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Echo Park's Gentrification Woes

TO HEAR BARBARA RAUSCH TALK, it’s a wonder she even wants this job. She doesn’t get paid for it. The hours are long. Nobody ever says “thank you.” And the location? Not so safe, according to Rausch.

For proof, the 83-year-old Los Angeles native says she’ll show you the front door of one of the 54 Echo Park apartments she owns and point out the bullet holes left by a street gang. And when she reminisces about the old days in the neighborhood, she talks about how thieves would rappel the sides of her apartment buildings to steal. She doesn’t seem to like many of her neighbors either.

“If you don’t have gentrification, you have slums,” Rausch says. “Do they want to make sacrifices? No. A lot of people in Echo Park just want food stamps and to live off welfare.”

She must love her job, you’re thinking. That must be why she’s fighting to keep it. And you’d be wrong.

“Five arduous years,” she calls her time on the Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council, one of 88 such councils in the city of Los Angeles.

The councils, which were inaugurated in 2002, are the grass roots of the city’s political machine, charged with developing neighborhood consensus on the use of city parks, new development, issues related to the environment and cleaner and safer streets. Each neighborhood council receives $50,000 a year to spend on projects in its locale.

But in Echo Park, as in many of the neighborhood councils throughout the city, that sunny-sounding charter has devolved into screaming matches so filled with expletives, so laden with charges and countercharges of vote-rigging and class discrimination that the city clerk has taken over the elections and demanded that those running for council seats refrain from “mudslinging and profanity” in their candidate statements.

Some say the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, also known — and ridiculed — as DONE, and its equally bizarrely named Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) are out to squelch free speech and micromanage what kinds of personalities control the often-colorful neighborhood councils. As L.A.Weekly reported on January 23, some neighborhood groups, including the Vernon/Main Neighborhood Council in south L.A., have been dismantled by the city, while others have successfully fought back sometimes heavy-handed efforts by City Hall to reign them in, such as the Valley-based North Hills West Neighborhood Council.

Arleen Taylor, election-division chief with the L.A. Office of the City Clerk, said her office took over neighborhood-council elections throughout the city, following raucous meetings — but critics say local democracy isn’t pretty and is bound to be raucous, and that the city should stay out of it.

“We’re a disinterested party with no ax to grind. What we’re doing will allow neighborhood councils to do what they were intended to do, the fun stuff, like outreach to the community,” she insists.

Fun stuff? There wasn’t much of that going on in Echo Park as residents held their elections.

Incumbents like Rausch and Bennett Kayser, Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council vice president (who in the past has also run unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board and on the L.A. City Council), were swept out — and they are both now accusing city officials of badly muffing the election by failing to inform area voters about it.

One winner was Jose Sigala, who retained his seat as president of the 21-member council — and based his campaign on his effort to derail some of the other neighborhood-council members.

“There are a handful of people in the neighborhood who feel entitled to be involved,” he complained. Ida Talalla believes that the infighting is caused by the “old guard” of Echo Park property and business owners who “want to retain their power base and not allow new voices to be heard in an equitable manner.”

Talalla, also running for re-election in District 1, says the infighting is a symptom of a shift in demographics. Fifteen years ago, Echo Park was 80 percent minority — mostly Latino. Now, she says, the percentage of minorities hovers around 60 percent. That's thanks to the luxury apartments, home renovations by young couples and the growing gay population, and other development.

“It’s a sad commentary because the original people who started out on this council want to remain in power and don’t think minority groups can be of any help,” she alleges. “From my perspective, the mayor and the L.A. City Council have washed their hands of neighborhood councils.”

Not that Villaraigosa could actually do anything about the vitriol among neighbors.

Talalla says that last October, she was one of four candidates, including Larry Pickens, a friend of the incumbents on the Echo Park council. She claims the council insisted on keeping Pickens on the ballot even though he had died three weeks before the election.

Pickens won.