July 9, 2008
Take back L.A.
I was there last week when a group of German tourists approached me holding an MTA transit map of the city.
"Where is the beach?" a young man asked me.
They had boarded the subway near their downtown hotel, the women wearing cover-ups over their bikinis, the men sporting flip-flops and shorts.
"The subway doesn't go to the beach," I said.
"It stops here?" the man asked, pointing at the map. Two of his fingers pinched the distance from Western Avenue to the huge expanse of blue farther west.
I wanted to offer them a ride. I wanted to tell them how to transfer to the bus, but the last two times I used the MTA's Web site to map out a bus route for my son, we ended up standing for a half-hour at discontinued stops.
Instead, I looked up from the map, smiled and said apologetically, "Welcome to L.A."
I love Los Angeles, but let's face facts: We're fast becoming a second-rate city.
Public safety is broken. Jews in Los Angeles were rightly outraged in June when Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza killed one Israeli in Sderot. But in one weekend of that same month, 14 Angelenos were murdered in gang-related shootings.
The Israelis in Sderot asked me how people living 45 miles away in Tel Aviv could ignore them. I told them that in Los Angeles, many on the Westside ignore worse violence going on six miles away.
Education is broken. The Los Angeles Unified School District dropout rate is just over 50 percent, meaning that a little more than half of entering ninth-graders fail to graduate on time. At Manual Arts High School, only 1 percent of the students who are not in a magnet program tested as proficient in math in the 2006-2007 school year.
Public health care is broken. The Board of Supervisors fights tooth and nail over an additional dozen or two dozen hospital beds in the neediest areas, as basic services continue to deteriorate.
Transportation is broken. We spend our days idling in world-record traffic, spewing the fumes from $5-a-gallon gasoline into the air. Meanwhile, Portland, Berlin, even Bogota, develop cutting-edge public transportation alternatives.
Did you catch that? Bogota, Colombia, with 8 million people, has state-of-the-art public transit, while we fight endlessly over widening freeways and calibrating signals.
What separates cities that are flourishing and advancing from Los Angeles, which seems to be stagnating?
Leadership, for one.
Anyone who follows L.A. history and politics knows that our leaders are too often elected or appointed officials beholden to either unions or developers. The strings that get pulled don't run from City Hall to strong neighborhoods but from downtown to powerful or wealthy special-interest groups.
I once remarked to a civic activist how remarkable it is that so many Jews have held public office in Los Angeles.
"Yeah," he said, unimpressed. "Claim them and blame them."
The truth is, there is plenty of blame to go around.
Those Neighborhood Councils don't have enough power, the L.A. City Council and Board of Supervisors have too many constituents and the mayor, well, that's complicated.
I like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- he was elected as a tough local guy full of good ideas and visionary promises. I still hold out hope that he will see through one great, map-changing accomplishment for Los Angeles, but time is running out. If his legacy ends up being a failed bid to take over the schools; a few parched, newly planted trees; and a subway-to-the-sea that ends at the Wiltern Theatre, he will have spectacularly raised and shattered expectations -- yet another reason for us common folk to despair of our leaders.
Or, perhaps it's a reason to point the blame elsewhere: at ourselves.
We Angelenos are famously lethargic when it comes to civic activism. Blame the sun, the transient nature of the city, the rootlessness of our neighborhoods, even the influence of the film industry, which treats Los Angeles more like a backdrop, not center stage.
Now there is a movement afoot to change that. The unlikely agitator is a middle-aged Jewish man in Woodland Hills, Ron Kaye.
Kaye, the former editor of The Daily News, has put together the Saving L.A. Project (yes, SLAP). The idea is to inspire and empower citizen activists across the city to voice their anger at the way things are, and to come up with a "Contract for L.A." outlining a bold, future-oriented agenda for the city.
The group will hold its first rally on Monday, July 14, at noon on the steps of City Hall. "People from around the city of Los Angeles will come together," reads the group's Web site, www.savingla.com, "to demand that our city leadership join the people in making Los Angeles a great city."
I took issue with Kaye when he backed Valley secession back in 2002. It struck me as a misguided protest, whose end result would be to create another huge bureaucracy side by side with Los Angeles' existing one.
But now I think he's onto something.
"I came to the conclusion that the problem is us," he told me by phone. "We don't seize power. We let them use our money to run circles around us."
The Internet has leveled the playing field somewhat, helping citizens organize, spreading important local news in a town whose main paper has all but abdicated that role. Saving L.A. hopes to inspire "a lively public discussion," said Kaye, and stiffen the spine of leaders like Villaraigosa. "If we have enough energy and can define the agenda," he said, "maybe these people will do what they have to do."
Monday, July 14, at noon Ron Kaye will be on the steps of City Hall -- mad as hell.
I'll be there, too. I'm taking the subway from Western.