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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE MTA

Not Everyone in L.A. Would Kill the Subway

Mothers of East L.A. wage war on a ballot measure that aims to block any extensions of Metro Rail.

October 11, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Latinos demonstrating against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not big news. Given the mediocre bus service that notoriously mismanaged agency provides for Los Angeles' most transit-dependent people, the surprise is that more Latinos don't organize and fight back.

But a protest that took place at the MTA's palatial downtown headquarters last Monday evening deserves attention, for it could portend the start of a political fight that will affect not only some major projects the MTA is desperately trying to complete--including a subway to the Valley and a light rail line to Pasadena--but also the Los Angeles mayoral race in 2001.

On the surface, Monday's protest looked like the first round in a David versus Goliath mismatch. It was organized by Eastside political activists who want to stop an effort by a powerful county supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky, to derail the Red Line subway once construction of the $5-billion project reaches North Hollywood.

Yaroslavsky wants to run for mayor in two years and has decided to make bashing the MTA--and especially its costly and controversial subway--his big issue. Conventional wisdom has it that Yaroslavsky is riding a sure winner.

The supervisor even qualified an initiative for the November ballot, Proposition A, that would pull the plug on the subway project after its third leg (which runs from Hollywood and Vine into a part of the Valley that just happens to be in Yaroslavsky's district) opens in 2000.

So unpopular is the MTA--thanks to several accidents, cost overruns and slipshod construction on the subway, along with allegations of political favoritism in the awarding of contracts--that nobody even bothered to submit an argument against Proposition A for the voter information pamphlet that will be sent to all registered voters in Los Angeles County.

One veteran political consultant has gone so far as to call Proposition A "a slam dunk" for Yaroslavsky. But that was before the Mothers of East Los Angeles and other Eastside activist groups got into the picture.

Mothers of East L.A., for those who have forgotten, is the grass-roots organization that waged--and won--a battle against the odds a decade ago to stop construction of a state prison on the Eastside.

In that case, their powerful opponents included former Gov. George Deukmejian and the state's Department of Corrections. They wanted to put a penitentiary on an industrial site on the eastern edge of downtown, just across the Los Angeles River from heavily Latino Boyle Heights.

Angered at the prospect of yet another prison near their community--the area already had eight--a group of women at a Roman Catholic parish in the area, Church of the Resurrection, organized Mothers of East L.A. to fight the project.

After several years of political to and fro, the Mothers of East L.A. beat the prison project. In the process they made a name for themselves as one of the most effective neighborhood associations in town and have since fought other projects, including a toxic waste incinerator, planned for the Eastside.

Now they have joined other area activists, including some former leaders of the United Neighborhoods Organization of East Los Angeles, to wage what many will say is a losing battle. Only this time they don't want to stop a controversial project but promote it.

At a time when Yaroslavsky would have us believe that nobody in Los Angeles wants a subway under his neighborhood, these Eastsiders are demanding it.

And they have reenlisted the aid of old allies from the fight against the prison: the urban planning experts of Barrio Planners Inc. and Msgr. John Moretta, the pastor at Church of the Resurrection, who allowed his parish to become the focal point of anti-prison activity 10 years ago.

"If the subway [to the Eastside] is stopped," Moretta says, "all it will leave us with is four scars in our community," where four proposed stations were to have been built. "They have already torn down houses, they've relocated families and businesses, and for what?"

By trying to stop construction of the subway before it can be extended toward Boyle Heights, Yaroslavsky is showing "falta de respeto," a lack of respect, toward the Eastside, in the words of Diana Tarango, a former UNO president.

"When they put all the freeways through our neighborhoods, they never gave it a second thought," Tarango says. "Now that we have a chance to get transportation that decreases traffic and reduces pollution, they want to stop the project."

Moretta and Tarango said the Eastside activists will protest at MTA's headquarters every Monday night until election day, Nov. 3. They may not beat Proposition A, but they want the word to get out that in one part of Los Angeles people want, and need, the subway.

"I'm less interested in mayoral politics than I am in getting the Eastside a fair shake," says the Rev. Moretta.

If he and Mothers of East L.A. can persuade enough voters to think the same way--not just residents of the Eastside, but the many middle-class Latinos who grew up there and have now moved to the suburbs--this may be another seemingly lopsided fight that the little guys win.

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