Out on the impeccably neat plaza of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, home to one of the world’s finest orchestras, hip-hop is booming out of a nearby speaker. A few runners are here, doing those things runners do while they wait: stretch, sip water, sit around, adjust their phone holders. It’s about the only thing going on as far as you can see—by 9:30 p.m., this corner of downtown in this famously car-choked city is dead still. But every minute, dozens of more runners keep materializing like a flash mob: sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or groups.
Soon there will be hundreds here on this warm spring Monday night, all here to run together through a sleeping city.
This is not a race, but there is a destination: a very, very large mural a couple miles away. It’s the two things this running group that calls itself BlacklistLA was founded upon—running and street art—and it’s caught fire.
Two years ago, there were 11 people on the group’s first run. Tonight there are easily 200. Some of the weekly Monday evening runs draw more than 300. It’s not hard to see why: This urban running adventure gives people a reason to look forward to Mondays, to meet other people, and to explore the many hidden corners of this massive city on foot.
“We always say that they show up for the art, but they stay and continue to show up for the community,” says Erik Valiente, the friendly, cherubic-faced founder of BlacklistLA, who rides up on a 10-speed with a messenger backpack from which hangs a big camera with a giant flash. In addition to the thrill of running together at night, it’s the evening timing—with less traffic and many people off of work—that makes such a large gathering possible.
As group running with a social bent continues to grow around all kinds of lifestyle pursuits—beer, tourism, dating—art may at first seem like an unlikely pairing. But it’s not. “It’s part of the experience of an urban runner,” says renowned art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, an avid runner himself, about street art. “Often, this is people’s first experience with ambitious artwork.”
And as running groups go, BlacklistLA seems to do everything right to cater to a 21st century runner’s needs and desires: It turns exercise into a shared experience; offers a chance to explore the city, with great Instagram opportunities; plus Valiente posts a bunch of ready-to-share photos of runners by the time they wake up on Tuesday. It seems to touch on many of the Millennial generation’s stereotypes.
But the hundreds that show up aren’t all in their 20s. There are people of all colors, males and females (though far more guys), newbie runners and chiseled marathoners. Even the dogs, maybe 10 or so brought along by their owners, are diverse—from silky-furred lap dogs to eager-looking pit bulls. And while Valiente and his co-founders are Los Angeles natives, I meet a guy from Canada who just moved to the city today. He’s out here tonight to meet people.
In fact, for Valiente, this is the entire point of BlacklistLA: A chance for Angelenos to better know their city, as well as each other.
Valiente used to drive to his job as a teller at a Chase bank. While it paid the bills, he was left unsatisfied with the experience—at least the thought of doing it for the rest of his life. He was already running, having signed up for and completing the LA Marathon in 2007 for the first time on a bet (he’s run it every year since then). He tried to start a running club in his neighborhood of Harvard Heights, just west of downtown, but without some kind of hook beyond exercise to draw people out every week, it didn’t last long. But he had the desire to build a community. “The only way I knew how to do that was through running,” he says.
And so he landed a job at Nike’s running store at The Grove, where he spent some of that time as a coordinator for the Swoosh’s nascent Nike+ Run Club program.
“Erik was really successful at that,” says Jerome Rideaux, Valiente’s former co-worker at Nike. “He had so many ideas and wanted to do so many different things. But when you’re under Nike you’ve got to get it past them, and he just wanted to do his own thing.”
Rideaux remembers having dinner with his Nike store co-workers when Valiente unveiled his plan for a new running group. By then Valiente had ditched his car and was getting around the city on bike, and with this freedom he started taking a bigger interest in all the street art around L.A.—and now he could freely take photos of it all. People who followed him on Instagram always wanted to know where all this artwork was. He didn’t want to just tell them where to go, because where’s the fun in that? So his initial plan was to show people around via bike tours, but that quickly fizzled out when he realized that many of his friends didn’t have bicycles.
“Then a light bulb popped into my head,” Valiente says. “I thought, why don’t we just run?”
And so they did. There were 11 people. “We all fit in the photo,” Rideaux says with a laugh. Valiente called this group “Blacklist” in honor of street artists, because their work is often blacklisted and eventually painted over. In fact, the art’s impermanence also gave the group’s runs an immediacy. But the true genius was Valiente’s photo duties: He would take photos of everyone on the run then send everyone a Dropbox link to these photos later that night. Word about BlacklistLA soon spread through social media.
Before Valiente knew it, he started arriving each week to several hundred people, as there are tonight, all amped up on music for a collective run through the city. The group’s Instagram feed now has more than 16,000 followers.
“It’s growing so quickly and so fast that, you know when they say be careful what you wish for?” Valiente says, half joking. “Now it’s like, oh shit, OK … we’re doing this! That keeps me up at night, but these are good problems.”
He quickly realized the need for help in keeping even a cheerful crowd lawful and under control, and so BlacklistLA cultivated a small volunteer army of pacers. They’re known as PulseKeepers, and each is outfitted with a glowing wrist or ankle bracelet and a handheld boom box to identify themselves and add a bit of ambiance.
Several minutes before 10 p.m., as the big stereo keeps on playing and everyone else is stretching or talking inside this now full plaza, Valiente is in a corner, huddling in a circle with the PulseKeepers, going over the route and any dangerous sections, sharing info about the artist in case runners ask, congratulating certain volunteers for particular jobs well done and going over BlacklistLA’s other events for the week.