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One Block Down, Eleven to Go: The Fight for a Better South Central

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An Expo Line Train passes near Dorsey High School. | Photo: Courtesy Metro.

Just in time for a new mayoral era, there's a new political force in town: the Crenshaw Subway Coalition.

Actually it's been around for five years, longer than the second term of our last mayor. But the fruits of its labor, which is agitating for racial justice via transportation equity in the Crenshaw area, is gaining critical momentum. In just the last couple of months, the L.A. City Council approved $40 million for a Metro rail stop in Leimert Park Village, one of the coalition's chief ambitions. The Metro board -- an opponent of the rail stop not so very long ago -- swiftly approved more than twice that for the same purpose. Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti has pledged to appoint new board members from underrepresented South Central, as well as a representative for transit riders. The coalition celebrated these victories but is already focused on the next phase of the fight: ensuring that the new Crenshaw rail line will run underground along a stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard south of Leimert that is the heart of the commercial corridor. Coalition members argue, among other things, that a lengthy construction period above ground will devastate an already fragile but important economy that is among black L.A.'s last. That battle is going pretty well, too, though coalition executive director Damien Goodmon is not one to get complacent. As he likes to say: "One block down, eleven more to go."

Grassroots black activism hasn't seen this kind of tenacity and effectiveness in a long time, especially activism that takes on a byzantine behemoth like Metro. But Goodmon, 31, says he and his fellow coalition members are only asking that transit officials give black communities the same consideration they give communities that are west of the 10, white and/or more affluent. That means he expects the agency to be responsive to constituent concerns about a rail stop or anything else. But the awful truth is that Crenshaw and neighboring South Central have not had a culture of sustained political responsiveness in a very long time, maybe never. The coalition is therefore aiming for nothing less than a cultural revolution. Racial justice is only a part of it.

Goodmon didn't exactly envision himself doing this kind of work, though he seems destined for it. He grew up in L.A. with a mother who refused to drive after suffering through a car accident, which began sensitizing him to issues of public transit. He was a self-described "radical" in high school who nonetheless went off to the University of Washington to play football. After coming back to town intending to take a temporary break from his studies, he became involved in politics; he was especially interested in transit policy, in somehow cracking the code of car-centric, public transit-phobic Los Angeles for the benefit of smaller black businesses here that desperately needed more pedestrian traffic. But things didn't really click until 2006, when he went to a community meeting at Dorsey High School about the soon-to-built Expo Line. Residents and others were already concerned about plans for a train to run full speed across an intersection that was flooded with Dorsey students twice a day . "People were unhappy, but not really organized," says Goodmon. "But I was like, 'okay, well, half the people in charge here are black. This will be easy.'"

It wasn't, to put it mildly. Goodmon signed on to the Expo fight, which expanded into the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. The first battle was won -- the Expo Line has a stop on Farmdale Avenue at Dorsey that has several features to ensure pedestrian safety. It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing since then, but the coalition has had measurable progress fueled by unwavering commitment to a cause that even Goodmon's opponents admit have changed the conversation downtown at the MTA. Goodmon says he has hardly done this alone, but he's gratified to hear it. "When people see leadership, when they are convinced their energy will go somewhere, they'll join," he says.

While equitable rail is the coalition's mission, its larger one is economic development, but not how it's typically done in the hood. Goodmon points to the chain outlets in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall, the brightest retail spot in the area, as an example not of failure, but of limited thinking. "Chipotle is great, we pay $6.50 for a burrito, but it's minimum wage jobs," he muses. "When I went to Boston and took the rail, I saw thriving small businesses, not chains. The reason they thrive is because you're walking by, you're not driving by. When you're driving by you don't see the sign with the lunch special. Look at Abbott Kinney -- there's not a single chain because it's pedestrian environment. One of my favorite places is Little Tokyo. Sure, it has a Pinkberry, but it's not overpopulated with it." So Crenshaw needs to get that groove. Idealistic? Yes. But that's exactly the point. Thoughtfully planned rail is one way to get there. "It's not a matter of whether it's built," says Goodmon, "but how it's built."

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