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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.

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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 rail system 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.