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L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti in his City Hall office. Paintings by L.A. artists Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha hang on the walls behind him. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)
It is an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that everything you need to know about Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti you can learn by looking around his office.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Garcetti, 44, a trim, square-jawed Democrat with short dark hair who bears a passing resemblance to the actor Ty Burrell, the self-described “cool dad” on ABC’s Modern Family, peeled off his precisely tailored gray suit jacket and sat down to sign a stack of prewritten letters.
While he scribbled his name again and again, I wandered around Room 300, the grand, vaulted space on the third floor of L.A.’s City Hall where every mayor since 1928 has carried out his official duties. A longtime city councilman representing hip East Side enclaves such as Echo Park and Silver Lake — the L.A. equivalents of Brooklyn — Garcetti defeated his general-election opponent, Democratic City Controller Wendy Greuel, by nearly 10 percentage points in 2013. After taking office, the new mayor agreed to leave Room 300’s gilded art deco ceiling intact, but decided that everything else would have to go.
He soon set about redecorating. “I wanted to curate bits and pieces of me and, more importantly, of the city,” Garcetti told me later, “so when people come in here they’re like, ‘OK, I get it.’”
This is not an unusual impulse for new officeholders. But in Garcetti’s case, the makeover was especially literal, as if the mayor’s entire persona had been turned inside out and fastidiously apportioned throughout the room. It is a persona that has served him well. In 2013, there were barely any policy differences between Garcetti and Greuel; the reason Garcetti won had as much to do, analysts concluded, with how uncannily he seemed to embody L.A.’s idea of itself — cool, elite, tech-savvy, liberal, multicultural, and aesthetically pleasing — as anything else.
“You get the sense,” a longtime California politico recently told me, “that David Axelrod could have created this guy in a laboratory.”
Which brings us to Garcetti’s office. One whole wall is taken up by bookshelves, which in turn are filled with tchotchkes. Garcetti is not only L.A.’s first Jewish mayor; he is also Latino and speaks fluent Spanish. And so there is a coupling that commemorates his melting-pot ethnicity: a pair of Italian flag cufflinks by the Italian-Mexican jewelry designer Victor Sabido Basteris alongside a pair of colorful yarmulkes.
Imagine a particularly self-expressive magpie, and you begin to get the idea. Another vignette honors Garcetti’s prominent, and progressive, parentage: a stack of photography books (Paris and Women, Iron) by his dad, former L.A. District Attorney and O.J. Simpson prosecutor Gil Garcetti; a framed obituary of his mother’s father, Harry Roth, the legendary clothier who at the height of the Vietnam War famously took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging his top client, Lyndon B. Johnson, to resign.
There is a still image from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (In true Hollywood fashion, Garcetti played the mayor of Los Angeles on TNT’s The Closer years before he got the gig in real life.) There is a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal to indicate that Garcetti has served in the Navy Reserve since 2006. There is a signed photo of Garcetti boarding Marine One with his “mentor,” President Obama (“Eric: It’s great to have you along on this wild ride”). And in the corner, there is an upright piano on which the mayor, who idolizes Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans and wrote musicals in college, can tinker with his own jazz compositions whenever the mood strikes.
Garcetti greets President Obama at LAX on Oct. 10, prior to a Democratic fundraiser. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Perhaps the most arresting aspect of Garcetti’s office, however, is the luxe decor, which represents a kind of greatest hits of Los Angeles modernism and postmodernism: a pair of molded plywood chairs by Charles and Ray Eames; a Face Off table by Frank Gehry; a Tracery rug by contemporary Hollywood designer Kelly Wearstler; and on the walls, one gigantic Ed Moses painting, two equally gigantic Ed Ruschas, and a photograph by Catherine Opie. As a result, Room 300 now looks more like a spread from Dwell magazine than a politician’s place of business — an appropriate distinction for perhaps the only elected official in America whose own home, a meticulously renovated 1950s post-and-beam with solar panels and walls of glass, has actually appeared in Dwell.
“OK,” Garcetti said as he dotted the last of his i’s. “Done. My most important duty!”
I sat down at the long conference table that doubles as his desk. Nearby was a copy of If Mayors Ruled the World, a book in which political scientist Benjamin Barber argues that cities, and the mayors who run them, are better equipped to tackle the challenges of the 21st century than our planet’s increasingly divided, dysfunctional nations.
I’d been pondering a similar idea lately, but from a different angle. Republican governors currently outnumber their Democratic counterparts 31 to 18. The party’s congressional presence is paltry as well. Seventy percent of state legislatures and 55 percent of attorney general and secretary of state positions are in GOP hands. The Democratic bench is thin. At the same time, Democrats are increasingly becoming the party of city dwellers. Mayors may or may not represent the future of global governance — but could they at least represent the future of the Democratic Party?
I asked Garcetti what he thought.
“Yes, absolutely. There will be a time in the not-too-distant future when recent mayors, people like Julian Castro, who used to be the mayor of San Antonio, are being looked to for national leadership more and more,” he said. “It’s a problem. There’s a real generation gap. I’m not an ageist at all. I don’t mind that Bernie Sanders is 74, that Hillary Clinton is however old she is. But Democrats do need to have somebody whose playlist” — the mayor chuckled and leaned forward — “is a little more updated.”
I hadn’t mentioned the 2016 vice-presidential sweepstakes, but Garcetti began to talk about it anyway.
“I went through this with a friend recently,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Who would you put on a shortlist of five Democrats — off the top of your head — who should be vice president, for Hillary or whomever?’ And there aren’t, like, two or three superstars who jump out right away.”
Garcetti shook his head. “I mean, I’ve been on a number of panels,” he said, “and people have been like, ‘They should vet you!’”
I couldn’t tell whether he considered the idea intriguing, or ridiculous, or both.
The correct answer, at least for now, is both.
On one hand, Garcetti is almost a parody of what red-state residents picture when they hear the word “Democrat”: fancy degree, fancy shoes, fancy house, fancy paintings; electric car, jazz piano, Jewish, Latino, Hollywood. In junior high, Garcetti belonged to a breakdancing crew, and he still knows how to pop and lock. He doesn’t just maintain his own nonmayoral Instagram account, to which he obsessively posts artsy images of Southland sunsets and architecture (followers: 81,000); these images are also the subject of an ongoing solo exhibition, “#MAYOR_OF_INSTAGRAM,” at a gallery downtown. He is enough of a hipster to have to deny that he is a hipster. He once jammed with Moby.
“My wife and I grow almost all our own food,” Garcetti told Paper magazine in a profile that likened him to a character “straight out of an episode of Portlandia.” “Chickens are in our near future.”
“On the trail in Griffith Park.” (Eric Garcetti via Instagram)
On the other hand, San Antonio’s Julian Castro, 41, isn’t such a natural fit for the heartland, either. He is also Latino, also cosmopolitan, and also Ivy League-educated — yet he is basically the only name people ever drop when discussing the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential prospects. “I am going to really look hard at him for anything,” Hillary Clinton said earlier this month at a rally with Castro in San Antonio. “Because that’s how good he is.”
What Clinton failed to mention is that she doesn’t have many other options. The first Democratic debate of the 2016 cycle, held Oct. 13 in Las Vegas, was widely hailed as a success, with substantive exchanges on important policy issues and strong performances from the only candidates, Sanders and Clinton, who have a real shot at the nomination. But the debate also highlighted two trends that should concern any Democrat interested in winning elections after 2016.
The first is that the party is moving steadily leftward, with a renewed emphasis on city-centric issues such as gun violence, institutional racism, drug sentencing, climate change and economic inequality. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg described this dynamic well: “Although Clinton won the overall debate, Sanders” — a self-declared democratic socialist — “set its terms. From the beginning, Clinton sought to appeal to his supporters rather than vice versa.”
The second trend, as Garcetti himself pointed out, is that every candidate with even the slightest chance of representing this increasingly progressive, increasingly metropolitan party in the White House is a senior citizen. (Only former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the longest of long shots, is under the age of 60). For several reasons — Republican redistricting, low midterm turnout, eight years of Obama and Clinton sucking up all the oxygen — Democrats simply haven’t developed as robust a farm team as their Republican rivals, who entered the 2016 presidential race with several 40-somethings (Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal) to choose from.
“Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist,” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote earlier this month in a widely discussed essay about how Democrats are “actually in deep trouble.”
“Instead,” he continued, “the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor.”
And yet Democrats aren’t in decline everywhere. They may be stymied on Capitol Hill, where the GOP now controls both houses of Congress. They may be locked out of statehouses and governor’s mansions. But they are dominating City Halls. Fifteen years ago, Republican mayors governed half of the country’s dozen most populous cities. Today, you have to go all the way down to San Diego — number eight on the list — to find just one Republican mayor. Democrats, meanwhile, run 28 of the 35 largest cities in America.
The explanation is simple, says political scientist Ruy Teixeira: Density equals Democrats. In 2012, Obama defeated Mitt Romney 52 percent to 46 percent in metro areas with more than a million residents, winning 56 percent of the vote in the emerging suburbs, 63 percent in the mature suburbs, and a staggering 77 percent in the urban core.
“We know that, over time, Democrats have been clustering in cities,” Teixeira explained. “Look across the country: The larger the metro area, the better the Dems do; the denser the part of that area, the better the Dems do.”
As a result, Democrats such as Bill de Blasio of New York, Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, Annise Parker of Houston and Michael Nutter of Philadelphia have become some of the party’s most prominent chief executives, with the power to address issues that Democrats on the state or federal level are too depleted to deal with.
Garcetti snaps a photo while members of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela perform selections from Beethoven in the rotunda of City Hall. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)
Whether any of these figures emerge as stars on the national stage remains to be seen. But Garcetti — who has not ruled out running to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown or Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018 — may be the most promising. This is due, in part, to the city he leads. With more than 10 million residents, Los Angeles County is bigger than all but seven states, and in many ways, the challenges it is confronting today — how to pivot toward Asia, how to modernize civic infrastructure, how to integrate immigrants into society, how to sustain a sharing economy, how to combat climate change, how to rebuild the middle class — are the challenges that the rest of America will be confronting tomorrow.
But it’s also about Garcetti himself. In 2013, many of L.A.’s Latino leaders endorsed Greuel, but Garcetti wound up winning 60 percent of rank-and-file Latino voters on Election Day. The combination of East Side Latinos and upscale West Side liberals, many of them Jewish, was enough to put him past Greuel and her classically Democratic base of union members and African-Americans.
“Obama has succeeded by creating a coalition of urban minorities and wealthy progressives, and that’s precisely the same combination of supporters that elected Garcetti,” said Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for Republicans Pete Wilson and John McCain who currently runs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “For years, they used to talk about the tension in the Democratic Party between ‘beer drinkers’ and ‘wine drinkers.’ But now the wine drinkers are ascendant. You combine their support with backing from minority communities and you have a recipe for success.”
If this is the Democratic coalition of the future, Garcetti is perhaps its purest personification: an unapologetic “wine drinker” who also happens to be a member of America’s largest ethnic minority group. With that in mind, I recently spent a day shadowing the mayor, from Sony Pictures in Culver City to the streets of South L.A., the historically African-American area formerly known as South Central. It was one of the few times Garcetti’s careful staff has let a reporter come along for the ride. My goal was to see what life for the Democratic Party could look like after Obama and Clinton — and whether it would be a good thing for it to look like the Mayor of Instagram.
It’s 9 a.m. on the Sony lot, and the black mayoral Cadillac Escalade has just pulled up to Stage 30. Several thousand employees are beginning to file into the cavernous hangar for the studio’s annual all-hands meeting, the first since it was hacked last November. Garcetti has been invited to give what he describes as a “pep talk,” but right now he has other business to attend to. Sliding out of the SUV, he sees the steel frame of a new studio building shining in the morning sun. He snaps a photo on his Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. A few hours later it will appear on Instagram with the hashtags #building, #hollywood and #sonypictures. It will get 658 likes.
“#building #hollywood #sonypictures” (Eric Garcetti via Instagram)
Inside, the mayor makes a beeline for a gaggle of Sony executives gathered near the stage. They are talking about Porsches — or, more specifically, they are talking about how fond the U.S. president of Sony Pictures Television, Zack Van Amburg, is of Porsches.
“Zack came by my house and said he was going up to Monterey this weekend for the big Porsche thing,” says Steve Mosko, Van Amburg’s boss. “All the best Porsches in the world were going to be there.”
“He knows the difference,” Garcetti says. It turns out that he and Van Amburg have been friends since they were classmates at L.A.’s most prestigious private school, now known as Harvard-Westlake.
“The only thing,” Mosko continues, “is that Zack gets very jealous when you start talking about Seinfeld.” Everyone laughs. “I went to have breakfast with Seinfeld one morning —”
“He has an amazing collection,” Garcetti says, crossing his arms and nodding.
“And he pulls up the cover on one of his cars, just the nose, so I can look up and see it, right?”
“So I explain to Zack, ‘It’s, like, this light blue car, with black check seats…’ and Zack goes, ‘Holy s***.’ In 1975, you could have bought that car for $20,000. Today it’s worth over a million.”
“Wow,” Garcetti says. “Wow.”
“Jerry says it’s the best investment he ever made,” Mosko concludes. “He’s got 50 of them.”
Garcetti has no trouble keeping up with this kind of conversation. His mother, Sukey Roth, is a philanthropist who grew up in a big modernist house in Beverly Hills. His peers at Harvard-Westlake were the progeny of moguls and movie stars. He once salsa-danced with Salma Hayek at the North Pole. When he was a student at Columbia, Garcetti wasn’t just a member of St. Anthony Hall, an elite, semisecret literary society whose “smugness,” as Vanity Fair recently put it, “has earned the scornful envy that is the burden of the young rich everywhere.“ He was also its president.
Still, Garcetti looks relieved when Man Jit Singh, the head of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, changes the subject (perhaps because Garcetti was also kind the undergraduate who quit St. A’s when his fellow members refused to “diversify,” as he puts it.)
“So,” Singh interrupts. “How’s the Olympics?”
“I’ll give you guys the rundown!” Garcetti says. He sounds as if he’s about to pitch a new hourlong drama.
Garcetti speaks at a press conference with USOC CEO Scott Blackmun in Santa Monica, Calif., in September to launch L.A.’s 2024 bid for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)
During the first two years of his term, the knock on Garcetti was that he was too cautious, too calculating, too inconsequential. “I have no sense of what he is trying to do,” L.A. political commentator Joe Mathews told Governing magazine. “I don’t think there has been any vision or action toward a vision that I can ascertain.”
But the mayor insists this was all part of the plan. Garcetti’s flashy predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, swept into office promising to seize control of L.A.’s dysfunctional public school system. He eventually failed. Other lofty proposals were unveiled with great fanfare — a million new trees and a massive increase in solar power, among others — and soon forgotten. By the time Villaraigosa left office in 2013, many Angelenos had come to the conclusion that his inaugural vow to transform L.A. into “a city of purpose” was little more than hot air.
And so Garcetti — who acknowledges that the mayor of L.A. has less power than his counterparts in New York and Chicago — charted a more idiosyncratic course. Rather than picking one or two key priorities to champion early in his first term, when he would presumably have the most political capital to spend, Garcetti arrived at City Hall pledging to focus on what he called “back-to-basics” governing. Much of it involved the behind-the-scenes work of modernizing and rationalizing L.A.’s vast, tangled bureaucracy; the hope was that these changes would, in turn, improve the way the city served its residents. To measure the results, Garcetti asked his team to create an online performance dashboard — daily vehicle miles driven, street pavement condition, 311 wait time, and so on.
“Back to basics comes from the training that I got for 12 years on the council — from that understanding of how municipal government is supposed to work,” Garcetti says. “It’s not a spring cleaning; it’s a deep, deep cleaning. It’s fundamental to everything we do.”
Yet as Garcetti’s third year in office begins, the focus of his mayoralty is shifting. In January, the United States Olympic Committee chose Boston to bid for the 2024 Summer Games on America’s behalf; six months later, the city backed out over budgetary concerns — and runner-up L.A. took the baton. The decision seems to have crystallized Garcetti’s vision for the future of Los Angeles.
“I think we’re at a hinge point,” Garcetti says. “L.A. looks like what the world does today and what America will look like tomorrow. We awakened as a global city in the first half of the 20th century. We became a world-class global city in the second half of the 20th century. And now I think we understand the stakes are to be in the top five cities of the world — to be a critically important hub city that makes the world work and helps this country be prosperous.”
The official Olympic bid book calls this “the New L.A.”: a “showcase of diversity and inclusion of the people and cultures of the world,” it says, that also happens to be “a different city everywhere you look,” with “new neighborhoods, a new transit system, all new airport terminals, a revitalized river, new stadiums and arenas … [and] the biggest public works project in the country.”
If “the New L.A.” sounds like slick marketing-speak, that’s because it is. Garcetti often talks about “rebranding” Los Angeles, and he recently hired local firm 72andSunny, which he describes as “the best advertising company in the West,” to do just that.
But at the same time, L.A.’s Olympic spiel isn’t just P.R. It’s also grounded in a loose assortment of long-term projects that have recently begun to gel into something like a blueprint for the next phase of the city’s evolution.
There is, for example, the ongoing $88 billion expansion of the city’s 25-year-old Metro system, which over the next decade will transform light-rail transit — long an afterthought in car-centric Los Angeles — into an expansive 113-mile network of track that can transport residents from, say, downtown L.A. to the beaches of Santa Monica much faster than the region’s notoriously gridlocked freeways.
“#riverwalk @ciclavia – Los Angeles River” (Eric Garcetti via Instagram)
Same goes for the L.A. River. For years, urbanists have dreamed of turning the 51-mile concrete channel that cuts through the core of the city into a kind of long, winding Central Park, with bike paths, kayaking rapids, green spaces, wildlife habitats, and affordable riverside housing. Now, under Garcetti, these efforts are finally gaining momentum, with iconic architect Frank Gehry recently agreeing to develop a master plan that seeks to lessen L.A.’s reliance on imported water and steel the city for future droughts by using the river as a kind of giant storm-water retention device.
Sustainability is a common theme. In April, Garcetti released a 108-page Sustainable City “pLAn” — blame the branders — that outlines short-term goals (a bike-sharing system with at least 65 stations and 1,000 bikes; the installation of more than 1,000 electronic vehicle charging stations for public use) and long-term goals (obtaining half the city’s water from local sources; generating enough solar energy to power nearly 400,000 homes) designed to make Los Angeles the greenest city in the country. In September, the mayor convened a climate-change summit in L.A. with Gov. Jerry Brown, Vice President Joe Biden and officials from China at which he finalized new emissions and renewable energy pacts with Beijing and Shenzhen and demonstrated, as Brown put it, that “the mayors of the world have to be able to create … upward pressure on the nation states to get things done.”
Taken as a whole, Garcetti’s recent initiatives reflect a widespread sense among locals that Los Angeles is in the midst of a dramatic reinvention.
Many Angelenos welcome these changes; others are wary. Christopher Hawthorne, who writes about architecture for the Los Angeles Times, has characterized this new era as “the Third Los Angeles,” arguing that, having moved beyond the compact, civic-minded municipality of the first half of the 20th century and the familiar freeway sprawl of the postwar years, the metropolis is now becoming a collection of more integrated, livable, post-suburban villages—communities that retain their own character even as they’re connected by public spaces (like the L.A. River) and public transit (like the expanded Metro system).
Journalist Joe Mathews, meanwhile, has complained about what he calls the “downsizing” of Los Angeles. “Our most powerful aspirations are no longer about growing the city or its global footprint,” Mathews has written, “but about splitting it into pieces [and] shrinking it into smaller communities, self-contained and sustainable — on the scale of the sorts of places previous generations fled to come to the big city.”
Back at Sony, however, Garcetti is unbowed. After explaining to the executives why L.A. doesn’t have to worry about the perennial cost overruns that have plagued other Olympic host cities — “If you can’t run a two-and-a-half-week show on $5 to $6 billion…”; “We already have 80 percent of the facilities”; “We know how to do this as a city” — the mayor bounds onstage for his speech, debuting a new applause line that is likely to figure prominently in his budding 2017 reelection campaign.
“Great cities,” Garcetti says, “reach for great things.”
On the ride back to City Hall, I ask the mayor if he sees his old community of Silver Lake — which gentrified so rapidly during his time on the council that Forbes magazine eventually dubbed it “America’s hippest hipster neighborhood” — as a model for the rest of the city.
A man runs up a long set of stairs on a hillside in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/ZUMA Wire)
“Absolutely,” he says. “It had its sweet charm, it was very mixed, and I liked it. But it was a little rough around the edges when we moved there in 1997. So we built a walk path around Silver Lake reservoir, in the heart of the community. We cleared the way for the condos across the street, the library, the wine store, the restaurant, and then the meadow [a small park alongside the lake]. I always use it as an example of the fact that all urban revitalization requires is a library, a good place to get alcohol, a good place to eat, a good place to hang out, and a good place to walk, and you’re done.”
“But what about the people who lived there before?” I ask. (Some progressives have accused Garcetti of being too cozy with local developers.)
“Look,” Garcetti says, glancing out the window. “Everybody loves what’s good about gentrification and dislikes what’s bad about gentrification. Everybody wants safer neighborhoods. Everybody wants more retail and restaurants. Nobody wants rents to double and force people out. But when Silver Lake had this turnaround, interestingly enough, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, it’s becoming all hip, and it’s pushing out brown people or poor people.’ Nope — ethnic diversity stayed the same between the 2000 census and the 2010 census, and so did income. When you adjusted it for inflation, it was maybe $300 more.”
“Sure, the $10 cappuccino is out of reach for most people who live there,” he continues. “But there’s still the Cuban place to get it for $2, half a block away. If you’re smart about it — if you focus on building affordable housing — these things can coexist. And that, to me, is the new L. A.: trying to keep what has worked and what is beautiful and good about this city and finally getting rid of what’s bad.”
It’s a lovely thought. But the more Angelenos are learning about Garcetti’s idea of what’s good for the city, the more at least some of them are starting to push back. Perhaps no issue illustrates this emerging tension more clearly than the subject of today’s cabinet meeting: the mayor’s so-called Mobility Plan. Approved by the city council in August, it’s a sweeping transportation policy that calls for hundreds of miles of new bus-only lanes, bicycle lanes, and “traffic calming” measures over the next 20 years. The goal, according to supporters, is to make L.A. safer, greener, and more livable by “nudg[ing] drivers out from behind the wheel.”
Predictably, America’s most congested city balked as soon as the initial details were made public.
“A terrible idea,” wrote Santa Monica businessman Bruce Feldman in the L.A. Times, addressing Garcetti. “As I’m sure you know, cyclists make up just 2% of all road traffic, and Los Angeles County covers 4,800 square miles. So your road diet would make congestion in our expansive region much worse than it already is. If you squeeze an ever-increasing number of cars into fewer lanes, what other outcome can you expect?”
“New Westside-Valley Express starts Monday. Get two weeks of your life back if you commute through the Sepulveda Pass. #Metro” (Eric Garcetti via Instagram)
Which is why Garcetti and his top deputies and department heads have gathered in the mayor’s wood-paneled cabinet room this afternoon: to discuss — or, more accurately, to reaffirm, for messaging purposes — “the importance of all of us knowing what this plan is and what this plan isn’t.”
“The Mobility Plan is just one tool of many to serve the city in finding a balanced approach to our transportation options,” says Barbara Romero, deputy mayor for city services.
“We’re really not trying to get everybody out of their cars,” adds Saleta Reynolds, head of the city’s Transportation Department. “We’re just trying to make sure they have choices, when they make sense.”
Garcetti nods. “I think it’s very important that we talk about it and to recognize people’s legitimate fears,” he says. “‘I actually live here. I have to take my kid to school. I want to see my parents. I don’t have a special lane. I don’t put a siren on top of my car. I get stuck in the same traffic, so what we do affects me, too. I understand.’” Garcetti pauses to make sure the lesson has sunk in. “You actually have to relate to them and understand them,” he finally says, “before you can take them to a place that transforms them.”
With that, Garcetti is off to his final stop of the day: the corner of Central Avenue and 43rd Street in South L.A. Whether the mayor can transform Los Angeles is still an open question. But his biggest challenge, if he does, may be figuring out how not to leave places like South L.A. behind. Last year, the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a group of distinguished civic leaders concerned about the future of L.A., published its first report. The findings were grim: Los Angeles had 1 million more residents in 2010 than in 1980, but 165,000 fewer jobs. Its poverty rate was the highest of any big city in the country. And its economy was becoming a “barbell” divided between the rich and the poor, a pattern of development the panel described as “more typical of developing world cities … than a major American urban area.”
Garcetti knows that lower-income Angelenos are struggling. “It’s what keeps me up at night,” he says. That’s why he likes to talk about how he has invested, albeit modestly, in job training for health care, green energy, entertainment and technology. It’s why, last year, he helped persuade state lawmakers to boost local film and TV tax credits. It’s why he’s been lobbying tech companies to relocate to Silicon Beach. It’s why he’s aiming to build 100,000 affordable housing units by 2021. It’s why he has pledged to spend $100 million over the next year to help L.A.’s growing homeless population. It’s why, in June, he signed into law a bill raising the city’s minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 —one of the largest increases in the country and “the most ambitious policy initiative of Garcetti’s first term,” according to the L.A. Times.
Garcetti signs an ordinance in June raising L.A.’s minimum wage from the current $9 to $15 an hour by 2020. (Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
And, on a smaller scale, it’s why he has come to South L.A. today to unveil a new smart bus shelter and solar-powered “Soofa” bench that will allow riders to charge their phones and get online while waiting for public transit.
“In today’s world, access to the Internet is everything,” the mayor says from behind a portable sidewalk podium, noting that Angelenos can now “pay a bill” or “submit a job application” from the comfort of their local bus stop. “It’s how we connect to each other. It’s how we connect to economic opportunities. [We’re] taking a step toward bridging our city’s digital divides.”
Yet those divides, whether digital or otherwise, are never easy to bridge — and in many ways, the tension in Garcetti’s priorities mirrors the major challenge that his party will face in the years ahead. Listen to the mayor of Los Angeles for as little as a day and it becomes clear how passionate he is about the sort of sustainability projects that might one day transform the old L.A. into “the New L.A.” He seems less convincing, and less convinced of his own power to affect change, when asked to address more prosaic (and traditionally Democratic) concerns about unemployment and the economy.
This isn’t a criticism of Garcetti. There is only so much a big-city mayor can do about tectonic shifts in the global marketplace, and Garcetti is nothing if not pragmatic. But to thrive in a post-Obama, post-Hillary era, Democrats will have to offer more to minority and lower-income voters than simply not being Republicans. They can still push for the bike lanes and solar panels that wealthier urban liberals adore. But keeping the coalition together will also require the party to prove that it is serious about serving Americans who feel they can’t afford, at least not yet, to care all that much about those things — Americans who worry, in fact, that there won’t be any room left for them in cities like the New L.A.
With its evolving urban identity, its kaleidoscopic diversity and its perch at the crossroads of Latin America and the Pacific, Los Angeles is the perfect place for a Democrat to show the way forward. Garcetti is off to a strong start — but, as he would be the first to admit, he still has plenty of work to do.
As the mayor finishes addressing the local news cameras and reaches for his phone charger — “Let’s try this thing out!” he says — an elderly black man named Clay Pippen lumbers over and begins to shout.
In June, as the city’s police commissioners were about to rule on the fatal LAPD shooting of an unarmed black man named Ezell Ford, Garcetti was caught on camera trying to circumvent a group of Black Lives Matter protestors by slipping out the back door of the mayoral mansion on his way to Washington, D.C. Garcetti told the activists that he was heading to the capital to secure federal funding for homelessness and community policing initiatives — but it later emerged that his team had originally scheduled the trip so he could raise reelection money at the home of a prominent Democratic operative. Ever since, Garcetti has struggled to convince the African-American community that his policies on violent crime (which is on the rise in L.A.) and police cameras (the LAPD is not automatically making the videos public) are equitable and effective.
“Hey, man,” says Pippen. “What’s Garcetti? Italian?”
“It’s an Italian last name,” Garcetti says politely. “Exactly.”
“So you came over on a slave ship?” Pippen asks.
“Well, no. We came through Mexico, way back when.”
“I’ll tell you what I need,” Pippen grumbles. He leans in close. “I need the Mexicans out of here. Can you do that?”
Garcetti entertains Great Streets grant recipients with an original composition at the Dunbar Hotel in South L.A. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)
Garcetti flinches. A few minutes later, the mayor will cross Central Avenue for an awards ceremony in the building that once housed the Dunbar Hotel—the heart of the local African-American community for more than four decades. He will rhapsodize about the legendary black musicians who played the Dunbar — Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway, among others — and when he sits down at the piano to perform an original song, he will look as assured of own talents as Duke Ellington does in the photograph hanging above his head.
But right now, out on the street, Garcetti is flustered.
“No, I don’t know if I can do that,” he finally tells Pippen, regaining his composure. “I think we can all coexist well together. That’s my philosophy.”
“Where did you get that s***?” Pippen snaps.
“Because I believe in everybody,” Garcetti replies. “That’s why.”