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Walking in L.A.: Race and Rail Lines

Part five in Walking in L.A., a GOOD miniseries by Ryan Bradley on transportation in Los Angeles and what it's like to get across the entire city on foot.

There are two fighter jets, gray and decaying, along the north wall of the Compton Airport. On the other side of the wall is a line of single-family homes. It's hotter here than downtown, and the haze makes it impossible to see much of anything in the distance—not the 10,000-foot San Bernadino mountains, rising abruptly 20 miles from here, and not downtown’s skyscrapers, just 10 miles away. With nothing breaking the horizon I get disoriented and feel like I'm in some forgotten corner of the county, and in some ways I am.

Most everyone I've seen out walking hasn't looked like me, not just in the City of Compton (where the population is about 57 percent Latino, 40 percent black, and 1 percent white) but in the rest of Los Angeles County (where about seven out of 10 people aren't white either). To write about public transportation and walking in Los Angeles, specifically who's riding rails and buses and walking to stations and stops, I have to write about race in Los Angeles, and that can get uncomfortable real quick because, honestly, the history of Los Angeles is the history of constructing a white city in a place that isn't—never was.

When it was founded within Rancho San Pedro in 1867, Compton was no more than a loose connection of some 30 hardscrabble families. They traveled here by wagon-train from Stockton, led by one Griffith D. Compton. The land was rough and inimical, and in 1868 floodwaters nearly wiped the settlers out to sea. If the weather held, a few of the Comptonites would be sent on a three-day trek to Pasadena for firewood. In 1994, when the MTA increased bus fare after decades of neglected service, the situation facing Compton and many other non-white, working-class communities in the basin was similarly dire.

That year, the Los Angeles MTA board voted to increase fares from $1.10 to $1.35 and eliminate $40 monthly bus passes altogether. The decision was handed down following hours of public hearings, where riders pleaded with the MTA for improved service ("We want to have a better life," the Los Angeles Times reported one woman saying, describing how she used the bus to attend night classes. "We want to speak with teachers and help [our children] with their homework.") A week after the announced fare hikes, the MTA green-lighted a $123 billion budget for a light rail line to Pasadena, where the population is more than 55 percent white. Los Angeles has the second largest and most heavily used bus system in the country (the first is New York). Of the approximately 500,000 daily bus riders in the city, 58 percent are Latino, 22 percent are black, and just 12 percent are white.

For its decisions, the MTA got taken to court, lost, and was handed a restraining order that halted the fare increase. Four-hundred-thousand bus-riders of color brought a class action suit against the MTA and, under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the MTA lost again. To support their case, the plaintiffs cited the MTA's spending 70 percent of its budget on rail passengers, who accounted for just 6 percent of its ridership. For the first time in history, the Civil Rights Act had been successfully used to halt a large transportation agency from enacting what the court considered racist policies.

In a paper explaining the case, Environmental Defense attorney Robert Garcia writes that, "The settlement improved equity and mobility, reduced pollution and congestion, improved the bus system and blocked the MTA's runaway plans for an exorbitantly expensive and inefficient rail system in Los Angeles County." That Garcia works for an organization with "environmental" in its title, and that he would come out against Los Angeles's rail system is telling—such is the complex web of transit and race and the misguided dream of the city's trains.

I have sinned on a Sunday: even though I'm supposed to be walking across this basin, I take the Blue Line from downtown south to Compton, then north to Watts. I get a seat by the window, even though the train is still underground at the 7th St. Metro Center, and as it sits in the station humming it begins to fill up. The Blue Line is the oldest and longest of the MTA's light-rail lines—it runs 22 miles from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles—and the second busiest in the country, averaging 80,000 passengers every weekday. It's a short ride south to the Compton stop, no more than 25 minutes. Along the way I notice a remarkable number of scrap metal yards lining Long Beach Avenue.

To have a functioning rail system, you need a hub from which all tracks radiate, like Times Square in New York or Chicago's Loop. I talk to Eric Morris, a doctoral student at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies and a frequent contributor to The New York Times's Freakonomics blog, about the rail issue. "The problem is thinking that downtown Los Angeles will be ever be the real hub,” Morris tells me. “This city has launched the largest public transportation campaign in America. But it’s also one of the most decentralized cities in America. While they've created the supply, in some cases they are having a very hard time creating demand," he says. It’s also likely that, hard as the city might try, the task of filling its rail cars is simply impossible. Given the nature of development and population density in Los Angeles, Garcia estimates that "even if an entire rail system were built, it would only serve 11 percent of the population—those who live within a half mile of a rail station." Why, then, would the city build nearly 80 miles of tracks, with plans well underway for more?

While the Blue Line is the most heavily used rail system in Los Angeles, the Green Line is the least, and averages about 44,000 riders per weekday. Its construction in the late-1980s was tied directly, legislatively, to the 105 freeway. In order for the freeway to exist, the state mandated that Caltrans build a “transit corridor” in the median. The Green Line cost $718 million and served an area that, during the Cold War, was a bedroom community to the aerospace industry. Only by the time the Green Line was completed the Cold War was over, and the neighborhoods it served were now filled with working-class minorities who rode the bus. The Green Line’s construction was also used against the MTA in that 1994 class-action suit. I think about how, if you want to do something big, historically big, sometimes you have to go right out and do it—fight the powers that be. And while I’m thinking this we pull into 103rd Street station and I see them: two spindly spires rising 97 and 99 feet in the air. The third tower is lower, 55 feet, but no less impressive. Simon Rodia, the Italian construction worker who built the Watts Towers, spent 33 years fixing mortar to steel pipe and wire mesh and glass and tiles and sea shells. He explained why in such a beautifully straightforward way: I had in mind to do something big, and I did.

I'm not actually here for the towers, I tell myself. I'm here to walk around and get a sense of this place. But really, the fact is that when I ride the rails or take a bus or even just walking around, I'm a tourist—not just in Watts and Compton, but in all of Los Angeles. The honest truth is that if I suddenly had to pick up and move here today, odds are—based on my income and skin color—I’d have a car. But even if I never used the bus or rail systems, I have a stake in them for the same reason Garcia, the Environmental Defense lawyer, has a stake in them. For the same reason we all have a stake in them. When the city decides to build rail lines, it takes money out of the transportation budget that could go into improved bus service. It makes a lot more sense—economically, environmentally, socially-- to invest in buses that people will use than rail that people won’t.

I walk past a group outside a pale-yellow stucco church: two men, a boy, and a woman, all in dark suits despite the heat. The woman is wearing a large purple hat and has a wide friendly face. As I walk by the boy offers me a free meal if I sign up for church service. I smile and say that's fine, but I'm going to pass.

"You here to see the towers?" asks the woman.
"Not really," I say. "I thought I'd walk around for a bit first. I'm walking acr—"
"Oh you need to see the towers," she interrupts. "You'll love them."
And she's right. I do.

Next up: Among the walkers

Photos by Ryan Bradley.

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