“Building Safe and Community Responsive Rail Lines: An Expo Line Update” was the topic of this month’s Urban Issues Breakfast Forum held at the Staples Center Lexus lounge this week. Usually held on the fourth Friday of each month, the forum gives community activists, politicians, local residents, and business owners a chance to break bread together while engaging in lively debate on topics of social relevance in Central Los Angeles. The guest speaker this month, Jan Perry, chairs the Exposition Construction Authority, which is overseeing the development of the rail line. Perry also represents the 9th District of the Los Angeles City Council, a district the rail line will impact.
Dick and I attend these forums regularly. We’ve come to look forward to the fourth Friday of each month and usually figure out a way to play hookey from our day jobs. Marie Lemelle does an outstanding job organizing the events, which usually attract 50 to 100 attendees, and Anthony Asadullah Samad, one of the forum’s founders, consistently draws interesting speakers on topics that are compelling, relevant, and occasionally controversial.
Speakers such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Clinton Race Commission Member Angela Oh, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, Anti-Racism Activist Tim Wise, Sheriff Lee Baca, Civil Rights Attorney Connie Rice (Condi’s cousin), and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. have discussed a broad range of issues: urban air quality, women in the civil rights movement, the Jena Six, safety in L.A. County Jails, and the importance of protecting our votes are a few of the topics discussed recently. The intimate, comfortable venues allow for easy, informal exchanges between the attendees and speakers. Last but certainly not least, the free breakfast is always good.
Attending these forums is one of the bright spots in our month. But, when I discovered the topic for this particular session, I was less than thrilled. You see, Dick and I had agreed that I’d write the story for this forum and he’d write the story for the event we attended the night before—a book signing with Jim Hightower. I made that agreement before I knew what Ms. Perry would be discussing. Had I known, I would have taken the Hightower story and given the light rail to Dick. After listening to Jan Perry for a few minutes, I doubted I had the skills to turn this exceedingly dry topic into a compelling article. Turns out I was wrong. The topic wasn’t as dry as I thought. Speaking from a prepared set of notes, Councilperson Perry began her talk by acknowledging the role of the late Congressman Julian Dixon, a highly respected, long-time California politician who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2000. “The light rail project started as the dream of Julian Dixon,” she said. During his time in office, Dixon secured federal funding that was used to build the Metrorail system. “After his death”, says Perry, “the light rail project lost momentum.” The idea was revived in recent years, with construction ramping up in 2007. The planned route of the light rail scheduled to open in 2010 begins at the 7th Street Metro Center in downtown L.A. and ends in Culver City. Ms. Perry discussed the budget of the project’s first phase, which has grown from $640M in 2004 to $880M today. Including lots of statistics and forecasts, Perry gave the attendees a lot of data but didn’t disclose anything one couldn’t find on the Buildexpo.org website. I stopped taking notes 10 minutes into the presentation. The brochure and fact sheet she provided pretty much covered everything in her talk. If you’d like to learn about the project go to: www.buildexpo.org So What Have I Got to Say? When the talk concluded, it was time for Q & A. Those with questions were told to submit them on 3”x5” cards. This was a departure from the way I’d seen this handled in the past. At least at the forums I’d attended, audience members directly posed their questions to the speakers. Sometimes, the moderator would warn against making speeches as opposed to asking a question, but for the most part the process ran smoothly. In fact, this process often sparked discussion and debate, adding depth and breadth to the presentation and enhancing the overall experience. One particularly enlightening Q & A session that comes to mind was with Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the “Little Rock Nine”—the first group of students to integrate the public school system in Little Rock Arkansas. But I digress. Following Moderator Kitty Davis-Walker’s instructions, two audience members submitted 3x5” cards. After scanning the two submissions, Ms. Davis-Walker admonished the author of one for writing a “book” as opposed to asking “a question.” Those in attendance—me included—couldn’t see what was written and Ms. Davis-Walker didn’t read the card aloud, but she did appear to be having difficulty extracting a question from the “lengthy” text. She quickly abandoned the effort, instructing the young man to rewrite it more succinctly. A few more cards were submitted and we moved on. Jan Perry and Adrienne Sasser-Gardner, the Community Relations/Jobs Program Manager at Parsons (one of the Expo Light Rail contractors), answered the questions read to them by the moderator. Finally Ms. Davis-Walker announced that she had no more questions. At this point, the young man who had been admonished for “writing a book” raised his hand and asked if his question was not going to be read. Turns out he had rewritten it. After scanning his second submission, the moderator repeated that, again, he had written a book. Because she wasn’t reading his card aloud, my interest was piqued. I started to sense that perhaps what I was witnessing was not, in fact, difficulty understanding a question. There seemed to be some resistance to share what the young man had written. Finally, after quite a bit of back and forth, he was allowed to address Ms. Perry directly. Fixing the Expo Rail Line The persistent young man was Damien Goodmon, a community activist who is working with “Citizens’ Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line.” This organization is trying to educate the public about what it perceives as the dangers connected with the proposed Expo Light Rail Line, dangers they contend impact South Los Angeles communities in ways it does not impact Culver City, a more affluent recipient of the same light rail system. According to Goodman, the Expo Light Rail Line is often compared to the Gold Line. But, “the Expo Line is actually more like the Blue Line,” according to Goodman. The Gold Line has 41 grade-separated crossings, while the Expo Line has zero proposed grade separations on its route from west of Figueroa to east of La Brea, an area that is as densely populated as the areas serviced by the Gold Line, according to a fact sheet Goodman passed out. Produced by the Citizen’s Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line, this document claims that MTA’s Blue Line is the deadliest and most accident-prone light rail line in the U.S. This organization has a website loaded with relevant information—fact sheets, documents filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, and YouTube videos—though source information for the facts presented is lacking. Jan Perry didn’t spend much time engaging in dialogue with Goodman, but the Urban Issues Forum, once again, did a good job serving its community. The Forum provides a platform to educate. Its website states, “The forum is not used to advance political agendas or promote personal topics, and is strictly an information-based public education forum, held for the purpose of involving minority communities in time-sensitive issues or educating the community on breaking news discussions and other issues that impact their lives.” To the forum’s organizers, I say another job well done.