It's around 9:30 p.m. on a brisk Wednesday night in Silver Lake, and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, an affable, native New Yorker who takes an inner satisfaction, if not outright glee, in redefining conventional wisdom, is looking to blow off a little steam. Wrapped in a bright, multicolored poncho that was made in Peru, Herman-Wurmfeld and friend Amy Clarke decide to take a Metro bus to Craft Night at low-key, gay bar Akbar, on Sunset Boulevard, and nearly a mile away. On the way, Herman-Wurmfeld, 47, and Clarke, in her 30s, a self-described "eclectic" pianist and mother who studied at Georgetown University to be a foreign diplomat, listen to a young friend complain about a proposed gang injunction that covers Echo Park and part of Silver Lake. As the bus moves slowly westward along Sunset Boulevard and past upscale men's fashion retailer MRKT and the swanky Black Cat restaurant, they nod sympathetically.
Both Herman-Wurmfeld and Clarke are board members on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, which had just ended another night's work inside the Micheltorena Street Elementary School auditorium. Things did not go well for the two friends — a majority of their colleagues voted to table a motion, which Herman-Wurmfeld and Clarke supported, to oppose the gang injunction sought by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. (Weeks later, that vote comes up again before the neighborhood group, with combustible results.)
When Herman-Wurmfeld and Clarke arrive at Akbar, they head into a dimly lit room behind the bar, where Silver Lakers ranging in age from perhaps 20 to mid-40s are crowded companionably at long tables. As they drink a cocktail or two, with a glue gun they busily add glitter and other decorations to key chains. Julianna Parr, the gregarious Echo Park artist who hosts the weekly gathering, sums up Craft Night's mission: "To draw out the unrealized talents of Los Angeles' artistic community in an arena of bohemia and generosity," she says with an impish smile.
Herman-Wurmfeld, director of the movies Kissing Jessica Stein and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, starts adding torn bits of a dollar bill to his key chain. He's ruminating over the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, a city-funded, 21-member elected body, which tries to influence policymaking among L.A. City Hall's entrenched politicians and bureaucrats.
"Consensual reality is just that, consensual," says Herman-Wurmfeld, a decidedly youthful, idealistic Gen Xer known to most as simply Charlie. "So if you don't consent, everything is up for negotiation."
His "up with people" view of L.A.'s heavily top-down power structure draws eye rolls from some Silver Lake baby boomers, such as Paul Neuman, also a member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. But of course it would, since Neuman's day job is to spin the latest City Hall events and misdeeds in a positive light, as the paid spokesman for City Councilman Paul Koretz.
Neuman half-kiddingly describes Herman-Wurmfeld as the "head of the Utopian wing" of Silver Lake's neighborhood council. Neuman says Herman-Wurmfeld and the members of the millennial generation who tend to make up Charlie's crowd "don't do their homework" before suggesting fixes or offering ideas. Neighborhood Council member Barbara Ringuette, who is in her 60s and a baby boomer, worries that Herman-Wurmfeld and his many friends have "anarchistic" tendencies.
More than just a friendly tiff, the emotional dispute over the proposed Silver Lake gang injunction — which will be decided by a judge — and dueling worldviews within the community have cemented an undeniable fact: This bohemian enclave of 30,972 people is going through a full-blown, divisive identity crisis.
Never mind that Forbes magazine deemed Silver Lake last year the "Best Hipster Neighborhood" in the United States, or that Money magazine declared it one of the country's top 10 "Best Big-City Neighborhoods" last month. Or that L.A.'s modish mayor, Eric Garcetti, lives there. Behind the scenes of this urban paradise, an old-guard, liberal establishment that's been comfortable letting L.A.'s political power structure run things from downtown — such as applying new density development in once-sleepy areas — now consistently bangs heads with younger, Occupy L.A.–aligned artists, college graduates and laid-back misfits out to disrupt the old arrangement.
And all is not well in America's trendiest locale.
While deep-pocketed investors open boutiques selling such items as a $160 iPad case or a $900 leather-flannel shirt, on the tonier stretches of Sunset, Glendale and Silver Lake boulevards near Silver Lake Reservoir, a recently released Los Angeles City Health Atlas shows that other sections of Silver Lake close to the 101 freeway endure high unemployment, troubling poverty, an education deficit and serious health and quality-of-life problems.
"We need to figure out what's most important in our community," says Alex De Ocampo, who unsuccessfully ran for L.A. City Council this year in Hollywood, a seat won by Mitch O'Farrell. Sitting in his Volkswagen in front of his old family home in Silver Lake, he marveled as a white, tattooed millennial wearing a baseball cap and holding a pit bull on a leash came out of the building where he'd once cared for his dying father. "C'mon, look at that — that's a hipster," De Ocampo says.