The LookOut columns


What I Say
About Frank Gruber Send email to:

You Think We've Got Problems

By Frank Gruber

Last year I wrote about how lucky I was that various relatives had houses in Italy where I could vacation at minimal cost. Well, my luck continues. After a visit to South Africa a few years ago, my wife's mother wisely decided that just what her extended family needed was to travel there together.

A couple weeks ago I found myself on the world's longest non-stop flight, from New York to Johannesburg.

We were only in South Africa for nine days, and five of those were at game preserves, so I can hardly claim to be any kind of expert. But it's a wonderful country. My mother-in-law travels a lot -- Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, China, you name it -- but the only place she insisted her family visit was South Africa. That says something.

The South Africans we met -- admittedly, not many, but they represented various racial, ethnic and cultural groups -- all seemed to share a quiet confidence about their future, even in the face of problems so huge that they made ours look trivial.

African Sunset

It's worth remembering that until 40 or 50 years ago, America had its own version of apartheid. Restrictive covenants kept most neighborhoods white (and sometimes without Jews, either), and the FHA did not back mortgages in integrated neighborhoods. It's no accident that our suburbs are white and our cities are black and brown.

* * *

I was gone little more than a week, but I missed a lot of Santa Monica news.

For instance, the ongoing debate over Prop. S, the parcel tax for the schools. I can't fathom or stomach the arguments against it. All the rhetoric is recycled from some bad Howard Jarvis press conference -- does any sane person today believe that California is a better place because of the tax revolts?

What kills me is that the people who have made it so hard for California governments to raise money -- in effect, to govern -- are the same people who wallow in nostalgia for the way California once was.

Yeah -- once was when state and local governments and school districts had the money to build roads and schools and waterworks and parks and everything else.

And now the federal government has gone the same way.

I see our future and it looks like Mississippi.

* * *

While I was gone there was news that was momentous, even epochal, in the history of Southern California. I'm speaking of the decisions by CalTrans, the MTA, and elected officials not to proceed with plans to widen the Ventura and Long Beach Freeways.

These decisions were so important that they escaped the California section and landed on the front page of the L.A. Times.

Already for two years California has not been planning any new freeways ("Road to San Dimas," August 24, 2001), but the decisions not to widen the 101 and the 710 now definitively mark the end of the freeway era in Southern California.

CalTrans and the MTA are still spending millions of dollars to study the possibility of other freeway widenings and double-deckings -- including for the 405. However, residents who do not want to lose their homes to new freeway lanes and their streets to the addition freeways will cause CalTrans and the MTA to reject these "improvements" too.

People are no longer willing to let freeways destroy their neighborhoods, as freeways destroyed cities throughout the country in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, to enable real estate development on the "outskirts of town." Nor are they gullible enough to believe that more freeway capacity will "solve" traffic.

It's hard to say what the alternatives to freeways will be. So far politicians and traffic engineers are planning to spend ridiculous amounts of money -- hundreds of millions -- on little fixes, to increase capacity at an on-ramp here or an intersection there. These will keep the highway bureaucracy and the paving contractors busy, but will do little or nothing to increase mobility, convenience, or quality of life.

The real future is for people to live closer to each other, so that they can both work and enjoy life without driving so much, and to invest more in public transit and freight rail to remove cars and trucks from the existing network of roads.

* * *

The most depressing news that I missed was the resurgence of gang-related shootings in the Pico Neighborhood. Apparently these shootings are racially motivated, or at least reflect the animosities between black and Latino gangs.

When we were in South Africa one comment I heard more than once from whites was that the hostilities among the different black tribal groups, or between blacks and the descendants of the slaves the Dutch settlers imported from the East Indies (the "Coloreds"), were as fierce as those between blacks and whites.

While to a great extent this argument is a convenient rationalization and certainly ignores the "divide and conquer" tactics white colonists used for centuries, there was horrible violence between black groups in the years leading up to the 1994 elections.

What's important, though, is that although violent crime is still a big problem in South Africa, the communal violence -- mainly Zulus against other blacks -- more or less ceased after the first democratic elections in 1994.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island

While I don't mean to suggest too strong a connection between the politically-incited violence of the pre-1994 years in South Africa and the atavistic violence between black and Hispanic gangsters in Southern California, maybe at the root of the crime and other problems that plague our disadvantaged communities is also a lack of democracy, or at least a lack of representation in the democracy we have.

It's hard to see much that government does in California -- or anywhere else in the U.S. -- that reflects the interests of poor people and their neighborhoods. For the most part, we have government of, by, and for them that's got, not them that have not.

That's true in Santa Monica, too, where our elected officials are much more interested in discouraging "massive over-development" than encouraging investment in jobs and housing.

* * *

But I hate to end on a negative note. Instead, let me commend a four member City Council majority that approved a new development at the McDonald's site at Second and Colorado, but refused the hamburger chain's demand to have a driveway entrance on Colorado. ("McDonalds Project Hits Roadblock," May 15)

McDonald's says that their restaurant relies on "impulsive" customers driving on Colorado, but in cities all over the world McDonald's has successful restaurants that do not offer drive-through or even, in many cases, parking.

There are often so many pedestrians near the Pier that the time they take crossing Ocean Avenue prevents westbound motorists on Colorado from making right turns onto Ocean.

McDonald's should be confident that the aroma of their French fries will convert enough impulsive pedestrians into customers to make their new restaurant as profitable as the old one, without requiring these pedestrians to dodge hungry and impulsive motorists.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon