LOS ANGELES—It’s primary day in California and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is spending his morning extolling the virtues of neighborhood beautification to a sidewalk crowd in the city’s Northridge neighborhood.
The speech sounds like one that might be delivered by the mayor of a smaller city, focusing on simple improvements that have reinvigorated neighborhoods in the past, such as providing trash cans, encouraging community art, and beautifying medians—a contrast with the often-lofty initiatives launched by his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa.
The purpose of this particular speech is to unveil the first 15 streets of Garcetti’s “Great Streets Initiative,” an effort to revitalize neighborhoods by improving their main thoroughfares and the subject of his very first executive directive in office.
To some the effort may seem narrow, but to Garcetti there’s nothing small about Great Streets or his broader Back to Basics agenda, with its focus on fixing and improving the most fundamental functions of city government, which he argues are too often ignored in favor of more-ostentatious goals.
A day after his early-June “Great Streets” speech, Garcetti reflected on his agenda, his city, and his first year in office, which he officially celebrated on the first of this month. What follows is an edited and abridged transcript of that City Hall interview.
Question: Why do you think the Great Streets Initiative is important? What do you think it will achieve?
Garcetti: L.A. was a place where the car was king, still maybe is. A place that was very libertarian: keep government away, just bring us water and let us sprawl, we don’t need much else and we’ll take care of the rest. But now people I think are looking at how government can be smart, modern, customer-focused and human-centered and the Great Streets Initiative kind of brings a lot of this stuff together.
It’s like the best of urban planning, but it’s not academic, it’s based in suggestions that come out of the resident around the block and the business that’s there and the university that’s footsteps away. It’s human-scaled and it realizes that acts of urban acupuncture—these small insertions of a planter or street art or a great wine store—can have as catalytic effect as the old 60s or 70s model of building a community center.
Q: Back to basics is sort of a low-key approach. Which part of it you think is going to be most visible?
G: Well, it’s been tagged as low-key. I don’t believe it is. And I kind of dispel the narrative because it’s really actually quite wide-bandwidth and it’s quite fundamental and it’s been neglected. And if it were easy and/or low-key, I think people would have done it. To me, there’s probably three levels:
One is actually how does government work and does it work? Is it open? Is it accessible? Is it customer-focused? Is it accountable? And is it innovating? That’s the first level—it’s getting [your administration] to be focused on customer service, be metrics-driven, share their data.
The second level of back to basics, is the basic city services. You’re the CEO of a city and people look to mayors to actually run cities: pick up the trash, deliver, in my case, electricity and water, pave our streets. And in L.A. that’s what affects everybody’s lives the most and what’s been the most neglected. How do we reduce fire response times? There’s nothing low-key about saving people’s lives when we’re spending an extra minute to get to people with an ambulance or a fire truck. It’s really hard work and you have to push people, you have to get into the details and you have to set ambitious goals to actually do that. But I know I will do it. We will have reduced response times in this city and lives will have been saved because of it. What’s better than that?
And I think the third level is kind of the basics of the economy and infrastructure, those twin pillars of what I’m trying to do. Reinvest in the infrastructure, which will help spur and is part of the strategy to revive the economy. To me, that’s the basics of what I should be focused on.
Q: It seems your relationship with D.C. has been an important source for L.A. How do you view your relationship with Washington?
G: It’s funny, I think cities’ relationships with Washington have fundamentally shifted. I helped pull together, with the president, 16 mayors that got elected as kind of the class of 2013. And I told the president that in the past cities came to Washington so Washington could save our cities, but I said in many ways today [we’re] going to be the innovators, [we’re] going to figure out how to solve poverty from L.A. not Washington.
Our subway success of getting two rounds of grants and loans totaling more than $3 billion for two subway lines—that was made possible because we passed a half-cent sales tax on ourselves for 30 years. So we came hat almost filled, not empty hat in hand, saying just top us off a little bit.
And similarly with [the L.A. river project], we’ve done all this work, we’ve already spent tens and over a hundred million probably if you count land acquisition to revive this year. As the federal government said waterways are important, ecology’s important, etc. We’ve already identified this river, now you step up as our partner.
So we’ve had really great success. I think a lot that comes from our relationship with the president, the White House, and they have bent over backwards to provide the opportunity for us to make the case. But we still have to earn things. They’ve only opened the door for us to make the case.
Q: I know you’ve talked about the importance of cultural literacy and you have a very diverse background. How important is it for the city to engage with that?
G: It’s hugely important. When we can make the case that we’re everybody’s second home, that makes people feel comfortable. L.A. is by any measure the most diverse collection of human beings ever assembled in a single place in human history. Now, 20 years ago, people would say it’s the Tower of Babel, how are you all going to get along, the riots were happening. Now people see the opposite.
I think the problem with L.A. is that we’ve been very lazy about that, we haven’t marketed it, we haven’t opened up or done the trade missions or opened up the offices abroad. We’ve kind of assumed it would happen, which mirrors kind of the laziness of our politics for over a century, which is again just kind of take care of a few life necessities and everything else will just happen.
Q: We’re about to hit the anniversary of your first day in office on July 1. What do you think looking back, what would you say you’re proudest of?
G: One is the success we’ve had at the federal level. It’s a changed day here. It kind of says to the world L.A. is here.
[The city has secured federal assistance to build a “Promise Zone” to help the middle class, two rounds of federal funding aid for a subway expansion, designation as a “manufacturing community” which opens up access to federal funding and a recommendation to receive aid to improve the Los Angeles river.]
I’m very proud that we’ve had such a focus on the economy and that our unemployment rate has plummeted. We’re reducing the city’s business tax and streamlining permitting. Again that’s back to basics, why should it take a year and a half for someone to get a permit?
I’m proud that we have a culture of accountability. We’re judging people on the important metrics. How many jobs did you create, how did you help people rather than how many rules did you enforce?
Q: What do you think is going to be the most important thing to work on and make sure succeeds in the next year or so?
G: I think the most important thing for Los Angeles is going to be to show people that we’re back, that we’re confident and that we can get things done. To me, 50 percent of it is going to be continuing to drive better outcomes and 50 percent of it is going to be telling people all the good news that’s here.
And that’s starting to happen. I talked to one tourist the other day who said “we heard its dangerous downtown.” And I said, no, actually GQ magazine called it the best new American city. Food and Wine said it’s the best place to eat in America, the Guardian did a brand strength survey of global cities. L.A. was #1 just above New York, just above London, over Venice, over Sao Paolo, over Seoul.
What we need to focus on is telling that story, making it easier to navigate for those who live here, come here and invest here and then build that infrastructure out to make sure everybody knows oh yeah, that’s the L.A. I remember, a place where things get done and get invented.
Q: What do you hope to be your legacy?
G: I don’t care if anybody remembers it’s my legacy or not. What I hope to enjoy as an Angelino is a place that has a great public transportation system, a world-class airport, that has made a huge dent and is on the way to ending homelessness, that paved its streets and that built up great neighborhoods. Those five things and I’m done. The rest is all gravy.