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Subway to the Sea Change – Villaraigosa’s Legacy

May 21, 2013

Today is election day in Los Angeles, an event important enough for me to break my vow of silence. I have to admit it, I miss LA. I’ve been back exactly once since my last blog, for enough time to see the new park downtown and the Expo Line, though I was disappointed to see that the Hollywood Freeway Park hasn’t been completed yet. What gives?

As I write this, it’s 11PM (and winter) where I am, on the other side of the American supercontinent, but that means it’s still 7PM back in LA, and the jury’s still out on who will get to be the next mayor: Garcetti or Greuel. More on that later. But no matter who wins, Antonio Villaraigosa is out, and who knows where he’ll land next. He’ll probably end up being a lobbyist, or take advantage of his newfound free time to have a few more affairs with hot anchor babes. Sarcasm aside, despite the negative aspects of his legacy, there are plenty of things that will make him stand out, and even a few things that Angelenos can really be proud of.

After a failed bid for mayor in 2001, Tony came back to win the mayor’s office in 2005. In some areas, his record is mixed. Progress was made in education, but dropout rates remain high, and the expensive, Dr. Seuss designed Buck Rogers magnet school in Chinatown stands as a symbol of an education department that overspends in some areas and underspends in others. Crime is down, but the LAPD still has grave internal issues as evidenced by the Christopher Dorner incident which ended in a bloody shootout last February.

Indeed, there’s no single area in which Villaraigosa stands out as being perfect. Nevertheless, in other ways, his record will be remembered as solidly positive. Above all, he represents a sea change – call it a “subway to the sea change” – where the underlying strategy for planning the city’s future canged from envisioning a completely private, isolated city, to one in which the idea of building a robust public sphere was brought to bear.

That’s not to say it was always brought to bear correctly. The LA Live/Ritz Carlton projects, while they do bolster the viability of downtown to a certain extent, funcition like moted medieval castles where they should have instead been built as integrated elements that feed into the lifeblood of the area. The bike lane on Spring st. was a good idea that needed to be followed by several more good ideas. Instead, it’s now been left to peel up.

But the emphasis on new parks, public transportation, and a more urbanized way of life where people embrace the city instead of shielding themselves from it, is a badly needed breath of fresh air. Los Angeles may still be widely considered the car capital of the universe, but implementing Ciclovia is helping to symbolically confront that image. And given this car obsessed status, staging a Ciclovia in Los Angeles is perhaps more important than in cities traditionally considered to be walkable. It shows that even in places where attempts to foster new transportation options and public life seems to be hopeless, there is hope. 

Years from now, Villaraigosa will stand out as one of the city’s most important mayors, who changed the city’s course after so many decades of wrong headed thinking, and set it on the right track.

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