The Eastsides Prague Spring
Photo by Kathleen Clark
All thats changed now; theres been a local Velvet Revolution. The posters are for Victor Griego, Armando Hernandez, Cathy T. Molina, Juan Marcos Tirado, Alvin Parra, Juan J. Gutierrez. Who are all these people? And while were at it, where have all the Richard Alatorre posters gone?
Yes, King Richard has finally abdicated. Now all of 13 people have filed as running for his seat. Most of them seem like pretty serious contenders, too. For something has happened to Los Angeles most easterly council district that few seem ever to have expected. The population of the 14th District, which runs from immigrant destination Boyle Heights in the south to bosky Eagle Rock in the north, has finally come of age. Many of the inhabitants no longer think of themselves as passing through on the way to classier areas, as did the previous waves of Jewish and Italian immigrants. While the 14ths Boyle Heights south end continues to be one of the citys major catchments for non-English-speaking immigrants, a more stable Latino population, either locally born or long resident, has developed in its central-north areas, from El Sereno to Highland Park. Its a community that thinks of itself as established as there for keeps.
And it thinks of itself, finally, as not so much having to be taken care of as being able to take care of itself. One candidate, Luis Cetina, describes this population as "pockets of pride," people who value their neighborhood as a home, in many cases, to their extended family. They want to be able to stay there while their careers, income and education levels continue to rise. They want to continue their upward social mobility without having to move out. They just want their neighborhoods to be able to move up with them.
This is quite an aspirational change: Since 1967, the 14th has been run pretty much as a fiefdom first, by "Gringo Godfather" Arthur K. Snyder, then, less well, by the Padrino Latino, Richard Alatorre. Before 67, the Latino community was chronically underserved lacking even such amenities as streetlights and paving, patrolled by an LAPD that often saw itself as an occupying army.
Then came the generation of godfather government. If you supported the councilman, good things happened; if not, bad things. Snyder distributed shiny amenities, while Alatorre at least kept most of the streets paved. Compared to other districts, however, the 14ths population had a passive role in what happened there.
But at the first of this years council-candidate nights last week, you saw how much has changed over the past generation, and why Padrinoism could finally disappear from the district. As John Steinbeck once put it, "Strong men dont need strong leaders." The 14th is becoming a strong district, built on increased economic and educational status, as well as uniquely strong family ties.
The 10 of the 13 candidates who gathered in the backroom of a Highland Park restaurant last Wednesday actually had a lot in common: Theyd mostly completed college, theyd mostly worked in the public sector, and most of them had also been involved heavily in neighborhood nonprofit organizations. This is the sort of thing thats been going on in this district over the past 30 years, since youthful 60s protesters changed an unspoken L.A. school district policy that discouraged the Eastsides children from attending college and shunted them instead into careers in manual labor. Cathy T. Molina spoke for most of the candidates (possibly excepting Victor Griego, whose residence has been called into question) when she said, "We are the people who stayed here and never left."
The candidates had their differences, too. Juan Jimenez said he was a former street kid with a gang past, while Nick Pacheco, a deputy district attorney, claimed that he "stayed out of trouble." Yet if the group of candidates agreed on anything, it was that one of their primary goals was to help the kids and young adults of the district, particularly "people who are lost," as Jimenez put it particularly the increasing number of non-Mexican Latino youth in the area. The talk was of jobs, the emphasis on local jobs, so that families can stay closer.
On the Westside, this would be called a lifestyle. Obviously, this is a neighborhood a lot of people live in by choice and preference. And are loyal to. As much as its newfound political muscle and its aura of confidence, this sense of community loyalty is part of the 14ths new core of strength.
So were looking at a short but tumultuous primary race. Even Alatorre seemed to sense this: "After 28 years in office," he said, "Im glad to be taking this in as an observer."
To which candidate Parra, who had strongly challenged the incumbent in 1995, responded, "I never dreamed Id ask this, Councilman, but would you consider voting for me?"
One of the great involuntary pastimes of life in El Sereno is train spotting. Thats because one of the Eastside regions busiest intersections eastern Eastern Avenue and Valley Boulevard is bisected by a quartet of busy train tracks.
The way it goes is, say you want to drive from south El Sereno, where you live, to north El Sereno, where the post office is. Theres a fair chance youll spend a good deal of time sitting in your car, counting the boxcars from faraway lines like the Wabash, the Rock Island and the Erie-Lackawanna, as the milelong freight slows and stops at the grade crossing. While the post office closes down for the day.
This isnt the only Eastside intersection where tie-ups happen. The old Southern Pacific tracks parallel Valley most of the way downtown, so a stalled freight can literally isolate the thousands of El Sereno residents living on cross streets such as Soto and Boca, south and north of the boulevard. The situation got so bad that even the Los Angeles Times noted it. But, particularly since the S.P.s misbegotten $5 billion, 1996 merger into the Union Pacific, the traffic jams kept getting worse sometimes literally lasting for hours. Until someone finally took official notice.
One thing Ive noted about the LAPD over the years is that its officers generally cant stand to watch anyone blocking traffic. According to city-attorney spokesman Mike Qualls, one such officer last year finally climbed up into the locomotive cab of a halted U.P. freight that had been blocking traffic for four hours and ordered the crew either to move or "break the train." The crew declined to do either. On three further occasions the U.P. crews also refused to move trains blocking traffic, citing various red track signals and Metro Rail passenger-service priorities. The U.P. was admonished, but nothing really happened until Deputy City Attorney Lynn Megnandonovan unearthed a state Public Utilities Commission law that forbids trains blocking level crossings for more than 10 minutes.
Which is why the nations largest railroad with more than 50,000 employees and 30,000 miles of track in October ended up paying the city a $10,000 fine for obstructing traffic. City Attorney Jim Hahn promptly donated the money to Father Gregory Boyles nonprofit Eastside Homeboy Industries, which prepares "at risk" young people for productive trades. This made for a great little media event, and perhaps even helped U.P. management notice its operating divisions errant ways. We can only hope.
But if the problem continues, Hahn might consider moving his action to the federal jurisdiction. According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Bureaus 290-page 1995 summary agreement (the original was 8,100 pages) authorizing the S.P.-U.P. merger, one key condition was "that the transaction not adversely affect the adequacy of transportation to the public."
Which blocking city street traffic for four hours at a stretch certainly tends to do.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.