I'll admit to a bit of initial wariness about a bus tour through Inglewood, Lennox and Hawthorne, sponsored a couple of Sundays ago by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). The three communities just east of LAX have poverty and crime rates far exceeding the averages in L.A. County. Images of huge buses packed with well-insulated tourists were difficult to avoid.
But the 90 people who boarded the two buses at the Westside Jewish Community Center were not interested in casual sightseeing.
The tour, co-sponsored by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), IKAR, Leo Baeck Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood proved an opportunity to examine the underbelly of the tourism industry surrounding LAX.
"One of the major components of our campaign supporting the organizing efforts of the workers in the 13 hotels along Century Boulevard is to examine the impact of low wages on the surrounding communities, where most of the workers live," said Jaime Rapaport, PJA's program director. "We're offering this tour to help us all understand the very real effects of substandard working conditions." In addition to PJA members and congregants from a range of synagogues, participants included PJA's Jeremiah Fellows -- 20-somethings examining social justice issues -- as well as members of The Jewish Federation's New Leader's Project and seminarians from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of Judaism.
"As Jews we have to stand together with these workers and not be influenced by the pressures of the current anti-immigration politics," said Marla Stone, a member of IKAR who took part with her husband, Scott Johnson, and their 4-year-old daughter, Claudia.
"We thought we'd get more out of seeing the actual sites of the struggles," she said. "It's important to bring Jews closer to their entire city, especially the places that are often invisible, and we wanted our daughter to get a sense of that, too."
Clad in a PJA "Mensches in the Trenches" T-shirt, Laura Podolsky of the organization's Economic Justice Working Group took hold the microphone as our bus headed south on Fairfax and past the oil rigs on La Cienega Boulevard. The neighborhoods surrounding the airport, in addition to suffering the noise and pollution that results from being directly under the incoming flight paths, are some of the poorest communities in Los Angeles, she said.
As we approached the airport, passing the seemingly endless sun-baked parking structures, rental car lots and decaying mini-malls, the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of CLUE, explained that unionized hotel housekeepers earn more than double their nounionized counterparts on average. In an era where companies increasingly take their businesses overseas, she said. "Hotel jobs cannot be outsourced."
Our bus pulled into the parking lot of a Carl's Jr. on Century Boulevard, where Daniella Urban, a front desk worker from the Hilton, joined us with tales of the many obstacles she had confronted in her organizing.
En route to our next stop, we drove by two elementary schools located directly under the LAX flight path. The primary concern in the schools' construction in the 1980s was noise attenuation. The result: bunker-like structures with no classroom windows. Not a pretty sight.
Just as we might have been despairing over these conditions, our buses pulled into the immense parking lot between the Inglewood Forum and Hollywood Park. Former Inglewood City Councilman and LAANE senior organizer Daniel Tabor introduced the Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, as "sister, pastor, warrior" for her opposition to a Wal-Mart on this very site.
As planes flew overhead, Perez argued that the defeat of Wal-Mart showed "we are more powerful than we think. We started the campaign as witnesses. We didn't think we had any chance of defeating them. And then we won."
But, she cautioned the group, shortly after Wal-Mart was rejected by the city, they actually bought the contested land; the battle is not over.
"It takes a village of warriors, which includes many of you," Salvatierra emphasized as we got back on the bus.
Our final stop on that hot afternoon was B'nai Tikvah Congregation. The synagogue shares the facilities of the Westchester Christian Church, and the sounds of a gospel chorus were pouring out the door.
Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen was one of 27 protesters arrested last month for committing civil disobedience in support of the hotel workers -- something he left out of his address.
Instead, he invoked the words of Abraham Heschel, his teacher's teacher, who described his experience marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
"Heschel said, 'I felt as if my legs were praying,'" Van Leeuwen recalled. He then invoked an image, not from scriptures, but from Hanna-Barbera, imagining a flotilla of Flintstone buses, propelled by the leg power of its riders. "We are the praying legs that propel the buses of justice," he declared. An appropriate enough benediction before we boarded our gas-propelled vehicles to return to the Westside JCC.
Back on the bus, Salvatierra spoke of the organizing campaign's future, which is expected to culminate with a rally on Sept. 28 at Hilton Hotel's headquarters in Beverly Hills.
"It's David and Goliath work," she said. "But don't forget who won." Her message had an impact. "I signed up for the Economic Justice Working Group, and I'm planning to be at the rally," Marla Stone said.