Rail Plan Stirs Distrust Among Black Angelenos

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LOS ANGELES -- The story of major transit projects in the 20th century here was the story of black neighborhoods carved into pieces. One freeway after another forced families from their homes in South Los Angeles, the core of the region's black community. Walls of concrete were erected through their neighborhoods, which they said cut them off from wealthier parts of the city.

The Crenshaw rail line was supposed to be different. The line, a crucial link in a planned rail network that will span Los Angeles County, promised to right that historical wrong by connecting South Los Angeles to the city's business hubs: downtown, the airport and Hollywood.

Instead, the Crenshaw line threatens to become yet another insult to South Los Angeles and a burden for businesses, some residents and community activists have said.

The Leimert Park neighborhood, the heart of black culture here, may be left without a stop on the rail line, a victim of limited money. And the train will run at street level through part of the area, which business owners fear will cut them off from their customers during years of construction.

The prospect that the train will bypass the neighborhood has stoked distrust among South Los Angeles residents who feel that they are being shortchanged, as power brokers try to save money for other projects in wealthier parts of the city.

Tonya Anthony's family has owned and operated a hair salon on Crenshaw Boulevard since 1959. She was initially excited about the Crenshaw line. But once she learned that there would be no stop in Leimert Park, a few blocks from her shop, and that construction would take away half of the parking her customers used, she worried that the train might drive the salon out of business.

"Leimert Park is one of the major cultural areas in the city," Ms. Anthony, 44, said. "For traffic to be diverted past it, I think, would be very detrimental to this area and the businesses here."

Tom Bradley, this city's first and only black mayor, was also the mayor who brought modern rail lines to Los Angeles. Before serving as mayor from 1973 to 1993, he lived in Leimert Park. And, for some, the Crenshaw line, which will cover 8.5 miles through South Los Angeles to the airport, has become part of an effort to extend his legacy.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor who represents South Los Angeles, put forward a plan last year to allocate money for a Leimert Park stop and to keep the line underground along Crenshaw Boulevard. The city's black political establishment -- religious and business leaders and elected officials who have often clashed on other issues -- lined up behind the effort.

"It was a salute to Tom Bradley, who said this was his vision for his city," Mr. Ridley-Thomas said. He added that the Crenshaw line and a Leimert Park stop had become "emblematic of a struggle for progress."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's first Latino mayor, has also positioned himself as a successor to Mr. Bradley's transit legacy: the rail lines that will span Los Angeles County in the coming decades will be a major piece of his own legacy, after he leaves office next year because of term limits.

Yet Mr. Villaraigosa and his allies blocked Mr. Ridley-Thomas's plan. Instead, a Leimert Park stop will be included only if contractors can squeeze it within the existing budget, and the Crenshaw line will run at street level for part of its trip through the area.

Like just about everyone else, Mr. Villaraigosa agrees that Leimert Park, home to cultural festivals, jazz clubs and a host of black-owned businesses, deserves its own stop. Contractors will submit their proposals for the project within a few weeks, and the mayor said he was "fairly confident" that a Leimert Park stop could be done within the $1.8 billion budget.

But Mr. Villaraigosa also emphasized the benefits that the rail network -- including a recently constructed light-rail line that carries passengers through the northern parts of South Los Angeles -- would offer the area even if a Leimert Park stop was not built. He also noted his efforts to expand the Crenshaw line, which was originally designed as a bus line with a fraction of the money it now has.

"All of that happened because I drove it," he said. "This was a busway before I made it into a light rail."

Still, some Leimert Park residents remain convinced that the rail line has been nickel-and-dimed to save money for other projects in wealthier parts of the city, like the "Subway to the Sea," which will extend the subway line from downtown through affluent communities in West Los Angeles. The budget for that project stretches to an estimated $6.3 billion, and the entire line will run underground, sparing businesses from surface-level construction that could drive away customers.

"In this community, we don't have money," said Theodore Thomas, the president of the Community Council in the Parker Mesa neighborhood, where the Crenshaw line will run at street level. "The majority of people think we're a pass-through on the way downtown."

Lisa Schweitzer, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California who studies social justice and transport, said that the congested corridor on the West Side was the best place in Los Angeles for a subway line, while Crenshaw Boulevard was better suited for an above-ground light-rail line, which is less expensive to build but carries fewer people.

Crenshaw Boulevard was the site of a streetcar line, before that rail system was ripped out more than half a century ago.

But Dr. Schweitzer said she understood the frustration that residents and small-business owners along Crenshaw Boulevard had expressed.

"It comes out of this history in which the answer is always no," she said. "When it comes to requests from South L.A., the answer is always no, we can't afford it. And, conversely, when it comes to the West Side, the answer is always yes, because they're so politically empowered and so wealthy."

Tavis Smiley, the television and radio broadcaster, has lived and worked in Leimert Park since the 1980s, when he started as an intern for Mr. Bradley.

"This is an old story," he said. "I detest when government gives short shrift to people of color. If they don't figure out a way to make sure this stop is included, there's going to be outrage in this community."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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