08/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How the Subway to the Sea Could Change Los Angeles' Culture

Last Monday, officials began drilling on Wilshire Boulevard to examine the possibility of constructing the long-anticipated Subway to the Sea. Such a subway could not only cleanse Los Angeles' polluted air and clear its congested roads, but could also radically change the way Angelinos relate to one another.

The logistical and environmental problems stemming from Los Angeles' reliance on motor transportation should be obvious. The city is plagued with epic traffic jams that discourage residents from leaving the areas in which we live and work. We have long held the dubious honor of being the Most Polluted City in the United States; the emissions from our cars can cause cancer, birth complications, and forest fires.

Just as our reliance on cars endangers the natural resources that Angelenos justifiably take pride in -- the mountains that rear over the flatlands, the dense Chaparral forests, the celebrated coastline, and the stark desert that lies just outside city limits -- so does it prevent the city from coalescing into a more mobile, unified whole. Los Angeles is infamous for its defiant rejection of all things "big city"; the verdant suburban streets in Brentwood, the sun-bleached, lit storefronts in Hollywood, and the mountainous twists of Mulholland Drive all lie within close proximity, but resist interaction.

The racial lines that divide the city's east and west sides (definitions which are somewhat nebulous -- for the purposes of this article, I define the east side as east of the 101 freeway) are intrinsic to the subway debate that has raged since 1985 when Henry Waxman, Representative to the 30th District, blocked the extension of the Redline Subway into Santa Monica. Although Waxman claimed that pockets of methane gas would prevent the subway's construction, some suspected that his wealthy constituents' resistance provided just as much impetus. Many believe that when the Westside's homeowners wanted to prevent disadvantaged minorities from gaining easier access to their neighborhoods, the project halted.

Since then, Waxman has lifted his one-time funding ban and Antonio Villaraigosa, who some dubbed the "Subway Mayor," has come to office. Despite repeated proposals, though, LA's subway is still limited to East and South Central Los Angeles, thus splitting what should be a unified city in two.

Unlike comparable US cities like Chicago or New York, where public transportation is easily accessible and reliable, in Los Angeles, disadvantaged socioeconomic groups use the public buses and subway lines almost exclusively. On the Westside, the disparity between residents driving their air-conditioned cars and their employees who wait for buses that often run far behind schedule is so great that the bus lines have earned the name "the nanny bus." The term is so ubiquitous that realtors use it to reassure potential buyers, and a film bearing its name is planned for release.

Certainly, racial and socioeconomic division plague all cities. In Los Angeles, though, I've found that those barriers are especially rigid. I attended a private high school on the Westside, where we were lucky enough to take annual trips whose focus varied from outdoor education to cultural immersion. One year, while some of my classmates journeyed to Mexico and Quebec for language study, about a third of my class and I opted to stay in the city to explore Downtown and South Central LA. Clearly, the school felt that these parts of the city -- although only about twenty minutes away by freeway -- was as foreign as Mexico City to many of its students.

On the trip, we shopped in Santee Alley, rolled sushi in Little Tokyo, and marveled at The Watt's Towers' whimsical heights, all the while taking rolls of slides as mementos of our cultural adventure. The trip did help my classmates and I recognize the unique character of our home. The Eastside has a vibrancy and diversity that much of the Westside lacks; it feels more like a "real city," with its crowded streets, ethnic pockets, and government offices. While I commend my school's efforts, encouraging students to explore their own city should not be necessary.

The subway to the sea would certainly not erase LA's socioeconomic divisions. However, it would make the city much more accessible for Westsiders and Eastsiders alike, and would also provide a logical communal space for interaction. I now attend Columbia, where students often frequent neighborhood bars and restaurants, but where the subway also grants us easy access to the city's attractions, forcing us to interact with New York's diverse population in order to reach them.

Subway culture is central to the probing, intellectual sensibility that New York is known for. Presented with an opportunity to scrutinize, I have eavesdropped on Upper West Side mothers bemoaning their childrens' scholarly failures, observed a group of flamboyant black men perform complex dance moves, and been flattened against the wall as devoted Rangers fans stormed the car. I use each person's reading material, travel companion, and subway stop as basic evidence of their character, transforming the city into a living, breathing novel. Clearly, I am not the only one who feels similarly. In author David Yezzi's "Subway Sketches", he writes,

People jostle each other, make room for each other, secretly check each other out, ignore each other, read, coast, float. It's a weird instance of privacy in public. For a few minutes out of their day, people aren't multi-tasking, taking the bull by the horns, kickin' ass and taking names; they are swaying with the movement of the tracks, thinking, staring blankly, listening to music, people-watching, taking it all in, working out the meaning of life, or not.

On the popular site Overheard in New York, anonymous posters often regale readers with hilarious, unselfconscious conversations pilfered from subway rides. By making such vulnerable moments public, New Yorkers find much-needed comedy in others' tragedy and, more subtly, find a source of common humanity. At any moment on any subway ride, someone -- whether they submit their observations to the site or not -- could be finding humor, hatred, or empathy in your behavior. Whether it is positive or not, we all relate to each other.

Los Angeles will never be, should never be, New York. Its residents relish the opportunity to blare music within their sound-proof car windows, to recline in their backyards rather than the scarce public parks. It is less intense and less vibrant, but it is more relaxed and even-keeled. A subway would not eradicate LA's unique character but would instead allow its residents to experience first-hand just how diverse that character is.