January 17, 2008
The Brooklyn-born activist rose from his seat, walked slowly to the microphone, cleared his throat, and in front of a couple of hundred fellow activists assembled in an auditorium on a chilly Wednesday night, expressed his righteous indignation.
"We are tired of being used as stepping stones!" he bellowed to the delight of the crowd. "Enough is enough. It's time for our voice to be heard!"
Was the man referring to the abuse of Israel at the United Nations?
Was he expressing outrage at how thousands of Jews displaced from their homes in Gaza two years ago have had their lives turned upside down, while bombs keep falling on Sderot?
What was this man so passionate about?
Actually, he was talking about the parking and traffic situation on Pico and Olympic boulevards.
He was fuming that he and other residents were not consulted before the city announced their plan to relieve the ever-worsening traffic on those boulevards.
You see, a few months ago, the city decided it was time to finally show some action on this particular problem. The plan that was announced in November by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jack Weiss at an outdoor press conference in November had three phases, the first being the most controversial: restrict the parking on Pico and Olympic boulevards during the peak traffic hours.
For storefront merchants who depend on street traffic and who contribute plenty in taxes and fees, that was the last thing they needed.
Take Julien Bohbot, owner of Delice Bakery in Pico-Robertson, who was sitting next to me at the Wednesday town hall meeting. Most of his customers use street parking on Pico, and the 3-7 p.m. time period is his busiest. If the city makes parking illegal during that time, he can't see how his business will survive.
The meeting was full of angry business owners and residents like Bohbot, and it was clear that the man who got up to speak, Jay Handal, was their hero.
Handal heads the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about his cause, I felt I was listening to Alan Dershowitz defending Israel.
A few days later, I decided to track him down at the Italian restaurant in Brentwood he has owned for 21 years, San Gennaro.
It turns out that Handal is not only upset at Villaraigosa and Weiss for the way they "ambushed" the neighborhoods with their press conference, he's also upset at the local media, particularly the Los Angeles Times, for not giving enough voice to the neighborhoods' grievances.
He does have kind words for councilman and former television host Bill Rosendhal, who arranged the town hall meeting and who is helping residents and small business merchants get their day in court.
Handal thinks it'll be an uphill battle to stop the city's plan, because, as he says, Villaraigosa and Weiss now have egg on their face, and it's not easy for politicians to admit they're wrong.
Are they wrong? Well, the fact that the Department of Transportation and a mayoral representative are now appearing at a series of town hall meetings to explain their plans and listen to people's concerns is a sign that they could have handled it better in the first place.
But Handal also thinks their proposals are misguided. He thinks restricting parking won't solve anything because it will encourage even more traffic on those boulevards, while hurting businesses -- which in the end only lowers the city's revenues. At the meeting, he got a rousing applause when he brought up the idea of starting with phase two -- retiming of traffic lights -- and leaving the street parking alone until more impact studies are done.
The real problem, he told me, is that the city of Santa Monica overdeveloped their business sector without a corresponding increase in housing. This has resulted in a huge increase in eastbound traffic on Pico and Olympic; and since Venice and Washington boulevards are underused, he thinks encouraging people to use those boulevards would be smarter.
But all those ideas are peanuts compared to what Handal dreams about for the future.
On Sunday, he told me about this dream, which he is working on with a group of activists, and which he believes will redefine the city of Los Angeles: High-speed, comfortable, pollution-free, magnetic-levitation monorails.
No kidding. He showed me plans. Instead of costing $7 billion like the city's much-touted "Subway to the Sea," and taking until the year 2030 to extend the current subway from Western to La Cienega, the monorail would cost $1.75 billion, go from the ocean to Union Station and could be completed in five years.
As he sees it, the monorail would rise majestically above Pico Boulevard (or any other major east-west artery) and would be a major tourist attraction. He talks about having fancy cafes in these monorails, first-class cabins with express service to downtown, convenient stops for shoppers and commuters, and, eventually, expanding the monorail to other parts of Los Angeles to reduce the congestion and get people to places like LAX without any hassles.
Handal is livid that these kind of creative ideas get so little attention. When I ask him why, he replies in his thick Brooklyn accent: "Just follow the money." Powerful unions and big business, he says, have a vested interest in lucrative projects like $7 billion subways, and politicians hungry for election money listen to them.
But Handal is not deterred. His passion never ends.
Frankly, I don't often meet people who go gaga over stuff like parking studies and the timing of traffic lights. But I confess, when I saw Handal get so passionate about the monorail idea and his vision for the city I love, it gave me a little thrill.
Maybe I'll go to the next town hall meeting. Mr. Mayor, are you listening?
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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