Can You Hear Them Now? 

Unlikely activists shoot down Palisades cell-phone tower

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

The deliberations of the West L.A. Planning Commission may not sound like anyone’s idea of a rip-roaring good time, but on a recent Wednesday evening they gave rise to a strangely gripping piece of community theater.

Flooding the room were more than a hundred incensed residents of the Riviera section of Pacific Palisades. Their gleaming SUVs and BMW convertibles might have looked out of place on the unlovely corner of Sepulveda and Exposition boulevards, but they were gathered here with an unswerving sense of purpose.

The object of their disaffection was a 62-foot cell-phone transmission tower that AT&T Wireless wanted to erect on Riviera County Club grounds. AT&T argued that the neighborhood needed the coverage, but the residents, all of them sporting pink-and-black “NO AT&T Tower” badges, were here to make it known they wouldn’t stand for an ugly imitation tree blanketing their children with low-level electromagnetic radiation.

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The AT&T team — a fake-blond flack and a lawyer in a bad suit who had been flown in from San Francisco — was looking surprisingly nervous, especially given that it had won the previous round with the city zoning administrator. Its nerves might have had something to do with the militancy in the air or with the fact that the Riviera residents had hired the best land-use lawyers in town, from the firm of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro.

During the hearing, the AT&T lawyer, Paul Albritton, kept referring to the proposed monopole tower as a tree. “It’s not a tree!” screamed the audience. Then Albritton found he had no really good answer when asked whether AT&T had looked seriously into other possible sites from which to transmit. “It’s difficult to find a location to put these towers,” he concluded plaintively, under the withering gaze of the sharply dressed sharks from Jeffer Mangels.

At one point, Albritton was interrupted in midflow so the clerk could change the audiocassette recording the proceedings. “Shall I tell you a joke?” he suggested nervously while he was waiting. “You are a joke!” yelled Jessica Teich, a normally well-mannered author and mother who had fought the cell tower on and off for the previous six months. The room dissolved in laughter.

The scene was just the latest battle in the ever-expanding war against cell towers — in the Palisades, in residential neighborhoods across L.A., indeed, across the country. The issue, in each case, is more or less the same: The phone companies want to extend their coverage, often in competition with each other for the same chunk of territory, while the grassroots activists fret about the potentially scary, but still largely unknown, health effects on residents living in the immediate shadow of the towers.

The fights against cell towers haven’t attracted much media attention, but they brim with passion and a surprising degree of political savvy. In L.A., bitter battles have been waged and, for the most part, won, everywhere from Silver Lake and Studio City to Mar Vista and Malibu. They have been organized entirely on a volunteer basis by stay-at-home mothers, by underemployed actors or, in one case, by a Vietnamese manicurist who spread the word to her customers even as she trimmed down their cuticles.

The Palisades is perhaps the biggest flashpoint of all: an area of exceptionally high demand for cell phones and other wireless gadgets forever being frustrated by the limitations of the hilly terrain. At the same time, it’s a neighborhood full of highly educated, well-resourced people with a natural tendency to worry about commercial vulgarity and even the tiniest environmental disturbance to their own and their children’s well-being.

Every part of my body says this is not okay,” said Diane Binder, one of the Riviera campaigners and a mother of two elementary school children whose house looks out directly onto the part of the country club where AT&T wanted to mount its multipanel antenna. “It’s like the Indians standing in front of the railroad.”

Protest campaigns are new to people like Binder. “I’ve never picketed in my life,” she said, sounding mildly shocked at the very idea. “I’ve never even held a sign.” But the cell-tower issue has energized Riviera residents like nothing else. A few months ago, Binder put a giant banner on a lawn reading “Recreation, not radiation!” She attended regular community meetings and fired off a sharply worded letter to the Riviera County Club’s general manager, in which she made ruthless fun of the assertion that the tower could make a difference in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. “I have lived in this area all my life,” she wrote, “through the Watts riots of 1965, the Sylmar quake of ’71, the L.A. riots of ’92, the Northridge quake of ’94, and many things in between, all without the help of AT&T.”

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