Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ethan N. Elkind's "Railtown"

Ethan Elkind is an attorney who researches and writes on environmental law for the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He also has an appointment at the UCLA School of Law Environmental Law Center and Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment. His areas of focus include land use, transportation, electric vehicles, energy storage, and renewable energy.

Here Elkind dreamcasts a big screen adaptation of his new book, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City:
Railtown presents a history of the modern urban rail system in Los Angeles, so it features many current and recent leaders in the entertainment capital. The early story focuses on Tom Bradley, the grandson of former slaves who was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1973 -- one of the first African American mayors of a major city. Bradley was a determined and passionate leader, but politically he was cautious and sometimes taciturn, earning the nickname “The Sphinx.” Terrence Howard might capture Bradley’s dignity, affability, and calculating nature well.

Current U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman figures in the story as someone who tries to stop rail in Los Angeles at the last minute, for less-than-admirable reasons. He ultimately relents but not until doing serious damage to the system’s effectiveness. Paul Giamatti could play Waxman as a plotting opponent of the system who still believes in the righteousness of his position.

Other local leaders include Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, a folksy, pat-on-the-back, old-time politician representing a largely African American district. Hahn helped get the rail system launched in Los Angeles on a shoestring campaign in 1980, and then he cajoled and pressured his colleagues to approve the first rail line in his district. Matthew McConaughey could have fun with this role, as someone who ultimately gets his way through convivial but shrewd arm-twisting.

Opposing Hahn and Bradley was arch-conservative supervisor Pete Schabarum, a former 49ers football player who once unrepentantly bowled over a grandmother in a home plate collision during a softball game, sending her to the hospital. Schabarum was ultimately ineffective at stopping the system, employing sometimes ridiculous strategies that backfired on him. He could be played by Josh Brolin, who could draw on his George W. Bush role in W.

Former news anchorman-turned-politician Baxter Ward, known for his ideological attachment to rail from his boyhood days with toy trains, was an early rail booster who nonetheless clashed with his fellow rail proponents due to his unwillingness to compromise. He could be a good role for Fred Willard, perhaps in a nod to Willard’s Anchorman role.

Anti-rail, pro-bus socialist Eric Mann slowed the rail system through a lawsuit that he hoped would convict rail leaders of racist crimes for ignoring low-income, minority bus riders in favor of middle class, white rail commuters. He could be played by Tim Robbins, while Michael Peña could play Mann’s colleague and fellow activist Manuel Criollo.

Not many women figure in the story, but Kathy Bates could fit the part of local anti-rail neighborhood activist Diana Plotkin, who vigorously opposes rail and other development in her neighborhood, often at the expense of the regional good. Nora Dunn could play rail commissioner Jackie Bacharach, a seemingly “goodie two-shoes” political leader who ultimately proved quite savvy at getting her favored policies implemented.

Ultimately, any movie made about this history would have to involve an ensemble cast, as decision-making in Los Angeles is as decentralized as the the city is sprawling. With so many people in charge, it almost seems like no one is.
Learn more about the book and author at Ethan N. Elkind's website and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue