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In the home office of Ryan Gierach's apartment, a short walk from the French Market on Santa Monica Boulevard, the workhorse behind WeHoNews sits at a computer wide screen as his dog, WeHo, sleeps on the floor. Gierach wears a gray West Hollywood T-shirt and orange pants, and his head is shaved close. The Hollywood Hills can be seen out his window.
"My motto is, 'Sometimes you just have to build your wings on the way down,' " says Gierach, a purpose-driven, Midwestern native who works 60-hour weeks on his Web-based paper. "Sometimes you have to take that leap of faith."
Before Gierach started his Web site in 2005, he was a freelance journalist for such gay publications as The Advocate, Genre and Frontiers. In 2003, Arcadia Publishing, which produces the popular Images of America history books, asked him to write about West Hollywood.
In West Hollywood, Gierach explains how the 1.9 square miles of unincorporated Los Angeles County territory between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles morphed from a rail-yard settlement to a bustling Prohibition-era center for movie studios and speakeasies, where the rich and famous played hard.
"Drugs such as cocaine, ether and marijuana, not yet illegal, found favor among the new Hollywood stars through the Roaring Twenties," Gierach writes. "Drug peddlers and rum runners, pimps and hit men, gamblers and con men, all flourished in the lawless environment of West Hollywood."
By the 1940s and '50s, screenwriters, actors, set designers and the extended families of Jewish movie-studio executives had taken up residence. Gays and lesbians found a sanctuary in the bungalows and low-slung apartment buildings, all governed by the relatively loose policies of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and out of reach of the Los Angeles Police Department — then infamous for its brutal treatment of gays.
Rents were cheap, tolerance prevailed, and political beliefs were decidedly liberal.
But according to Gierach, soaring land values in Beverly Hills drove up housing costs in adjacent West Hollywood, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors began green-lighting towering hotel and condo projects, angering community activists who believed low- and middle-income residents would soon get squeezed out.
Around the same time, Jewish activists in West Hollywood were demanding that the Soviet Union allow Jews to move to the United States, which eventually attracted many Russian-speaking immigrants to West Hollywood.
The city's streets buzzed with political activity in 1984, when a grassroots coalition, including many Jewish seniors and young gay men, was formed — to wrest control over land-use decisions from the development-happy L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
Heilman and Land were among those activists who took on a powerful group of county politicians, wealthy land speculators and developers, and landlords who wanted the area to remain unincorporated and the rents uncontrolled.
Yet after writing his book years later, Gierach began to notice that West Hollywood was rarely in the news. The city had sometimes attracted headlines if movie star Halle Berry crashed her car in a hit-and-run or the City Council banned the declawing of cats. Although Beverly Press and L.A. Independent published some good articles, no newspaper was closely following West Hollywood's government.
"There was a huge need for news, and no one was covering it," says the editor.
Gierach launched WeHoNews.com in April 2005, intentionally staying away from the snarky vibe of a blog. He wrote five to six news stories every week, edited articles by more than 20 contributors, and published on Monday and Thursday. The Los Angeles Times began linking to the site, and last year WeHoNews got more than 600,000 unique hits.
Gierach and his contributors covered public-safety issues such as pedestrians getting hit by cars, the City Council elections of 2007 and 2009 and, of course, the seemingly endless luxury-hotel, retail and condo projects aimed at the monied. "I'm looking at all of this stuff with a healthy skepticism," Gierach says.
His work has not gone unnoticed by the powers that be.
"It's the best-read paper at City Hall," says Martin, now a WeHoNews contributor. "If I write something on Thursday, I'll hear all kinds of things by Monday."
Gierach and his freelancers cover West Hollywood as it is today: a city that caters more to money and bling than to past ideals.
His site has reported that Land received a $1,000 campaign contribution for her unsuccessful 2006 run for the California Assembly from IAC Corporation — less than 10 days after she supported the company in a dispute over an outdoor-advertising sign IAC said obscured the street view of its building. WeHoNews stood out for its blow-by-blow coverage of a heated controversy in which Heilman and Land fought preservationists trying to save a historic home known as Tara.
Most recently, a WeHoNews scoop revealed that Heilman and Land were trying to hurriedly push through a smoking ban on the iconic outdoor patios of West Hollywood restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Gierach says he now endures an "endless cannonade" from angry politicians and government workers in West Hollywood's City Hall. "Because I give a voice to the people, who have been voiceless for decades, there's been an effort by [Heilman's] minions to undercut WeHoNews' credibility."