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Joel Epstein Headshot

If I Forget Thee O Los Angeles Public Transportation

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On a recent trip to Turkey, I saw firsthand how lives and communities could be displaced when larger issues like war and nationalism intrude. Here in LA our displacement is generally of our own making and of a more innocuous variety. Our love of the car and our insatiable appetite for homes farther and farther away from our jobs have meant a built environment in which relatively few have access to fast and efficient fixed rail transportation or bus rapid transit (BRT). But this need not be our eternal fate. Measure R, dimmed but not extinguished hopes for the 30/10 Initiative and a new and improved Metro mean we have the will and at least some of the cash to build the public transportation system Angelenos need and deserve. Which is why it is so critical that we take advantage of LA's good bones, and Metro's ample rights of way, to build out the best surface and underground transportation system we can afford to build. Not just for our children, but for those of us who choose today to ride transit rather than stressfully commute to work by car.

Last month, the good news started with a Metro Board vote on the route for the Wilshire subway to the VA and an injection of federal cash for the new Crenshaw Line. Later this week, Thursday morning to be precise, the Metro Board will vote on the shape of the Wilshire BRT. Let's all hope it's a vote for a true BRT with a dedicated lane along the entire route including Wilshire between Comstock and Selby through the Condo Canyon. Ditto for the stretch between Centinela and the 405.

As I approached a half century recently I found myself reflecting on why it is so important that we do what matters to us in life and make the most of our time here on the planet. The temporal nature of things was driven home for me most profoundly while visiting Ayvalik, a once Greek Christian town along the shimmering Aegean not too far from Izmir, Turkey. Ayvalik is off the beaten path, so most travelers don't get to the little fishing village. And I wouldn't have either but for the wise counsel of Mr. Happy, the proprietor of the cozy Liman Hotel, in Kusadasi near Ephesus in Southern Turkey. Even after visiting the ruins at Ephesus and recovering from the 12-hour overnight bus trip from Istanbul I was in no mood to get on another endless bus ride. As much as I love mass transit, I needed to break up the trip back to Istanbul. I'd been to Izmir years before and though I'd loved it, I was in the market for a new destination. Mr. Happy's reply was quick and self-assured. Ayvalik, and then Canakkale across the Dardanelles from the famous World War I battlefields of Gallipoli, and within easy striking distance of Istanbul. This would break up the trip back to the city on the Bosphorus and would expose me to important parts of Turkey's past.

As I learned from Lonely Planet and Wikipedia, until 1922 and the Turkish War of Independence, Ayvalik was home to a large Greek population. Following the war, the Greek population was exchanged by the Turks for Muslims from Greek territories and other formerly held Ottoman Turkish lands. Visiting Ayvalik, I can't imagine the disruption that the war and the subsequent 1923 agreement on the exchange of Greek and Turkish populations caused to those affected. Most of the new arrivals that replaced the former Greek community were Muslim Turks.

In Ayvalik and neighboring Alibay, a beautiful peninsula that juts out into the sea, the scars of the 1920s remain fresh, as if they had recently occurred. Wander a block or two beyond the seaside restaurants, Internet cafes, and shops that line the waterfront and one sees countless empty stone buildings, the former homes and shops of Greek residents. It is nearly 2011 and yet it is still haunting to see the empty Greek homes, and churches turned into mosques, by the "new" residents.

I am not a religious man but I have long known by heart the exhortation in Psalm 137, "If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning." Having visited picturesque but deeply scarred Ayvalik, I won't soon forget its broken down stone buildings, a memorial to those forced to leave their homes and rebuild their lives in a new land.

If you visit Ayvalik the place to stay, by the way, is the Istanbul Pansiyon. Recently opened, the pension, which is housed in a lovely, restored stone Greek house, has a half dozen rooms, some with private bath. I had a delicious breakfast in the garden underneath a large pomegranate tree.

Just as I won't forget Ayvalik, so too we should not forget our commitment to making LA a more transit-oriented city. We have the rights of way and now we even have some of the money needed to build what needs to be built.

Let's not miss this opportunity to construct a real BRT on Wilshire Blvd, the subway to the VA (and beyond) and the Green Line to Torrance along the existing train tracks.

This morning on the bus, a fellow commuter struck up a conversation with me about her being a new transit rider. She said she'd been moved to ride by LA's terrible traffic and poor air quality and to set an example for her daughter, a high school student.

LA needs more commuters like this fellow Metro rider. Commuters who won't forget that public transportation in Los Angeles is the better way to go.