The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Alissa Walker

Alissa Walker

  • editor
  • writer

Alissa Walker writes about design, architecture, cities, transportation, and walking for many publications. She is the Urbanism Editor at Gizmodo and her work regularly appears in Los Angeles Magazine, Dwell, Fast Company, GOOD, T Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as on the KCRW public radio show DnA: Design and Architecture. Alissa lives in a Dodger blue house in the Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood, where she throws ice cream socials, tends to a drought-tolerant garden, and relishes life without a car.

Interview

Describe your path to what you’re doing now.

Today I am a journalist, but that could change tomorrow. (laughing) I’ve been writing since I was two years old—or whenever people learn how to write—and I always knew I would be doing that in some form, but I really wanted to be in advertising. I think that came from watching Saturday Night Live as a kid. I loved the commercial parodies, and I liked that they only had 30 seconds to do them: they got in, told the story, and got out. As a kid, I’d cast my family members and neighbors in commercials and film them with my parents’ video camera.

As I got older, I knew that I wanted to be some kind of advertising creative, like a copywriter or art director. I went to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder and earned a journalism degree with a specialization in advertising. After graduating from college, I decided to go to Portfolio Center in Atlanta to continue to hone my skills. I looked for work, but I never really got a job. I did some freelance work and had an internship for a while, but none of it was substantial. This was during the dot-com bubble, so things were a little messed up; there weren’t many jobs working on the big, awesome campaigns that I had always thought I wanted to work on. It was a strange time.

At that point, I fell out of love with advertising pretty quickly. (laughing) Maybe that would have changed if I had found an amazing job—I don’t know. I decided to move to LA because a lot of my friends were moving here, but also because it was a little less susceptible to economic problems: San Francisco and New York were a mess, but people were still finding jobs in LA. In 2001, I moved here and took a day job at a production company while I freelanced on the side. During that time, I realized that I loved telling stories, specifically about creative things. I wanted to go back to my roots, back to what I learned in school, and I asked, “Why don’t I just give freelance journalism a shot?”

In 2005, I decided to go out on my own, and I’ve never looked back. In August 2013, I became the Urbanism Editor at Gizmodo, and the last few years of my life have been focused on the larger definition of design as a problem-solving tool to make the world a better place.

Tina: What was your transition from a day job to freelancing like?

I had always written for magazines on the side, and I had done stuff for local journals or publications when I was in college. I hadn’t stopped doing freelance work when I took the day job, however, I did like the freelance work more than my day job. My duties at the production company were basically getting coffee for people or doing paperwork. (laughing)

Tina: That’s a pretty LA type job.

Yeah, you have to have that job when you move here—it’s almost required. (laughing) I would go to work and think, “This is really fun, but these aren’t my ideas. This isn’t my creative input.” What I really wanted to do was give myself some time to think and write on my own. In 2004, I decided to leave LA for the summer and travel around Europe by myself. That was really when my epiphany occurred: I was walking around cities, writing about restaurants and museums, and I asked, “Why can’t I do this for my job?”

Tina: Wow! You just up and went to Europe by yourself?

It was very last-minute. I knew several people who were staying in different countries, so I met up with some of them, but I was by myself for the most part. At 26 years old, I had never traveled alone before, nor had I slept in a hotel room by myself! I grew up in St. Louis and was a very sheltered person for most of my life. In traveling to Europe for those two months, I was able to be myself and find out who I was.

Was that an “aha” moment for you as a writer?

Definitely. That’s why I named my first brand Gelatobaby—my “aha” moment occurred over gelato in Italy. (laughing)

I had been having an existential crisis over there, thinking, “What am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do?” I wanted my job to be fulfilling. While I was traveling, I was filing little .mac webpages—if you remember those, (laughing) which were before blogs were a big deal—and people said, “These websites are amazing. You should totally be a writer!” I thought, “They don’t even know that I am a writer!?”

(all laughing)

I had been to a lot of other countries in Europe, but something happened when I got to Italy. I was tapping away at my computer in little cafes, writing stories about the significance of wandering along ancient roads, and stumbling into crazy flea markets. It was all such a special experience and I thought, “This could be my life.” There was nothing stopping me; there was no reason why I had to have a job or be hired by a magazine—I could just do it. I could start a blog, have readers, and write for a living. I very clearly remember walking out to the Mediterranean, sitting on the beach and playing with the rocks, and thinking, “This is what I was meant to do: I was meant to tell stories, talk about places, and walk around all day.” I came back to LA and knew that I had to figure out how to make that happen.

“I started producing my own blog without waiting for anyone to hire me, and I just wrote about what I wanted to write about. Then, if I wanted people to hire me, I could show them all the things I cared about and they could see my point of view on the world. It became a lot easier to get jobs that way.”

Tina: Did you reach out to people or get work through friends?

I had written for some publications, and I knew a lot of writers who did local stuff, but I did it differently. I started producing my own blog without waiting for anyone to hire me, and I just wrote about what I wanted to write about. Then, if I wanted people to hire me, I could show them all the things I cared about and they could see my point of view on the world. It became a lot easier to get jobs that way.

This was in the early days before Twitter, too, so you just had to email people and say, “Read my blog!” There really wasn’t any other way. (laughing)

Tina: It’s amazing how far we’ve come. (laughing)

I know! I got my big break when I was hired by the design blog, UnBeige. They were looking for a blogger, and a few different people told me to apply for the position. After I auditioned a few times, they hired me and asked if I could start the following Monday. Unfortunately, I lied and said that I knew how to use Moveable Type when I actually did not, so I spent that weekend learning how to use it. (laughing) All of a sudden, I was involved in a very popular platform for designers. I worked for UnBeige for three and a half years, and it was awesome. That’s kind of what got my momentum going.

Tina: It’s funny—many people we’ve talked to have said they took a job or client project and stretched the truth about how much they knew. (laughing)

I hear a lot of other people say that, too. I think that lying or pretending to be able to do something is key to moving up in the world. (laughing)

Tina: It’s about challenging yourself. It’s not just claiming that you know how to do something and then not doing it. It’s thinking, “I could probably figure that out, so I’ll just say that I know how to do it already.” Then you do research and actually learn it.

Ryan: There’s nothing like a little pressure to light a fire under your butt.

Exactly.

Have you had any mentors or influential people in your life along the way?

I’ve had a lot of amazing teachers throughout the years, and a lot of great people have supported me throughout my career, but I would have to say that my most influential, day-to-day mentor is Frances Anderton. She is a radio host for a show on KCRW called DnA: Design and Architecture. She brought me on as a production assistant 10 years ago, and we’ve been close ever since. She has given me the chance to learn the ins and outs of producing stories for radio, which is challenging. (laughing) Several times a month, we produce a podcast all about design and architecture through the lens of Los Angeles. We talk about everything from fashion to architectural infrastructure, but it all has a bit of a local focus.

Frances has a great way of looking at the world and seeing how anything can be explained through design. We once did a show about gun control and the way she chose to explore it—from the 3D printing of guns to the zany product placement world of guns in movies, which I had no idea about—showed me that there are so many ways of looking at issues through design. Frances has taught me to step back and put on my radio producer hat, which means taking a more generalist view of the world rather than talking about things from an insider’s point of view. She has given me a really good perspective on writing, the need for explaining things in real words so that anyone can understand, and how to tell a great story. She’s been so helpful to me in every single part of my career and has taught me how to be a better journalist in every way—and she’s just a lovely person.

Are you creatively satisfied?

I would say yes, but not always from writing. Creativity includes your whole life and not just your job or hobbies. I consider creativity as being curious, exploring, and recording: it’s a three-part process. That’s the way I go through all of my projects, whether I’m writing, taking an Instagram photo, or producing an event. It’s about trying to learn more about the world; being curious and trying to figure out how the world works is a good way to be creatively satisfied. For me, the process of making things is about trying to figure out why the hell something is the way it is—or what’s wrong with it and how it could be made better.

Is there anything that you’d like to tackle in the next 5 or 10 years that you’re not doing right now?

So many things! I’ve been going on a TV show called Take Part a lot lately, which is really fun, and I also used to appear on HGTV. I like the fast, instant, visual format of it. I would also like to write and contribute to more books. I love producing events, so I’d like to do anything that gives me a chance to do more and bigger events. I don’t know when I’m going to have time to do all of that, though—it’s been crazy for me lately.

Has there been a point when you’ve taken a big risk to move forward?

I feel like I’m always taking risks, but the last few years have been difficult because of the way the industry has shifted. I had enjoyed writing long stories for magazines—well, they weren’t necessarily long, but they were pretty heavily researched and required more thought. Over the last few years, the trend has gone toward getting posts up quickly on blogs. At UnBeige, I was told, “You need to write this many posts a day and it doesn’t matter how long they are.” It was short, mindless stuff, and I was worried that I was destined for that because publications were kind of falling apart. I would get assigned a 500-word story on a topic that was so much bigger than that and think, “Are you kidding me? You’re only giving me 500 words for this?” I felt like I was short-changing myself by not pushing for bigger stories that paid well and gave me exposure.

Over the last few years, though, the industry has actually been getting better and online media are valuing “long reads.” I think that’s a stupid term, though. It’s stuff that is a little more long-form, involved, and shows that if you invest time in something, people will want to read and share it. That’s not a personal risk, but a risk that the whole industry is taking. It means giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that they like to think and be challenged instead of being fed regurgitated crap. There’s a place for eye candy—I like to look at eye candy, too—but you have to balance that out with great stories.

That’s where I am now. At Gizmodo, I’m allowed to write beautiful, little blurbs, but I’m also able to spend a whole afternoon walking with a seismologist to learn about how earthquakes are going to impact the city. That’s really awesome and exciting for me as a writer.

Tina: That’s interesting. As you know, our interviews can be quite in-depth and lengthy. When we first started, we weren’t sure if people would read an interview that long on the web.

Ten years ago, I thought, “It’s done.” I thought long stories were only ever going to be in the New Yorker, and I’d never write for them, so I would just have to vomit up renderings of architecture projects on a blog all day. But the industry has changed, and people value long-form writing so much more now. It feels good to see that.

A & Z Nut Wagon in LA’s Boyle Heights
A & Z Nut Wagon in LA’s Boyle Heights, known for its beef jerky; Instagram photo by Alissa
Purple polish to match the blooming verbena
Purple polish to match the blooming verbena; Instagram photo by Alissa
Palm trees dot the horizon in typical LA fashion
Palm trees dotting the horizon in LA; Instagram photo by Alissa

Tina: Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Or, more importantly, do they understand what you do?

It has taken a while for my parents to understand what I do, but I’m married to a graphic designer and illustrator, so that’s really easy. Our lives intertwine, which is a big part of my success. I don’t think I’d be able to do what I do without him leaning over my shoulder, asking, “Are you sure about that?”

Both of my parents are creative people, and they influenced me heavily growing up. My mom is a floral and garden designer, and my dad ran a small business, but he did a lot of stuff with computers in the early days. He was always building computers and setting up huge Internet systems, so he had a very creative-yet-tech way of looking at the world. I think they get the part about me writing about creative subjects, but I don’t think they always understand the blog culture that I’m a part of. Sometimes they’ll read something and say, “I don’t get this joke,” but when they hear a radio story or see my TV stuff, they get really excited because it is explained in a language they understand—again, it’s that generalist point of view. They also love to come out to LA and attend events I help with or having me take them to a building and explain why it was designed a certain way.

Events are a cool way to expose my friends and other people I know in LA to what I do. I can say, “If you want to know what this is about, come see it.” Then they can actually meet the people behind these creative projects and ask them questions. That’s the role of the journalist in today’s world: your story doesn’t stop when you publish it. You need to participate in the comments and have a dialogue on Twitter, then bring the people out in real life to introduce them to the people and ideas you wrote about. Maybe that’s a new level of journalism today—it’s no longer just taking place online. I can’t even imagine writing for a magazine before the Internet and getting a letter that says, “I hate you,” a few months later. I get those instantly in an email or tweet!

Tina: Do people really send you stuff like that?

Yeah. As a writer, you definitely get a lot of hate mail and really weird, negative comments from people. But that’s good—that’s how I know that I did my job. I couldn’t imagine not getting feedback. People will tell me that I’m wrong and sometimes they’re right; sometimes I really did mess something up or didn’t consider the implications of what I wrote. I love having the story be a part of a conversation instead of filing it away and being done with it.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Yeah. Almost everything I do is a collaboration or part of something bigger, but I don’t think what I do is always part of something else. My biggest goal is to make this city a better place, and my second biggest goal is to make people appreciate how to make their cities better places.

Ryan: What inspired that?

Honestly, it happened when I decided to stop driving. I liked living in LA, but I didn’t really care about how the city worked or the people in it. I’ve heard a lot of people tell me the same thing, and I think it makes a big difference. It doesn’t work for everyone—a lot of people are miserable if they can’t drive to places (laughing)—but it did for me. As soon as I got out of the car, I saw how things worked and how they could work better; I understood neighborhoods and cultures; I saw buildings that worked well and buildings that were horrible. It took me having the experience of moving around LA in a different way to make me appreciate it. All of a sudden, I started thinking, “I have to go to my neighborhood council meeting,” or, “I have to go fight for this new transit tax,” or, “I really care about this new restaurant going in down the street.” I’ve been car-less for six years now, which has made me a better citizen, and being a better citizen has made me a better writer.

screenshot of de Lab website
Alissa cofounded de Lab, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that engages local creatives in efforts to celebrate and improve their city.

If you could give advice to a young person starting out, what would you say?

When you’re young, it’s important to explore the things that you’re really interested in. Try to turn your hobbies into paying gigs, and convert them as soon as possible. Don’t worry and think, “I have to have a job; I have to make money; I have to make my parents happy.” Just try to follow all the different paths that intrigue you and find things that make you want to get up in the morning.

That’s what I wish I would have told myself when I had just gotten out of school. At that age, you’re determined to get a job or get yourself situated as a grown-up. When I graduated, one of my biggest passions was cooking, but I told myself, “No, I have to go work in advertising.” I wish I had let myself go to cooking school or write about cooking; I wish I had felt like I was able to explore.

A lot of young people are realizing now that you can be a freelancer right out of school. You don’t really need to get a job, especially if you’re on your parents’ health care until you’re 26. That changes everything! You can hold off and work for a bunch of different people and explore a lot of different things. You’ll be able to find a community of young people like you; you’ll be able to create a blog and a website and a Twitter, get your work out there, and work on your own brand. That’s your prime creative time: you’re able to stay up late, drink all night, then get up and work in the morning. You’ll never be able to do that again. (laughing) Working on your own brand is the most important thing you can do right out of school. Yes, you’ll have to work for clients and do jobs for other people, but your number one focus should be: “Who am I and what do I care about?”

How does living in LA impact your creativity and the work that you do?

I always tell people that LA is the largest artist community in the world. People here don’t just do something creative—they do, like, three creative things! They’ll do one thing during the day, then they’ll have a group that does something else in the afternoon, and then they’ll knit or something at night. (laughing) There’s a really good culture of making, producing, and putting things out into the world. In a lot of other cities, it feels like everyone is consuming and hanging out. Here, people are really busy, and they are doing things that make them happy. They’re not just doing things to help pay their really high rent because it’s actually not that expensive to live here, and the quality of life is really high for what you get.

I think everybody in LA gives themselves more freedom to explore, make mistakes, enter into partnerships, and try new things. Living here has taught me that I don’t have to be just one thing. I wanted to do tours, so I started leading tours; I wanted to start putting together my own events, so I started producing events; I joined a pedestrian advocacy group because I wanted to help improve the city. The culture in LA is very positive for doing your own thing and not really worrying about societal pressures. It’s a very supportive and inspiring place.

Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community of people?

I think that’s a big reason why some of us started a group called de LaB, which stands for design east of La Brea. We do two events per month that focus on the east side of town and the creatives who do projects there. De LaB was our response to creating a community not based around institutions, which are very powerful here. We wanted our own grassroots group that could be flexible and attract people who are interested in each other’s work and bring people together to form partnerships. Everyone says that LA is too spread out and that it’s hard to get people together; there is so much to do that it’s hard to go to more than one thing in one night, so you have to make a decision about what matters most to you. We wanted to host must-do events, and we wanted to get everybody who was doing the same things in the same room together.

What kinds of events do you host?

It could be anything. For instance, we’re doing an event this Saturday where high school students have redesigned markets to be all about healthy eating. They’ve done everything from painting murals on the walls to changing the shelving so that people’s eyes focus on fruits and vegetables instead of junk food. Something like that is a super social event. Last weekend, we were in Palm Springs for Modernism Week, and we had a party at a mid-century house that a Bravo star, Stephen Collins, designed. Our next event will take place in Highland Park, and it will be a day of action around the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. That’s going to be a really exciting way to bring attention to what the future holds for this beautiful building. It needs some renovations, and there’s going to be an architect presenting her proposal for it.

We do anything we can to lend a hand to our community, whether that’s helping a group get the word out to gain support for their cause, putting on a full bike tour of a different neighborhood, or hosting a tour inside a building that people aren’t normally allowed to go in. If it exposes people to new ideas and helps make the city a better place, we’ll do it.

That’s really cool. Is it open to the public?

Oh yeah, anyone can come. People can sign up for spots through our newsletter, but things usually sell out pretty fast. Some things cost money, but there is a free event every month.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m not sure I have a typical day. On the most boring days, I wake up at 6am, start working around 7am, write three or four articles, and end work at 4pm. My title at Gizmodo is Urbanism Editor, so that’s mostly what I focus on, but I write about a million other things, too. The other day, I wrote an article about Posh Stow and Go, which is a system of new public restrooms in New York where you can pay to go to the bathroom because you don’t want to go to a public bathroom. (laughing)

On a lot of days, I get to do things like go on a walk with a city seismologist, visit the room where the Internet was invented, or hear the mayor speak at a college across town with our architecture critic for the LA Times. I’m even going to tour a water treatment plant at the Port of Los Angeles in a few weeks. I was talking to a friend of mine about interviewing Geoff McFetridge, the designer who did the interfaces for the movie Her. I got to go to his studio and look through his sketchbook! Next week, I get to go to Mexico City and speak at a conference, which is amazing. There really is not typical day; there are just many different weird days. It’s a lot of fun.

What music are you enjoying right now?

I work for a radio station, so I will have to plug KCRW. If you’re ever trying to find great new music out in LA, turn your dial to 89.9 FM. They have a channel streaming online, too, so you can throw it on any time.

For my personal music, my tastes are very strange. I really like finding new stuff and making playlists that are about a certain moment in time, like stuff my dad listened to when I was growing up.

Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?

Her has been my favorite movie in recent memory. As for TV, I’m watching the new season of House of Cards, and I’ve also been enjoying Girls and True Detective. I also watch strange shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule. I like a lot of the really weird comedy stuff those guys do. (laughing)

Do you have any favorite books?

I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, and it was really good. That book is about a female botanist in the 19th century, but I usually like stories that are more like the movie Her: science fiction that takes place in the very near future. Another book I really loved is Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. That one is kind of similar to Her in that it explores the role of technology and how it affects our lives and relationships. I also just finished The Circle by Dave Eggers, which was really good.

What is your favorite food?

My favorite food is probably gelato, since I named myself after that. I love preparing food. Having dinner parties, especially themed ones, is my favorite thing. Oh, and having cocktails is my favorite thing, too. I like to party. (laughing)

LA is the best city for eating in the world right now because we’ve got a crazy crop of super-talented young chefs coming in. Last night I went to a place called Night + Market, which is super authentic Thai street food. One of my favorite places to eat is a breakfast and lunch spot by Jessica Koslow called Sqirl. She does really inventive, locally-focused meals, but they’re simple and delicious enough that you can eat there every day. There are a million restaurants downtown, and GQ wrote a great article about it last month.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

If there’s anything that I want people to take from what I do and what I’ve been able to get out of my work, it’s the enthusiasm for getting out and doing stuff in your own neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be a big trip to a museum or an expensive vacation. You can make awesome little journeys within a couple blocks of where you live! It all depends on how you see the world and how you pay attention to the story of your city unfolding in front of you.

I write a little weekly column in LA Magazine called A Walker in LA in which I just post a picture of something I saw while I was out walking. I list the intersection where I took it, and then write a few lines about what I was thinking, how I found it, or if I learned something. That has been my most favorite thing to write over the last year because it gets me in the mindset of asking myself, “What would I show someone about where I live? How would I show someone what’s so great, or what’s broken, about LA?” That has been really good for me because now I know what to share with people. I want to tell stories, and conveying that enthusiasm about community is what I want to inspire people with.interview close

After our interview, we asked Alissa what she’d say to her 18-year-old self; filmed by Ryan Essmaker at Urban Light at LACMA in LA

“If there’s anything that I want people to take from what I do and what I’ve been able to get out of my work, it’s the enthusiasm for getting out and doing stuff in your own neighborhood…”