Lost LA through a Camera Lens

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A view of Downtown circa 1960 from The Exiles.

Los Angeles has changed a lot over the past hundred years. Rapid population growth, rampant real estate speculation and a slew of technological advances have caused the city to expand and mutate with amazing speed. And one of the most interesting things about LA is that it has recorded those changes since almost the beginning of the 20th century. As the center of the global film industry, and a major hub for all media, it’s always in one spotlight or another. You might say Los Angeles is obsessed with seeing itself in the mirror.

When the film industry first moved west back in the teens, there were a number of production companies shooting silent two-reelers on LA’s streets. Nobody was thinking about documenting the city as it was beginning to grow. Location shooting was just a cheap way to make movies. Hollywood silents made before 1920 are filled with scenes of the city’s early days, but because there hadn’t been much development and few of the familiar landmarks existed, it’s often hard to identify the streets and neighborhoods that appear in the background.

In the 20s Hollywood became studio bound, and for about two decades location shooting was the exception rather than the norm. But in the 40s studio crews started to venture back out into the streets. Many of the crime films shot after WWII used LA as a backdrop for the action. In the 60s, independent filmmakers started shooting all kinds of movies on the city’s streets. By the 80s filmmakers had begun to use the city self-consciously, making deliberate references not just to the city’s past but to its movie past.

Looking at the films shot over the years on LA’s streets we can see a broad panorama of the city’s history, but one that’s still maddeningly incomplete. While some locations appear over and again, there are whole communities that never appear at all. And so much of it is totally random. In a few cases filmmakers deliberately set out to take a good, hard look at the landscape and the people. Others focussed on famous landmarks that have a specific meaning for movie audiences, or used their settings to evoke nostalgia. And others just didn’t have the money to shoot anywhere else and let their location scout call the shots.

I watch a lot of movies, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m more aware than ever of how they reflect the changes that have happened over the course of LA’s history. I’m especially fascinated by images of things that no longer exist. Change is inevitable. The city’s landscape is never the same from one day to the next. Even when the streets and structures stay the same, the people, the customs, the culture keep changing, and that transforms the landscape, too.

In this post I’m pulling together images of places and spaces that have disappeared. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while. It took me months to get around to it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which movies to focus on, but I can’t even explain why I ended up choosing these six. The only thing they have in common is that they show pieces of LA that no longer exist. And trying to approach them in some kind of order was impossible. Or maybe better to say there were too many possibilities. Should I have organized them by the year the films were made? Or maybe used the locations to tell some kind of story? Or should I have tried to find a theme that ties them all together?

In the end I just decided to dive in and let my intuition guide me. This post may not even make sense, but hopefully you’ll get something out of the images. Let’s start in Downtown….

In the late 50s, Kent Mackenzie began working on a film set in Bunker Hill that focussed on the Native American community living in the area. The Exiles took over three years to make, and the production had more than its share of problems, but the end result was a unique blend of documentary and fiction that gave voice to people whose voices had never been heard before. Bunker Hill began in the 19th century as one of the city’s first upscale developments. By the middle of the 20th century the rich were long gone, and the aging homes that remained now housed a diverse low-income community. The Native Americans who lived there had left the reservations behind, looking for a different kind of life. In LA they were relegated to the margins of society, but living in Bunker Hill they at least had some kind of community. That lasted until City Hall declared the area “blighted”, and began pushing residents out as civic leaders and business interests pursued a massive redevelopment project.

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Angel’s Flight climbing Bunker Hill next to the Third Street Tunnel.

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A closer shot of Angel’s Flight with apartments in the background.

The Exiles captures the lives of three Native Americans as they live through a single night in Downtown LA. Shot entirely on location, it shows these people in their homes, on the streets, in bars and juke joints, and finally gathering on a hill that looks out over the nighttime landscape. It’s a vivid picture of a vanished world.

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One of the vanished streets of Bunker Hill.

Displacement is a recurring theme that runs through the whole history of Los Angeles. The city’s original Chinatown was situated on the edge of Downtown, straddling Alameda between Aliso and Macy (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). But in the 20s voters approved funds for a new rail terminal, and much of the Chinese community had to relocate to make way for Union Station.

In the late 40s Anthony Mann made a startling series of thrillers, often giving them a sense of immediacy by shooting on real locations. Much of T-Men is shot in LA, and it features glimpses of what was left of Chinatown in 1947. Check out this first still, which shows a determined US Treasury agent walking across Alameda with Union Station in the background.

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Dennis O’Keefe crossing Alameda Street in T-Men.

Then the camera pans to follow him, and on the west side of Alameda we see Ferguson Alley, a remnant of the original Chinese community.

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Ferguson Alley, one of the last remnants of LA’s original Chinatown.

Our hero visits a number of herbalists looking for someone who recalls selling a specific blend to a certain man. It’s a brief montage, but it gives us a look at what was left of early Chinatown after WWII. Eventually, these buildings were also levelled. After some false starts, a new, more modern, and more touristy, Chinatown was built to the north and west of the original site.

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O’Keefe mounts the stairs to an herbalist’s shop.

Crime Wave, directed by André de Toth, was also shot largely on location and gives a sweeping view of Los Angeles in the 50s. While it features a number of Downtown locales, the climactic bank heist takes place across the LA River in Glendale. The suburbs were thriving in the first decade after the war, and the film gives us a view of what Brand Boulevard looked like back in the day. In this scene we’re riding with Gene Nelson and Ted de Corsia as they drive up to the Bank of America at the corner of Brand and Broadway.

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The Bank of America at Brand and Broadway in Glendale.

The suburbs were a product of car culture, and cars are central to the story. The main character is an ex-con who’s forced to become the gang’s getaway driver. The scenes before and after the robbery offer numerous shots from the perspective of the man behind the wheel. And an abandoned car serves as an important key in the cops’ search to track down the criminals.

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The corner of Brand and Broadway.

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Ted de Corsia inside the Bank of America.

Crime Wave is tough as nails and brimming with tension, but even if you’re not into classic crime flicks, it’s worth watching for the way it maps out the city in the 50s. The final car chase more or less follows the actual path you’d take from Glendale back to Downtown, speeding down Brand toward the Hyperion Bridge.

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Another shot of Brand near Broadway.

By the late 60s suburbia had spread across the San Fernando Valley. Car culture played a major role in the rapid proliferation of housing tracts tied together by the ever expanding freeway system. Thousands of families moved to the suburbs in pursuit of a placid and prosperous lifestyle.

Which was an illusion. You can escape the city, but you can’t escape reality. The US was going through a violent upheaval, rocked by a string of political assassinations and a growing protest movement. Director Peter Bogdanovich looked past the supermarkets and the swimming pools and saw a side of the suburbs that most people were determined to ignore. Bogdanovich had been doing odd jobs for low-budget director/producer Roger Corman. Through Corman he got a chance to direct his first feature, Targets. The film follows a young man living with his parents and his wife in a tidy little house in the Valley, who one day picks up a gun and starts shooting people.

Targets is an innovative and unnerving look at the suburbs, America’s obsession with guns, and our twisted relationship with the movies. After following the young killer as he randomly picks off a number of unsuspecting victims, Bogdanovich stages a chilling climax that offers a complex reflection of the American landscape at the time. Cars lined up in rows at a drive-in movie, moms, dads, children and teens watching a horror flick unfold, when suddenly a sniper starts shooting at the audience from behind the screen.

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The marquee at the Reseda Drive-In.

The film was shot at the Reseda Drive-In, which was located at the corner of Reseda and Vanowen. It survived into the 70s, when it was torn down and replaced by a business park. Aside from the fact that it’s an arresting and original debut feature (one of Bogdanovich’s best), Targets also offers a fascinating glimpse of the vanished world of drive-in theatres. Passionately devoted to movies since childhood, the director records every aspect of the experience, from the people visiting the snack bar to the projectionist putting the reels in motion.

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The drive-in before the show starts.

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The playground near the screen.

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The snack bar.

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The projectionist setting the film in motion.

Hollywood has always been shameless about the strategies it uses to lure audiences to the movies. Two of the most common tactics are jumping on whatever fad is currently sweeping the nation, and exploiting people’s nostalgia for a past that never existed. Xanadu tries to do both at the same time. The story follows the efforts of two men, inspired by a muse, who come together to create a new nightclub that will bring back the glory of the big band era while catering to the roller disco crowd. Yeah, it’s a pretty strange movie, and one that will probably only appeal to those with a taste for bizarre kitsch. But I found out that parts of it were shot at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, and decided I had to check it out.

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The front of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.

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A closer shot of the Pan-Pacific.

For years the Pan-Pacific was a major venue, hosting car shows, sporting events and the Ice Capades. Designed by the firm of Wurdeman and Becket, the striking streamline moderne facade was one of LA’s architectural landmarks for decades. But it closed in the 70s, and though it was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places, no one was able to find a way to make it viable again. It was destroyed by fire in 1989.

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Another view of the Pan-Pacific.

It’s possible that if the Pan-Pacific had survived a while longer, it might have been revived. The local preservation movement was just taking shape in the 80s. But for years Los Angeles was seen as a city without a history, in large part because the people who lived here didn’t have a sense of its history. Buildings were put up and knocked down based on whatever the market dictated, and few people worried about what was lost in the process. Visitors from other places talked about how the city felt impermanent, and complained about a sense of rootlessness.

Having lived here all my life, I don’t see it that way, and I’ve had a hard time understanding what people from other places are talking about. But I think I got a taste of it the last time I watched Wim Wender’s The State of Things. It tells the story of a director shooting a sci-fi film in Europe whose funding dries up, and he flies to LA to get some answers. Friedrich picks up a rental car at LAX and sets out to track his producer down, speeding along the the endless freeways, cruising the wide boulevards of Hollywood and Century City. He seems lost, totally disconnected from the city around him. Watching the film again recently I think I began to understand the sense of disclocation so many complain about. Friedrich is just one more in a long line of European filmmakers who have found themselves wandering LA’s vast landscapes, squinting into the sun as they try to make sense of it all.

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Friedrich, played by Patrick Bauchau, cruising down the freeway in a rental car.

Many of LA’s buildings were never meant to be permanent. They were constructed by people who saw a market for a product and moved quickly to jump on whatever trend was popular at that moment. The roadside restaurants and coffee shops that started springing up after WWII weren’t meant to last forever. They were meant to catch a driver’s attention and pull them in before they sped past. The commercial architects who worked on these projects in the 50s quickly realized that the more extravagant and unusual a building was, the more likely it was to draw people in. The building became its own advertisement.

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Tiny Naylor’s at the corner of Sunset and La Brea.

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Bauchau orders a cup of coffee from a car hop.

As I said, nobody thought these structures would last through the ages. But as the years wore on, architects and critics began to value these brash, flashy buildings. And the people who had frequented these places had gotten attached to them. In the 60s if a developer had levelled one of these coffee shops, nobody would have batted an eye. By the 90s, preservationists were arguing that they held a special place in the area’s culture and should be protected.

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Another shot of Tiny Naylor’s.

That was too late for Tiny Naylor’s, located at Sunset and La Brea. The building, a Googie masterpiece by architect Douglas Honnold, was designed so that people could park outside and be served in their cars, a common feature of coffee shops from the era. The State of Things, released in 1982, captures Tiny Naylor’s in all its glory. A few years later it was torn down and replaced with a shopping mall.

The argument over what should be saved and what should be torn down will go on for as long as LA exists, and that’s part of the dynamic of any urban area. Cities are formed by the tension between the past and the future. LA will go on changing. And the movies will go on watching it change.

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Bauchau in an office building at Sunset and Vine, gazing at the LA landscape as it stretches out to the horizon.

 

Protest to Save the Planet

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The vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is a threat and that it’s caused by human activity. But the White House is determined to ignore that threat, and has taken steps to back away from agreements the US has signed to reduce global warming. On top of that, the new administration has proposed to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by almost a third, and roll back regulations designed to protect our air and water.

But scientists are fighting back. Last Saturday was Earth Day, and to push back against Washington’s assault on the environment a broad coalition of academics and activists organized the March for Science. All across the country Americans gathered in cities big and small to speak out in favor of protecting the planet.

When I got off the subway at Fifth and Hill the streets were already packed.

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The street was jammed when I arrived.

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Glad to know it was okay to take photos.

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Even Hello Kitty fans turned out to protest.

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The sidewalks were so crowded it wasn’t always easy to get around.

I could hear people speaking over a PA in Pershing Square, so I headed over there. The crowd was so thick I couldn’t get near the stage, so I wandered around and snapped a few photos.

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I couldn’t get near the stage in Pershing Square…

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…so I made my way through the throng…

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…to another part of the plaza…

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…where I ran into Santa Claus.

Here are a few signs that jumped out at me.

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My favorite sign of the day.

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The scariest sign of the day.

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The most honest sign of the day.

Finally the march got started. A huge crowd headed up Hill Street and then over to City Hall.

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The crowd getting ready to march.

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Protesters made their way up Hill Street.

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Another shot of the march.

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And yet another shot of the march.

Earth Day is over, but the fight is just starting. We need to speak out loudly against policies that put profit ahead of the planet. To learn how you can get involved, visit the March for Science web site.

March for Science

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A Crash Course in Asian American Activism

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A while ago I read in the LA Weekly that the Chinese American Museum was presenting an exhibit about the Asian American activist movement from the 60s through the 80s.  It caught my attention for two reasons.  First, I had no idea that Asian Americans played a significant part in that era’s counterculture.  Second, I didn’t even know we had a Chinese American Museum in LA.  So I figured it was time to learn more about both.

It was well worth taking the trip to Downtown.  The museum is in a historic building just off the plaza at El Pueblo de Los Angeles.  Before I even got to the exhibition about Asian American activism, I spent some time with two smaller shows on the ground floor.  Journeys and Origins deal with Chinese migration to the US and the formation of Chinese communities in LA.  These shows are small, but beautifully put together, with a rich collection of artifacts.

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Exhibits on the first floor document Chinese migration to the US.

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Documents and photos help tell the story.

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Furniture, cookery, toys and textiles are featured.

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Does anyone under 40 even know what an abacus is?

Then I went upstairs to check out the main attraction, Roots, Asian American Movements in Los Angeles, 1968-80s.

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This show was a real eye opener.  Like I said before, I had no idea Asian Americans were so much a part of the counterculture in the 60s and 70s.  In one respect what they accomplished is even more impressive than the Black and Latino movements, because the Asian community was so much more diverse.  Activists representing Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino and other cultures made a conscious effort to work together to push for change.  These groups did not have a shared history, and at times had been bitterly divided, but they realized they had a better chance of being heard if they spoke with one voice.

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Silkscreened T-shirts were one way of spreading the message.

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Activists worked to address a variety of issues.

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Music was another way of reaching out.

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Gidra published news, commentary and art from 1969 through 1974.

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Come-Unity promoted cooperation across racial boundaries.

In the 60s pop culture was exploding, and members of the movement recognized that mass media was a powerful tool for getting the word out.  The show includes records, magazines, posters and other artifacts from the era.  Staging concerts, printing posters and making T-shirts helped spread awareness beyond the community.  While these activists addressed issues that affected Asian Americans, they also reached out and forged bonds with the wider protest movement.  It was a time when boundaries were being erased, and people of all kinds were coming together to address the problems facing the country.  If only we could revive that spirit these days.

The show runs through June 11, 2017.  If you want more info, here’s the link.

Chinese American Museum

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Post-it notes left by museum visitors.

Protesters March to Remind Us Who We Are

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It’s heartening to see that thousands of Angelenos know that neither this city nor this country would exist without immigrants, and that they’re willing to take to the streets to remind others who have forgotten that fact. Crowds of protesters marched through Downtown on Saturday to protest the White House’s policies targeting immigrants. Here are a few photos.

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Thousands of protesters marched north on Broadway.

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Protesters at the intersection of First and Broadway.

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Marchers dressed in traditional Aztec garb.

There was also a small crowd of people gathered around a speaker who was urging deportation for all undocumented immigrants. I’d say there were less than fifty in that group.

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A small group gathered around a speaker advocating stricter immigration policies.

The pro-immigrant demonstrators marched north on Broadway, and then circled around back to City Hall where speakers urged resistance to anti-immigrant policies. Many carried signs, some mass-produced, some handmade, explaining why the US needs to keep its borders open.

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“All men are created equal.”

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“Without immigrants I would have no friends.”

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“No human is illegal.”

It seems unlikely that the White House is listening. But Congress certainly is. Even if some representatives may be inclined to support restricting immigration, they’ll be getting some heavy pushback from the farming, hotel and restaurant industries. Sadly, anti-immigrant fervor rises up regularly in the the US, and this won’t be the last time it happens. Which is why we have to speak out to remind the White House who really built this country.

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Showing Up and Speaking Out

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The recent presidential election has a lot of people worried. But instead of running for cover and cowering in fear, concerned citizens are showing up and speaking out. Today thousands of people gathered in Downtown to show their support for justice, tolerance and equality.

When I got to Grand Park this afternoon, I pulled out my camera and shot some photos of the crowd as I made my way toward City Hall.

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Crowd gathered in front of City Hall.

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Many people let their signs do the talking.

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While others shouted out how they felt.

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Another shot of the crowd.

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Human rights was a recurring theme.

I saw signs announcing groups from Santa Barbara and Coachella, and it’s my guess that people had come from all over California to attend.

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The Coachella crowd.

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Others made the trip from Santa Barbara.

CD 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain showed up to talk about how the problems affecting us as a nation are also felt at the local level. And she also took a few photos while she was at it.

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CD 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain, in the pink dress.

As it was getting close to three o’ clock, I had to get moving. I walked across the park to the Civic Center Red Line Station, where scores of protesters crowded the platform. And I snapped a few more photos before the train arrived.

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Protesters on their way home.

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Strength in sisterhood.

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My favorite sign of the day.

I Can’t Vote for Measure M

Construction moves forward on MTA's Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

Construction moves forward on MTA’s Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

I ride public transit almost every day. I really believe we need to invest in building a better transit system. And I used to think we were doing that, but not any more.

Measure M, the LA County Traffic Improvement Plan, is an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things. By adding another half cent to our sales tax, the County hopes to fund a variety of projects, with a good part of the money going toward enlarging the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s rail system. The MTA has already embarked on an ambitious program of building new rail lines and expanding others. You’d think that would be a good thing, but looking at the facts, I’m really not so sure.

For years now the MTA has been building rail all over LA County. First we got the Red Line and the Purple Line, then the Green, Blue and Gold Lines. The Expo Line was recently extended west, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line is currently under construction. You’d think that with this massive investment in rail, taking public transit would be so easy and fast that everyone would be jumping on board.

But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, transit ridership in LA County is lower than it was 30 years ago. When the LA Times reported this disturbing fact at the beginning of the year, the article sparked a lot of heated discussion. Some claimed that the Times was giving a distorted view. Others looked to the future, saying that stats would get better with time. But in the reading I did, there was one crucial fact that no one commented on. The County’s population has grown by over a million since 1990. To my mind, when you take that into account, there’s only one conclusion you can reach. Our current approach has been a disaster. If the population has grown by more than 10% over the past 30 years, how can we say that a decline in ridership during the same period represents anything but failure.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

There are a lot of different theories floating around as to why ridership hasn’t grown along with the system, and I’m sure there are a number of factors in play. But I think one of the most important factors is the City of LA’s insane approach to planning. I read a lot of the stuff that comes out of City Hall, and over and over I hear the refrain that transit and land use must be considered together. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It would make sense to think about where you’re putting housing at the same time as you think about where the next rail line goes. In theory, people could just step out of their apartment, walk down to the platform and catch a train wherever they’re going. Who needs a car?

The problem is, when the housing starts at $2,000 a month, and often goes much higher, you’re really not building housing for the people who use public transit. For the most part the people who depend on the MTA can’t afford that kind of rent. And the people who can pay that much are more likely to own cars. What’s even worse, as the rail network has expanded, City Hall’s policies have actively encouraged gentrification around new rail stops. It used to be pretty much anybody could afford to live in Hollywood. Not any more. As the Department of City Planning approves an endless parade of high-end housing projects and chic hotels, as they continue to hand out liquor permits to trendy restaurants and clubs, rents keep spiralling higher and the demographic most likely to use transit is being squeezed out. A similar scenario has already played out in North Hollywood, Downtown, and Highland Park, and you can look for more of the same in Leimert Park and Boyle Heights in a few years. So while City Hall claims to be thinking about transportation and land use together, in reality their policies are driving transit riders farther away from transit hubs.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another problem I have with Measure M is the fact a large portion of the funding goes toward road and freeway improvements, and this is something many people have commented on. There are those transit critics who complain that the MTA is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, but they never seem to mention that a huge share of our tax dollars also goes to subsidizing travel by car. If we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, then our focus should be on investing in public transit. But Measure M continues our current policy of investing in both at the same time. How’s this working? Well, our recent experience with widening the San Diego Freeway tells the story. After years of work and millions of dollars, traffic is still awful. We do need to maintain roads and freeways, since busses travel on both, but massive investment in “upgrades” is just encouraging people to keep driving their cars.

I’d love to see us build a transit system that made travelling by rail and bus attractive to a majority of Angelenos. But that isn’t what’s been happenning. Instead, a bizarre tangle of policies has led to a decline in transit use even as the County has continued to grow. The City of LA seems dead set on continuing its drive to build upscale urban enclaves, forcing low-income Angelenos away from transit hubs. And for all the money Measure M would put into transit, it would also spend a lot of money on keeping people in their cars.

Sorry. I can’t vote for Measure M.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Stop the Violence

Protesters on the steps of City Hall this past week.

Protesters on the steps of City Hall this past week.

The past several days have been traumatic. Two more black men shot by police. Police shot by gunmen in retaliation. And protesters gathering across the nation to ask for an end to the violence.

While the focus has been on Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and Dallas, protesters have staged demonstrations in a number of cities, including Los Angeles. Like every other major American urban center, LA has seen its share of unarmed black men die during encounters with police officers. To remind us of this, a number of peaceful civil actions have been staged at locations including City Hall, LAPD Headquarters and Pershing Square.

Another shot of protesters on City Hall steps.

Another shot of protesters on City Hall steps.

While there’s no question that we need to see changes in the way police do their job, the problem is much larger than that. It’s not just a matter of appointing a task force to do an investigation and come up with recommendations. As a nation, we need to acknowledge that we have a long way to go to achieve equality. And as a nation, we must all commit to working towards that goal. I thought Obama said it well in his speech in Dallas….

In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work. It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change. Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?

Obama asks if we can do this. I don’t doubt that it’s possible. The question is whether we will commit to making it happen.

Chalk drawings on the sidewalk in front of City Hall.

Chalk drawings on the sidewalk in front of City Hall.