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West Follywood 

How a progressive town founded on renters' rights and diversity ended up gridlocked, angry and elitist

Thursday, Apr 1 2010
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Page 4 of 8

Heilman's insistence that he didn't want to blow $150,000 of the people's money on an election — a claim that is pilloried by many critics, including Meister and former councilman Martin — gives Feng pause. "You have to be concerned with people in power — that they may be using the appointment process to get an advantage," she says. "You have to ask the question, 'Does [the appointee] basically fall in line and shift the debate' " to favor the views of certain elected officials? Horvath, with close ties to Heilman and Land, fits that profile.

West Hollywood elected leaders continually, almost incessantly, tout their municipal policies as "innovative" — thus, the banning of retail dog-and-cat sales, the rewriting of city codes to replace the word pet with companion, and their vote to prohibit the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Feng suggests that Heilman, Land, Duran and Prang could have held a very cheap "mail-in" election for the open council seat — an "innovation" now practiced in Burbank and the state of Oregon.

For about $50,000, Feng says, West Hollywood could not only have easily carried out a special election but also possibly generated a bigger and more enthused — and therefore far less predictable — voter turnout. As one top Democratic consultant who has run many Los Angeles–area campaigns notes, incumbents oppose "anything that would expand the base of voters," because that brings fresh eyes to the ballot box, and those residents are often "less supportive" of incumbents.

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While City Councilman Duran says Heilman has carried out "a vision" for the city, he still asks, "So is it time for a new vision — and to hand it over to other people?"

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.

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