CityWatch, Oct 23, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 87
Artist Diane Meyer challenges the primacy of LA's auto-centric transportation system and puts the spotlight on the "alternative" element with her 18th Street exhibit "Without A Car in the World" (100 Car-less Angelinos Tell Stories of Living in Los Angeles). Pairing beautiful lifestyle portraits with poignant and pithy interviews, Meyer brings to life the wide variety of subjects, ranging from the idealists who eschew the automobile as part of a lifestyle commitment to those who live car-free lives because of economic, legal, and health limitations.
The timing of "Without a Car in the World" is especially relevant, coming on the heels of Mayor Villaraigosa's legacy battle for a regional transportation plan that has communities throughout the county fighting over projects and funding, and engaging in parochial high-altitude bombing, all claiming to represent the "common man" but demonstrating at every turn a commitment to representing those who already have the freedom of choice.
Meyer's show features the invisible constituency, the 30% of LA's population who have no choice, who will never show up at a High Speed Rail press conference and who will never travel to One Gateway Plaza to address the Metro Board with 60 seconds of public comment. Instead, their stories are told on the gallery walls of a Westside gallery, 18th Street Arts Center, one with a great reputation for stirring the public discourse and featuring art that engages the community.
My wife Enci and I were honored to be selected as subjects and we rode our bikes to the opening of the show, pedaling over with a couple of friends who were also featured.
For a while, it seemed like a family reunion, there were so many friends from so many walks of life and from all over Los Angeles. But slowly the "glow" wore off and our focus moved to the subjects that we didn't recognize, the "invisible" Angelenos who travel quietly and patiently, simply attempting to get home safely to their families each night.
Just to the left of our portrait, right in the center of the gallery, hung a picture of three men, day-laborers, who tell of getting picked up for work, transported to a strange neighborhood where they toil for long hours, getting paid in cash and then having to figure out their way home, late at night, strangers in a strange land!
A blind man tells of sitting on the bus bench, listening to the pitch of the oncoming engines, rising to meet every bus, never knowing which one is his and always wondering about the ones that don't stop.
A man in a wheelchair boasts of his intimate knowledge of sidewalks and curbcuts and his ability to get around, never in a direct line but navigating the obstacles that the average person simply steps over and ignores.
Balancing it out are stories of a skateboarder who tears up shoes but loves to skate everywhere, cyclists who celebrate the freedom of riding the mean streets of Los Angeles and social creatures who thrive on the camaraderie found on mass transit.
Urban planners and social scientists smile as they take the high road, positioning their small footsteps as the beginnings of the impending transportation revolution. Some spoke of their transportation choices as simple economic decisions based on priorities that favored tuition and family over autos while others used mass transit and bragged of the work they were able to complete while commuting.
But the story that established the baseline against which the success of LA's transportation system must be judged was told by a gentlemen who simply explained "I'm on the bus six, seven hours a day. MTA doesn't see what we see, they need to come from behind the desk, take a two or three day trip, get on all the buses, see how they aren't on schedule, they're always crowded ..."
When we arrived at the opening of the show, we were honored, but by the end of the evening, we were humbled.
Enci and I ride bikes in LA because we choose to ride, we "Storm the Bastille" and we celebrate our freedom and we lay claim to the streets, reveling in the growing numbers of cyclists who often share the "See you on the Streets!" greeting that has become our battle cry.
But after meeting so many people who walk, roll, pedal and use mass transit simply because they have no other choice, I realize that we also ride for those who can't attend the Pedestrian Advisory Committee or the Bike Plan Workshop or the Metro Board hearings.
We ride for the significant number of Angelenos who have no choice, who have no voice and who represent the failure of LA's Transportation System.
LA's weakest and most vulnerable community members live in fear, sometimes unable to simply cross the street. If LA is to become a Great City, it will start with a commitment to mobility as a civil right, a basic guarantee of effective transportation choices that extends to everybody.
Until then, Los Angeles is simply a city under siege.
Without A Car in the World
continues through December 11.
18th Street Arts Center
1639 18th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(Stephen Box is a transportation and cyclist advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net) ◘