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The new boss Garcetti in his city hall office
Michele Asselin for TIME

It’s 2:45 P.M. on a Wednesday, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is in the backseat of a black Chevy Tahoe that’s inching its way to city hall along the 101 freeway. This stretch of the often clogged road is eight lanes, but there are so many cars on it that everyone is moving at about 20 m.p.h. (32 km/h), a single mass of steel and glass lurching toward downtown.

Just a few hours earlier, Garcetti was traveling a lot faster. To get to an event in Universal City, about 10 miles (16 km) from his office, Garcetti took the city’s Red Line subway, which can reach speeds of up to 70 m.p.h. (113 km/h)–a pace L.A.’s rush-hour drivers can only dream about. Persuading more Angelenos to take the train could go a long way toward solving one of L.A.’s most intractable problems. “We don’t need people to completely give up their cars,” he says while holding onto a pole on the Red Line. “But right now, we average 1.1 people per car. If we could get that to 1.6, the traffic problem would go away.”

In L.A., cars are a source of smog, billions of dollars in lost productivity every year and endless frustration for residents. “Every working person plans their life around traffic in this town,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles County supervisor and longtime friend of Garcetti’s. “Building a transportation infrastructure is something that needs to be focused on, and Eric gets that.” Should Garcetti, 43–who was elected in May as the youngest mayor of L.A. in more than a century–ever manage to get the freeways flowing, it would be a triumph. And it would only begin to cure what ails L.A.

Los Angeles’ structural problems are daunting. The city has fewer jobs now than it did in 1990, with a regional unemployment rate that is more than 2 points higher than the national average. L.A. is also buckling under health care and pension costs and is scaling back public services to compensate. The 2014–15 budget is projected to be $242 million in the red. As the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a group of business, labor and public-sector leaders charged by the city council with diagnosing the region’s ills, put it in a December report, “Los Angeles is barely treading water while the rest of the world is moving forward.”

To get L.A. moving again, voters turned to Garcetti, the half-Mexican, half-Jewish, Oxford-educated city-council president, who speaks Spanish effortlessly as he slides among different worlds. Garcetti’s diverse background made him an ideal candidate in a town that’s half Latino and more than 30% foreign-born and where more than 200 languages are spoken in the streets. Exit polls showed that Garcetti garnered strong support from almost every part of L.A. and across nearly all ethnic, education and age groups–a particular feat in this sprawling city that often feels more like a collection of individual neighborhoods than one large metro.

Now that he’s in office, Garcetti will need the cultural finesse that served him so well as a candidate in order to navigate L.A.’s diffuse power structure. Unlike the mayors of New York City and Chicago, who oversee the budget, the school system and most city services, L.A.’s leader has to share power with Los Angeles County, which oversees the health and social-services departments, and a host of municipal districts that control the schools, water and other public services. The county, which has its own elected leaders, includes 87 cities in addition to L.A., all of which have their own top officials. It is not a dynamic that rewards flying solo–one reason Garcetti held a reception for the county’s other mayors at his official residence three months after taking office, the first time such a gathering had been convened. “In order to succeed,” says city-council president Herb Wesson, “you have to have partners, and I don’t think Eric thinks he can do it alone.”

Nearly a year into his first term, Garcetti has tried to pile up victories on issues he can control, such as overhauling the fire department and deploying repair teams to fix sidewalks and potholes in every neighborhood of the city. He’s also embraced his role as L.A.’s head cheerleader, extolling the city’s inherent virtues–great weather, top universities and a bustling international airport and seaport–to business leaders as he seeks to drum up private investment. That’s vital if he hopes to reduce the region’s 9% unemployment rate and retain a middle class that has been shrinking for two decades.

The Modern Mayor

It probably helps that Garcetti was born into L.A.’s power structure. His father Gil Garcetti was the Los Angeles County district attorney who prosecuted O.J. Simpson. But Garcetti was raised in the suburban comfort of the San Fernando Valley–a summer job mowing lawns, Little League games within walking distance of home. After college at Columbia University in New York City–where he wrote musicals in his spare time–Garcetti went to Oxford and the London School of Economics as a Rhodes scholar and traveled to Cambodia, Burma and Ethiopia to work and study. He considered a career on Capitol Hill or at the State Department. But that changed in 2001–after Garcetti had moved back to L.A. with Amy Wakeland, a fellow Rhodes scholar who became his wife–when a political operative he knew suggested he run for a vacant city-council seat representing Hollywood. “I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and I trust my gut on these things,” says Garcetti. “I was pretty sure I’d lose, but I’d be able to inject issues I cared about and be the only young person in the race. And I won.”

Garcetti threw himself into issues that helped revitalize his district, promoting pedestrian-friendly development and curbing graffiti. He joined the Naval Reserve and cultivated a reputation as a politician in sync with the city’s changing face. Garcetti and Wakeland renovated a home in Echo Park, a gentrified neighborhood on the city’s trendy east side, that was later featured in the modern-design magazine Dwell. Among the of-the-moment features touted were rooftop solar panels and a sustainable terraced garden in the backyard. It’s a far cry from the Tudor-style mayor’s residence Garcetti, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter moved into last fall. “It’s kind of like living in someone’s grandma’s house,” he says.

“His style kind of captures the mood of the city as it is now and as it’s evolved,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University at Los Angeles. “L.A. is a city that’s becoming more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan, and he has an intercultural fluency. He also has a pretty youthful sensibility.”

Garcetti’s profile rose quickly, and by 2006 he had been elected city-council president. When he ran for mayor against the union-backed city controller, Garcetti pledged to strengthen the city’s urban core. The campaign benefited from his cultural cachet and Hollywood ties. Salma Hayek and Jake Gyllenhaal, who’d gotten to know Garcetti on an environmental-advocacy trip to the North Pole, appeared in campaign videos and hosted a private movie screening, respectively. Will Ferrell promised to give out free waffles if Garcetti was elected. One fundraiser had the future mayor playing piano onstage with Moby–“He’s a friend,” Garcetti says by way of explanation.

Back to the Future

It’s not easy to change a place where, whatever its many challenges, the climate has a way of making things seem perfect nearly every day of the year. An understandable lack of intensity can set in, and the question is whether the region has the will to face its problems. Garcetti campaigned on a “back to basics” agenda, and he has avoided making too many grand promises about what he’ll do in office. It’s a lesson learned from his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who in two terms was unable to make good on a pledge to assume control of the school system. “Garcetti is far more low-key in style and has clearly been intent on underpromising and overperforming,” says Sonenshein.

His agenda remains a bit squishy. When I ask Garcetti to name his top priorities, he cites reforming L.A.’s bureaucracy and spurring economic development and then adds one more. “The third one is kind of recapturing L.A.’s soul,” he says, launching into a nostalgia tour about the 1984 Summer Olympics, held in the city when Garcetti was 13. “In 1984 the world looked to L.A. in a certain way, and we thought of ourselves in a certain way,” Garcetti says. “It was the cutting edge. It was the promised land, where anything was possible … It was the future.”

Garcetti wants L.A. to reclaim its reputation as the city of the future. He has hired the city’s first chief innovation-technology officer and pledged to use data analytics to guide budget allocations. He talks up a growing green-energy sector, a newly bustling downtown and a burgeoning tech-startup community in beachfront Venice. And he’s trying hard to lure foreign and federal investment. On the latter, Garcetti, who served as President Obama’s California co-chair during the 2008 campaign, has already produced results. L.A. was recently designated one of five federal Promise Zones, making it eligible for up to $500 million over 10 years to combat poverty. And in February, Garcetti announced that L.A. County’s transit authority would receive a $670 million federal grant to connect several light-rail lines downtown. Meanwhile, transportation officials are building a new line and extending an existing one west to the beach in Santa Monica. “L.A. has never been afraid to reinvent itself, and we have to do that at this moment,” he says from an overstuffed chair in his sunlit office. “If that means we used to be the car capital and now we’re going to be one of the better American cities for public transit, autonomous vehicles, bike and car share–I want this to be a platform for a reimagining of city life.”

But even the public-transit-mad mayor knows that trains aren’t his city’s default option. Garcetti may have hopped the Red Line to his speech in Universal City, but he was riding in the Tahoe afterward because he was pressed for time. L.A.’s subway often moves faster than the freeway traffic, but the route can be longer and require more time than wading through the gridlock. On the crowded Red Line train the day I rode with him, Garcetti said that 40% of L.A. residents–roughly 1.5 million people–would have to take public transportation regularly to alleviate the city’s traffic woes. No more than 14% do now. Still, he says, if 20% rode subways and buses, the traffic would stop getting worse.

Garcetti will need that skill for finding the bright side as he takes on issues more tangible than recapturing muni mojo. He wants the federal government to approve a $1 billion restoration of the moribund Los Angeles River. And as contract battles loom with municipal workers, Garcetti will need to extract concessions in pay, pensions and health care to help bring the city budget back from the brink.

For now, there seems to be a consensus that if Garcetti cannot take that trick, no one can. “Eric is better positioned than any politician in town,” says Yaroslavsky. “He’s not just the mayor of Los Angeles but the single most recognizable figure in the region. When somebody comes from the East Coast and wants to meet the mayor, they don’t want to meet the mayor of West Hollywood.”

But at least Garcetti can count on Hollywood if he needs it. The Sunday after his speech at Universal City, Garcetti was preparing for his first official international trip as mayor–a four-day swing through Mexico City. On his schedule before leaving: attend a prayer breakfast, throw out a pitch at a Little League game and stop by a TV shoot at city hall to film a spot in a pilot directed by Steve Carell. It’s still L.A., after all.

This appears in the March 31, 2014 issue of TIME.

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