I learned two things when Deborah Murphy of Silver Lake sent me an email in mid-December.
First, there’s a pedestrian-advocacy organization in our car-crazed metropolis, and it goes by the name of Los Angeles Walks.
Second, there’s a city of L.A. Pedestrian Advocacy Committee.
Murphy is executive director of the former, chair of the latter, and she wanted to know if I could meet with her to discuss a development she’s not happy about. Namely, there’s the possibility of a $3-billion street repair bond measure on the November ballot this year, but as currently conceived, it would fix only the worst of L.A.'s streets and do nothing for the city’s abominable sidewalks.
“Remember that we are all pedestrians,” Murphy said in her email. “We may not all be drivers, we may not all be cyclists, we may not all be transit riders, but we are all pedestrians. Fixing only our roads doesn’t address the fact that all of our children and most of our seniors are mainly pedestrians.”
She suggested we meet at the Metro kiosk at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown and stroll the neighborhood.
I’ve seen some bad sidewalks in the last year, as readers of this column know. But I had to admit she’d found an area worth seeing.
On Vermont, walking north, the pedestrian-heavy sidewalk was like a sloped mountain trail, with jutting uplifted chunks of concrete and crappy attempts to smooth over the worst of it with asphalt patch jobs. At Westmoreland Avenue and 6th Street, an orange cone and yellow crime scene tape marked cracked pavement that looked like it had been hit by a meteor.
If we’re going to spend $3 billion, Murphy said, shouldn’t a disaster zone like this get some of the money?
“We should be more thoughtful and not just say we’re going to do every street,” Murphy said. “There should be some criteria related to transit and related to the more intense commercial districts, where there are pedestrians.”
For Murphy, who trained in architecture and urban planning, it’s about restoring human scale in the design of a more livable city—one in which neighborhood riches and commercial and cultural centers are more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly and inviting for everyone.
According to a 2012 Bureau of Streets report, Los Angeles has an estimated 4,600 miles of bad sidewalks, many of them dangerously buckled or uplifted by tree roots that haven’t been maintained in decades. Estimated repair costs would be about $1.5 billion, and currently, the city gets hit with about 2,500 trip-and-fall legal claims each year.
“I think residents and business owners want to know they’re supporting a street bond and not a road bond,” said Murphy, “so their customers can get there safely and not break a leg. And Mom wants to know that her kids can get to school and their grandfather can ride in a wheelchair without falling over.”
City officials, who could be looking at another big budget deficit in 2014, have no current plan to fix sidewalks. After years of increased payments to employees and retirees, there’s less money available for services, and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s pledge to get back to basics is short on specifics.
Council members Joe Buscaino and Mitchell Englander have discussed what should go into the $3-billion bond proposal, so I called Buscaino to see if sidewalks could get some of that money. His staff told me he’d been mulling that question, and arranged for me to meet him at an address on the 300 block of Grand Avenue in San Pedro.
If there were an Olympics for bad streets and sidewalks in L.A., this would be a gold medal contender. You may recall that in a column on a Mid-City sidewalk, I was able to crawl under the uplifted pavement like a cave bear. I couldn’t quite burrow underground at this site in Pedro, but it looked like a devastating earthquake had picked up street and sidewalk and slammed them back down in pieces.
Buscaino said he’s open to drafting the bond measure with public input, and in a way that gives it the best chance of passing.
“I’m anxious to hear if residents across the city are willing to put in the sidewalk issue,” he said.
He’s also open to assessment districts, in which, rather than a citywide initiative, neighborhoods could vote on whether to add repair costs to property taxes.
“You finally gonna get this fixed?” a longshoreman named Robert Banaga asked when he saw me talking to Buscaino.
The very sight of a city official at a public eyesore drew two more neighbors — Patricia Fredgren and Ben Polanco — into the conversation. All three said that over the years, countless pleas for help went unanswered by City Hall.
There was no consensus among the neighbors on how to pay for repairs, or whether they should have to pay anything beyond their current taxes for such a basic service.
They just want the problem fixed.
Buscaino asked if I’d be willing to conduct a poll on what city residents want to do, and the answer is yes. Deborah Murphy, meanwhile, plans to organize volunteers to identify and prioritize the worst sidewalks, and readers can help by emailing me photos of candidates for worst sidewalk in all of Los Angeles.
But please be careful out there. Some of the cracks and crevices have been known to swallow large columnists.