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MAN BITES TOWN

Circular Logic : If We Repeat Ourselves Often Enough, Will We Finally Wise Up?

November 11, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

ONE OF THE best arguments in favor of apathy, or at least keeping your old clothes, is that everything ends up coming around again.

I don't mean things that are always with us, things that the news weeklies declare about every five years to be returning from the dead ("Jazz Is Back!" is my personal favorite). But look at the '60s cycle currently delighting the fashion industry, which, after 10 years of struggling to revive short skirts, is once again selling less garment for more money. (What's not to like?)

Or consider what's happened to the office of the mayor of Los Angeles. Not the position, the actual office. Frequently these days, it's empty. Tom Bradley is the target of increasing criticism for touring the world, slogging through hazardous-duty areas like Paris, London and Tokyo.

The mayor's defenders say such travels are necessary to keep cargo moving through the Port of Los Angeles and international visitors pouring through Terminal Four at LAX. Bradley is not junketeering, we are advised; he is engaged in the hard if subtle work of economic development.

Well, it may be nearing wintertime, but this show is definitely a rerun. Precisely the same debate surrounded Bradley's predecessor, Sam Yorty, known to some detractors as "Travelin' Sam." I made my first serious money poking fun at Yorty's travels, in addition to his syntax and his presidential aspirations, and I recall clearly that he defended his skedaddling with the same lofty invocation of regional macroeconomics. Apparently, in the high-level world of deciding which port to ship stuff through, brochures and videos just aren't enough; you need that personal touch.

Travel is nice, especially if you're not paying, but other mayors confine more of their mischief to the home precincts. Tom Bradley won his office campaigning against such compulsive tourism. Why did he succumb to the old syndrome? The office of mayor of Los Angeles--not the actual office, the position--is, ultimately, no place for a real man.

Consider this: As soon as Bradley got back from one of his most recent rounds of harbor-touting, one of his employees--the chief of police--publicly slammed His Honor for daring to suggest that the police commissioners, mayor's appointees all, just might want to exercise their legal duty to supervise a department, some of whose narcotics cops are under suspicion of stealing money and framing suspects while its chief tells Congress that casual marijuana smokers--not addicts like his own son, whom he considers already dead--should be shot to death.

A mayor with any real power would have suspended that chief faster than you could say Adam 12. But because of an earlier era of political reform, our chief executive is barely empowered to decide what color drapes to hang in his office. Afraid of bosses and machines, California progressives tilted in favor of city councilmen, none of whom has the clout or independence to stand up to rogue elephants, like L.A.'s splendid string of loose-lipped police chiefs. Anybody who stays in the mayor's office long enough to get a healthy dose of such humiliation will naturally start dreaming of February in Prague.

Coming around again, as well, is rail transit for L.A. The thin Blue Line has already opened to generally good notices, and Southern Pacific has sold three routes to the County Transportation Commission. Local rail buffs haven't been this happy since before the Domeliner ran out of Windex. And Metro Rail continues to tunnel along, blasting past clumsy accidents and methane pockets toward a rendezvous with the Valley.

We are promised clean rapid transit that will span the yawning spaces between the beaches and the Inland Empire; a system to rival, it is said, Toronto or Paris. Or, to be utterly precise, to rival the system we had in the '20s. We are re-creating that system as faithfully as a paleontologist rebuilds a dinosaur skeleton.

Don't get me wrong. I like rail transit. I'd even use it, assuming that the car interiors have the oiled metallic fragrance of the old Red Cars, not the ureic reek of New York City's IND trains. Southern California had a great transit system. We lost it (the lore blames a conspiracy of auto and gasoline companies, but we're beyond finger-pointing); we voted down its revival all during the Mustang and Camaro years, and now--now that the replacement cost has hit eight figures, now that car traffic is so bad it makes nice ladies give you the finger--now we're bringing it back.

In a way, it makes sense. Somebody made money, and created jobs, by building our transit system in the first place. Keeping the setup didn't allow new money to be made, new jobs to be created. Think of all the car stereos and car phones and car windshield shades that have been sold in the meantime. And now, somebody makes money, and creates jobs, rebuilding what we used to have.

So we'll take the train to San Berdoo, if we like. And the mayor, whoever he is, will know how well it compares with the trains in France because he'll be in Paris. And the Newsweek we buy at the train station will scream from its cover, "Jazz Is Back!"

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