrees.

“The main thing is the people,” he says. “The view is tremendous but a neighborhood is really made up of the people who live there. From the first day, even before we bought the house, they were reaching out. That’s great when you’re a stranger in a strange land. And then you pile on the fantastic view.

“As long as you don’t pay $12 for a loaf of bread at the market down the street, it’s worth it.”

It’s hard to imagine CSUB, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, located anywhere other than where it sits now. It’s hard to imagine Rio Bravo as anything but the wide-open window to the Sierra it remains today. But for a single vote cast 53 years ago, we might be looking at a very different reality, however: Kern Canyon Road might have a wide array of markets, thriftier options in the bread aisles, and an absence of discernible moonrises.

‘Post-weird’: How Chinese architecture evolved in the Xi Jinping era

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

This feature is part of a wider CNN Style series on how culture in China is evolving in the Xi Jinping era.

Four years into the construction of Beijing’s tallest skyscraper, its architects received an unexpected request from the city’s authorities.

Despite already being more than half built — and despite the fact its shape was explicitly based on a “zun,” a ceremonial wine vessel popular in the Shang dynasty — the tower needed to be more “Chinese.”

“Apparently, the client got a call from the vice mayor’s (office) saying they were doing a review of all new construction in Beijing,” recalled Robert Whitlock, design principal at Kohn Pederson Fox (KPF), the US-owned architecture practice behind the 1,731-foot skyscraper. “And (they) thought that the flat top of the building wasn’t Chinese enough.”

Over the following months, the firm held a series of meetings with city planners to negotiate last-minute changes to the design. While the architects resisted what they saw as “literal” interpretations of Chinese culture, officials pointed to pagodas and temple roofs as sources of inspiration, said KPF director, Li Lei.

“One of the suggestions (was) to look at the Temple of Heaven — whether there was a way for us to interpret the traditional elements of the tiered roof … somehow, and put it on top of the building,” Li said, “which we immediately thought wouldn’t work.”

The flared top of Beijing's Citic Tower, the world's eighth-tallest skyscraper.

The flared top of Beijing’s Citic Tower, the world’s eighth-tallest skyscraper. Credit: Kohn Pedersen Fox

What resulted was an exercise in compromise. Citic Tower’s crown would become more curved and exaggerated at its corners, reflecting the flowing lines of traditional Chinese architecture. The showpiece skyscraper was completed last year, with state-owned conglomerate owner, Citic, set to move in this winter.

“We tried a bunch of schemes and ultimately got (city authorities) to understand — or we convinced them — that the subtle flare at the top mimicked the slope of a traditional roof, and that it was consistent with the tower’s bottom,” said Whitlock.

But, in retrospect, the timing of the request may have been no coincidence.

Less than a year earlier, in 2014, President Xi Jinping had made a speech at a Beijing literary symposium in which, according to state media reports, he criticized the construction of unusual buildings — presumably referring to the novelty towers, experimental shapes and unduly tall skyscrapers that had come to define contemporary Chinese architecture.

Vessel-shaped ‘supertall’ skyscraper transforms Beijing’s skyline

KPF’s Li does not believe the request was a “direct initiative” from the president. Indeed, it would be another year before the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a more explicit 2016 directive calling for the end of “oversized, xenocentric, weird” buildings, in favor of those that are “suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye.” But the vice mayor’s request seemingly reflected changing attitudes within Chinese officialdom.
Today, in a country once seen as an architects’ playground, there are growing signs that planners are no longer beholden to Western design. And architects — whether influenced by Xi’s position or the inspiration behind it — are increasingly looking to the country’s own history and culture for expressions of modernity.

New cultural confidence

Before the 2000s, contemporary Chinese architecture barely registered on the global radar.

The years following the 1949 communist revolution were characterized by a utilitarianism that considered the discipline a matter of engineering, not art. Communist China founder Mao Zedong’s disdain for history also saw the widespread destruction of old structures, and only a last-minute intervention by his premier, Zhou Enlai, allegedly prevented him from tearing down the Forbidden City itself.

In the latter stages of the 20th century, few buildings of international interest or renown were ever realized on the mainland. One of the noteworthy exceptions, the late I. M. Pei’s tranquil Fragrant Hills Hotel, fell into disrepair shortly after opening in 1982.

But a post-millennium construction boom changed all that.

Developers had money to spend, and planners were eager to put their cities on the map with eye-catching landmarks. Foreign architects flooded into China, viewing the country as both a new source of revenue — even more so after the 2008 global financial crisis — and a loosely-regulated tabula rasa on which to test bold new ideas.

One of the more succesful examples of foreign-designed architecture in China, Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House won the best cultural building award at the 2011 RIBA International Awards.

One of the more succesful examples of foreign-designed architecture in China, Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House won the best cultural building award at the 2011 RIBA International Awards. Credit: Image: Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects Photo by Iwan Baan

Notable successes emerged from the gold rush. Acclaimed British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid refined her space-age curves through the pebble-like Guangzhou Opera House and the uniquely textured Nanjing International Youth Cultural Centre. In the capital, Dutch firm OMA’s gravity-defying CCTV Headquarters (now known as China Media Group Headquarters) remains widely admired in architectural and engineering circles, despite its odd shape and subsequent local nickname “da kucha,” or “big pants.”
Yet, for every success, there were countless opportunities for ridicule: a coin-shaped office block in Guangzhou, an arts center in Zhengzhou resembling a collection of otherworldly eggs, and a gate-like Suzhou skyscraper whose likeness to a pair of pants was pointed out with far less affection. Local architects followed suit, with buildings resembling teapots, musical instruments, a cellphone and even a giant crab.
These bizarre forms make up just a fraction of the country’s architectural output, according to Lu Andong, a professor at Nanjing University’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning. But the media became attached to the “weird China” narrative — so much so, that images of an unfinished tower went viral for its seemingly rude appearance, despite the final design being no more phallic than any of its neighbors.
Suzhou's Gate to the East skyscraper pictured during construction in 2014.

Suzhou’s Gate to the East skyscraper pictured during construction in 2014. Credit: VCG/Getty Images

This unfortunate reputation will have factored into the government’s new stance. But changes in China’s architectural community were already underway, said Lu, who pinpointed 2008, the year Beijing hosted the Olympic games, as a more significant turning point.

“(Around this time), Chinese culture in general became more confident, because they were already at the world stage… they were a player, so they no longer looked to those leading (Western) architects,” he said in a phone interview. “They were quite confident in what they were doing.

“Around 2008 to 2010, there were more and more architects — many of whom were educated overseas — coming back to China. And they were familiar with how the international architecture sphere, or culture, operated… There was a change in the intellectual paradigm.”

Evolving identity

This period, and the years immediately after, saw Chinese architects making their mark globally. By 2012, Wang Shu had become the first mainland Chinese winner of the Pritzker Prize, the “Nobel Prize” of architecture. And Ma Yansong, founder of MAD Architects, began garnering international recognition — and overseas commissions — for his flowing, curvilinear buildings inspired by Chinese art. (More recently, Ma was chosen to design the long-awaited Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in L.A., arguably the most prominent US project by a Chinese architect to date).

Architect Ma Yansong on why curves matter

With a design philosophy drawn from traditional “shanshui” paintings (literally “mountain and water”), Ma represents, in many ways, the burgeoning cultural confidence that has seen architects look to the country’s history, arts and geography for inspiration. Yet, as a protégé of the late Zaha Hadid, he too may fall the wrong side of so-called “xenocentrism.” Indeed, his mountainous Chaoyang Park Plaza development, unveiled the year before Xi’s 2014 speech, was marketed online as possibly being “Beijing’s last abnormally shaped landmark building to enter the market in the coming 10 years,” according to the New York Times.
For Lu, however, skyscrapers and landmarks are not the only barometers of the architectural atmosphere. The book he co-authored, “China Homegrown: Chinese Experimental Architecture Reborn,” offers examples of small-scale projects expressing national character through vernacular architecture — the use of local materials, like bamboo, and region-specific construction methods or designs. Again, Lu said, the emergence of this movement predates the government directive.
Arhicetcture firm Archi-Union's "In Bamboo" cultural center in Sichuan province was constructed using local materials, building techniques and craftsmen.

Arhicetcture firm Archi-Union’s “In Bamboo” cultural center in Sichuan province was constructed using local materials, building techniques and craftsmen. Credit: Photo by Bian Lin

“There was a kind of resistance to the ‘international impact’ of (foreign-designed buildings), and Chinese architects believed that there was something serious and more ontological within Chinese architecture,” Lu said. “Even in the early 2000s, they were confident about that.

“They were quite split. (There was) a group that was more internationally-oriented and wanted to be elevated into the international sphere, and wanted their projects to be covered by media and critics — to be adored. On the other hand, there were architects who were quite unhappy about that, so they used regionalism to show another kind of identity.”

Aforementioned Pritzker laureate Wang Shu, along with his wife and partner Lu Wenyu, continues to epitomize this nuanced approach to history. Take 2016’s Fuyang Cultural Complex near his home city of Hangzhou, with its gently curved roof and irregular brick walls evoking the design of local village houses.

A walk with Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu.

Plenty of Chinese firms are taking similarly sensitive approaches to small-scale projects: Archi-Union’s bamboo-woven cultural center in Sichuan province or WEI Architect’s Fujian guesthouse, with its sweeping roofs that mimic the surrounding mountains.
And overseas designers have shown increased cultural sensitivity in recent years, too, from David Chipperfield’s understated ode to Zhejiang’s red clay hills to WSP’s irregularly stacked Hangzhou university complex, inspired by local courtyard homes.

Reinterpreting the past

Almost a decade after leading OMA’s work on the CCTV Headquarters, German architect Ole Scheeren last year unveiled his latest Beijing landmark, the Guardian Art Center. Commissioned and approved before Xi’s appeals, the auction house and exhibition space epitomizes Chinese architecture’s new, almost Janus-faced identity.

The Guardian Art Center pays subtle tribute to Beijing's historic hutong architecture.

The Guardian Art Center pays subtle tribute to Beijing’s historic hutong architecture. Credit: Büro Ole Scheeren / Iwan Baan

The building’s pixelated lower half plays with the geometries of the low-rise “hutong” alleyways beside it. The upper floors, meanwhile, pay tribute to the nearby houses, reimagining their brick walls as grids of rectangular glass panels. Scheeren even projected a 14th-century landscape painting, “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” onto the building’s facades, using the line of the mountains to inform an arrangement of small circular windows.

“We need to be truly contemporary and we need to be abstract, but we need to embed meaning in much more intellectual ways,” he said of the project during a phone interview.

Having headquartered his firm, Büro Ole Scheeren, in China, the architect has observed significant changes since the heady early-2000s. He sees attempts by Chinese architecture to “reclaim its own territory” as a natural and “very healthy process.”

“China was simply going through a process of transformation, or at least I saw the beginnings of one,” he said. “After one or two decades of enormous enthusiasm and rapid growth, change and modernization, there was — for the most part — very little time left to reflect and think.”

Scheeren identified a number of questions facing the industry generally — but China specifically: “How do you relate to the past without being sentimental about it? And how do you build a future and a present without forgetting what was there? I see no value in mimicking things from before.”

Beijing's historic "hutong" alleyways pictured from the Guardian Art Center.

Beijing’s historic “hutong” alleyways pictured from the Guardian Art Center. Credit: Büro Ole Scheeren

The architect highlighted the contrast between Guardian Art Center and its neighbor, a drab early-90s hotel topped with an incongruous temple-style roof that shows just how far notions of “Chineseness” have evolved. But this reflects not only progress in design thinking, but in attitudes among city planners and developers.

There are other, lesser-seen ways in which a shift in official attitudes may be transforming China’s skylines.

Nanjing University’s Lu said that foreign architects no longer have a guaranteed advantage in design competitions, which are often used to select major landmarks. Smaller cities may still hold reverence for Western designs, he admitted, but in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen, local architects now have a “fairer chance.”

KPF’s Li, meanwhile, points to recent changes in how cities are designed at a macro level. “I think what Mr. Xi is doing an amazing job at is getting the planning side to re-look at what is a livable city — a better urban planning policy that will reduce pollution, traffic and look at satellite cities,” he said, adding that China is looking to develop “models more akin to northern European cities (with) livable, walkable, cyclable qualities.”

According to co-founder of Open Architecture, Li Hu (no relation), the Xi years have heralded stricter safety regulations and what he describes as a “more democratic” approval process. “In the past, one top official could approve things on his own,” he said in a phone interview, “but now it has to go through lots of different departments and everyone gives their opinions.”

Li was unequivocal that the president’s directive “had no impact” on his work, which he distanced from attempts to achieve notions of “Chineseness” — though he still receives requests to do so.

Built in renovated industrial oil tanks, Open Architecture's Tank Shanghai arts center is one of a growing number of renovation and restoration projects in China.

Built in renovated industrial oil tanks, Open Architecture’s Tank Shanghai arts center is one of a growing number of renovation and restoration projects in China. Credit: Open Architecture / Wu Qingshan

Nonetheless, some of his firm’s best-known projects, including Tank Shanghai, an arts center built in thoughtfully renovated industrial oil tanks, represent another movement in Chinese architecture: a greater appreciation for heritage. In a country where shiny newness once reigned large, and where historic buildings (including swathes of Beijing’s historic hutongs) were regularly razed, there now appears to be more appetite for restoration projects.

“You’re starting to see more and more reuse and renovation projects in many parts of China,” Li said, “particularly in big cities where they used to have a pretty strong (set) of industrial spaces.”

‘Consciousness has shifted’

While Open Architecture’s Li doesn’t credit this latter change to government policies, he accepts that the State Council directive — initially, at least — rattled developers and politicians who were afraid of inadvertently endorsing designs that would later become unpalatable to officials. “For a while I heard rumors that many projects got put on hold, because people were unsure if they were ‘weird’ or not.”

Yet, after this initial period of conservatism, the directive’s influence has already “faded away,” Li said, citing the return of ill-considered buildings that he brands “monsters.” He recalls being told by a politician that one of his firm’s recent competition entries was “not crazy enough,” which to him implied that unusual landmarks are “still in people’s minds.”

“No one knows, exactly — unless you’re an insider — under what context (the State Council’s) statement was made. (It) was vague, so it was interpreted by different people in different ways,” Li said, adding “I’ve started to see a resurfacing of these irresponsible buildings again — at a larger scale.”

Given the opaqueness of China’s government, it is near impossible to know how diktats filter down the political food chain. Moreover, large buildings can take years to complete (the aforementioned Citic Tower took eight), so any effects of the State Council’s 2016 directive may be yet to transpire.

For three consecutive years, Shenzhen has built more skyscrapers than any other city in the world.

For three consecutive years, Shenzhen has built more skyscrapers than any other city in the world. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

But despite optimism in some quarters about a new era of moderation, construction continues at breakneck speed. In 2018 alone, a total of 88 skyscrapers measuring 200 meters (656 feet) or above were completed in China, according to data published by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) — the most skyscrapers built by a single country in a single year in history. A look at the hundreds more currently under construction reveals designs that might easily be described as weird, oversized or xenocentric. But there are plenty of low-risk, unimaginative boxes among them too.

Nonetheless, for Scheeren — whose decade-long journey from the CCTV Headquarters to the Guardian Art Center seems to reflect the shift in Chinese architecture itself — both extremes are being gradually eroded.

“There’s much more caution about creating truly outlandish proposals, and also more caution to creating a total ‘generic-ness.’ Interestingly enough, Xi’s position was not only focusing on one side,” Scheeren said, offering his interpretation of the Chinese president’s stance. “He didn’t only say ‘let’s not make such weird buildings anymore,’ (but also how) everything has somewhat become the same across China’s very big territory.

“And that was, maybe, the really important and intelligent aspect of the whole campaign.

“It’s a process that is underway and maybe some (attempts) have been more successful than others,” he added, referring to broader changes in architectural thinking. “But I think the important thing is that the consciousness, generally, has shifted.”

Beijing’s municipal government has not yet responded to CNN’s request for comment.

Newsletter: Essential California Week in Review: Stop vaping now

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It is Saturday, Sept. 28.

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Here’s a look at the top stories of the last week:

Top Stories

Stop vaping immediately. California health officials issued a warning Tuesday that people stop vaping immediately, joining a growing chorus of health experts advising caution following recent reports of severe lung illnesses linked to e-cigarette use.

California and impeachment. What’s the worst part of the impeachment inquiry for Donald Trump? He has to “put up” with California’s Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, current chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.


Not since the Civil War. In related news, Trump is on track for the poorest showing in over a century by a Republican presidential candidate in California, a new poll finds. Just 29% of likely California voters say they plan to vote for him.

Challenging Boise. A growing number of local governments, including the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento and San Diego, are attempting to challenge Martin vs. City of Boise, a court decision that has allowed people to legally bed down on sidewalks overnight.

Autumn leaves. Think there’s no way to see fall in California? Here are a few places where you can find trees with spectacular displays of autumnal color.

No Endeavor IPO. Endeavor Group Holdings Inc., the owner of talent agency WME-IMG and mixed martial arts league UFC, canceled plans for its highly anticipated initial public offering just one day before its stock was expected to begin trading on Wall Street.


Designer chicken coops. Some Los Angeles chicken owners want to house their pets in high-style comfort. And they’re spending hundreds to thousands of dollars to do so.

Who picks babies’ gender? Some California couples are choosing not to state the gender of their children until the kids are old enough to articulate their identities on their own. But that’s set up clashes with federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration.

A radical approach to getting people off the streets. In the face of a growing homelessness crisis, city and county officials in Bakersfield want to put homeless people in jail for misdemeanor drug offenses and potentially for trespassing.

This week’s most popular stories in Essential California

1. How ex–Trump whisperer Hope Hicks spins the Hollywood liberal establishment. Air Mail

2. The 10 weirdest things at the very weird Emmys 2019. Los Angeles Times

3. A new California city of 120,000 is rising five miles from Fresno. Would you live there? Fresno Bee

4. The burns that almost cost Eve Babitz her life. Air Mail

5. Where to find a quiet spot amid the bustle of L.A. Los Angeles Times

ICYMI, here are this week’s great reads

Meet Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood’s woman in Hollywood: In her role as the organization’s director of arts and entertainment, she encourages screenwriters to tell stories about abortion and offers script expertise. Washington Post


Who wants to leave California? Young voters can’t afford housing, and conservatives feel alienated. Los Angeles Times

A “white boy” from Maywood (a now 96% Latinx neighborhood) reflects on how his upbringing as the neighborhood shaped him, and made him a better parent and citizen. L.A. Taco

“Why does this place exist — and for whom?” San Francisco Chronicle dining critic Soleil Ho (whose name you should know if you don’t already — she’s been doing fantastically interesting work since joining the paper earlier this year) dissects Union Square’s famed Le Colonial to ask whether a restaurant celebrating French colonialism even belongs in San Francisco. San Francisco Chronicle

An L.A. jazz legend pays homage to Jackie Robinson, with a pitch from a library assistant. Los Angeles Times

Looking ahead

Saturday Recommendation: Queso from Amá•cita in Culver City


The bar in Amá•cita’s dining room.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Restaurant critic Bill Addison ventured to Amá•cita, Bar Amá chef Josef Centeno’s new Tex-Cal-Mex joint in his former BäcoShop space. There is much deliciousness to be had on the menu, but Addison had some strong advice for readers: Do not resist the queso. (The servers will offer it if you ask for guacamole with your chips.) Here’s what he had to say about it:

“This is alchemist’s queso, unlikely elements turned to molten gold. The mixture indeed includes Velveeta; processed cheese imparts a necessary smoothness, and Centeno knows better than to fight it. He also tinkers ingeniously. Cheddar and Monterey Jack add hearty tang and textural substance. The sneaky kicker is Brebirousse d’Argental, a bloomy rind Lyonnaise sheep’s milk cheese with restrained pungency and otherworldly creaminess. Its presence makes the queso comforting but not too comfortable.

The dip arrives in a small 1970s-era brown crock, with garnishes of crema, concentrated tomato salsa and crumbled ricotta salata for surprise flickers of sharpness. It is narcotic in its appeal, chip after submerged chip. The amazing thing about this stuff is how it retains its pull even as it starts to cool. The consistency doesn’t become plasticky or gluey like most queso; it stays silky, and the tiers of flavor keep revealing themselves. Even as other dishes begin filling the table, I find myself moving the queso back to the center of the action.”


Amá•cita is located at 9552 Washington Blvd. in Culver City. (424) 523-3300. Read the full review here.

Want for more food stories delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the Tasting Notes newsletter, written by restaurant critics Patricia Escárcega and Bill Addison.

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes. (And a giant thanks to the legendary Diya Chacko for all her help on the Saturday edition.)

First House Republican comes out in support of impeachment inquiry: report

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., on Friday became the first House Republican to express support for Congress’ impeachment inquiry of President Trump.

“I’m a big fan of oversight, so let’s let the committees get to work and see where it goes,”  he said in a conference call with reporters, according to The Hill.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) speaks at a town hall with Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) inside the Reno-Sparks Convention Center on April 17, 2017 in Reno, Nevada. (Photo by David Calvert/Getty Images)

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) speaks at a town hall with Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) inside the Reno-Sparks Convention Center on April 17, 2017 in Reno, Nevada. (Photo by David Calvert/Getty Images)


Amodei told reporters that at this point he wouldn’t vote to impeach Trump. But he said he was concerned about the July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s activities in the country.

“Using government agencies to, if it’s proven, to put your finger on the scale of an election, I don’t think that’s right,” Amodei added. “If it turns out that it’s something along those lines, then there’s a problem.”

But he cautioned he was “in no way, shape, or form” indicating “support for impeachment,” The Hill reported.

Trump’s phone call with Zelensky came under scrutiny after an unidentified whistleblower filed a complaint with the Inspector General, alleging Trump abused his office by pressuring a foreign country to investigate his political rival.


Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., has said he supports impeachment. He left the Republican party earlier this year.