A Rough Road to Gold: Part 2
It Took a ‘Pueblo’ to Build Eastside Gold Line. 'A Rough Road to Gold' is a four-part series leading up the opening of the Edward R. Roybal Gold Line / La Línea de Oro on Nov. 15 2009.
By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer
A “sneak peak ride” on the Edward R. Roybal Gold Line / La Linea de Oro Eastside Extension on Oct. 30, which officially opens to the public Nov. 15, was jam packed with camera crews and reporters buzzing around elected officials in search of quotes to mark reactions to the completion of the transportation project that was decades in the making.
Also on board, but not receiving nearly as much attention, were members of the Eastside community who had spent years first fighting to get the project approved and funded, then years more volunteering their time as members of the Resident Advisory Committee (RAC): the group charged with representing the community’s point of view as the six-mile light rail project connecting the Eastside to Downtown Los Angeles took shape and was built.
While it may be the elected officials taking bows Nov. 15, many are quick to point out that it was a dedicated “pueblo” of unwavering individuals keeping the pressure on that finally got the job done.
Community participation was fueled by a desire for respect and improving the quality of life in the area, say RAC members. The slicing-up of East LA when local freeways were built was possibly the biggest local environmental justice travesty, and the community was determined not to let it happen again, according Barrio Planners’ Frank Villalobos.
“It’s very important to have community input, ‘this is yours, for you, it’s your time to pull your own,’” RAC member Armando Ybarra said.
Ybarra recalled a saying in Spanish his father often used, “Cada cabeza es un mundo” [each mind is a world], things will improve if we pull together,” he said, noting that he knocked on many doors to try to get more neighbors involved.
Little did they know it would take decades of funding starts and stops, fights over the rail’s route, the threatened closure of a half-century old all-girl’s high school and ongoing concerns about safety, design, and impact on the local economy before the first ride would be taken.
Villalobos, the lead architect on the Gold Line Eastside Extension, recalls that federal funding had been secured for a subway, an extension of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line, but a ballot measure backed by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky prohibiting the use of local tax revenue for subways, soon threatened to derail the Eastside subway.
Villalobos’ company had been hired to do the Metro Red Line Extension Environmental Impact Report. When they started putting together the EIR, it was with a subway for East LA in mind.
“If they would have built it, we should have ended up with a subway station at Cesar Chavez and Soto, another one at Mariachi Plaza, a third one at Indiana and Whittier, and…Rowan, Arizona, and Atlantic Boulevard,” he told EGP.
Feeling betrayed and short-changed, the community fought to defeat Prop A, and secure state funding for the transportation project.
“Within two weeks [of Prop A’s introduction] the Mothers of East LA were on the streets marching from San Antonio Padua Church to the MTA, Villalobos said.
The Mothers of East LA is the same group that had successfully fought to keep a prison from being built in East LA during the 1990s.
Photos from the march show a diverse group of people and community groups, including the Abuelitos de Boyle Heights, RAC members, East LA Veterans Post members, parishioners of local churches and others marching in protest. They were young and old and carried signs that read “Broken Promises” and “Vote No on Prop A.”
Though they did not prevail and voters passed what amounted to a ban on their subway, they did not give up and moved-on to get a light rail project on track.
“We had an impact… the community,” said Villalobos. “The politicians will tell you one story, but the fact is that [Supervisor] Gloria Molina went with us to Sacramento, Father John [Moretta of Resurrection Church] lead the pack with the Mothers of East LA, myself, and even the old RAC for the Metro Red Line,” all went to Sacramento to support a vote that included funding for a light-rail project that would serve East LA.
Former Congressman Esteban E. Torres, who helped found TELACU and now has a high school named in his honor in East LA, was on the California Transportation Commission at the time and. according to Villalobos, on shaky ground with then Gov. Gray Davis who wanted to replace him. Without state funding, the Eastside rail project wouldn’t be built.
At the group’s urging, Torres cast a critical vote to support the funding.
“He said, ‘well I’ll do it at the risk of losing my job because you know he’s going to replace me the moment I take that action,’” Villalobos said Torres told him.
With both state and federal funding secured, the county had no choice but to approve its match, paving the way for what would become the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension, according to Villalobos.
While Prop A banned using local sales-tax revenue for subway projects, there was no such ban on light rail, he said.
Transportation planners and RAC members were faced with the daunting task of choosing one of the over 140 proposed routes that included different combinations of light rail and heavy rail, bus ways with light rail, going down 1st Street or Whittier Boulevard. RAC members, all volunteers, stayed the course, meeting once a month and eating the “same stale cookies,” Villalobos told EGP.
Since 1997, RAC has been co-chaired by Art Herrera, Boyle Heights resident and war veteran, and Diana Tarango, East LA resident and current vice president of the East Los Angeles Residents Association.
While RAC members were responsible for making heavy decisions about what the Gold Line would look like and where it would go, as liaisons to the community they also had to answer questions related to construction, like “how long will the steel plates be on the street?” according to Susan Mannriquez, a field deputy for Supervisor Molina.
It was often a very frustrating part of the job, according to RAC co-chair Herrera, who said people would constantly tell them, “I didn’t know” or “No one told me” about some aspect of the project they might not like. He was not surprised that members of the Boyle Heights based East Los Angeles Community Corporation, ELACC, told Metro board members last month that residents are uninformed about safety precautions.
“Don’t they see TV or read the newspaper?” Herrera told EGP. “It was the number one issue, I don’t know what time capsule they’re living in!” he said.
Herrera, 72, says the community always wanted a subway, but settled for the current light-rail route as the next best option, noting that a trip to see the state-of-the-art light rail in Baltimore, Maryland, helped them envision what was possible.
Both Herrera and Tarango told EGP that the route could not be at street level in Boyle Heights, it had to go underground.
“First Street is too narrow but then it widens out on Lorena, and that’s why it comes above ground on Lorena to Atlantic,” Tarango said.
The route begins above ground, from Union Station to Little Tokyo in downtown, to Aliso Pico in Boyle Heights, then goes underground to two subterranean stations in Boyle Heights, one at Mariachi Plaza and the other at Soto Street. The trains surface again near Evergreen Cemetery and goes on to the Indiana, Maravilla, East LA Civic Center and Atlantic stations.
According to Eddie Tafoya, lead community deputy for Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard at the time, the route was also chosen based on the potential for high ridership. Tafoya said he attended RAC meetings and helped mitigate issues.
“There was some talk in the earlier days, some local businesses wanted a train station to be right in front of them” because they saw it as an opportunity for more business, Tafoya said, pointing out that they were aware that construction could for a time limit their accessibility to customers.
Tafoya says King Taco, a popular local restaurant, was in favor of the rail line passing near the business, despite forecasted construction and parking issues.
El Mercado was another business that wanted a station near their location, Tarango told EGP, noting that there used to be a street car, the ‘P-Car’ stop there before.
Both East Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce’ s Eddie Torres and Ron Mukai, RAC business representatives, said local businesses were financially hurt and under compensated during construction. Mukai said businesses backed the MTA when the Bus Riders Union opposed the rail project in favor of more buses and bus drivers. But apart from signs reading “still open during construction” and a one-time monetary compensation to help mitigate their losses, Mukai told EGP that Metro has failed to provide “meaningful” assistance. Torres said Eastside businesses were “traumatized.”
Also affected were the mariachis who had for years gathered at 1St Street and Chicago in search of customers. Gold Line construction forced them out and made it harder for customers to find them. RAC and Metro attempted to mitigate their losses by placing banners advertising their temporary new location and putting together a free, and first of its kind Mariachi Directory, Tafoya said.
Supervisor Molina said her staff tried to offset the negative impact of construction on the local economy by pushing for contracting of local construction companies and the hiring of local residents.
They encouraged construction workers to eat at local restaurants to keep money in the community.
Another issue RAC members consider a hard fought victory, was forcing Metro to make good on its promise to build a new Ramona Opportunity High School which was located adjacent to what would become the Indiana Station.
“The school was over 150 years old,” Herrera said, adding that MTA tried to get away with retrofitting the building that housed the school for at-risk girls.
“During public comment, Ross Valencia [former RAC member] said ‘We’re tired of hamburger, we want filet mignon,” Herrera remembered laughing.
By putting pressure on the MTA, RAC’s efforts resulted in a joint venture between LA Unified and the Metro to build a new school.
“The school turned-out beautiful and the community was not short-changed,” Tarango said about the all-girl school that includes a day-care center for young mothers.
Two houses adjacent to the property were also purchased to build the school. One family moved to Montebello and the other to Monterey Park, according to Tarango.
Eminent domain was not used, Supervisor Molina told EGP.
Another sensitive construction dilemma was unearthed during excavation from the Soto to Indiana Stations. Human remains were found in a before unidentified Chinese burial spot near Evergreen Cemetery, so an Ad Hoc committee was formed to address the situation to ensure the utmost respect, Mannriquez said.
While only a handful of RAC members have come and gone, six members did not live to see opening day.
Ross Valencia, Louis Martinez, Joel Bloom, Carlos Montante, Al Taira, and Dorothy Harthshorn, collectively gave 50 or 60 years of service and will be honored with a plaque to be placed at Mariachi Plaza in the future, Herrera said.
Despite poor turn-out at RAC meetings over the years, and current concerns about adjusting to the light rail trains on the streets, members are hopeful that the eastside extension will provide reliable transportation and bring economic prosperity to the area.
After the sneak peak ride last week, most RAC members smiled and clapped as they reached the final point on the route. Some, however, still walked away feeling that the community had been cheated out of a subway.
“Our dreams and hopes were always that it go underground,” Ybarra said. “But we’ll take what we have and make do.”
“What can we do now, we’ve already done all we could,” Rosa Marina Gabaldon told EGP.
Also visibly unsatisfied was Supervisor Molina who is still concerned about the cars driving onto the tracks at major intersections in East L.A and feels the Eastside is getting less than it deserves.
Nonetheless, the Gold Line will have its day in the sun on Nov. 15, and a new chapter in local mass transportation will begin.
The next RAC meeting is scheduled for Nov. 19 at the Boyle Heights Senior Center, according to Tarango. After the Gold Line opens, RAC will meet quarterly to continue addressing community concerns related to La Linea de Oro.
Past and present RAC members include: Rita Govea Rodriguez, Rachel Santos, Armando Ybarra, Richard Alonzo, Sherry Breskin, Victor Duran, Frances K. Hashimoto, Helen Mercado, Lucy Delgado, Christina Ramos, Jose Gomez, Cristina Ramos, Renee Chavez, Joe Coria, Anita Castellanos, Nadine Diaz and Laura Pizana.
Part three for the series continues next week with a look at the Gold Line Extension art and design.
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November 5, 2009 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.