Cracks in the Social Compact

Lines of Conflict

Los Angeles has at least 4,600 miles of sidewalks, mostly laid between 1900 and 1970 and mostly in residential neighborhoods shaded by the city's street trees. As they grow old, street trees and sidewalks cease to be good neighbors. Tree roots crack and lift the concrete. Aging, broken concrete disintegrates with every rainy season, with every skateboard and footfall and every random weed sprouting in the gaps.

By some estimates, more than 2,000 miles of Los Angeles sidewalks need immediate repair to cure unsafe conditions, mostly caused by tree roots.

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In some cities (but not all of them), sidewalk damage is not the city's problem. Property owners also "own" their stretch of sidewalk, although it's legally defined as a public right-of-way. Homeowners and landlords are liable -- at least notionally -- when their sidewalk needs maintenance.

That had been the case in Los Angeles, until the city assumed responsibility for sidewalks in order to qualify for federal funding that could be used for neighborhood street improvements. And that funding ran out years ago.

Cities don't have a dedicated funding source for local streets (unlike the upkeep of major highways, for example). The pothole in the street has the same claim on the city's "General Fund" as does the police department or the park in your neighborhood.

You can guess what happened next. Inevitably, sidewalk repairs were the last on the city's long list of local street needs. Los Angeles quickly abandoned its sidewalks to circumstance, perpetual orphans of one economic storm or another.

The city became so careless of its sidewalks that, as reported by KCET's Vince Gonzales, the Bureau of Street Services actually forgot to seek new federal funds when they became available in 2008-2009.

(KCET is looking for photos of your broken and orphan sidewalk here.)

Sidewalk neglect now poses a big threat to Los Angeles. The pending settlement of an Americans with Disabilities Act class action suit could force the city into a 25-year commitment to replace or repair its damaged sidewalks. And the city can't. It's broke.

Which explains why some members of the city council have called for a policy shift that would return sidewalk maintenance to property owners. By shifting responsibility to them, Los Angeles could accept a consent decree mandating repairs while avoiding the huge cost.

If property owners are made responsible, provisions in the city's hotly debated Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) Ordinance may one day put owners who fail to make needed sidewalk repairs in jeopardy. In the current version of ACE, property owners could be subject to citation and a hefty fine until the unsafe sidewalk condition is fixed. And if they planned to sell their property before the fix was made, the sale could be held up until it was.

City council members at Monday's Budget and Finance Committee were openly hostile to the current form of the ACE ordinance, largely because its potential to put the city in the middle of intractable neighbor-vs.-neighbor disputes. ACE's link to sidewalk maintenance was passed over.

While it seems unlikely that a majority of council members would ever favor sticking property owners with the thousands of dollars it might cost to fix some sidewalks, it's also unlikely that the city will ever have the money to make more than a few, cosmetic improvements.

In the city's perpetual a crisis of leadership, letting sidewalks crumble may seem like a minor issue. But their neglect is diagnostic of the city's accelerating abandonment of what might be called the "small-scale public good."

Broken sidewalks are a sign of broken trust.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Grant Neufeld. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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