Watts Towers

For someone of my age and skin tone, the word ‘Watts’ elicits definite feelings of unease. wattstowers7While I am probably too young to actually remember the images of the 1965 uprising, it was part of the mid-to-late 60s period when American cities seemed engulfed in fire, destruction and racial tensions. I certainly do remember the 1992 riots, living here in Los Angeles at the time, standing on the roof of our apartment building, a 10-15 minute car ride from the south-central area of the city boiling over, watching the smoke from the fires that were alight in the city again.

“But Watts is country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel,” Thomas Pynchon wrote in a New York Times essay, 9 months after the ’65 August riots, in the wake, incredibly, of another shooting of an unarmed black man, in his car, in front of his pregnant wife, by a white police officer who, unsurprisingly, was not charged with the death. “She’s going to have a baby,” was the last thing Leonard Deadwyler said. I Can’t Breath. Watts, 1966. Staten Island, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri.

To my discredit, these were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I made my way to Watts last week, wattstowers8the reasons why I never had even thought to make the trip back 20 years ago when I last lived here. This is not my part of the city. Terra vetita.

It is does such a disservice to the place and communities living here. This blinkered, limited view diminishes what Watts actually is, what it’s been, the totality of its history. How can anywhere be reduced to any one thing? I’ll tell you how. Willful ignorance.

Like much of Los Angeles, Watts was, with the appearance of the Europeans, originally farmland. Then the railroad came in the late-19th century, and Watts grew into a working class city, connected to other parts of Los Angeles by an extensive intra-urban public transit rail system. (It’s important to always make that point for people who still think this is a city built for the car.) Many of the residents, in fact, worked for the railroads. Watts was incorporated as a city in 1906 and became part of Los Angeles in 1924 through annexation.wattstowers6

Three years before that, Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant and tile worker, had begun what would be a 33 year quixotic art installation endeavour. The Watts Towers, or Nuestro Pueblo, Our Town. It was an imaginative recreation of elements of Rodia’s hometown in southern Italy, single-handedly constructed in his backyard with scraps of metal, cement and other neighbourhood detritus and found objects of broken tiles, glass, seashells.

It is a staggering work of artistic imagination and determination. And defiance. And the individual idiosyncrasy that Los Angeles is noted for.

Not long after completing it, at the ripe old age of 75, Rodia handed over ownership of his house and property to a neighbour before leaving the city to live with family in central California. He never returned, never came back to look upon his creation. Subsequent owners spent five years or so, fending off the city’s attempts to tear the work down, citing safety concerns. wattstowers5But in 1959, after it proved to be earthquake sturdy, the city backed off and the towers remained in place, now part of a community arts centre.

Today, wandering through the project, looking up at the spires which have no logical reason for still being up there, the Watts Towers seem to symbolize for me a constancy, a sense of permanence that withstands the pressures of change and evolution that neighbourhoods and communities are always subject to. Sabato Rodia chose the location, the house with the backyard facing the railroad tracks so that lots of people would see his work of art as they commuted back and forth to work. Before he was finished in 1954, the rails had been torn up, nearby jobs departed further afield, a working class neighbourhood transformed into a highly racialized one, rife with all the tensions and conflicts that boiled over into an uprising one week in August, more than 50 years ago.

Like the Towers, some things haven’t changed that much. “50 Years And I Still Can’t Breath” was an exhibition on display in the adjoining gallery, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. wattstowers7Yes, the hate and oppression and state-sanctioned violence against marginalized communities has not gone away. In many ways, it remains as virulent as ever, gone underground and re-emerged, more covert than overt.

But, in Watts, like other economically and social segregated parts of Los Angeles, the trains have returned, in the form of LRTs, re-connecting neglected and ignored neighbourhoods to the wider region. The demographics are changing too as new immigration seizes the opportunities to make a better life for themselves. There’s an amazing resiliency, a potent timelessness, as represented by the towers, to the struggle against all the malignant forces that have besieged places like Watts pretty much from the outset. Conformity, misguided city building, economic dislocation, prejudice, both hard and soft, that see places like these only through a very narrow lens of skewed preconceptions set in mind a long time ago. Preconceptions I should have known to let die a long time ago.

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Transit Intransigence

Just a quick (here’s hoping) update on the post yesterday re the Brampton city council rejection of the north of Steeles section of the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT, and the ugly horrors the intrusion of parochial interests have on transit planning. columbo1(Still looking at you, Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker).

I late linked to a more in-depth article about the Brampton debacle from Sean Marshall at Marshall’s Musings. If you didn’t catch it then, I advise you to do so now. Here’s a snippet.

The Hurontario-Main corridor was selected for LRT simply because it is one of the busiest transit corridors in the Greater Toronto Area outside the City of Toronto; it connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors, it would help urbanize south Brampton and several neighbourhoods in Mississauga. It’s part of a larger regional network, yet six city councillors in Brampton, looking out for narrow, local interests, sunk it.

Earlier in the post, Marshall points out that the line at its proposed southernmost terminus, at the Port Credit waterfront, had been snipped off in a similarly, if less dramatic fashion, due to what he called “community opposition”.

This brought to mind stories our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, told us about the obstacle that city faces in its transit plans, a place called Beverly Hills, swimming pools and movie stars. It is one of 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County, home to 35,000 of the county’s 10 million people, and yet it has the heft to be constantly throwing up road blocks to wider regional projects. Bike lanes? Forget it. Rush hour dedicated bus lanes? No way, José. As for a westward subway extension tunneled under Beverly Hills High? Ummmm…

Yikes!

What often times gets lost in the back-and-forth debate over transit planning and proposed projects, all the wonkery and nerd talk pushing it from polite conversation, is any discussion on class and race. The northern portion up into Brampton of the HMLRT was opposed by that city’s well-heeled living in big houses on Main Street. This group included former Ontario premier Bill Davis. monoclewearingTerms like ‘heritage preservation’ or ‘maintaining neighbourhood character’ get tossed around but it’s hard to avoid looking at the deeper context. Public transit is for other people.

Rarely do you hear those who depend on public transit — many, economically and socially marginalized — complain that the service is too close to where they live. That it negatively impacts the character of their street. That it threatens the heritage of their neighbourhood. How the overhead wires interfere with their view. Those kinds of concerns are for other people.

Equally, just how much say should we be giving to individual communities when it conflicts with wider objectives? Yeah, I’m talking about the greater good here. As Marshall writes in his post, the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT was chosen because it runs along “one of the busiest transit corridors” in the GTA and “connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors”. upyoursAnd it gets tossed aside because a handful of elected officials, listening to a handful of voices, albeit persuasive ones, don’t want it?

It’s a prickly situation, to be sure. I’m advocating for the railroading, so to speak, of local opinion because it’s acting as a detriment to a wider regional transportation plan for no other discernible reason aside from self-interest. But I’m at a loss how else you put the ‘we’ ahead of ‘me’ when it’s the emphasis on the latter that’s got us all bogged down in the first place.

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CAPITALIZING The Future

“Realistically cars are NEVER going to disappear.” [Capitalization ENTIRELY the author’s doing.]

So proclaimed former city councillor and transit advocate, Gordon Chong, in this weekend’s Toronto Sun, and in one sentence putting out there EVERYTHING that is wrong with the Gardiner East’s “hybrid” supporters – led by Mayor John Tory — argument.blinkers

They cannot get see a future that will not be exactly like the past, their past.

That no one I’ve ever heard (or, at least, taken seriously) has stated that the private automobile is going the way of the dinosaur is of no consequence to “hybrid” proponents. Hyperbole and the assigning of extremely held beliefs to opposition voices is the hallmark of those pushing policy that lacks any sort of evidentiary base. The entrenched status quo sees any change as wild-eyed and unthinkable revolution. Utopian. Idyllic. Latte-sipping.

The fact that driving patterns have changed since the Gardiner first went up seems of little consequence to unabashed automobile enthusiasts like Gordon Chong. The number of drivers using the Gardiner, the ENTIRE Gardiner, during peak commute hours has remained relatively stable since the 1970s despite the explosive growth the GTAs have seen in the period. Why? Because there is only so much road space. Only so many cars can fit onto it at any given time.

So people use alternative methods to get around the city and region. Public transit, for one. There’s where you’ve seen a corresponding EXPLOSIVE GROWTH to our population boom. Despite what the TTC CEO called this morning “a chronic lack of funding” for public transit in this city, people in greater numbers keep using it. keepdiggingStill, “hybrid” supporters don’t think it’s up to the task of accommodating whatever overflow may occur if the elevated portion of the Gardiner East is removed.

Which is a funny position to take because, looking at the morning rush hour to downtown (that is where the Gardiner east is located), there isn’t a ward in the city that has more than half its commuters driving. (h/t Laurence Liu). Fun fact? In Ward 2, the beating heart of Ford Nation, transit users coming downtown in the a.m. outnumber drivers, 77%-22%. You read that correctly. Unfortunately, I can’t capitalize it for emphasis.

Driving has become only a component of how people move around the city and not the primary one either, certainly not downtown. There is a shift in our relationship to automobiles. Many more of us aren’t experiencing the freedom we’re promised in car ads. Trends suggest more people are settling down into the core. Driving becomes less desirable.

That’s before we even get to the hard charging technology of driverlessness which promises to alter not only the occupant’s experience but the efficiency with which traffic flows. Will it? Who knows? But pretending it won’t possibly be a factor is tantamount to suggesting computer chips haven’t changed how we live our lives.

Refusing to accept reality, though, is a big part of the “hybrid” game plan. caradIt’s no mistake in his speech yesterday to the Empire Club Mayor Tory raised the spectre of Fred “Big Daddy” Gardiner, the first chair of Metro Council and the political architect of urban expressway building in Toronto. The mayor talks Gardiner, and speaks of cars and driving, while ignoring process.

Gardiner (the man) threw his energy into making Toronto car-friendly because he was operating on the best available evidence of the time. The private automobile was about the future, with cheap gas and limitless land in which to build our suburban getaways as far as the eye could see and the mind imagine. It’s easy, with more than half a century of hindsight, to roll your eyes. What were they thinking?!

Unless, of course, you support the “hybrid” option. You can’t let go of that thinking. As it was, so it must ever be. Mayor Tory touts Fred Gardiner. Who can argue with Big Daddy, am I right?

In their mind, as expressed by Gordon Chong in the Toronto Sun, “ …an expressway under Lake Ontario is the REAL VISIONARY FUTURE [capitalization mine], much like the Bloor Viaduct was decades ago.” Build more car infrastructure! Screw the cost (BOSTON) or technical nightmares of tunneling near water (SEATTLE). This ‘guerilla war fought against the car for decades’ must come to an end. Driving is not the source of congestion. aroundinawarenessNot enabling more driving is.

It’s not that cars are NEVER going to disappear (although, it seems, they do if you take road space away from them). It’s the zombie-like belief Gordon Chong, Mayor Tory and all the other “hybrid” supporters hold in the primacy of cars as the transportation mode people will use that refuses to die or, at least, face reality. Driving habits have already changed since the time of Fred Gardiner. Evidence heavily suggests it’s a trend that will continue into the future. Investing unnecessarily to fight congestion in the name of cars is doing nothing more than fighting the future, and investing in a dream Fred Gardiner had more than 50 years ago.

As it turns out, a dream that has not aged particularly well.

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