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The LAist Interview: James Rojas

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Few people in Los Angeles are as plugged into the urban and cultural planning scenes and other fascinating areas of overlap as James Rojas. In addition to his 9-to-5 as a project manager at the MTA, James's irons in the fire include helming the Latino Urban Forum and lecturing on various planning and cultural issues at venues that range from the university to the community grass roots level. He's also co-owner of the Gallery 727 on Spring Street in Downtown, where Don Normark and Don Rogers's photographs of "South Central Farmers" (featured in the Los Angeles Times Magazine yesterday) will be on display later this month. In sum, James's deep understanding and respect for Los Angeles combined with his tenacity and organizing prowess provide unique contributions to our city.

1. Age and Occupation:

44 years old, urban theorist. I also co-own Gallery 727 in Downtown LA.

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2. Which Los Angeles neighborhood did you grow up in?

I grew up in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles Unincorporated.

3. Your work cross-pollinates ideas and projects from different fields, yet your general focus remains on Latinos and the built environment. How has this concentration and/or your goals shifted over time?

My goal to improve and understand cities has never changed only the strategies to achieve this goal. As I weave through urban life from my different jobs, projects, locations and studies, I have learned that urban planning is an interdisciplinary field.

Being an effective urban planner requires the understanding of the policies, social dynamics, built environment and the theoretical framework of cities. From my civil service position I understand process, from my community involvement I understand social conditions and from my education I understand theory.

In todays world of specialization, this interface rarely happens. Bureaucrats are stuck on process, community activities are not being effective in changing policy and the ivory tower remains that. I combine all three areas in all my projects.

My hook into the urban planning arena is my expertise on Latinos and the built environment. This is what I know and love and believe if we can make the city work for Latinos it will be able to work for everybody.

4. Are local politics and institutional relationships conducive to partnerships between agencies, such as the MTA and community based organizations? From what youve observed and experienced, is LA different from other cities in this regard?

The polities of institutional relationships are usually not conductive to partnerships between agencies and community based organization because LA is a unique place of geographic diversity and neighborhoods demographic are always changing. These characteristics work for the disadvantage of Los Angeles and the advantage of smaller cities how can mobilize and addresses the concerns of community residents effectively.

LA agencies need to learn how to work in an ever changing city. The failure of todays planning is that there is no nexus between the insiders and outsiders. For whatever reasons bureaucrats do not communicate with residence and vice versa. When communication does happen between agencies and community residents its not always amicable and becomes us verses them.

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5. Do you catch a lot of flak for dealing with issues that might be seen as mutually exclusive, such as historic preservation in low-income communities, or championing an East LA light railsystem in light of the Bus Riders Union MTA consent decree to add more busses?

I do not get flak on positions I take when it comes to improving the built environment in Latino community because I have well thought-out arguments.

I am not a "poverty pimp" and believe that we are all after the same goals in life. We may have different approaches to get our universal goals.

6. What are some of the best advantages of being a civil servant?

Being a civil servant allows you to understanding processes and policy that govern planning, and funding. It allows you to implement projects and present a path forward.

7. If you could wave a magic wand and transform this citys transportation infrastructure, what would you change?

I would become the head of Los Angeles Department of Transportation and move people, not cars. I would plan now to get rid of the car in 50 years. Therefore I would develop a non-motorized transportation system that consists of walking, biking and using public transit.

Things to do would be:
   • Widen all sidewalks and shade them
   • Narrow all streets
   • Ban all road widening
   • Cap all parking
   • Do not add any more asphalt to the city
   • 1% of all streets would have to be made into pedestrian ways every year
   • Extend Red Line down Wilshire to the beach
   • Create bike stations at ever subway station.
   • Plan to dismantle freeways
   • Develop neighborhood pedestrian plans
   • Electrify Metrolink and run service 24/7 to all stations

8. What's your preferred mode of transportation?

Walking, biking and using public transit.

9. What's your favorite movie or TV show that's based in L.A.?

The Ring [which is] based in LA during the early 1950s. This black and white "B" movie is about a young Mexican-American who goes into boxing to make money against his family's wishes. The movie is filmed on location in different parts of LA. It shows very everyday, ephemeral places such as Olvera Street and adjoining hills, a night drive down an LA commercial street, Downtown street scenes, old Victorian houses.

10. Best LA-themed book?

Shadows: Thirty Detective Stories, Showing Why Crime Doesn't Pay by Detective Nick Harris. There are 30 great crime stories about Los Angeles from the early 1920's that discribe life in parts of LA.

11. Please share your best celebrity sighting experience.

Woopie Goldberg waiting for her car at El Coyote.

12. In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?

Sorry, I cannot answer the question because I rarely go west of Figueroa.

13. It's 9:30 PM on a Thursday. Where are you coming from and where
are you going?

I am usually going home from a community meeting or social event.

14. If you could live in L.A. during any era, when would it be?

I would like to live in LA during the roaring 1920's. During this time LA had plenty of open space, great public transit, clean air, density and single-family homes. Oh, but with the equality of today!

15. What is the "center" of L.A. to you?

Where I am. In LA the city evolves around every individual. There are no collective places where it all comes together. If I would like to think of center it would have to be 7th and Figueroa in Downtown LA.

16. If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?

I would live where I do in a large loft with patio near public transit.

17. What is the city's greatest secret?

Public transit in Downtown LA.

18. Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. Can you offer any transportation planner inside info about to best handle this conflict?

Drink along the Gold Line or Red line.

19. Your favorite LA dining experience?


20. Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

I would like to be at Elysian Park because of the great views of Downtown and East LA.