Neoliberalism in the Barrio: A Case Study of the Metro Rail Gold Line Eastside Extension in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles

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Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez


In the past twenty years, light rail development has expanded rapidly across the United States as a result of federal policies. Previous research on light rail development has focused on positive environmental effects and weak economic returns while tending to ignore the social effects on communities impacted by construction such as displacement and economic revitalization. This case study analyzes the social effects of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA/Metro) Gold Line Eastside Extension on the communities of Boyle Heights and unincorporated East Los Angeles. I ask the following questions: Why is light rail such a popular tool for Metro? How did light rail development impact the communities and what are the implications for future extensions? This case study uses qualitative data gathered from six semi-structured interviews with both community insiders (residents and business owners) and outsiders (MTA personnel), field notes from a Metro community meeting in East L.A., and a content analysis of public documents as well as quantitative data from the U.S. Census and transit statistics gathered from 2000 to 2016. While the Eastside Extension of the Gold Line is a relatively new project (opened in 2009), noticeable urban renewal and economic revitalization efforts have taken place in tracts along the Gold Line’s corridor. However, the majority of residents in the area still travel by car and the extension has consistently low ridership. Thus, light rail itself is not profitable but development around light rail is a lucrative opportunity for private developers and public agencies like Metro. Light rail is one aspect of the larger neoliberal development plan in the county, which further grows class divisions in low-socioeconomic status neighborhoods to fulfill capitalist visions at the expense of community members’ desires. There is room for improvement to encourage more community participation by Metro and equitable economic development for minority business owners and residents by local governments. Metro and other public agencies should be more transparent about how they benefit from light rail development and how light rail is not the best solution to fix transportation issues in the region.


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