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LOS ANGELES

What MTA Debate Is Really About

September 07, 1997|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr is the state Librarian of California and visiting professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. His latest book is "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s."

In the last mayoral election, the single greatest public-policy issue facing Los Angeles--to continue or to end the MTA subway-construction project--did not fully surface. Mayor Richard Riordan preferred it that way. There was simply no political advantage for him to provide state Sen. Tom Hayden, his main opponent, a forum to make an anti-subway argument that has brought together--and continues to do so--otherwise radically differing views of the very nature of Los Angeles itself.

Across history, public works have represented the most conspicuous--and certainly the most expensive--means for a dynasty, a city-state, a religious commonwealth or a modern industrial society not only to get its work done, but also to assert in stone, steel or concrete what it is as a society and what it wishes to be.

The pyramids of ancient Egypt bespoke a centralized theocracy enamored of the afterlife. The Parthenon of ancient Athens materialized the inner vision of a society preoccupied with harmony, balance and numbers. The aqueducts and roads of imperial Rome provided the city by the Tiber with water and transportation, true; but equally important, these public works fully expressed and implemented Rome as center of world empire. The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages bespoke an age of faith; and the dams, aqueducts, freeways, airports and railroad corridors of California bespeak a society that has willfully created itself as a modern sub/urban-industrial network.

Today, the Metropolitan Transit Authority's subway program is on the verge of collapse as a matter of politics, but also as a matter of idea, symbol and will. Twenty and more years ago--when it was conceptualized, voted upon locally and, against all odds, passed through Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan--the subway project bespoke a vision of Los Angeles as a unified metropolis, possessed of a discernible, if subtle, civic unity and centered, more or less, on a downtown.

There were alternative opinions. Alison Lurie titled her Los Angeles novel "The Nowhere City" partly to suggest the malaise felt by transplanted Easterners when confronting the distinctive psycho-spatial challenges presented by a sprawling metropolis that was everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.

From this perspective, the oligarchy that saw the subway legislation through the county and Washington was putting in place a multibillion-dollar project that sought, at long last, to align Los Angeles alongside Paris, London, New York and Boston as classic cities unified through underground arteries of fixed rail. Like a 40-year-old enduring a first set of braces, Los Angeles was prepared to finish the unfinished business of youth (a subway that should have been built in the early 1900s, if it were to be built at all) and get on with the business of growing up.

Since then, of course, Los Angeles has polynucleated itself into some 14 or 15 urban centers and has more than ever embraced the freedom of the automobile. More important, previously marginal voices--once protesting to audiences of a few that Los Angeles was not a traditional city but a sui generis sort of a place--have now become mainstream and politically ascendent.

The subway debate, then, subsumes the downtown debate and the San Fernando Valley secessionist debate and, increasingly--given the overwhelming cost of the project and its current difficulties--has become a lightning rod for alternative visions of Los Angeles.

Over the past 50 years, these dissenting visions have mostly appeared in novels, detective stories, film noir, poetry and painting. Today, they are appearing in a more dialectical form en route to political debate. These visions are primarily being advanced by academics, journalists and a politician or two, such as Hayden. But in the case of the subway debate--and the next mayoral election--these ideas show every sign of transmuting themselves into courses of action that will profoundly condition the future of Los Angeles.

The Adam Smith wing of this debate is represented by USC planners Harry W. Richardson, Peter Gordon and James E. Moore II. Classical liberal in their economics--hence possessed of an abiding faith in free markets--and fundamentally optimistic (though distrustful of big government in a libertarian sort of way), the three have crossed swords repeatedly during the past decade with leftist planners and economists.

At UCLA, but with adherents at USC and elsewhere throughout academia and the press, most notably Mike Davis, probably the best-known urban analyst in the region, is centered another school of urban theorists. To judge from their latest book, "The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century," edited by Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja, they envision the city in its spatial, economic and transportation systems as one vast conspiracy against the dispossessed, most of them minority.

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