Tuesday, October 28, 2008



First, the War on Poverty was liberal, but certainly not left-wing, and the Democratic Party is currently neither. As someone who was a VISTA Volunteer and then trained as a city planner based on that experience, the entire thrust of the War on Poverty was the liberal view that poor people had a culture of poverty. The purpose of the War on Poverty was to teach them middle class values, such as running meetings and lobbying. Privates like me in these programs were always knocked down when we tried to organize communities to confront institutions, as opposed to enhancing individual skills.

Thus, you can see that affirmative action, which was actually instituted by the Nixon administration, comes from the same blame-the-victim outlook. Get the poor and minorities some individual skills and a leg up, but for, God's sake, don't organize people to take on public and private institutions.

Obviously then the left wing approach would be that poverty is systemic, and the alleged culture of poverty results from the economic system, but is not the cause of poverty. To eliminate poverty, therefore, the poor and their supporters need to engage in campaigns and struggles against the economic system's inherent inequality, sometimes known as class struggle. This approach is just as anathema to liberals as it to conservatives, neither of whom have any interest in systemic analyses of poverty or in promoting class struggle.

This is in fact why most of this country's anti-communist legislation, misleadingly called McCarthyism, was actually proposed, enacted, and implemented by Democrats. For example, the Smith Act, which jailed the leaders of the CPUSA, was signed by FDR in 1940, and after WW II the premier champion of anti-communist legislation, such as the Communist Control Act of 1954, was no less than Senator and later Vice-President Hubert Humphrey.

Second, the chance that an Obama-Biden White House, even with a veto-proof Congress, would implement another New Deal, Great Society, or War on Poverty is miniscule. To begin, they don't have the money for it because both parties, with only a few dissenting votes, such as Ron Paul on the Republican side and Barbara Lee on the Democratic side, approve about $1.2 trillion per year in direct and indirect military expenditures. Second, their obvious domestic economic commitments are to bail out the investment banks, commercial banks, insurance companies, and mortgage lenders. So far they have coughed up about $1 trillion for them, with only modest debate, and the ink of printing presses has not yet run dry.

Third, both parties have long ago abandoned liberalism as a guiding philosophy, with most observers considering Richard Nixon (Yes!) to be the last liberal President. He is the one who took on the Cold War with the recognition of China and detente with the Soviet Union, plus ending the Vietnam War and the draft. He also, as I mentioned, began affirmative action, ushered in the EPA, and used wage and price controls against inflation. He even, at one point, proposed a negative income tax to fight poverty.

But, since Nixon, beginning with Jimmy Carter, liberalism transformed into neo-liberalism, which means reliance on market incentives to solve social problems caused by the market. This, in fact, is the viewpoint of nearly all prominent Democrats, including LA’s mayor and the Obama-Biden slate. Not enough housing? Let developers build it through inclusionary zoning. Too many gas hogs on the freeways? Give loans and tax incentives to Detroit (based on the 10-27-08 LA Times) to build hybrids and electric cars.

As for Los Angeles, our elected officials – almost all neo-liberal Democrats -- have two major goals for local government. First, expanding the LAPD, including surveillance, anti-terrorism, and SWAT teams. Second, remove barriers to real estate investors and developers, and when necessary, offer them major grants and tax breaks. LA Live got about $250 million in such goodies, far more than the wage and benefit increases for City employees which the Daily News and LA Weekly claim is the cause of perennial City budget crises. As for poverty, the pols only concerns are suppression of gangs and future urban insurrections.

We Don't Need Another War on Poverty By Steven Malanga, City Journal, Autumn 2008 http://www.city- journal.org/ 2008/18_4_ war_on_poverty. html

Do our cities need another War on Poverty? Barack Obama thinks so. Speaking before the U.S. Conference of Mayors this June, the Democratic standard-bearer promised to boost spending on public schools, urban infrastructure, affordable housing, crime prevention, job training, and community organizing. The mayors, joined by many newspaper editorial pages, have echoed Obama in calling for vast new federal spending on cities. All of this has helped rejuvenate the old argument that America's urban areas are victims of Washington's neglect and that it's up to the rest of the country (even though most Americans are now metro-dwellers) to bail them out. Nothing could be more misguided than to renew this "tin-cup urbanism," as some have called it. Starting in the late 1960s, mayors in struggling cities extended their palms for hundreds of billions of federal dollars that accomplished little good and often worsened the problems that they sought to fix. Beginning in the early nineties, however, a small group of reform-minded mayors--with New York 's Rudy Giuliani and Milwaukee 's John Norquist in the vanguard--jettisoned tin-cup urbanism and began developing their own bottom-up solutions to city problems.

Their innovations made cities safer, put welfare recipients to work, and offered kids in failing school systems new choices, bringing about an incomplete, but very real, urban revival. Yet this reform movement remains anathema to many liberal politicians, academics, and journalists, who have ignored or tried to downplay its achievements because it conflicts with their left-of-center views. The arrival on the scene of Obama, a former Chicago community activist and the first presidential nominee in recent memory to rise out of urban politics, has given these back-to-the- future voices their best chance in years to advance a liberal War on Poverty-style agenda. As the nation debates its future in the current presidential race, it's crucial to remember what has worked to revive cities--and what hasn't.

The original War on Poverty, launched by the Johnson administration in the mid-sixties, was based on the assumption that Washington had to rescue American cities from precipitous- -indeed, catastrophic- -decline. It's important to remember that the cities themselves helped propel that decline. Political machines had long run the cities, and they imposed increasingly high taxes and throttling regulations on employers and often entrusted key government agencies, including police departments, to patronage appointees. The cities' industrial might protected them from serious downturns for a time. But as transportation advances beginning in the 1950s enabled businesses to relocate to less expensive suburbs or newer Sunbelt cities, and did so just as a generation of poor, uneducated blacks from the rural South began migrating to the urban North, the corrupt and inefficient machines proved unable to cope with the resulting economic and demographic shock. Urban poverty worsened (eve! n as poverty was shrinking dramatically elsewhere); crime exploded; public schools, dominated by reform-resistant, inflexible teachers' unions, became incubators of failure, with staggering dropout rates for minority students; and middle-class city dwellers soon followed businesses out of town.

Some industrial cities, scarred further by horrific race riots during the sixties, crumbled into near-ruins. Yet the War on Poverty's legislative architects ignored the cities' own failings and instead embraced the theories of left-wing intellectuals, who argued that the external forces arrayed against the poor, such as racism or globalization, were simply too overwhelming to address on the local level. "Officials and residents in urban communities are losing control of their cities to outside forces," warned urban planners Edward Kaitz and Herbert Harvey Hyman in their book Urban Planning for Social Welfare. "Cities are relatively powerless." The answer was federal intervention. Columbia University 's Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward gained an influential following among policymakers by arguing that an unjust and racist nation owed massive government aid to the poor and mostly minority residents of struggling cities.

Further, to compel those residents to work in exchange for help, or even to make them attend programs that might boost self-reliance, was to violate their civil liberties. The War on Poverty, motivated by such toxic ideas, transformed welfare from temporary assistance into a lifelong stipend with few strings attached. As everyone knows, welfare rolls then skyrocketed, increasing 125 percent from 1965 to 1970 alone, and an entrenched generational underclass of poor families emerged. Typically, they lived in dysfunctional public housing projects--many of them built as another battle in the War--that radiated blight to surrounding neighborhoods. The federal government created a series of huge initiatives, from Medicaid and Head Start to food stamps and school lunch programs, that spent billions of dollars trying to fight urban poverty. And then, to attack the "root causes" of poverty (whatever they were), the feds spent billions more on local social-services agencies, which ran ill-defined programs with vague goals like "community empowerment" that did nothing to alleviate poverty.

Despite years of effort and gargantuan transfusions of money, the federal government lost its War on Poverty. "In 1968 . . . 13 percent of Americans were poor," wrote Charles Murray in his unstinting examination of antipoverty programs, Losing Ground. "Over the next 12 years, our expenditures on social welfare quadrupled. And in 1980, the percentage of poor Americans was--13 percent." These programs did, however, produce a seismic shift in the way mayors viewed their cities--no longer as sources of dynamism and growth, as they had been for much of the nation's history, but instead as permanent, sickly wards of the federal government. In fact, as the problems of cities like Cleveland and New York festered and metastasized, mayors blamed the sickness on the federal government's failure to do even more. Norquist recalled a U.S. Conference of Mayors session held in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. "

There was almost a feeling of glee among some mayors who attended: finally the federal government would realize it had to do something for cities." Even as tin-cup urbanism prevailed, however, some mayors began arguing for a different approach, based on the belief that cities could master their own futures. The nineties became an era of fruitful urban-policy experimentation. For instance, well before the federal welfare reform of 1996, various cities and counties, most notably Giuliani's New York and Norquist's Milwaukee (encouraged strongly by Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson), not only set limits on welfare eligibility for the programs that they administered for the feds but also pursued a "work-first" policy that got able-bodied welfare recipients back into the workplace as swiftly as possible.

Welfare rolls plummeted--in New York City , from 1.1 million in the early nineties to about 465,000 by 2001--and childhood poverty numbers decreased. State and local legislators, often prodded by inner-city parents, also sought new ways to provide urban minority kids with a decent education. In Milwaukee , a former welfare mother, enraged that her children had no option other than the terrible public schools, helped push a school-voucher bill through the Wisconsin state legislature, letting disadvantaged students use public money to attend private schools. Most states passed laws enabling private groups to set up charter schools unencumbered by many of the union-backed rules found in public school systems, such as restrictions on firing lousy teachers. Today, some 4,300 charter schools, many in big cities, educate 1.2 million kids nationally-- and most are performing, studies show, better than nearby public schools. The era’s most impressive urban reform improved public safety.

Under Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, New York City famously embraced Broken Windows policing, in which cops enforced long-dormant laws against public disorder, fostering a new climate of respect for the right of all citizens to use public spaces. The nineties’ NYPD also introduced computer technology that tracked and mapped shifting crime patterns, so that police could respond quickly whenever and wherever crime spiked upward, and new accountability measures to ensure that commanders followed through. Crime in New York has plummeted 70 percent since the implementation of these reforms—double the national decline. Other cities that have adopted similar policing methods, from Newark to East Orange, New Jersey, to Raleigh, North Carolina, have had big crime turnarounds, too (see “The NYPD Diaspora,” Summer 2008). As Newark mayor Cory Booker, who tapped an NYPD veteran as police director, noted about crime-fighting: “There are models in America , right in New York City , that show that this is not an issue of can we, but will we.”

Obama may claim to be advancing a twenty-first- century agenda, but his ideas about combating poverty and aiding cities ignore the lessons of the nineties’ reformers and remain firmly mired in the War on Poverty’s vision of cities as victims. Nothing betrays his urban agenda’s retrograde nature more than its Number One spending item: a big hike in funding for the Community Development Block Grant program. The candidate calls this relic of the War on Poverty “an important program that provides housing and creating [sic] jobs for low- and moderate-income people and places.” In fact, the block grants are perhaps the most visible example of the failure of federal urban aid, plagued, as so much other War on Poverty spending was plagued, by vague goals, a failure to demand concrete results from the groups it funds, and a reputation for political patronage. CDBG money, amounting to some $110 billion over its history, has financed many projects that have zilch to do with fighting poverty—an opera house, a zoo, tennis courts, and historical restorations, for instance.

A stark example of the program’s failure to achieve its ostensible mission: Buffalo , the city that has received the most community redevelopment funding per capita, is economically worse off today than it was 40 years ago. Nevertheless, CDBG spending is often invoked as evidence that the federal government is “doing something” about urban problems. This was the case in 1993, when the Clinton administration authorized a massive $430 million block grant to establish a loan fund to help Los Angeles recover from the previous year’s devastating riots, as well as millions more to ameliorate “the underlying causes of the unrest.” Within two years, though, a third of the companies that the loan money had financed had gone belly-up or fallen behind in payments, while two-thirds hadn’t fulfilled their obligations to create new jobs in the city. As for the money aimed at “underlying causes,” local officials merely spent it on yet more ineffective community groups. Obama doubtless will claim that he can fix this kind of urban aid to make it more accountable, but the obstacles are great. The Bush administration, for instance, sought to junk most of the program and focus what remained on narrow projects with specific, measurable antipoverty goals. But congressional CDBG backers on both sides of the aisle, who insert millions of dollars in earmarks into it each year, derailed the reform.

Though Obama has supported some education reforms, such as charter schools, his plan for fixing urban schools by showering more federal money on them is another attempt to revive tin-cup largesse. In his signature education speech, Obama described visiting a high school outside Chicago that “couldn’t afford to keep teachers for a full day, so school let out at 1:30 every afternoon,” adding that “stories like this can be found across America .” Later, he said: “We cannot ask our teachers to perform the impossible, to teach poorly prepared children with inadequate resources.” In fact, the U.S. has made vast investments in its public schools. According to a study by Manhattan Institute scholar Jay Greene, per-student spending on K–12 public education in the U.S. rocketed from $2,345 in the mid-1950s to $8,745 in 2002 (both figures in 2002 dollars). Per-pupil spending in many cities is lavish. In New York, huge funding increases dating to the late 1990s have pushed per-pupil spending to $19,000; across the river in Newark, state and federal aid has boosted per-pupil expenditures to above $20,000; and Washington, D.C., now spends more than $22,000 a year per student.

Yet these urban school systems have shown little or no improvement. “Schools are not inadequately funded—they would not perform substantially better if they had more money,” Greene observes. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study found that most European countries spend between 55 percent and 70 percent of what the U.S. does per student, yet produce better educational outcomes. If some urban school systems are failing children, money has nothing to do with it. Obama also promises to invest heavily in the human capital of cities, seeking to forge a smarter, better-trained urban workforce. Yet here, too, his solutions look backward. His key proposal to help the chronically unemployable find work is simply to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. But politically connected insiders run many of the WIA’s job-training initiatives, and waste is widespread.

One Government Accountability Office study found that only about 40 percent of the $2.4 billion that the WIA designates for retraining dislocated workers actually went to the workers themselves; administrative costs gobbled up the rest. Even the money that reaches workers does little obvious good. In congressional testimony last year, a GAO official said, “We have little information at a national level about what the workforce investment system under WIA achieves.” Another big-ticket, War on Poverty–style item on Obama’s agenda is to give cities more federal money to build “affordable” housing. Yet even as mayors warn about a critical shortage of housing for the poor and the middle class, many simultaneously claim that they are hemorrhaging population because of competition from suburbs—and that should be lowering housing costs. Further, with foreclosures rising rapidly in some cities, cheap housing should be plentiful. What explains this conundrum are the local policies that have helped make housing unaffordable. In a study called “The Planning Penalty,” economist Randal O’Toole points out that half a century ago, when many cities were still gaining population, almost all of them boasted a healthy stock of affordable housing. Yet starting in the 1970s, cities began aggressively limiting and directing housing growth, enacting rules for minimum lot sizes and population density that produced significant cost increases for builders, who passed them on to consumers.

In Trenton , New Jersey , O’Toole estimates that the city-imposed planning penalty adds $49,000, or 17 percent, to the median cost of a home in a city where the population has shrunk from 130,000 in the 1950s to 85,000 today. In nearby Newark , a city pockmarked with empty lots that has lost some 170,000 residents, the planning penalty is $154,000, adding 41 percent to median home value. In New York , where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has committed $7.5 billion to build 165,000 units of affordable housing over ten years, the additional costs heaped on by government planning reach a whopping $311,000 per home.

There’s zero evidence that Obama understands the planning penalty at the heart of the affordable-housing shortage in many cities. Obama and the U.S. Conference of Mayors also call for an increase in HOPE VI funding as a way of getting welfare families to stop thinking of public housing as a permanent entitlement. The HOPE VI program, launched in the early nineties, got cities to replace large projects with smaller communities where the subsidized poor would live among those who could afford market-rate housing. The hope was that the bourgeois values of those earning their way in life would somehow rub off on the recipients of housing subsidies, and that they would then move up and out. But because the program imposed no actual requirements on the poor, the effort failed. Research has shown that in cities like Memphis , where the poor have been dispersed to middle-class neighborhoods, crime is rising. Judging by these and other Obama initiatives, an urban-reform agenda based on the bottom-up successes of the 1990s still awaits its national advocate. It would start from the notion that cities can indeed be masters of their own futures. It would encourage city self-empowerment, not victimhood. Above all, it would urge municipalities to build on the stunning urban-policy successes of the 1990s. The feds could still, however, play a useful role in several areas.

One would be to help cities attack the chronic unemployment and lack of achievement among the urban poor, especially men recently released from prison with neither the schooling nor the workplace experience to find jobs. Nationwide, some 700,000 prisoners finish their sentences every year. Lots go back to their home cities, where, aimless and unemployed, they reconnect with their old partners in crime, resume lawbreaking, and wind up back behind bars. Getting these former prisoners working not only might keep some from returning to crime; it could create a panoply of other benefits, including allowing the many who are absentee fathers to begin supporting the children they left behind when they went to jail.

Around the nation, one can find pockets of innovation on “prisoner reentry,” often based on the same responsibility- building principles as welfare reform. Some of the most successful programs endorse a “work-first” philosophy that gets ex-cons back into the workplace under heavy supervision and mentoring, rather than simply offering them job training. Promising demonstration projects have used local churches and community groups to run job-placement services, provide mentors to former prisoners, and then help them discover community resources. Federal funds could help expand such programs. And Washington could bring the most successful ones to the federal prison system itself, since starting prisoners on the right path before they get back on the streets clearly cuts recidivism. The feds should also tie funds to local governments’ willingness to reform their own institutions for reintegrating ex-cons.

For instance, in many cities, former offenders trying to find work face a forbiddingly complex municipal bureaucracy. But some places, like Newark , are trying to sweep away the red tape and create one-stop reentry centers for ex-prisoners, similar to those that New York created to help former welfare recipients find and keep employment. Given the spectacular crime declines in New York and other cities that have followed its policing example, one might think that public safety is an area that requires no further federal role. But even as crime has begun rising again over the last few years, many police departments have shunned the new policing. Too many police officials and politicians continue to argue instead that factors beyond their control—from economic deprivation to cultural changes to bad federal policy—are to blame for crime. Governing magazine reports, for example, that Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson remains “skeptical about the ability of the police to solve the problem of crime, which he sees as deeply rooted in economic deprivation.” Jackson told the magazine that “we look to the law, to the police, almost like an army that keeps everyone in check.

That’s a dangerous proposition.” But a recent series of stories in the magazine Cleveland Scene with titles like “The Killing Fields” reveals the consequences of such an attitude: a city under siege, with murders rising 56 percent from 2005 through 2007. The federal government can help advance performance- based police work by aiding departments in implementing NYPD-style policing, including purchasing the necessary technology for crime mapping. The city of East Orange , for instance, used state grants and criminal forfeiture money to pay for its $1.5 million technology upgrade. Federal grants would be contingent on departments’ demonstrating that they are practicing active—not reactive—policing, using the same measurements that innovative departments now use to judge their officers’ productivity, such as the number of directed patrols aimed at preventing crimes, suspicious-activity stops, and field interrogations per officer. The deplorable state of many city school systems puts education reform high on the list of any twenty-first- century urban-reform agenda.

Here, the federal government would provide incentives for states and municipalities to increase the education choices offered to students. Because many locales offer no public funding for building charter schools, for example, the feds might usefully help out. And Washington could tie federal education funding to requirements that states treat charter schools more equitably: in many states, charters get only a small portion of the per-pupil funding that regular schools receive. Federal education aid could also encourage states to lift their charter school caps. Today, roughly half the states limit the number of charter schools that they will authorize, one reason that about 365,000 students around the country remain on those schools’ waiting lists.

The feds could also encourage schools to use curricula that work, especially to teach reading, since failing to learn to read in the early grades condemns many inner-city schoolchildren to fall permanently behind. The Bush administration admirably tried to prod school districts to adopt traditional, phonics-based programs, which are especially effective at educating minority students, the National Reading Panel concluded in 2000. But progressive educators who design curricula in local districts have continued to resist, favoring the ineffective but trendy “whole language” instruction touted by education schools (see “A Marshall Plan for Reading ,” Summer 2008). As for increasing the amount of affordable housing, Washington could tie any housing aid to regulatory reforms that diminish or eliminate the construction caps and complex zoning requirements that drive up home prices. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has shown (“Houston, New York Has a Problem,” Summer 2008), Houston and several other cities impose so few government costs on housing—a planning penalty of $0, O’Toole finds—that quality housing gets built and sold at far lower prices than in more heavily regulated cities.

Though Houston ’s economy boomed and its population grew by nearly 1 million during the 1990s, the price of housing there has increased at only slightly more than the rate of inflation. At the same time, the federal government should transform its policies on housing for the poor by employing the same philosophy that drove welfare reform, placing limits on tenure in public housing and requiring residents to work toward lifting themselves out of poverty. A few cities are, in fact, transforming public housing by ending the idea that everyone has a right to it and by imposing strict requirements on tenants. In the mid-nineties, Atlanta began demolishing its giant projects, which once housed some 50,000 poor residents, and replaced them with smaller mixed-income, mixed-use projects built with both federal money and large contributions from private developers, who own and manage the housing. What attracted the private money was the promise from Atlanta ’s housing authority that these projects would be different: to live in them, all tenants between 18 and 65 had to have jobs or be in school so that eventually they could graduate out of public housing entirely.

Whereas in the mid-1990s, less than 20 percent of the residents in Atlanta public housing were working, today it’s about 70 percent. Federal housing authorities could adopt this model and urge other cities to follow it. Finally, everyone agrees that the nation’s transportation infrastructure, including that of its cities, is woefully inadequate for the twenty-first century. Both Obama and the U.S. Conference of Mayors—surprise!— blame the federal government for underinvesting in transportation infrastructure. But cities and states are equally at fault. Some have used past federal infrastructure grants simply to replace their own transportation money, which they’ve shifted to other, more politically popular uses. And cities have employed the tax-free municipal financing allowed by the federal tax code not to fund necessary improvements in transportation but to fund nonessential projects favored by politicians, like sports arenas and convention centers.

Even when cities use this financing on transportation, it tends to be for big, expensive projects that rarely live up to ridership projections, like the massive $45 billion high-speed rail service that California pols have promoted to link Los Angeles and San Francisco—a service whose proponents, according to a Reason Foundation report, “wildly” overestimate potential ridership to justify the cost. Boosting federal funding for such wasteful initiatives would only squander money. The federal government needs to reform its transportation priorities and push states and cities to do so, too, if we’re to upgrade the nation’s transportation infrastructure. That means rejecting dubious big-ticket projects and fashionable new modes of transportation, like light-rail systems, and spending federal funds on more sensible changes—helping cities to expand existing bus services, say, or to upgrade to cleaner vehicles.

The federal government could also give cities incentives to build express toll roads that charge a premium for usage, alleviating congestion on free roads. And the feds should encourage local governments to use private contractors and private capital to build more of our public infrastructure, as countries ranging from France to the United Kingdom to China are now doing (see “The New Privatization,” Summer 2007). Obama’s rise has put urban issues back into the presidential campaign for the first time in decades. But so far, the discussion that his candidacy has sparked is taking place largely among politicians, commentators, and interest groups whose view of cities hasn’t moved on much from the War on Poverty. Implementing their policy ideas would simply expand the tin-cup urbanism that has kept so many cities in despair for so long. That’s change we can do without.

Steven Malanga is senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of The New New Left, a collection of his City Journal essays.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Understanding the Chatsworth Train Accident

How can we understand a totally avoidable train accident on September 12, 2008, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Chatsworth, , in which 25 people died and over 125 were sent to the hospital, many with serious injuries?

In this case a MetroLink commuter train collided head on with a Union Pacific freight train sharing the same track, but moving in the opposite direction. Yes, sharing the same track. Image driving on a one lane highway in which cars, trucks, and busses traveled at freeway speeds in both directions, but had to share that one lane. Furthermore, the only way a driver would ever know that an 18 wheeler was heading towards him or her was a stoplight. If it is red, drivers must get their car off the road. If it is green, just drive ahead on that one lane highway and trust that drivers coming from the other direction know what they are doing.

If this strikes you as lunacy, you are only half right. This was the deliberate policy of the Metrolink Authority – mostly appointees of local Southern California Democratic and few centrist Republican officials – which runs the Los Angeles area commuter train system. Their jerry-rigged commuter system is not only woefully underfunded, but it is run with total callousness when it comes to the safety of passengers and Metrolink workers. In fact, to save a few bucks, MetroLink contracted with a French company to operate the train system, including the hiring of employees.

Since this dreadful and totally avoidable accident, many people have pointed out the obvious fixes to avoid future accidents. Some are expensive, some are cheap no-brainers, and some are farcical.

The expensive ones are widely practiced by commuter railroads throughout the world. First, the train system needs to be double-tracked. This means that trains traveling in opposite directions would no longer share the same track. Second, all trains would be equipped with Positive Train Control. This is an electronic system which detects trains headed for a collision and automatically stops them.

The cheap solutions which could have prevented this deadly accident are so obvious that they cannot be explained by under funding. First, new radios could have been installed on local freight and commuter trains. Because MetroLink shares train tracks with freight trains and because passenger trains and freight trains use different radio frequencies, engineers are unable to communicate between the two systems. The engineer on the freight train had no way to let the passenger train engineer know he was about to meet his maker.

Second, the seats on the passenger train could have been equipped with seat belts, just like cars and planes. With seat belts, most of those dead or injured passengers, who were flung through the air for about eight rows of seats, would have been saved.

Second, metal tray tables facing seats, on which some passengers were impaled, could have been removed.

Third, split shifts could have been eliminated. In this case the MetroLink engineer, who died in the accident, worked a 13 hour day. First he worked the morning rush hour, then he had the mid-day off, but had to report to work again for the afternoon rush hour. In addition to having such an unsafe work schedule, engineers have no back-up. MetroLink only operates their trains with one engineer, not two. If an engineers is sick, distracted, or misses one of those red lights, that’s it. No one else is there to back him up or catch his mistakes. As for the cheap fixes, there is not even a word so far from the local politicians, as well as their commissioners and administrators, about adding seat belts, removing tables, or buying new radios.

Based on such an enormous public outcry, the local and national politicians – who allowed this calamity to happen – have quickly moved into inaction. At the local level, the California Public Utilities Commission directed rail companies to ban train employees from using cell phones while on duty.

At the national level, proposed legislation would reduce the number of hours train company employees can work from 400 per month to 276. In other words, employees can now work 90 hours weeks, but under the new legislation their work week would be reduced to about 60 hours per week. In contrast, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) limits airline pilots to 100 hours of flight time per month, which translates to a 22 hour work week.

As for Positive Train Control, the proposed legislation would not require these electronic safety systems until the year 2015. How many people will unnecessarily die in the next decade because of this total disregard for the public and for employees?

At a time when the Federal Government is spending about $ 1 trillion to bail out the banks and finance companies, spends more than $1.1 trillion per year on its military and spy agencies, and when the lion’s share of local government budgets is devoted to cops and jails, the “no money” argument of the politicians is quite a whopper.

The real reason is much simpler. They are representatives for a range of private concerns with little interest in commuter train systems except as a minor profit center. Extra engineers, electronic safety systems, seat belts, new tracks, new radios, and removing seat tables all cost money which could be “better” spent in Iraq, Afghanistan, on Wall Street, or to build another jail.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Local Government and the "Lesser Evil" electoral argument

In each presidential year we hear that the Democrats are the lesser evil and that even if they are hawks on foreign policy, the differences on domestic policy justify supporting them – as opposed to the alternatives of focusing on extra-parliamentary politics and voting for third party candidates. But, does this domestic argument hold water in 2008? I think not.

Those who have worked in local government – which has been my professional milieu for the past 25 years – can all testify that it is impossible to discern a difference, especially in Los Angeles. Nearly all of the elected officials at LA’s City Hall have been or are mainstream to liberal Democrats (except for Richard Riordan, who was a liberal Republican tied to many Democrats, like Antonio Villaraigosa.). The elected officials are to a person blindly devoted to expanding the LAPD, direct financial aid to large developers in the form of tax and fee breaks totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, total cronyism in construction contracts to Tutor-Saliba worth billions, and a cavalier attitude towards regulations and code enforcement.

Once these local political types, who exist in every large U.S. city, get to Washington, their policies continue and expand, albeit with two slight differences. First, they have a great "Republicans are bad" hot button which did not apply to local politics, and second, they are very good at invoking the old liberal era, which ran from the 30s to the 60s, even though the last new progressive social program, the Environmental Protection Agency, was established under Nixon. How ironic that such an awful guy was, in reality, the last liberal president!

As far as I can tell, we now have two parties fully devoted to being "business friendly" and maintaining "law and order" from Main Street to Wall Street to the rest of the world. The difference appears to be the way the two parties market this approach. The Republicans push guns, God, and opposition to gays, while the Dems invoke other cultural issues, largely focused on minorities and women, especially abortion. But this hot button, as well, does not stand up under scrutiny. If abortion is the sole issue to justify supporting Democrats – and not devote all of ones political resources and energies to issues and movements -- then why did nearly all of the Democrats in the Senate support Bush's nominees to the Supreme Court? Shouldn't they have at least opposed his nominees because of Roe vs. Wade?

And if women's issues are a major concern justifying passive or active support for a truly awful U.S. and fully bi-partisan foreign policy, then why have the Democrats in the House and Senate made no effort to reverse the dreadful welfare "reforms" of the Clinton administration, which have devastated women throughout this country?

administration, which they support, runs an Finally, as for women in other countries, we only need to look at Afghanistan, where the Democrats are running to the right of the Bush administration, and where the Karzai Islamicist regime which is horribly oppressive of women.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The revenue rationale offered by LA's elected official for allowing commercial advertising on public spaces, especially sidewalks, as well as commercial advertising, such as billboards, and electronic signs which intrude on public spaces is extremely unconvincing. The several millions per year which the city earns from billboards and kiosks bolted to sidewalks, plastered on bus benches and bus shelters, pasted on newspaper vending machines, and now electronic billboards, could be easily offset by two simple steps:

First, stop giving large developers and projects, such as LA Live, hundreds of millions in tax and fee breaks. These are the true budget breakers.

Second, collect the various fees owed the cities on everything from bootleg construction to burglar alarms.

Shame on those elected officials who justify dreadful visual pollution for phony revenue reasons. In fact, if they took these two small steps, they could also revoke the various regressive taxes they are foisting on the public, such as new sales taxes and garbage collection fees to cover police expenditures.

L.A.'s billboard blight: The City Council's sell-off of visual space now turns to the Convention Center

By Dennis Hathaway, Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2008


The Los Angeles City Council chamber may not be the best place to debate a philosophical question, but the ongoing debacle of billboard and sign regulation here leaves little choice.

The question is this: Who owns the visual landscape of the city? Or, put in more concrete terms, do companies selling products and services have an absolute right to confront us whenever we venture outdoors?

The answer, from a legal standpoint, clearly is no. Yet the City Council is set to hand over another hunk of L.A. to billboard companies -- this time 50,000 square feet along the side of the Convention Center. The council could vote as soon as today.

Other cities -- Santa Monica, Pasadena, Torrance -- are virtually free of billboards. Their politicians long ago comprehended that using their cities as a commercial canvas was degrading aesthetically as well as socially: Citizens deserve better than to be treated as automatons whose highest purpose is to shop and consume.

The Los Angeles City Council seemed to grasp these values six years ago, when it banned new billboards and other forms of "off-site" advertising and embarked on an ambitious program to inspect every sign in the city and take down the estimated 3,000 or more that were erected or modified illegally.

But then the city dropped the ball. Legal challenges, revenue problems and outright fecklessness on the part of the council have filled Los Angeles with more and more insistent, in-your-face exhortations to get a soft drink or hamburger, to buy a new car or queue up for the latest blockbuster.

Now some council members are actively facilitating this transfer of ownership of the city's visual space to the private sector. Earlier this year, Jan Perry pushed through a deal to allow the erection of electronic billboards in a Metropolitan Transit Authority bus lot alongside the Santa Monica Freeway.

Herb Wesson got preliminary approval for a special "billboard district" that would allow new electronic and super-graphic signs in a wide swath of Koreatown, and Ed Reyes wants a similar district established alongside the Harbor Freeway in downtown.

On the council's agenda today is the plan Janice Hahn is promoting to sell the rights to install electronic advertising signs on the face of the L.A. Convention Center.

The long, greenish, curved facade of the building happens to face the confluence of the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways. An array of electronic signs -- possibly full-motion video, though the council hasn't been specific -- will be directly in the faces of north- and eastbound motorists. The brightly lighted, rapidly changing messages will be unavoidable unless drivers close their eyes.

Hahn calls the selling of advertising rights on a public building a "clever" way to raise revenue for the city. So what's next in this exercise of fiscal cleverness? A super-graphic wrap of City Hall?

Hahn and others supporting this misguided idea will argue that the annual $2 million or more the city expects to get from the advertising signs will help pay for police officers and other services. They will point to the city's budget gap and claim that without such schemes, they will be forced to raise fees or taxes or start cutting city services.

Interestingly, the council also is expected to vote today on a number of "fee waivers" for a church's golden jubilee celebration, a block club party, a farmers market and others. Such waivers -- which mean the city picks up the tab for traffic control, policing, cleanup -- add up to more than $1 million annually, or about half the amount the city expects to get from selling the signage rights at the Convention Center.

This isn't to say that the city should stop providing free services to groups staging worthwhile public events. The point is that the City Council owes its citizens a public debate about what we're getting along with this $2 million. Is it worth the visual blight, light pollution and diminished freeway safety?

And is it worth the precedent the city is setting? The city can't enforce its billboard rules when it is elbow-deep in the business. In June, a federal judge threw into question the rule against signs within 2,000 feet of a freeway -- in part because the city has OKd such billboards when it stands to benefit.

It was bad enough when Los Angeles meekly surrendered its visual environment. But if the City Council keeps playing along with the outdoor-advertising industry, the consequences will be visible for years as well as miles.

Dennis Hathaway is president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How Los Angeles is really governed

Those who have toiled at City Hall or had extensive dealings with it, should realize the following:

First, the ideology guiding the governance of the City of Los Angeles is neo-liberalism, not New Deal liberalism, as some people imagine because most City officials are Democrats. This is exactly same neo-liberal approach which now prevails at the Federal and State levels. It also is shared by this country's two ruling political parties. As far as I can tell, everyone who holds office in Los Angeles or has even an outside chance of getting elected, holds the same outlook.

(To the extent that liberalism ever existed at the local level, it was in the 1930s when the City of LA built public housing.)

Neo-liberalism means, in theory and practice, tilting government to promote the private sector. This translates to increased use of regressive taxes (user fees, sales taxes, property taxes) to redistribute wealth and income upwards. It also means reduced regulation of goods and services, as well as lax enforcement of whatever codes remain. Building and Safety's performance in Los Angeles is really no difference than the FDA in Washington. Pay to play is the name of the game.

Neo-liberalism also means cronyism. In Washington the current favorites might be Blackwater and Halliburton, but will shift to other companies once Obama is likely elected. In Sacramento it is companies like DMJM, and in Los Angeles, it is Tutor-Saliba. It also entails enormous subsidies for certain insiders, like Eli Broad and Anshutz Entertainment.

Finally, neo-liberalism means spending an increasing amount of governmental revenue on spying, surveillance, and maintaining "law and order." At the Federal level, this means about 1,000 foreign military installations, a trillion dollar plus annual military budget, invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and, as far as we know, intercepting every domestic phone call and email. At the State level it has meant pall-mall prison construction, the only part of State government which has expanded. At the City level it has meant continuous expansion of the LAPD, at the expense of other municipal services since the Bradley administration.

At all three levels of government, the latter component of neo-liberalism is sold through fear and scapegoating, usually of terrorism and various immigrant groups. For the most part these are just ruses to justify government policies and programs to promote inequality in wealth and income, increasing cronyism, increasing regressive taxes, reduced regulation and code enforcement, and increasing social and political control.

This is a grim description of governance in the United States, including Los Angeles, but I hope that realism can open up some eyes, at least to the ruses which are used to bamboozle many community activists. After all, the decline in the quality of life which we experience daily has everything to do with the way the City, State, and Federal Government are so poorly run. They are inextricably linked, and those concerned about small scams at City Hall might also consider the local consequences of spending $3 trillion on an energy war in Iraq or even shipping $65,000,000,000 in U.S. military hardware to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and Kuwait.

Monday, August 11, 2008

How come LA's officials ask so little for their favors?

It is amazing how little the large developers have to pay to City of Los Angeles elected officials in order get enormous tax breaks and benefits. You would think they could at least model themselves after U.S. friendly third world dictators, like Indonesia's Sukarno, and ask for the standard kick back rate of 10 percent.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Anschutz Entertainment kicked in $19,000 to the Mayor's election campaign for a second term after they received $270,000,000 is tax breaks for the LA Live entertainment complex. Not too away, at the north end of the downtown, a $10,000 contribution to the Mayor from the Related Companies was not a bad investment for a $120,000,000 City subsidy to Eli Broad's pet Grand Avenue project.

There is a unstated moral to this story, however. The next time someone complains that Los Angeles is in financial straights because of employee salaries, you might call their attention to the details below. These subsidies, by the way, follow on the heels of similar subsidies under previous Mayors and City Councils to commercial projects like Hollywood and Highland, which received about $70,000,000.

Villaraigosa raises $1.6 million for 2009 reelection campaign

By Phil Wallon and David Zahneiser, Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2008


By Phil Willon and David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa raised $1.6 million for his 2009 reelection campaign in the first half of the year, a sizable bundle of cash in a race where, so far, the first-term mayor faces no well-funded challengers.

Villaraigosa raised the vast majority of the money during a fundraising tear in June, when he held more than a dozen events and hopscotched across the country, according to campaign finance reports filed Thursday with the city Ethics Commission.

Thousands of dollars rolled in from Hollywood's glitterati, including director Steven Spielberg and singer Barbra Streisand, as well as from companies and real estate firms doing business with the city. A little more than $370,000 in contributions came from outside California.

Villaraigosa's campaign manager, Ace Smith, called the donations an affirmation of the mayor's vision for the city, which includes hiring 1,000 police officers and reforming the
Los Angeles Unified School District.

"People are supporting Antonio Villaraigosa because he's a person who, as mayor, is out there and willing to take some risks," Smith said. "He's willing to take on some of the challenges that have sat dormant for a long, long time."

Former Mayor James K. Hahn had raised almost the same amount -- $1.56 million -- at the same point in his 2005 reelection campaign, although he started fundraising much earlier. Villaraigosa went on to unseat Hahn in that race.

Villaraigosa's campaign war chest has the potential to scare off would-be competitors in next spring's mayoral election. Still unclear is whether he will face a challenge from billionaire shopping mall developer Rick Caruso.

Caruso said he is "seriously considering" challenging Villaraigosa and will make his final decision by early fall.

"I think it's more of a question of when, not if," said Caruso, a prolific Republican fundraiser and creator of the Grove shopping mall in the
Fairfax district. "The question is: Is this the right time, or some time down the road?"

Villaraigosa's biggest opponent so far is Walter Moore, a lawyer from
Westchester, who finished sixth in the 2005 mayoral race.

Moore, a regular on local talk radio, has raised slightly more than $113,000 since January 2007 and had $7,999 in cash on hand as of June 30, records show.

By comparison, Villaraigosa has $1.4 million in cash on hand.

"It's frustrating because the career politicians can raise that much in 15 minutes at one of their cocktail fundraisers,"
Moore said.

Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein, an expert on
L.A. government and politics, said Villaraigosa finds himself on solid political ground after having weathered last year's scandal over the romantic affair that broke up his marriage.

"The issue that brought him a lot of trouble is essentially personal," he said. "And those things have a limited shelf life."

For Villaraigosa, a major source of funds was the real estate industry, including companies that have sought taxpayer subsidies or permission to build projects that require exemptions from the city's limits on development. In some cases, real estate companies provided money through their employees and family members, including at least:

* $19,000 from executives and employees of Anschutz Entertainment Group.
AEG received up to $270 million in financial help from the city to build LA Live, a complex in downtown Los Angeles that is slated to include a 54-story hotel.

* $10,000 from executives with the Related Cos., which is seeking to build the Grand Avenue project with more than $120 million in taxpayer assistance.

* $8,000 from members of the Delijani family, which owns several key properties on Broadway in downtown
Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Villaraigosa kicked off the "Bringing Back Broadway" initiative, which would provide new public improvements and possibly a new city-funded parking garage for local businesses.

The entertainment industry provided a substantial boost to Villaraigosa's campaign, with $1,000 apiece coming from directors Spielberg, Streisand and Rob Reiner. Employees of the
William Morris Agency gave nearly $40,000 to the mayor's reelection bid, while executives at Walt Disney Co. provided $18,000.

In other municipal races, Councilman Jack Weiss led the trio of candidates seeking to become the next city attorney, raising $1.1 million so far. By comparison, lawyer Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich had raised roughly $440,000 and Deputy City Atty. Michael Amerian had collected more than $183,000.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LA's Fight for Public Green Space

This extraordinary story in the LA Weekly demonstrates the poor state of urban infrastructure and services in Los Angeles. Not only does the city only devote four percent of it surface area to parks, but most of this parkland is undeveloped: Griffith Park. Furthermore, most existing parks are in affluent neighborhoods in which residents have access to private park and recreation facitilies. After all, they have back yards and some also have access to private clubs.

Los Angeles Weekly, Wed., July 16, 2008

Parks and Wreck:

L.A.'s Fight for Public Green Space

In search of the Emerald City

There’s a foul smell in Pershing Square. Well, several foul smells, really. Most prominently, there’s the smell of urine. It wafts in all directions, emanating from a dozen dark, hidden recesses spread throughout the square. There’s the smell of the fountain, a giant purple modernist abomination that every so often belches a tiny stream of liquid into a stagnant brown pool below. There’s the smell of a small colony of homeless, who have made this place their bathroom. They occupy nearly every bench in sight, baking and sweating in the treeless glare of the unforgiving sun. At noon, in the largest public space in the downtown business district of the country’s second largest city, these men and women are the area’s sole occupants.

Meanwhile, two blocks away, a group of businesspeople in sleek skirts and tailored suits enjoy a quiet lunch at the packed Café Pinot in the L.A. Public Library’s Maguire Gardens. Next to the café, a multiethnic band of children play in and around a series of three tastefully tiled fountains. More than a dozen homeless congregate nearby. Some inevitably work the grounds, meekly asking for change, but most take quiet naps in the shady grass. Others read library books on benches. The wealthy and the destitute, young and old, black, white, brown and yellow — coexisting and enjoying the day in peace.

Not all spaces are created equal.

That’s especially true in Los Angeles, where, when it comes to public space, the Maguire Gardens are the exception rather than the rule. The most park-impoverished major city in America, Los Angeles devotes only 4 percent of its land to public greenery. By contrast, parkland comprises 17 percent of New York City and 9 percent of Boston (where 97 percent of the city’s children have immediate access to a park — as opposed to one-third of kids in Los Angeles). Even in San Diego, often dismissed as L.A.’s cultureless, beer-buzzed little brother, parks make up 16 percent of the landscape.

Of the parks L.A. does have, many are caught in varying states of detritus. The jewel of our system, Griffith Park, is less park than wilderness area, and subject to the wildfires that devastated it last year. Elysian Park is beautiful but isolated and underused. And not only have Echo Park’s famous paddleboats been sporadically removed from service due to budgetary woes, but Echo Park Lake has become so foul that the park’s stunning lotus flowers have all but disappeared.

Los Angeles isn’t just park-poor,” says Marta Segura of the public-space advocacy group Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, “many of the parks we do have are failed spaces. They’re completely abandoned.”

Pershing Square is one of the worst, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1920s, the square was lush with trees and walking paths. News kiosks had set up shop, and the elegant Biltmore Hotel had its main entrance overlooking the grounds. The square was alive. Unfortunately, a little too alive for some. City officials claimed it was a site for gay cruising, and in 1950, they bulldozed the park to make way for an 1,800-car underground parking garage. The once beautiful square was left barren, and the Biltmore moved its entrance to the Grand Avenue side of the building.

Though it received a brief face-lift in time for the ’84 Olympics, Pershing Square stayed as it was until 1993, when a public/private partnership was established to refurbish the grounds. The Community Redevelopment Agency, the Pershing Square Property Owners’ Association and Maguire Thomas Partners — the same development firm that years later built the Maguire Gardens — collaborated to build the purple nightmare we’ve come to know today.

So how is it that the Maguire Gardens and Pershing Square, two parks located only blocks apart, catering to the same patrons and built by the same developer, can have such drastically different results? Clearly, the nature of a space impacts its success.

What defines good space?

“Most importantly, permeability,” says landscape architect Mia Lehrer, designer of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. “For instance, you can go to Olvera Street at any time of night and feel safe — it’s well lit, it’s open, it’s easily accessible. Pershing Square is completely isolated from the street. It’s elevated and hidden behind those huge walls.

“You don’t need bells and whistles to make a park work,” Lehrer adds. “Look at Bryant Park in New York. It’s pretty simple — trees, grass and places to sit.”

If building beautiful and functional public space is so simple, why doesn’t Los Angeles have more of it?

Look No Further Than Paris

When was the last time you made out in your front yard? I mean really went for it — tongue, teeth, sweat — neighbors be damned. Has it been a while? Has it ever even happened? Until fairly recently, public green space in Los Angeles has been dismissed as an unnecessary luxury. After all, our single-family homes have yards and gardens. What more could one possibly want?

But the yard, for all its virtues, is neither sexy nor romantic. It’s a rare Angeleno, I would imagine, who would trade a stroll along the Seine for an evening at home in a lawn chair. There’s something undeniably sensual and exciting about the anonymity of the commons — being surrounded by people and yet alone. All the world’s great cities have this feeling. Of course, New York, the ultimate source of Los Angeles’ civic anxiety, has it — but nowhere is it more profound than in Paris.

Relatively speaking, Paris’ global reputation as a city of romance is an entirely modern one. Only a century and a half ago, Paris was widely considered a slum-infested pit — rotting from its core. Under Napoleon III, the city underwent sweeping urban renewal, aimed primarily at revitalizing its public sphere. In just two decades, from 1850 to 1870, Paris’ network of parks jumped from 45 to 4,500 acres, and the city went from a filth-strewn collection of alleyways to one of majestic boulevards and promenades.

Paris’ rise to global cultural dominance was achieved through the use of space and the creation of parks. Like 19th-century Paris, Los Angeles is in the midst of a similar cultural ascent. But for all the strides this city has made in the worlds of art, theater, music and cuisine, the final impediment to Los Angeles’ arrival as a world-class destination — one capable of competing with the likes of the City of Light — is still the city itself.

Mia Lehrer, architect of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

As anyone involved in a long-term relationship knows, romance requires effort, and, historically speaking, Los Angeles has been a lazy lover.

Of course, L.A.’s development failures haven’t entirely escaped the notice of City Hall. After decades of unceasing sprawl, the city is finally attempting to rebrand itself through the use of space. Since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office in 2005, backed by the likes of council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti, smart growth and transit-oriented development have been touted as the city’s new urban-planning panaceas. Under the rubric of these strategies, Los Angeles, it is promised, will become walkable and dense — its citizens reliant on public transportation, just like in Paris.

To help market this philosophy of density, the promise of green space has never been far behind. “Under my leadership,” Villaraigosa promised in 2005, days after he was first elected, “we will create an emerald necklace of parks along the [Los Angeles] river, and dot our neighborhoods with new emeralds — neighborhood parks.”

Villaraigosa’s words were an overt reference to Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering American landscape architect who designed Boston’s famed Emerald Necklace park system, New York’s Central Park and dozens of other notable green spaces across the country, and to the legendary plan that the sons of Olmsted drew up for Los Angeles in 1930 — a plan that was subsequently abandoned and that urban theorist Mike Davis famously labeled, “a window into a lost future.”

Since the mayor’s initial pledge to reinstitute L.A.’s lost green vision, the name Olmsted has become a fashionable signifier in city-planning circles — with everyone from Garcetti and fellow councilman Jack Weiss to anyone else wanting to sound visionary name-dropping the plan. City Councilman Tom LaBonge keeps a copy in his office.

Such rhetoric couldn’t come at a better time. Los Angeles stands at a historical crossroads: its push toward density, opening up large tracts of land for redevelopment, land that could be used for parks and civic space.

Unfortunately, rhetoric and action are distant cousins.

The irony in all the Olmsted referencing is that nearly 80 years after the original Olmsted plan was released, and three years into the green mayor’s term, Los Angeles still lacks both a master plan and a general maintenance routine for its park system. Neither the Department of Recreation and Parks nor the City Council parks committee has a master list of city-owned property that could be converted to park space. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, much lauded and doted on by the City Council, still hasn’t been signed off on by either of the major players who control the L.A. River — the Army Corps of Engineers and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

L.A.’s supposedly new “Central Park,” in the Grand Avenue redevelopment project (of which 13 of the 16 acres are already public green space), may be our next Pershing Square. World-renowned landscape architect Laurie Olin, brought on to create a “Ramblas” on Grand Avenue, has dropped out; the developer, Related Companies, is crying poverty; and such critics as theL.A. Times’ Christopher Hawthorne have called the design uninspired.

And while the city recently commissioned a needs-assessment plan for parks, it only did so after the embarrassment of discovering it was sitting on $130 million in Quimby funds — fees collected from new developments for the express purpose of building new parks.

But most telling is that neither smart growth nor transit-oriented development even mentions the construction of new parks among their core principles. The truth, despite the green rhetoric, is that as Los Angeles continues its density craze, the business of actually building new parks appears to be an afterthought.

“The effort to build a greener Los Angeles has more support in City Hall than ever before,” says Mia Lehrer. “But support isn’t enough. We need that Robert Moses figure who can get things done.”

The Beautiful Vision, Circa 1930

In the fall of 1926, Mary Pickford stood before an assembly of Los Angeles’ most influential real estate barons and industry titans and offered them a challenge: “We must become beautiful. ...” She was referring to Los Angeles, which, at the time, was experiencing a massive population boom and was being developed in the haphazard, sprawling fashion contemporary Angelenos have come to expect of their city.

Pickford, America’s first screen “sweetheart,” the most popular actress of her day, was addressing the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful body of its time in Southern California. It was a collision of two titans, and Pickford came out on top. Starstruck, the chamber’s director conceded that after decades of unabated yet immensely profitable sprawl, “our approach to this city is vile.” And something needed to be done about it.

Of course, this was nothing new. The history of L.A.’s failed quest for parks, compiled most comprehensively in the book Eden by Design,written by USC professors William Deverell and Greg Hise, is less Shakespearean tragedy than it is an Orwellian study in bureaucratic bungling. In 1895, Los Angeles civic boosters decided to turn Elysian Park into the most beautiful public space in America. Who better, they figured, to complete such a transformation than Frederick Law Olmsted? What the boosters failed to consider was that a man of Olmsted’s immense talent expected to be paid accordingly. After Olmsted rejected the city’s low-ball quote, Elysian Park, it was determined, was just fine as it was.

More than a decade later, with city officials predicting population explosion, Los Angeles once again began to consider its inadequate plan for park space. However, with the city’s finances occupied by the construction of the L.A. aqueduct and the port, Los Angeles made another halfhearted bid to get an Olmsted on the cheap: this time, Frederick’s brother John C. Olmsted, who was working on a project in San Diego. Again, the city failed to develop a plan, and during the next two decades, L.A.’s population skyrocketed nearly ten-fold, to more than a million people.

By the time Pickford made her plea, the situation was desperate enough that radical action was needed. In the months that followed, the chamber shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to commission the Olmsted sons to create their plan. The brothers’ resulting report was an intensive study of the ecology of the entire Los Angeles watershed, and included plans for park space, flood control, traffic abatement, recreation and the city’s overall sustainable ecological development. The report was celebrated for its vision, clarity and beauty.

It was abandoned almost as soon as it was finished.

The fact is, Los Angeles lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure to accommodate such a monumental vision. A park authority would need to be formed, appointed by the county board of supervisors, one with enough cross-jurisdictional power to allow it to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that would invariably be put up by competing agencies and land interests.

“Imagine completely restructuring the government around the ecological realities of the city,” explains Eden by Design co-author Deverell of the body’s mandate.

Environmentalists today would kill for such a rational approach to government. But with the local economy already geared toward speculative real estate, the notion of ceding sweeping cross-jurisdictional planning authority to a wholly civic-minded governing body struck many in the Chamber of Commerce as a businessman’s nightmare. Many of the same people who commissioned the study now suddenly proclaimed its implementation a costly extravagance and dismissed the Olmsteds’ vision in its entirety.

Even though, years later, the Great Depression brought millions of WPA dollars for public-works projects, that money was instead used on turning the Los Angeles River into a flood-control outlet. Decades in the making, Los Angeles’ sustainable future vanished practically overnight. While contemporary urban planners have resuscitated its memory, the Olmsted plan should be a reminder of just how quickly visions unnourished can fade away and die.

A River Runs Through It

High atop the parking garage of the downtown Los Angeles County Jail, Lewis MacAdams leans precariously over a 4-foot-high guard wall and points to the Los Angeles River below. “Try to find the river on foot from here,” he says. “You can’t. It’s practically impossible.”

He’s right. Live railroad tracks line both of the river’s concrete banks, and barbed wire blocks access to the channel from almost all directions. Short of getting locked up in L.A. County Jail itself, this parking garage is pretty much the only place to get an unobstructed view of the downtown section of the Los Angeles River. And so we’re trespassing. MacAdams and I had snuck in, hoping his reputation and weathered, beyond-expired press credentials, would bail us out if need be.

Vision is a difficult thing to have if you can’t see, and MacAdams needs to show me something. He singles out a giant plot of land, cluttered with empty railcars, on the east bank of the river in Lincoln Heights, directly across from where we’re standing.

“That is the future of Los Angeles,” he assures me.

The “piggyback yard,” as MacAdams calls the plot, is an active Union Pacific–owned rail yard, covering more than 100 acres of prime centrally located real estate. Eight years ago, MacAdams led a team of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to conduct an ecological survey of the rail yards. Minutes after their arrival, however, police descended upon the group.

“I almost got everyone arrested,” MacAdams says, laughing.

The students were told to leave, but that didn’t stop them from completing their survey. With the help of their professor, George Hargreaves, architect of the yet-to-be-completed Cornfield park nearby, and Mia Lehrer, who organized the study, the students determined that, from a needs-based perspective, no other site along the Los Angeles River has as much potential for green space as the rail yard and its environs, which include a 2-acre pile of concrete aggregate. They devised an entire studio book of park designs for the area.

“Imagine a 100-acre park, this close to downtown Los Angeles,” MacAdams says. “This can be our Central Park.”

Part Olmstedian visionary, part Pickfordesque booster, MacAdams has been preaching the gospel of green space along the river since 1986, when he founded the celebrated advocacy group Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). After years of fruitless screaming from the outside, under the Villaraigosa administration, MacAdams’ ideas have finally found traction in City Hall — and efforts to green the Los Angeles River, once equated with lunacy, are now considered the city’s best hope for a greener future. On a 2006 tour of Asia, Villaraigosa was so impressed with the Seoul, Korea, government’s efforts to turn the Cheonggyecheon River into green space, he declared, “the Cheonggyecheon has shown that, ‘Yes, we can unpave paradise.’”

Villaraigosa’s we, however, is a wholly subjective term. Much like what the Olmsted brothers once faced in implementing their master vision for the city, plans to green the L.A. River are mired in jurisdictional quicksand. Though Los Angeles has taken the important step to commission and certify Lehrer’s exceptional master plan for the river, the city has no final say in whether much of it will actually be built. The people who can unpave paradise, the Army Corps of Engineers, have primary jurisdiction over flood-control efforts for most of the channel. Other sections of the channel are controlled by L.A. County, which can also unpave the river with consultation from the Corps.

In cases where alterations to the channel don’t affect flood control, jurisdictional responsibility is far murkier. Authority over the river’s “right of way,” the channel itself and the access roads that line much of its banks is divided among county officials, as well as the dozens of municipal governments that span the river from Canoga Park to Long Beach. That chaos hasn’t stopped individual politicians from attempting to impose their personal will on the river. Earlier this year, City Council President Eric Garcetti unilaterally tried to ban fishing and duck feeding in his City Council District 13 section of the river. Under Garcetti’s orders, park rangers ticketed fish and foul enthusiasts for loitering — until the council president’s dictate was overturned in court days later.

Months before Garcetti’s bizarre duck-starvation ploy, County Supervisor Gloria Molina inexplicably ordered that a popular county-permitted mural be removed from the concrete walls of the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. She then sent the bill for the whitewash to the mural’s backers, FOLAR and a team of internationally renowned graffiti artists led by L.A.’s own Man One. The confluence has returned to being a barren, concrete wasteland. Why? Because Molina said so.

In short, the Los Angeles River is a jurisdictional Wild West, with a trigger-happy posse enforcing its own private law at every street corner. Despite the endorsement of the City Council, the centerpiece of Los Angeles’ green future is still an amorphous dream — one that could be fully realized, radically altered by petty political infighting, ignored because of flood-control concerns or pushed aside amid the city’s perennial budget woes.

To its credit, City Hall is prescient enough to try to resolve these jurisdictional issues before they become a problem. The city has proposed the creation of three new bodies to serve as custodians of the river: the River Authority, a county/city partnership with the Corps; the River Foundation, a nonprofit that would help raise private funds for greening efforts; and the River Revitalization Corporation, a CRA-guided entity that would lead efforts to develop the areas along the river’s banks but outside its right of way.

While the consolidation of power along the river is an important first step in preventing a repeat of 1930, no amount of jurisdictional meandering can circumvent the Corps’ authority over the flood-control channel. Any plans that alter the river’s capacity to drain water — either through the removal of concrete, planting of vegetation, or purely aesthetic design changes in the shape of floodwalls — must meet the Corps’ safety standards.

And in the post-Katrina world, the Corps is taking no chances. “This is the largest drainage area in the United States,” says Catherine Shuman, lead planner of the Corps’ L.A. River study, “and flood control and public safety are our primary concerns. If the engineering is possible, we can start the bulldozers tomorrow and tear up the concrete. But right now, we just don’t know. It may be sometime before we do.”

“Sometime” could mean five years, it could mean a decade, or it could mean a lifetime.

The main problem, of which there are many, is that since the river was canalized, thousands of homes have been built in the natural floodplain — mainly in Long Beach and the areas closer to the river’s mouth. Remove concrete in sections upriver, and the water slows down. When water slows down, it begins to rise, and if it rises too much, it can top floodwalls farther downstream in the danger zones. Any changes to the shape of the channel can potentially have this effect — even simply terracing the floodwalls can pose problems.

“We’ve had several models that were successful, but we’ve had others that breached,” Shuman says.

For now, the point is moot. Though Congress recently budgeted $25 million for the Corps to conduct intensive studies of the river, that money has not yet been allotted, nor have the rules been established for how the money should be spent when and if it’s granted. Greening the river may not even be on the feds’ radar — they may simply want a review of traditional flood-control efforts.

Perhaps the most feasible green option in the immediate future may be to keep the concrete channel intact but to rely on a series of pumps to push water outside the right of way for use in the creation of riparian park habitats in the areas surrounding the river. As a consequence, the majority of river greening would fall to the River Revitalization Corporation. In theory, this should be a good thing. Because these new green spaces are outside the river’s right of way, and would not play an active role in flood control, it means they would fall exclusively under city jurisdiction, and MacAdams’ vision for a new, 100-plus-acre piggyback park could be realized without tortuous cross-agency oversight.

But the entire area is zoned for industrial use, and under a directive from the mayor, the Planning Department has labeled it a “job-preservation” site. The CRA has no plans to green the piggyback yards, nor anywhere else on the east bank of the central city corridor.

“The mayor not only wants to keep all this land for industrial use,” says MacAdams, shaking his head, “but he wants to expand industry down here.”

“I was shocked when I heard about that,” says Lehrer. “But I guess if you’re the mayor, you get rid of jobs at your own peril.”

Still, MacAdams says, “You would think acres of prime riverside land could have better use than a rail yard and an aggregate pile. Every other major city in the country is moving yards like this away from downtown. Five years or so from now, this rail yard is going to get pushed to the outskirts somewhere, and people are going to start trying to find a new use for this land.

“If we want this land to be park space, we need to jump the gun and start the conversation now,” he adds.

As MacAdams and I continue to survey the landscape, two L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies suddenly approach us from behind. “You can’t be here,” one of them tells us. “How do we know you’re not terrorists, planning your escape route?”

MacAdams and I look at each other perplexed, but decide not to push the issue. As we get in the car to leave, MacAdams lets loose a stifled laugh. “Wow,” he says. “Now I’m a terrorist just for looking at the river. It’s the perfect example of the invisibility of downtown.”

If it’s this difficult to get park space in the central city, the focal point of urban renewal, just imagine what the rest of Los Angeles is like.

Bound and Gagged by Red Tape

While there’s no excuse for a city trying to become the “greenest” in America not to have a holistic master plan for its park system, in fairness, there are other issues at play. Obviously public space costs money — money the city historically hasn’t been willing to spend, and, because of its record $405 million deficit, money it doesn’t have. Yet L.A.’s lack of green space is a significant impediment to economic growth. Despite the money being poured into projects like L.A. Live and the rebranding of the area around the L.A. Convention Center, “Los Angeles is considered a second-tier convention city,” says Jack Kyser, senior vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. “Civic amenities like parks and promenades are a major criteria for convention consideration, and we simply don’t have them.”

According to Kyser’s most recent economic forecast, Los Angeles is in for several rough years. One potential growth industry is tourism. So, as Paris did more than a century ago, why doesn’t the city adopt a parks-based approach to economic growth in order to lure visitors?

“Parks are not self-sustaining enterprises,” Kyser explains. “Unless you have revenue-generating programming, they’re a drain on the general fund.”

Indeed, instead of public space, Los Angeles’ urban-renewal investments have historically been retail oriented. Angelenos have plenty of municipally funded spaces — they just need to bring their credit cards to go there. But shopping malls do not an emerald city make, and it’s tough to imagine Hollywood & Highland competing with Central Park or the Champs-Élysées.

“I think Los Angeles’ insistence on programming is completely misguided,” says Lehrer’s business partner, Esther Margulies. “People really need to re-evaluate the role parks can play in education, gang prevention, public health, environmental sustainability ... the list goes on.”

“Of course,” Margulies notes, “L.A.’s emphasis on retail is undoubtedly influenced by Proposition 13.”

Prop. 13, the infamous third rail of California politics, puts a 2 percent cap on the amount a property’s assessment can increase. The tax itself is then levied at a maximum of 1 percent of that assessed value. Though in many ways the measure is a homeowners’ dream, Prop. 13 strips cities of a primary source of revenue. The results speak for themselves: New York’s world-class park system is backed by a general fund of more than $62 billion. Los Angeles, with roughly half New York’s population, has a general fund of only $7 billion and a massive deficit.

California voters ratified the measure in 1978. L.A.’s park system has been deteriorating ever since. Though other California cities face the same budget crunch, most already have adequate park space. They simply need to maintain.

In the rare cases where L.A. has built new parks, it has been forced to stem the financial bleeding with bond measures — Prop. O, Prop. K, Prop. 12, as well as several others, each with their own laws and regulations that govern the distribution of those funds. For instance, the well-funded Prop. O can only be used for water projects, which explains why plans for new, so-called “water parks” have been popping up across South Los Angeles.

And, of course, there is the infamous Quimby program — Los Angeles’ best and most bungled hope for new green space. The city is sitting on nearly $130 million of these funds, collected from the developers of new housing complexes, for the express purpose of building new parks. Though kept separate from the general fund, the management of these fees is nonetheless left to the city Department of Recreation and Parks, which, to quote Lewis MacAdams, is historically known for attracting a staff of “slouch-shouldered ticket punchers.”

Senior city planner Alan Bell, who is helping to revise L.A.’s Quimby policy, paints a more complex picture. “The program is understaffed,” he says. “You’ve got two or three people overseeing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Even if it were properly staffed, Bell explains, there are limitations as to where money can be directed; for instance, the city can’t hire more park staff. The state law governing the Quimby program dictates that the fees must be spent explicitly on parks that are located within a “reasonable distance” of where those fees were collected. There is some discretion in that phrase, but it’s typically understood as walking distance. So it’s difficult to pool the funds in one area for a massive project.

“On top of that,” Bell says, “by law, these funds can only be used for the creation or refurbishing of a park, not for general maintenance.”

In other words, Quimby can build a park, but it can’t take care of it once it’s constructed. The responsibility for that funding is left either to the appropriate bond measure, if one can be found, or to the paltry, deficit-ridden general fund, which is already struggling to keep up with its measly existing number of parks. This leaves the Recreation and Parks Department in the unenviable position of building new parks with the distinct possibility that they’ll be left to rot.

Despite hundreds of millions of bond and park-fee dollars at the city’s disposal, bureaucratic red tape makes the construction of municipally controlled public space a nightmare.

If They Smell It, Will They Come?

Ted Thomas stands at the corner of 67th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood of South Los Angeles, indulging in a brief moment of nostalgia. “I did my bacheloring right there,” he says, pointing to the second floor of a corner three-story apartment building. “Some wild times around here.”

A soft-spoken man in his 70s, with a gentle demeanor and the lingering drawl of his Alabama youth, Thomas might come across as folksy were it not for a wireless headset permanently attached to his right ear — a high-tech-looking gadget that belies his grandfatherly air. Thomas isn’t fresh from the sticks; he’s a retired UAW organizer and has lived in and around this neighborhood since he was 17. He’s president of the Park Mesa Heights Community Council, and a force in local politics — determined to get his community more parks.

This primarily black, working-class community of 36,000 has just one functional park, Van Ness Playground, which it shares with its neighbors to the east. From where we’re standing, it’s a two-hour bus ride to Griffith Park and an hour and a half to the beach — both figures subject to the whims of traffic. Van Ness is only a mile away — not too far, but “you have to cross three different gang territories to get there,” Thomas explains. “A lot of kids are scared to do it.

“Even if there wasn’t a gang problem,” he adds, “Van Ness is already crowded by the people who live around there. Kids from this area have nothing to do after school, no place to exercise. We need more parks.”

Thomas shifts his attention across from his old pad to a fenced-in facility with spacious lawns and a large, mostly empty parking lot.

“When I lived here, this was a Lutheran school,” he says. “Now it’s a charter school for kids with learning issues. But it hardly gets any use.”

Indeed, though school is in session, there’s hardly any noise coming from inside. The empty parking lot suggests little activity.

“This is what we need,” Thomas says. “It’s got enough space for playgrounds, athletic fields, a gym, and we’d have a building to hold community meetings.”

Thomas can dream, but he knows obtaining such a facility will be an uphill battle. There’s no way the deficit-ridden general fund will have the cash to transform this kind of space, and Thomas’ neighborhood lacks enough development to tap into Los Angeles’ $130 million pool of Quimby money.

So what can Park Mesa Heights expect?

Thomas smirks: “Come on, I’ll show you.”

A little more than a mile away, he and I pull up to the site of a former media circus — a recently built pocket park that, one month ago, brought half of City Hall down to the neighborhood. Mayor Villaraigosa, days after his announcement on Charlie Rose that he’ll be running for re-election, used the occasion to take a rather large share of credit for the creation of this park, as well as to announce a bold new plan to build 45 new parks in Los Angeles by 2011.

Seeing the space gives the impression that Villaraigosa deserves all the credit he took that day. A towering and impressive playground structure rises from behind a polished silver fence that encloses the area. The park is even more remarkable, considering what came before it.

For as long as Thomas and everyone else in the neighborhood can remember, this land was an abandoned patch of dirt and a significant source of neighborhood blight — the city of Los Angeles its deadbeat owner. A center for garbage dumping, drug dealing and prostitution, it also happened to be one of the only open spaces in the neighborhood that kids could use to play.

It doesn’t take long to figure out, however, that, despite the transformation, things aren’t as great as they seem. Though school is about to let out for the day, the gates to the fence are locked. The park is closed, as it has been since the day it was built. “No one’s hopped the fence to mess with it yet,” Thomas says, “so that’s good at least.”

As we talk, a young mother holding her infant son glides by behind us.

“When’s the park going to open up?” she asks Thomas.

“Not sure yet,” Thomas replies. “Kids were complaining about the smell.”

The smell?

“There’s a big, exposed sewer pipe in the back of the park,” Thomas explains. “No one wanted to pay to have it dealt with, so it’s still there.”

For all Villaraigosa’s media play, as it turns out, the city’s main contribution to this new park was to donate an acre of blighted land with an exposed sewer line.

A Murky Green Future

Today, the Park Mesa Heights playground is open, and the sewage smell isn’t too bad, insists Marta Segura, who’s managing the playground for the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust. (The city is no longer involved.) And if it becomes a problem, she says, “we’ll find a way to deal with it.”

If and when that need arises, however, it remains to be seen exactly how Segura’s going to pay for the job. “The city didn’t put us into the budget this year,” she admits.

Segura remains upbeat that the park will be a success. Of course she has no choice but to stay positive — she’s doing the best she can with what the city has given her. But the people of L.A. deserve better than a sewage-scented acre.

The Olmsted brothers gave us a heroic vision for what this city can become. People like Lewis MacAdams and Mia Lehrer do what they can to keep that dream alive. But such a monumental task requires the will to act upon inspiration. The mistakes of the 1930s are once again upon us.

For decades, scholars from Mike Davis to Norman Klein have posited Los Angeles a city of fiction — caught between opposing narratives of dystopian noir and booster-backed land of sunshine. Parks and public space offer a third way — a collective lens we can use to view our city, and a gauge to see how far we’ve progressed.

The answer: not very far at all. Los Angeles is still searching for its Robert Moses — someone capable of turning Emerald City fiction into tree-lined reality.

Reach the writer at mfleischer@laweekly.com