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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, a city that can seem like it's all about image, that in fact manufacturers much of America's image as seen by the rest of the world. He's trying to focus instead on the basics. The city is Los Angeles and the new mayor, Eric Garcetti, says the city needs to update its aging infrastructure. Much of it dates back decades, to where LA was a very different place. And you see the problem as soon as you arrive. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

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KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: To understand Eric Garcetti's agenda, let's start here at the airport. LAX is how a lot of people are first introduced to this city. You'd be forgiven for mistaking some of its terminals for a cramped bus station. And stepping out onto the curb here can feel like an assault on the senses - horns, aggressive shuttle drivers, travelers jostling for taxis.

BURTON WEBB: It seems a little disorganized, at this point.

SIEGLER: First impressions for business traveler Burton Webb of Boise, Idaho? Ehh...

WEBB: I prefer airports that have good access to trains, you can get into town easily.

SIEGLER: Not in LA. This is a city of almost 4 million people, with one of the busiest airports in the world, with no train into the city - at least, not yet. Messy, chaotic LAX is emblematic of everything that Mayor Garcetti wants to change here.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: I think the basics have been neglected for too long. And it's the foundation I have to lay in the first few years, if I'm going to kind of write the next chapter of LA.

SIEGLER: Garcetti likes to say that he wants to reinvent LA and promote its diversity, its food, its innovators - but first, those basics. For starters, there are enough streets to stretch a four-lane highway from here to France. And many are battered with potholes. There is a Metro rail system, but it's limited. LA covers 469 square miles. Just getting across this city that's sliced up by freeways can seem heroic.

GARCETTI: We destroyed our public transit system from the '30s and '40s and '50s, and so we're in the process of rebuilding it. A bigger program than anywhere in the U.S., but a long way to go.

SIEGLER: A lifelong Angelino and former city councilman, Garcetti has quickly developed a reputation as understated. You're not likely to spot him in public making a grandiose announcement. He seems most at ease talking about things like infrastructure.

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GARCETTI: All right. Since we've got a lot of photographers, this is like a Hollywood Walk of Fame picture. Go to the left...

SIEGLER: This recent groundbreaking for a new, voter-approved train line connecting a neglected neighborhood with the airport was an opportunity for the mayor to tout his transportation agenda. For years, lawsuits and infighting have prevented a train from reaching LAX.

GARCETTI: We're investing 36 billion local dollars to relieve traffic, to build a city that isn't so dependent on everybody owning a car.

SIEGLER: The new mayor's schedule is crowded with stops like these - an early morning promoting transit here in South LA, a 10 a.m. trip to Korea Town to launch his neighborhood blitz pothole repair initiative, a speech in the suburban San Fernando Valley about conserving water.

GARCETTI: I would never mistake understated style for a lack of ambitious policies.

SIEGLER: Still, they're not nearly as ambitious as those of Garcetti's predecessor, the flashy Antonio Villaraigosa. Right out of the gate, Villaraigosa made big plans, trying to wrestle more control of one of the nation's largest public school districts. He was also a rising star in the national Democratic Party. But politics and personal problems caused Villaraigosa's influence to fade.

Sherry Bebitch-Jeffe teaches public policy at the University of Southern California. She says Garcetti watched Villaraigosa's tenure closely, and wisely went the other way.

SHERRY BEBITCH-JEFFE: Angelinos don't want big promises, don't want glitz. What they want is to be left alone; to do what they need to do to live their lives, to maybe get the traffic situation under control.

SIEGLER: But Garcetti has barely been in office eight months. And Bebitch-Jeffe notes his leadership has yet to be truly tested with a major event like a disaster. And Garcetti isn't exactly low-profile, either, when it comes to national politics. He regularly appears for photo ops around town with senior White House officials.

GINA MCCARTHY: So that we can work through these challenges together. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGLER: One rare rainy morning, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy came to have a look at Garcetti's plan to restore the LA River. It's more concrete storm drain than river and has long been the brunt of local jokes. The mayor addressed a small crowd along a restored section of the waterfront where native plants had started to flourish.

GARCETTI: Here we used to have our back to the river. Today, we're beginning to turn our faces to the river again, to see the beauty of it, to make sure we get the pollution out of it...

SIEGLER: But in a sign of the challenges still ahead, Garcetti and the EPA chief had to cancel their plans to kayak here. The rain sent runoff pollution into the storm drains that feed the river, so it wasn't safe for them to get in the water.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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