Saturday, January 30, 2010

Surfliner Stories: poverty on the river

Amtrak's efficient Pacific Surfliner train runs from San Diego to Los Angeles and beyond, and slices through all aspects of class and culture. For part of its route it offers an ocean-side seat, barely above the beach, and a back-yard view into outrageously expensive ocean front properties. It chugs through abandoned orange groves north of San Juan Capistrano, and tomato fields south of IRvine, but then settles into a less scenic course through light industry and simple neighborhoods. THen from Fullerton into LA, the tracks go past heavy industry, rail yards, and scrap plants, before turning along the concrete channel that imprisons the poor Los Angeles river in the final run towards LA's Union Station.

Oddly, this is where the grime and grit of poverty and hopelessness are most apparent. THe sloping walls of the channel are painted and repainted with garish graffiti tags. Trash sprinkles the floor of the channel where the river looks dark green and greasy. The bridges that span the river, which were once elegant examples of civic architecture with elaborate finials and light standards, are grimy and graffiti'ed. Tucked under their struts amidst scraps of paper and weeds I can see an occasional tent, or a homeless person's shopping cart and makeshift shelter.

But one of the saddest encampments is the one that occupies the mouth of one of the culverts that opens into the river. It's about half way up the slick sloping sides of the channel, maybe 4 feet across. It is inset slightly, so there's a few feet of flat concrete in front of its gapping mouth, before tipping over the edge into the channel. There's a sheet hanging across the opening and a broken chair in front giving a somewhat desperate air of domesticity. Below it, at river level, there's a trash midden of discards.

I wonder, how does the resident get into that place? Does he scramble down the acute angle of the channel walls? Or does he use the culvert as a tunnel, and enter from the landward-side? WHat will he do when rainy season comes, and water pours through the culvert, or the river rises in the channel in a sudden and dangerous torrent?

It says a lot of us as a society (and not in a good way) that we tolerate people living under tarps along a railway line or in storm drains.

Originally posted at Daily Kos

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