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Urban Agent

Daylight life in historic downtown L.A. has a surprisingly neighborhood feel. You walk down Spring Street with a smile and a wave for the elderly Latino couple at the newsstand, the Persian guy at the dry cleaner, the semi-homeless guy that’s long lived in the alley, on your way to Clifton’s Cafeteria, that Depression-era palace of retroville. At night, however, when the living dead take over the streets, it’s a different story. That’s when what James Rojas does is most necessary. His 727 Gallery is often the only light on that dark block of Spring Street. Some nights there are movies. Other evenings feature artists as vital as Gronk, or Paul Botello, or the Chavez Ravine photographer Don Normark. One of the most popular events he’s ever done was a recent weeklong interactive fantasy, River Dreams, a drop-in building exercise in which anyone who wandered in off the street, from little kids to urban-planning experts, could help build an imaginary 12-foot-long L.A. out of found objects and cast-off treasures — shampoo-bottle caps, seashells, nuts and bolts, etc. — that Rojas had been collecting since childhood.

All in a night’s work for 45-year-old Rojas, who by day is a pedestrian and transportation planner for the MTA. The son of an Eastside barber, Rojas graduated from Schurr High School in Montebello, and from Woodbury University in Burbank with a degree in interior design, before gradually discovering his life’s work, shaping the evolution of cities. He spent three years in the Peace Corps working as an environmental adviser for Eastern European NGOs. When he returned to the States, he got a master’s degree in city planning from MIT. His thesis examined ways in which Latinos use public space in L.A.

These days, Rojas is everywhere that the brainstorming of L.A.’s future is going on. He’s the founder of the increasingly influential Latino Urban Forum, a volunteer gathering of urban planners, architects and community activists dedicated to improving the city’s quality of life. He spearheaded the effort to create a jogging path around Boyle Heights’ Evergreen Cemetery, which transformed 1.5 miles of sidewalk into a rubberized jogging path used by a thousand people a day. He was a key member of the Chinatown Yard Alliance, which stopped a million square feet of warehouses from going into the old Cornfield railroad-switching yard between Chinatown and the L.A. River, and he lobbied successfully for a 32-acre state park. What does the future of downtown look like to Rojas? Wider sidewalks, better lighting, fewer cars — a vastly expanded entertainment district. “Cities don’t make anything anymore,” he contends. “People move to places like New York and San Francisco to be entertained.”