What MTA Debate Is Really About

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.

Urban analyst and economic reporter Joel Kotkin of Pepperdine Univeristy has been building a body of evidence pointing to the revitalization of Los Angeles as a federation of local economies, many of them immigrant-based. Inspired in part by Lewis Mumford and William Cobbett, Kotkin sees the market-vital city-states of the Italian Renaissance as possible paradigms for metro-L.A.

Classic downtowners have their cause advanced by the Chamber of Commerce, a dwindling corporate presence, whatever is left of the old oligarchy and such figures as developer Ira E. Yellin, architects Christopher C. Martin and William H. Fain Jr., urban planner Daniel Rosenfeld and Nikolas Patsaouras, the single most influential transportation activist of his generation, among others.

With the exception of the classic downtowners, the subway has no friends among these competing groups. From the point of view of the USC free-marketeers, the subway represents a massive misappropriation of public funds to create a multibillion-dollar fixed-rail system obsolete and scandalously wasteful from the day the first shovelful of earth was turned. From the perspective of the neo-Marxist deconstructionists at UCLA and elsewhere, anything to do with the subway or the downtown is part of a larger conspiracy to marginalize even further the already-marginalized. While not ferociously opposed to the subway, Kotkin tends to see it as irrelevant to the multilocalized renaissance of economic creativity already underway, especially in immigrant communities.

All this might sound rather academic were it not for the fact that these ideas have an overwhelmingly powerful valence now that the subway project is in such deep trouble. Suddenly, free-marketeers, a left in search of community-based governance and San Fernando Valley secessionists, not to mention ordinary citizens fed up with the MTA's overly long story of scandal and waste, are finding that the subway (and behind it, the Diamond Plan for the downtown and the secession of San Fernando Valley) represents the possibilities of a battle that, if won, will stop one Los Angeles in its tracks and bring into being a radically deconstructed alternative.

Turnaround artist Julian Burke can be expected to shape up the MTA and free it of scandal. But even then, the question will remain and will surface again and again in the political years to come: Does Los Angeles truly want this subway and all that it represents? Or will the City of Angels become the first city in American history--indeed world history--voluntarily to walk away from a public-works project of this magnitude, once commenced?

Beyond the arguments of efficiency, however valid, lies a larger question of civic identity. Public works of the magnitude of the MTA subway system cannot be judged in snapshots of time, including snapshots of temporary confusion. Is the vision of the generation that brought the subway project into being as a matter of legislation and finance--a generation still very much a part of this city--so totally misguided that its investment must now be abandoned? Are the anti-subway forces so confident in 1997 that they can see the effects of the subway (or the absence of the subway) in 2007, 2017, 2067 and the rest of the century to come? And what will the surviving fragment of the subway, already in operation, come to mean in that distant time, if the subway project is abandoned? Will it mean that a generation wised-up and corrected its mistakes? Or will it mean that a generation lost faith in itself, lost faith in the unforeseen gifts and legacies of great public works across time, lost faith in the City of Angels and stopped its future?

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