Monday, September 07, 2009

CityWatchLA - Brisbane has one, LA needs one. What’s the story?

CityWatch, Sept 8, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 72

At its heart, my Down Under Walkabout was simply a quest to connect with the people and the places that make up my past, my history, and my own personal story.

Having started in Melbourne, the Capital of Victoria, then moving through Sydney, the Capital of New South Wales, I finally arrived in Brisbane, the Capital of Queensland, the State where I was born.

My visit to Brisbane was a serendipitous journey, as I discovered the “City Machine” exhibit at the Museum of Brisbane (MoB), conveniently located on the first floor of Town Hall. Guests are invited to discover the city by examining the building blocks that make up the complex wholeness and the connectivity that keeps Brisbane humming. In short, Brisbane sets a new standard for Walkabout storytelling.

I initially visited Brisbane’s Town Hall aiming low, merely intent on visiting the Council Chambers for a moment or two of reflective contemplation on the inner workings of the city of 2 million and to catch the Lord Mayor and the City Council in action.

I was pleased enough to witness a motion to “Adjourn for afternoon tea!” The vote was unanimous and I appreciated the precision with which they concluded a lengthy debate over some monstrous funding issue exactly at 4 pm.

But as impressive as that moment in municipal synchronicity and bipartisan politics was for me, the MoB exhibit was what resonated. Overwhelmingly powerful in its effective presentation, it tells Brisbane’s story from the birth of the city, to the organizational growing pains that took it through its childhood, to its maturity as a world-class city, to its future.

Archival documents, photos, video, artifacts and relics tell the story of a community that grew in response to both crisis and opportunity, with the first demand being Public Health.

The parallels between the origins of Brisbane and Los Angeles are uncanny, with both communities organizing around the Public Works challenge of providing clean water to the residents.

In Brisbane, this resulted in the formation of the Public Works Department and in LA, it resulted in the hiring of the first municipal employee, an Indian woman who dipped water from the Zanja Madre and delivered to the local households. Thus was born the DWP.

Brisbane’s “City Machine” exhibit takes on the challenging task of turning the dry fodder of archival materials into a fast paced journey from the past to the present and into the future. Starting with simple public health challenges that motivated community organization and then moving to transportation needs, into public safety needs, and then into communications, the MoB puts a spin on the journey that brings it to life and engages the audience.

Through it all, it is rapidly apparent that as fast as the tools change, the challenges of a city remain the same. The rapid growth and maturation of the community is constantly presenting infrastructural and organizational challenges that require a highly sophisticated “City Machine” that connects, that communicates, that responds, and that has a clear mandate on purpose and on function and on process.

While both Brisbane and LA began with similar challenges and similar responses, it’s painfully apparent that the same “City Machine” metaphor has failed miserably for Los Angeles.

This past weekend, LA’s Birthday Party, typically celebrated with a 9-mile walk from San Gabriel to El Pueblo to honor the original Pobladores, was compromised by the poor air quality resulting from the Station Fire. The walk was cancelled and festivities were reduced to the minimum, proverbial icing on the municipal cake, and ironic in timing.

As Brisbane celebrates its 150th Birthday with an exhibit that honors the “City Machine,” Los Angeles cancels its Birthday celebration as it grapples with its failure to respond as a "Machine" to the Station Fire.

The Station Fire, now in its 13th day, started in Altadena and spread rapidly, throwing communities into evacuation mode and challenging the LA “City Machine.”

This time of crisis should have been the moment at which Los Angeles came together, functioning as “the Machine,” a complex assembly of many parts working in sync, communicating, connecting and concentrating energy, creating a “wholeness” and providing the leadership of LA with the mechanism to weather the storm.

Instead, the local community played a game of “Where’s Tony?” while the many departments of the City of LA followed disconnected mandates that left the locals self-evacuating under the direction and control of multiple agencies, all the while wondering “Who do you call?” as they faced life-and-death challenges.

In a situation such as the Station Fire, one would hope that the City of LA would provide proactive and effective communication to the community, instructing them on the roles the many City Departments would play in the management of the emergency, and delivered in a variety of mediums to ensure connection with the community.

One would also hope that the Department of Transportation would be on the scene, maintaining a large perimeter to keep the spectators from interfering with the evacuation and with the helicopters collecting water from the reservoir. In addition, it seems reasonable to expect that the LADOT would maintain a tight perimeter in order to keep open evacuation routes and direct local traffic.

It would also seem reasonable to have General Services and Rec & Parks on the scene, coordinating the opening of evacuation centers and communicating with the LAUSD so that people, animals and vehicles could be accommodated quickly and efficiently and safely.

A City the size of Los Angeles surely has an emergency communication network more sophisticated than a Sheriff’s car with a loud speaker rolling down residential streets, leaving a wake of “What did he just say?” as residents spent more time chasing rumors than in simply coordinating emergency response efforts.

With Community Emergency Response Teams, the Red Cross, LA’s Emergency Management Department, Neighborhood Councils, and Neighborhood Watches all standing by and ready to act, it seems that all that is missing is the mechanism for deploying the full force of “the Machine” and, of course, a leader who is available and empowered to direct “the Machine.”

Most of all, it seems fair to expect that when the largest City in the most populated State in the most powerful Country in the world is threatened with an emergency the size of the Station Fire, that it would be clear who was in charge, what the emergency plan was and how it was to be implemented.

Instead, community members from the neighborhoods most affected by the Station Fire charge that the Mayor was nowhere to be found, that communications were reactive and insignificant, that the many departments of the city who had a piece of the emergency plan were disconnected and ineffective and that there was a huge hole in the “wholeness” of LA’s “City Machine.”

All of which is in dramatic contrast to my experience in the Museum of Brisbane where the City went on record as positioning their ability to mobilize the full force of the city as the culmination of their journey and as the foundation of their vision for themselves as a world class city.

So far, my Down Under Walkabout has taken me to Melbourne, which has presented itself as the City on the Move, to Sydney which has presented itself as the City with a Vision, and to Brisbane which has presented itself as the City Machine.

As I return to my home in Los Angeles, I find myself asking “What’s LA’s story?” What is the narrative that defines us, that allows us to identify ourselves in the context of our relationship with each other, that connects us with our collective past, with our shared present and with our unified vision for the future.

These are challenging times for Los Angeles for many reasons, but most of all because we are in dire need of a leader who can deliver and direct a “City Machine” that functions effectively, with the many complex parts humming in sync, connecting us, and taking us into the future.

(Stephen Box is a transportation advocate and an observer of Los Angeles’ political and government system. And, he writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at ◘

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