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Twenty Years After the Riots: An Expo Line

ALPERN AT LARGE - I’ve no doubt that some readers will consider me hopelessly naïve, and others will consider me naively hopeful, when I suggest that one of the best ways for the City of LA to get past the 20th anniversary of its divisive riots is to focus on the more cohesive promise that we have with the new Exposition Light Rail Line, or “Expo Line”.  
Certainly the riots, which began over racial animus after the police acquittals surrounding the Rodney King beating, helped prevent both the Expo Line and Wilshire Subway from being built for at least 10-20 years.  Having fought for the Expo Line over the past decade as one of the louder Westside grassroots voices (and as one of the most economically- and politically-conservative advocates), I witnessed the following:

1) The myriad individuals (who were clearly in the voting minority, as Measure R revealed) from the Westside who kept asking, “Who will be using this rail line?  Who do we want to let into this neighborhood?”  As if that all-too-obvious “code” would be ignored.

2)  The small but loud number of individuals (who were also in the voting minority) from the Mid-City who raised all sorts of cries of racial double-standards, and who made all sorts of divisive statements references of “Westside interlopers” and other epithets.  As if that all-too-obvious “code” would be ignored as well.

3) The politicians of all racial stripes and political backgrounds who fought the ordinary Joes and Janes who wanted this no-brainer of a rail line, and were willing to exploit racial divisions in our “open-minded City of the Angels” to both delay and confound its construction.  As if the rest of us were being fooled into ignoring the greater need to come together and to provide an alternative to the nightmarish I-10 freeway from Santa Monica to Downtown LA.

4) The developers who did and still do want to kill any benefit of this Expo Line by exploiting the daylights over convenient schticks of “affordable housing” and “transit-oriented development”.  As if we were all too stupid to recognize their profit-driven efforts to overbuild in a manner that threaten to worsen, not benefit, our traffic, density, environmental and health impacts, and overall quality of life.

5) The uber-environmentalists who wanted to focus on saving the planet when this line will do more in simply saving our sanity.  As if we would ignore a new light rail line that demands no carpooling, with no congestion pricing that allows better mobility by virtue of who can pay more, and which will allow any of us to jump ahead of those stuck on the I-10 during rush hour without having to worry about HOV lanes, rush hour, the cost of gas and where to find parking Downtown.

So the first phase of the Expo Line is here with lots of pomp and celebration by political and institutional individuals and entities who, in previous years, threw one monkey wrench after another in the way of building this line.  

I just hope that they remember—as I certainly do—the end of the groundbreaking ceremony for Phase 1 of the Expo Line.  And I mean AFTER the dignitaries and transit advocates left, when two nameless individuals quietly started shoveling away the ceremonial dirt that we all had fun posing in front of with shovels.  Because it is the nameless individual who most wanted this line, and will most likely use this line, for no other reason that enhanced mobility leads to a better economic future.

Meanwhile, as the headlines scream how the Expo Line is forging its way into the Westside and how the Westside is reorienting its commercial future around this new light rail line), it’s hoped that the Mid-City and Downtown will not be treated like “chopped liver”.

Because the Crenshaw District, USC, the Downtown Convention Center and everywhere in-between are now more easily accessed by individuals throughout and even outside LA. County.  The Westside will be connected—later this year—to MetroRail when this line reaches Culver City, and then only in 2015-16 when the second phase opens to West L.A. and Santa Monica.  Right now, it’s the Mid-City’s turn to crow, and Downtown’s turn to crow, about their new addition.

And it was in these regions where much of the worst rioting occurred twenty years ago, and a younger Hector Tobar of the LA Times and others witnessed a self-destructive orgy of immolation in neighborhoods which should have been blessed with the pride that everyone desires.

And it is in these same regions that economic uncertainty (and the misery that goes along with it) still exists, despite the passage of time, as well as racial and demographic shifts, that should have healed and made moot so much of what went wrong twenty years ago.

It’s 2012 now, and a Latino is now a sincere “transportation Mayor” for the City of Los Angeles.  An African-American is now a sincere “transportation President” for the United States of America.  An old-but-still-energetic white liberal from a bygone political era is now a sincere “transportation Governor” for the State of California.

But it will be the political, business, and grassroots organizations and individuals who are out of the spotlight, and who just want to feed and help their families, and who want to fulfill their career aspirations, that determine whether this light rail line will succeed or fail to live up to its hype and hope.  

The success of the Expo Line will hopefully enhance an extended Measure R to expedite other projects such as the Downtown Light Rail Connector  and the Wilshire Subway (Purple Line) extension to the Westside.

Yet all of these projects, each as overdue as the Expo Line, were and are delayed by the LA Riots of twenty years ago.  So while I wish I could say that racial animosities, racial obsession, political egos and human nature have improved in the last twenty years, it is a safer bet to say that we’re all more experienced and smarter than we were twenty years ago.

More building of rail lines, roads and infrastructure, and less rioting, would certainly be a nice working paradigm for a twenty-first century Los Angeles…but whether that’s just me being naïve or hopeful, only time will tell.

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org. He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us.   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) -cw

Tags: Ken Alpern, Transportation, Riots, Expo Line, Rodney King, Los Angeles, Westside

Vol 10 Issue 35
Pub: May 1, 2012