Tue, Aug

Reyes: A River Runs Through Him

PROFILE - Once a City planner and a planning deputy, District 1 Councilman Ed Reyes now taps lessons learned from his early vocational moorings--in a district that was ripe for someone with Reyes's specialized urbanist background. His final term in office is likely to witness a special focus on Los Angeles River rehabilitation and development.

It is the first day of his final two-year session as a Councilman. Ed Reyes staff whisks us behind the ropes to meet the Councilman right at his chair on the horseshoe in Council Chamber.

There's little room in Reyes' own agenda for savoring the moment or acknowledging plaudits on this, the first day of the Forty-Fourth Los Angeles City Council. In fact, Reyes is anxious to get on with things. After the Friday morning choir moment in Chamber--at the very first moment it's polite to do so--he sends an aide to greet us, shakes our hand assertively, walks us through the antechamber to Council, and opens up a conference room on City Hall's south side. Then he stands until we take our seats, and takes a seat himself as though ready for work.

Sitting down with Reyes, you jot down a few things that you don't typically hear from politicians. He will often sound more professorial than political on crime, for instance, noting that community outrage is often short-lived. And sometimes, when pressed about a tough political subject, he says "I was told that..." far more readily than most career politicians are usually willing to say.

No, Ed Reyes (photo, left, by Debbie Lopez) is not really a politician by trade.

So how did such a man, unashamed of his intellectual qualities, and with such a strong work ethic but few political instincts, come to City Council?

Former City Councilmembers Gloria Molina and Mike Hernandez recognized in Reyes, a planner who worked with both, a sui generis. Reyes's longstanding knowledge of the district in addition to his talents of a planner made him someone who would possibly be able to handle the special problems CD 1 with more understanding than a better-known public figure.

And in 2001 the special urban problems in the district were legion. What to do about Pico Union's gang problem. What to do about vendors in MacArthur Park. What to do about under-utilized Echo Park. What to do about blight in Lincoln Heights. What to do about the Los Angeles River's ungainly passage through the heart of the district. What to do about Chinatown's half-completed CRA rehabilitation. What to do about the coming Metro stops in Chinatown and Cypress Park. What to do about a district the size of St. Louis in population but in which only a few thousand people voted.

They were all classic problems for an urbanist to face, especially an urbanist with deep roots in the district.

Reyes came into Council in 2001 without any other attendant political ambitions. He drew from his urbanist tool-kit far more than on political wheeling-and-dealing to work on the district's problems. For example, early on, he conducted community meetings early on in Pico Union and around MacArthur Park, as a politician might have. But ever the urbanist, he also worked with Building and Safety to assure the cleanup of crack houses and gang homes through pressing landlords with code violations.

There have been many achievements along the way. Lincoln Heights has become far safer than it has been in local memory. Pico Union and MacArthur Park are safer too. The Metro Gold Line, which Reyes had worked on as a planner, opened for business, servicing Chinatown and Cypress Park. Echo Park has witnessed an astonishing flourishing of merchant activity--and much of it is homespun and locally owned. The first wave of the CRA's work in Chinatown has been completed to excellent success. Ditto the Cornfield. The revisiting and reshaping of Community Plans, which Reyes has left his personal mark on from his long road from city planner to chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. The LA River segment that runs through the district is far less barren than it was 10 years ago.

But none of these please Ed Reyes as much as the fact that now, all through the district, people make demands on, argue with, and demand results from...Ed Reyes.

"The thing that pleases me most is, all the tigers in the district. We now have activists!" he grins. "There are arguments--people are engaged, people are arguing. We have far more community involvement."

This achievement--taking pride in the district's various clamorings--most of all brands him as someone who is a not really a politician.

Some of the argument Reyes encounters centers around the Los Angeles River, a project of special interest to Reyes throughout his tenure of office. There have been great strides in rehabilitation and returning nature to the flow of what was known two centuries ago as El Río de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula. But some in the district also worry that development of the river might mean overdevelopment.

During the long process of rehabilitation, Reyes has visited over seventy urban river settings around the country. He much admires Denver's riverfront, where the long-neglected South Platte became part of the city's much heralded greenbelt revolution in the 1990's.

Local political luminaries acknowledge Reyes' work on the river as especially exemplary of his urbanist visions as a Councilman, and expect him to finish his term of office with a Porciúncula flourish.

"Ed Reyes' planning background certainly pays off when it comes to Los Angeles River renovation," County Supervisor Gloria Molina told street-hassle in an email. "It requires someone with vision, practical know-how, and the patience to coordinate all the bureaucratic agencies necessary to make river revitalization actually materialize. Ed has it."

The Supervisor especially notes the quality of patience, and that is the quality that comes up again and again when people are describing Ed Reyes. While returning Porciúncula to nature is in itself a Herculean task, appropriating development for it is even thornier.

How does Reyes, coming from one of LA's most faceless districts, have success in working with the various agencies necessary to translate vision into action?

Political consultant Mike Trujillo says "He's like a samurai warrior with a long sword who walks quietly."

The Councilman himself offers something less picturesque yet equally emphatic of the need for persistence and patience.

"It's style and work ethic. You have to say, 'This is what I want, this is what I need,'" Reyes says. "It's about learning how to get in there."

While his district has experienced the same kinds of decline in crime that the rest of the City has experienced, there have been significant flare-ups this year. Two high-profile crimes, the beating of Brian Stow at Dodger Stadium and the killing of Trader Joe's employee on Sunset in Echo Park, rocked the sense of security in the neighborhood. There has historically been tension between privileged Anglos and underprivileged Latinos in the neighborhood.

"They have the ability to co-exist until there's a crisis," Reyes says of conflicts in Echo Park. "But a crisis does pass, and then people learn to respect each other again."

"Now people are walking their dogs at night in Lincoln Heights," he also notes. "People didn't do that ten years ago."

He doesn't give the impression that he will even run for office again after his present term expires.

"The future? I'm very focused on how to get my kids through college," Reyes laughs.

He describes the characteristics of who might make a good Councilman to follow him, and they sound a lot like those of Jose Gardea, his chief of staff.

"Yes," he nods, when I ask if he will support Gardea. "Yes."

And then Ed Reyes re-joins his Council meeting, a man determined to keep asking for what he wants; a man determined to keep on getting in there.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer and an observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He blogs at street-hassle.blogspot.com where this column first appeared.)

Tags: Ed Reyes, Los Angeles River, Los Angeles, City Council, Gloria Molina, Mike Hernandez, Lincoln Heights, MacArther Park, CRA, Chinatown, Cypress Park, Dodger Stadium

Vol 9 Issue 58
Pub: July 22, 2011