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For Some, Strikes Are No Big Deal

Though the grocery and MTA disputes are taking a toll on some residents, others are unfazed.

October 22, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

The people of Los Angeles, long nurtured on images of utter catastrophe -- the city in flames or tumbling into the sea -- are scarcely the sort to be fazed by a couple of work stoppages.

With the transit and grocery strikes in their second weeks, walkouts and lockouts that might be crippling in another city, or at least the subject of obsessive interest, are regarded by many here as merely inconvenient.

"I heard about the strikes on the news, but they don't affect me," said Bill Tsang, 52, at the San Gabriel Square mall.

"I'm not affected by either strike whatsoever," Kyung Chan Kim, 47, said while shopping in Koreatown Plaza. "I have a good car, and normally I eat out."

And so it went in random interviews across the city. Crisis? What crisis?

"Los Angeles is like the Internet -- millions of little pieces communicating with each other, and if one goes down you use another," said Joel Kotkin, a senior research fellow at Pepperdine University who is writing a history of cities. "It's not like an electrical grid. You can't knock it down."

There are a lot of reasons the strikes haven't slowed the city much. For one thing, the proportion of workers who commute via public transit is less than 5%, according to the 2000 Census. The comparable figure for New York: 25%.

As for shopping, choices abound: Smaller chains such as Smart & Final and independent markets, including ethnic food stores, control 41.4% of the grocery business in the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area, according to the research group Market Scope.

"Los Angeles is fragmented and decentralized, which means that most of the time it's hard to solve problems and get things done," said Dowell Myers, a professor at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development. "But once a decade, like now, you get the benefit."

Another instance, he said, was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. "There were dire predictions the city would be in gridlock. Instead, traffic was better than normal. People made adjustments in their schedules, in their routes."

This wasn't done out of any regard for the greater good, the urbanist cautioned. "Everyone overreacted out of self-interest. It's every man for himself here."

To be sure, hundreds of thousands of people have seen their lives disrupted by the transit strike. Rush-hour traffic is worse around the city, but poorer, transit-dependent neighborhoods have been hit particularly hard. People without cars are paying for cabs or shuttle vans to get them to work, or imposing on friends and relatives for rides. In some cases, workers simply can't get to work at all.

Lupe Gutierrez, a 19-year-old community college student in Mission Hills, had an old Camaro, but a friend wrecked it. So she's had to depend on her parents to get her to jobs at an auto dealership and a party equipment store.

"To be honest, I don't even know why [the transit workers] are striking," Gutierrez said. She's just eager for it to be over.

But for the majority, the strikes pose a detour, not a derailment.

Confronted by pickets at their local supermarkets, shoppers are taking the path of least resistance. They're leaving those stores mostly empty and going elsewhere -- which isn't hard to do, because there are so many alternatives.

Adam Lowe, a 24-year-old waiter in Hermosa Beach, is typical: Usually, he has a Ralphs, an Albertsons and a Vons to choose from, all within a few blocks of each other. But they're all being picketed, so when Lowe runs out of food, he figures he might try Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. But that's a whole week away.

"It doesn't really affect me too much," he said.

Four hundred thousand people a day take the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's buses, trains or subways. For the other 9.2 million people in Los Angeles County, mass transit ranks in exoticism somewhere between a balloon and a camel ride.

"Last time I was on a city bus was in 1976, or was it '77?" said John Zeil, 41, a landscape designer. "I was in junior high. Once I took the bus from Glendale to the L.A. County Museum, and once to the beach. Such long treks. It took hours. Never again."

Zeil, who was eating a pastrami sandwich outside Porto's Bakery in Glendale, said the lack of widespread disruption from the strikes illustrated a central Los Angeles truth: "We're all on our own little island here."

For better or worse, strikes in other cities often tend to be big deals. No newspaper story about a pending transit strike in New York is complete without intimating that it would paralyze the metropolis. When private sanitation workers went on strike in Chicago this month, Mayor Richard M. Daley angrily threatened to sue the union and the trash haulers to recoup the city's expenses in picking up the garbage.

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