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TIM RUTTEN

Money talks, this city listens

May 07, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

It's a pity that the title "A Tale of Two Cities" is taken, because it would make a marvelously useful headline for so many news stories about Los Angeles.

Charles Dickens' novel of that name was a classic tale of revolutionary turmoil and its unlooked-for consequences. When applied to L.A., the title describes a society divided by affluent privilege and voiceless want, though here, the result is not turbulence but a numbing stasis.

Take, for example, two festering civic problems whose solutions seem to move further from reach with each turn of the political merry-go-round:

Anyone who recently has tried to get across Los Angeles knows that the Westside and growing stretches of Mid-City are about two Priuses and a Lexus short of utter gridlock. As The Times' Steve Hymon wrote Tuesday, "In the war against L.A. traffic, the Westside has become the frontline as more jobs have migrated to that part of town, bringing commuters and their cars with them. But the combination of affluence and political influence has historically made improving roads there a difficult proposition since every plan has its opponents."

A year ago, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky suggested converting two east-west streets, Olympic and Pico, into one-way routes during rush hours. Opposition was immediate and intense, but it was clear that Yaroslavsky had offered the basis for an incremental step forward. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jack Weiss then proposed a more modest alternative: Eliminate on-street parking during rush hour and reset the traffic lights along four miles of Olympic and 3.5 miles of Pico to increase average speeds during peak travel times.

Enter the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce -- some of whose members have businesses along those streets -- and a homeowners group called Westwood South. The business owners don't want to lose parking for patrons, not even for a few hours each day; the homeowners fear that if Olympic and Pico carry more traffic, more people will cut through their residential streets.

They pulled in some money from other well-heeled neighborhood groups and filed lawsuits demanding a full environmental review before the city could proceed. Monday, a Superior Court judge agreed that the proposal's cumulative effect was great enough to require a full study of its environmental impact, a process that will delay the project by at least a year.

By then, City Hall will be in full election mode, which means that unless the city appeals right now, the project is as good as dead. No mayoral or council candidate with a functioning instinct for self-preservation is going to take on Westside neighborhoods, where voter turnout is high and activists understand the power of targeted campaign contributions.

It's an axiom of L.A. politics: Those who have are heard.

Meanwhile, not many miles south of the Pico-Olympic corridor, an enduring civic disgrace deepens by the day. For years, the county Board of Supervisors turned a blind eye to mismanagement, malpractice and malfeasance at its King-Drew public hospital, which served some of the area's poorest Latino immigrant and African American communities. Finally, last year, federal regulators stripped the place of its funding, and the supervisors couldn't think of anything to do but close the place.

In other words, they left one of the poorest areas of the city without a public hospital, and so it has remained. And why wouldn't they? There's little pressure to do anything else. By and large, people in South L.A. are too poor or too new to the city to contribute to campaigns. Most work too hard to spend their evenings at neighborhood forums.

If the residents of South L.A. could afford to make a few strategic campaign contributions and, say, hire a lawyer creative enough to file an equal protection lawsuit against the supervisors -- who, after all, maintain public hospitals in other parts of the county -- you can bet they'd get more than a hearing. Life and death in South L.A. might even get at least as much official consideration as convenience in Westwood South.

Dickens began his tale of two cities: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Those sentences wouldn't make a bad beginning on many stories about Los Angeles.

Here, when you've got money and the moxie to know where and how to use it, time naturally divides itself into good, better, best. When you don't have those things, it's indifference and neglect as usual.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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