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Los Angeles in the '70s was a tumultuous city; racial conflict roiled beneath its deceptively sunshine soaked neighborhoods. "Growing up, I was frustrated about how my friends live the way they had to live," says former Councilmember for District 1, Ed Reyes. "LAPD was really brutal. They would drive around and see who they could push around."
One day that someone they could push around turned out to be Reyes. Sporting long hair up to his waist and a big mustache, Reyes found himself dragged out from under the $67, 1957 Chevrolet wagon he was fixing up for his sixteenth birthday, grabbed by the hair and kicked in the back -- by the police.
In those days such incidents weren't uncommon, but that didn't mean it had to be cemented in the city's culture forever. The experience -- combined with his memories of sanctuary provided by the Los Angeles River -- gave birth to a tantalizing question: "Could environment affect perception and social treatment?"
After finishing his bachelor's degree in English from UCLA, Reyes went on get his master's degree from UCLA's Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. While an undergrad, he had wandered into a class taught by Leobardo Estrada. Though riddled with mathematical equations that made Reyes's head swim, Estrada's lecture solidified the connection between space and improving lives.
"I wanted to change my environment," says Reyes. "City systems then failed a good portion of society." Reyes cites that in his neighborhood there was a 50 percent dropout rate in schools, among other less than stellar statistics. In planning, he thought he could find a way to change environmental spaces to influence a neighborhood positively.
After graduation, Reyes found a job as a planner with the Community Development Corporation in the Bay Area, eventually rising to the rank of senior planner. It was "a great laboratory" for planning, says Reyes. Overseeing Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond, the former councilman could see how these progressive cities treated city issues. He married and had one child while living in Berkeley, then decided to move back to Los Angeles to be closer to his family.
In Los Angeles, Reyes went from being a senior planner to a planner at the City of Los Angeles, working in the transportation committee. It was a step down, but it was a difficult time in Los Angeles with jobs hard to come by; the city position also offered an opportunity to move into different functions. Here, Reyes learned about the bureaucratic structure of city process that was almost "militaristic" and "punitive." The former councilman often took flak from colleagues because of his master's degree. As a form of "punishment," he was often made to do rounds in the very same neighborhoods he had grown up in. In the future, Reyes would come to chair the Planning and Land Use Committee, where he would be able to change the culture and place emphasis on community inputs in the planning process.
Reyes eventually signed on as Chief Planning Deputy with former councilman Mike Hernandez, urged on by Tom Griego, a friend from his high school student body days. He worked on projects that would continue until his own term in city council. Reyes tackled the issues of what to do with a dusty strip of Taylor Yard, or how to approach the problem of Pico Union, a district of Los Angeles badly damaged by the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake. During the time, Reyes launched community clean ups and housing developments in the district.
After a decade under Hernandez, Reyes ran for city council, an underdog in a race dominated by then senator Richard Polanco, "a political force akin to a 500-pound gorilla," according to the Los Angeles Times. Then, Polanco unexpectedly withdrew. Some say it was because of he had lost his enthusiasm, others think it might be because of damaging information regarding his marital life. Nevertheless, after the dust had settled, Reyes emerged the victor.
As Reyes took his seat, he faced a multitude of urban problems: Pico-Union gang problems, half-finished Chinatown plans, and the eyesore that was the Los Angeles River. They were problems his urban planning background were equipped to handle. There were 328 projects on his plate, recalls Reyes, as he entered office. He would chip away at them over his 12-year term.
At a time when Angelenos hardly ever looked at the River, Reyes launched an Ad Hoc River Committee, to the city's ridicule. "[Media] made me sound like I was in the loony bin," says Reyes, "When I got home my daughter touched my forehead and said, 'People at school are saying you're crazy.'" Time would prove Reyes otherwise.
He would leave the office with a safer Pico-Union area, a finished Chinatown community redevelopment plan, and shaped community plans, transit oriented development plans and even a bike plan. Perhaps his most famed legacy, a new appreciation for the Los Angeles River.
Story continues -- read Part 3 : A Bluer, Greener Future