Why One Strong Towns Member Chose to Run for City Council

Josef Bray-Ali is a Strong Towns member and safe streets advocate who runs a bike shop in Los Angeles called Flying Pigeon LA. He’s also currently running for the District 1 seat on the Los Angeles City Council. (You may have seen his article a couple weeks ago about recovering his stolen bike.)

We recently asked him about his decision to run for City Council and the influence of Strong Towns on his thinking. Here’s his response.

Joe, his daughter and their dog bike to school

Joe, his daughter and their dog bike to school

I never looked towards city hall and thought, "Oh gee, I want to be a city councilman." I am more comfortable being a barefoot hippy riding bikes, but something in me changed in 2015. The short version is that Chuck's "Keep doing what you can to help build strong towns" podcast sign-off really has hit home with me.

I'm not interested in the job of being a fancy politician — but I am deeply interested in doing whatever I can to build a strong district with safe streets. 

Beginning the fight for safer streets

I started a bike co-op in 2005 and launched a 10 year journey that turned me into a bike advocate, a civic and urban planning enthusiast, and a local expert in the politics of transportation planning. In 2008 and 2009, I got engaged with a bunch of neighbors to get our main street (North Figueroa Street) included in the bike plan. After years of rallies, rides, protests, letters, committee hearings, a $1 million environmental document preparation process (for our $250,000 road diet) we ended up empty-handed with a real-life body count of people killed in crashes we wanted to prevent. (You can read more about that journey here.)

North Figueroa today is as dangerous as its ever been, but not because of a lack of space or money. It is dangerous because of one man: the current councilman. He stepped into office in 2013 and, for no apparent reason, stopped the road diet.

The fight to force him to a decision on the issue was bruising. I pushed myself to the absolute limit and fought with every available resource I had to grow a community group to support this street safety plan — and we lost. I was physically sick, my small bike shop was nearly done for, and I hadn't really seen my kid and wife for months because I spent most of my time bouncing between community events and meetings, sleeping in my shop and waking up to do work and head out again.

That all came to a close in 2014, and since then people have continued to die and be terribly injured on North Figueroa — a classic streetcar right of way that is now a classic stroad.

Deciding to run for city council

I started reaching out to different folks in 2015 to find out how we could get the current councilman out of office in 2017. I figured I was having my interests crushed because "the fix was in" and anyone on a bike was not welcome in Council District 1. This is true, but not entirely.

It turns out that the current councilman isn't just mad at bike riders; he's not happy with anyone who is not in his direct political control. Anyone that he doesn't directly owe a favor to, or that doesn't owe him a favor, is completely cut out of massive life-changing decisions in city hall. And it doesn't matter who you are, what you're doing, or how important it is to this district. Pay your tithe, command major media attention or (in the case of safe streets advocates) literally go die in the street.

Joe at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center during a neighborhood gathering

Joe at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center during a neighborhood gathering

Youth soccer leagues? Get lost. Community clean up and up-cycling (better than recycling!) organization? Seeya. Non-profit community gardens? Who cares? The list of ignored and spurned community leaders is massive. Trust me, I've been compiling it to help win the election in 2017.

He's governing using a very cynical style that, if not pioneered in Los Angeles, has defined much of this city's governance throughout the late 20th century until the 1992 riots. The style, a racket really, can be described thus: Occupy the seat of power in the poorest district in the city; do nothing to work with people trying to improve conditions; use the growing squalor and dysfunction to make the case that you alone have the power to "fix" things; consolidate resources under your banner, shutting out any would-be rivals and stopping any potential do-gooders using any means necessary; repeat until riots break out.

I believe in another path. There are never going to be enough city resources to "fix" the problems Los Angeles' 1st Council District faces. It was gerrymandered in 2012 into being the district with the poorest residents, the highest percent of foreign-born residents, and the highest percent of renters. It has had every significant cultural and economic area excised from its boundaries.

And yet!

And yet there are heroic efforts underway in every single neighborhood and precinct in this district that are bottom-up answers to the needs of each community. All they require are small amounts of logistical, financial, legal, and bureaucratic assistance from the council office. Of course, there are macro-economic problems, federal problems, state problems, and citywide zoning problems we can't hope to address in the short term. But there is so much we can do in the short term, using next to zero new resources, to meet the needs of the many and to grow our collective power to drastically affect change on those larger issues.

One small example (drawn from my time as a project manager for a housing construction company) is the high-risk nature of adding a small dwelling unit to an existing single family home. An equity line of credit these days is very easy to get due to the housing crisis, gentrification, and rapidly appreciating property values in Los Angeles. Using that equity line to build a small studio or one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is a gamble of monumental proportions for any single-family homeowner. Having gone through all sorts of permit applications while working as a project manager, I am intimately familiar with the process.

Chuck’s command at the end of each podcast actually made a difference, to get me to do what I can to build a strong town.

Each city councilmember in Los Angeles has a staff of 20 to 25 full time employees and an annual budget of a couple million dollars. Our city council office should be on the front lines with technical assistance, an on-staff structural engineer, a plan check specialist, a transportation engineer — people who can take care of our affordable housing crisis without needing to beg city departments for resources; without needing to build 15 story skyscrapers; without having to spend twice the money per square foot for large subsidized housing projects.

Right now, we don't have a balanced approach. We don't have any approach. We have stasis and cronyism for those who can afford access.

So, why am I running? I live here, I want to do the work I see not being done in city hall, and I have a skill set that can get that work done. I'm not interested in the job; I'm interested in the work — the work of building safe streets and strong neighborhoods.

Chuck's command at the end of each podcast actually made a difference, at least in my life, to get me to do what I can to build a strong town (or in this case, a strong district).

(All photos from Joe4CD1 instagram)

More Strong Towns success stories

Joe and his daughter biking on Father's Day

About the author

Josef “Joe” Bray-Ali was born in Los Angeles and earned his B.A. from UCSB. He’s worked as an archaeologist with the National Park Service, a field representative for Assemblymember Rudy Bermudez, and as a project manager for a residential housing company. In 2008 Joe and his brother Adam opened the Flying Pigeon LA bike shop. Best known for his work in bicycle advocacy and street safety campaigns like Figueroa For All, Bray-Ali is also the founder of the community bike repair collective, The Bike Oven, which began in his Highland Park garage in 2005. He has organized and led hundreds of free community bike tours to art galleries, parks, local breweries, restaurants, and dim sum parlors across the county. 

The middle son of a mixed-ethnicity couple, he and his wife, Susan, have a young daughter and live in Lincoln Heights. He can be spotted most weekday mornings riding his daughter to school on his bicycle. His City Council campaign website is here, and you can also find him on TwitterInstagram and Facebook