Hell Hath No Fury Like a Watchdog Scorned
The most powerful woman in Hollywood? Fran Reichenbach, the self-proclaimed watchdog. (Photo by Wendy Kimpton)
A homeless man slowly stretches in the morning sun, eyeing the three volunteers, dressed in orange vests, hardhats, T-shirts and steel-toed boots, below him.
“He is having a lazy Sunday,” says Joan Vanderbur, who, along with fellow Hollywood residents George Abrahams and Laura Dodson, has been staking this guy out. “Just kicking back.”
As far as homeless encampments go, this one isn’t so bad. Tucked among some brush just below the 101 freeway off Cahuenga Boulevard, it’s secluded, spacious, and blocks away from the dangers of Hollywood Boulevard, where homeless youths and adults sleep, live and use the health clinics, drop-in centers and feeding programs that line a mile-long stretch between Gower Street and Van Ness Avenue. It is an area commonly plagued by crime, drugs and hopelessness. The homeless man found this spot a few days earlier, but the jig is up, because Abrahams stumbled upon the man’s makeshift home at about the same time. The wiry, middle-aged bachelor had already taken the homeless guy’s sleeping bag. Confiscated, too, were the belongings the homeless man had stashed in the brush. Abrahams thought that would be enough to roust the guy, but his presence this morning has thrown a wrench into the works for the zealous activist. Abrahams fears an altercation and calls the California Highway Patrol for assistance. A call to CHP dispatch has been a regular weekend ritual since another homeless man chased Abrahams and Dodson after they attempted to make off with his belongings.
“They get angry when they are woken up,” says Dodson, an owner and one of the occupants of a two-story apartment building in Hollywood.
The trio spends most Sundays scouring the 101 freeway underpasses from Gower Street to Cahuenga Boulevard as part of the Adopt-a-Highway program, which allows volunteers to take responsibility for cleaning small stretches of freeways and state property as long as they register and watch a 30-minute safety video. The instructions are no-brainers, but there are a few warnings. The two biggies are don’t pick up syringes and don’t mess with homeless encampments. Perhaps these three need to watch the video again.
“We are down here in the trenches,” says Dodson, who, along with Abrahams and the Franklin-Hollywood Hills Community Council (FHHCC), received a Volunteer of the Year award from Caltrans in 2004. “We don’t have to pick up syringes, but we do. The recommendation is for the average person not to do it. If we leave it here, it is a problem. We found 75 syringes in one day.”
To emphasize Dodson’s point, Abrahams shuffles over to his white van and presents a large wicker basket full of plastic bottles. Inside them are dozens of used syringes that the highly motivated threesome picked up in the last four months.
“This is evidence,” says Abrahams, who plans to show the bottles to city officials. As he walks away from his van, Abrahams points toward broken glass on the street from a car that had its windows broken. “It’s the bums,” he adds. “Each smashed window represents a car break-in. [City officials] are using us as an experiment. By exposing the homeless to us, they will be okay. No one has shelters but Hollywood and downtown. They are just trying to make themselves feel good. Anyone who helps them are enablers. They are immoral.”
Dodson and Abrahams, who has lived in his childhood home in the Hollywood Hills since 1959, are the self-proclaimed watchdogs of Hollywood. The two clean up homeless encampments regularly. When local police or politicians refuse to act, they take matters into their own hands. They are foot soldiers who get their marching orders from Fran Reichenbach, a 53-year-old Hollywood housewife, newspaper publisher and tireless community organizer.
“She has the stars on her helmet; she’s the general,” says Abrahams. “She’s a wonderful leader and I’m happy to march in any direction she says.”
Reichenbach is considered by some to be a patron saint for her efforts to clean up Hollywood. To others, she is NIMBY-ism incarnate.
Reichenbach has ruffled the feathers of local politicians, social-service providers and numerous business owners. Over the years, Reichenbach’s foes have called her a Nazi and a racist. She has orchestrated public protests and has shown a particular genius for starting neighborhood groups to block any civic or commercial projects that raise her ire. So far her organizations have thwarted plans for a needle-exchange program, a new fire station and a Whole Foods Market in her beloved Hollywood. She is currently attempting to stop a planned $20 million project in Hollywood that would provide stable homes for the homeless.
Although her neighborhood groups boast hundreds of quasi-members, it is the same dozen or so people who show up at meetings and protests. She claims to represent Hollywood “stakeholders,” but some people wonder who these stakeholders are.
“Fran has a band of 20 followers,” says Bill Hooey, the spokesperson for Florentine Gardens, a nightclub that was involved in a brusing two-year dispute with Reichenbach and her allies, over a much-debated fire station. “She has a list of city numbers. She knows whom to call and what to say. You can move the world and she knows that. She is good. She is not a real community person, but she is good at what she is doing.”
Reichenbach organizes meetings stacked with her followers, relentlessly lobbies officials and orchestrates savvy street-level public-relations campaigns. Recently, a plan to create permanent housing for the homeless in Hollywood caught her off-guard.
“I had surgery on my shoulder,” the tall, willowy blond says by way of explaining how such a plan could have made it this far without her considerable input. “I took three weeks off, and during that time the housing agenda came up. Momma bear was sick and I was not able to watch the thing happen. It is really poor leadership . . . The [Hollywood United Neighborhood Council] should have been looking into this. I blame myself. I am usually the one who is telling them what is going on.”
She rebounded in full combat mode and soon city officials and the plan’s advocates learned that hell hath no fury like a watchdog that’s been out of the loop with a bum shoulder.
Few would argue that Hollywood has a homeless problem. With an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 living on its streets, Hollywood has the second-largest concentration of homeless people next to downtown’s Skid Row. Though a substantial number of drop-in centers, shelters, feeding programs and health clinics dot the area around Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street, there are more homeless than there are beds and the many find shelter where they can, be it under bridges, in doorways, behind bushes or under freeway ramps. They regularly get ticketed for trespassing and have minimal legal recourse if their belongings are taken or tossed.
Alternative ways to house the homeless are gaining support. Social-service providers agree that transitional housing and shelters are no longer the answer to keeping people permanently off the street. It works for some homeless people but not for those who have disruptive medical or lifestyle issues. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pledged $50 million to create approximately 300 new permanent supportive-housing units for the chronically homeless. In September 2004, L.A. Voice Pico, a coalition of Hollywood interfaith communities, came up with a vision to bring more permanent housing to Hollywood. In March 2005, more than 200 business owners, city officials and residents supported the project at a town-hall meeting at the Hollywood United Methodist Church.
“It says a lot that there was a strong section of the Hollywood community that knows that this is needed,” says Sarah Hubinsky-Phelps, an L.A. Voice organizer. “What we have in Hollywood are services for homeless youth and short-term shelters, but we don’t have permanent housing that gets people off the street .?.?. In Los Angeles, rooms are so expensive, people can’t get stable. They don’t have a job, and they go back on the street and back using drugs.”
As part of the plan, the Community Redevelopment Agency purchased three parcels of land last November from the cash-strapped Hollywood Presbyterian Church that included a parking lot, a teen drop-in center and a two-story apartment complex on the northeast corner of Gower Street for $5.8 million. Backed by Councilman Eric Garcetti, the plan would bring 60 units of housing to the 34,500-square-foot site. The facility would resemble an ordinary rental apartment, but would include on-site supportive services for the residents and others in need. It would be managed by a nonprofit that would require tenants to pay monthly rent, abide by its rules and regulations, and take part in its social programs, including mental-health services, recovery and job training.
But not everyone was onboard, especially not Reichenbach, who argues that Hollywood is fast becoming another Skid Row.
“I have to agree with [Garcetti] on one point, that there is a need to take care of the homeless, but I see the CRA, L.A. Voice and Garcetti are pushing this program without any concern for its impact. They don’t care what people feel or think who live in the community, and that is when you get Fran a little upset,” says Reichenbach. “I think there is enough of a community that is already drug-based that we don’t need to attract the opportunistic dealers.”
Soon after she found out about the homeless housing plan, Reichenbach began rallying the troops. She immediately set to work passing out fliers that asked residents if they wanted a transitional-living facility in their backyards — despite the fact that the plan was developed to address the shortcomings of shelters and transitional housing. A town-hall meeting was scheduled for November 10 at the Henry Fonda Theater. It was hosted by the Hollywood Gower Neighborhood Association, the nonprofit group Reichenbach formed in 2003 to fight the L.A. Free Clinic’s plan to rent out space at its clinic to a needle-exchange program in an attempt to curb the spread of hepatitis and AIDS. The turnout at the town-hall meeting was small but loud. It gave the homeless advocates in attendance an idea of what they would be up against in the coming months.
A week after the town-hall meeting, the alabaster-skinned Reichenbach, dressed in a gray blazer and jeans, is standing outside Garcetti’s field office in Silver Lake waiting for a group of “stakeholders” she has rallied together. Among those gradually making their appearance is KC Schmidt, the president of the grassroots neighborhood group Eastwood Coalition, which Reichenbach helped organize in 2002 to protest a plan to build a fire station on an empty lot at Garfield Place and Hollywood Boulevard.
Reichenbach is here for two reasons. One is to prove to Garcetti that she doesn’t take being stood up lightly. He canceled an appointment with her the day before, and Reichenbach thinks Garcetti has been afraid to meet with her ever since the two butted heads over the needle-exchange program until Garcetti withdrew his support.
“Garcetti backed down just hours before we were going to rally,” Reichenbach tells me by phone the afternoon of the meeting. “He said he never intended to force this [the needle program] on the neighborhood. I told him I wanted it in writing. In minutes, I had a fax in my fax machine.”
(Later, when asked about the incident, Garcetti says, “I don’t play that way. That is not the way a democracy would function. We talked about it and her input was important. I was not blackmailed like that.”)
When an overmatched staffer ushers the group into a barren community room, Reichenbach lights into the startled aide. “We don’t break our meetings,” she says. “We don’t do that. He doesn’t want to meet with me. He has heard there is hot stuff. He has chickened out.”
Point made, Reichenbach moves on to the other point on her agenda: letting Garcetti know that she’s not happy that he is backing permanent housing for the homeless.
A handful of homeless advocates also in attendance includes L.A. Voice organizer Hubinsky-Phelps. For the next two hours, the dialogue shuffles back and forth, peppered with sighs of frustration and sporadic outbursts.
“What comes along with the homeless is a mentality,” says Schmidt. “This can bring more homeless into the streets. We were left out of the loop, and it seems like there was good reason for it.”
“You are not looking at the big picture,” sighs Larry Taylor, a mental-health professional. “This isn’t just Sarah [Hubinksy-Phelps] and the CRA. The state and federal governments are committed to ending homelessness in L.A. by 2010.”
It matters little to Reichenbach.
“Knocking on neighbors’ doors is our next step,” she says gravely. “The stakeholders won’t stand for it. People have been left out in a dramatic way. I am suggesting to Garcetti to change this. Go back to the drawing room. I am going to be really noisy about this.”
A few minutes later, the meeting ends and Reichenbach amiably approaches one of Garcetti’s aides. “You know it is nothing personal,” she says. “How is your family?”
No one would deny that Reichenbach is commited to doing what she thinks is right by her beloved stretch of Hollywood. When Beachwood Canyon, where she and her trombonist husband, Bill, live in a spacious house, was hit with a wave of home invasions in 2003, Reichenbach monitored the situation on a Web site she started called beachwoodcanyon.org and helped residents organize neighborhood-watch groups. She’s been known to spend hours walking the streets, calling officials to pick up bulky items left on sidewalks and to clean up graffiti. She brings in public officials to speak about safety and crime. Last year, she befriended a homeless couple, providing them with clothing for their baby, a cell phone to look for work and arranged for a few days’ accomodations for them at a Hollywood motel. She’s the type of person every neighborhood relies on.
“Some people just don’t want to get involved,” says the LAPD’s Hollwyood-area senior lead officer, Armen Sevdalian. “Fran is one of the people who lives to get involved in bettering her community.”
Some would say she has a self-interested property owner’s view of what a better community means.
Three hours after her standoff at Garcetti’s office, Reichenbach is holding court at the monthly meeting of the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Association, at the Village Coffee Shop on Beachwood Canyon Drive. The group of 20 mostly elderly Hollywood homeowners sit around Reichenbach, who is the association’s secretary and organizer. Abrahams and Dodson are seated near her. In the back is Missy Kelly, the association’s tough-talking former president.
Tonight’s guests include LAPD Captain Ron Sanchez, who writes a column in TheBeachwood Voice called “Captain’s Corner.” This is his second appearance in front of the association in six months. Last July, Sanchez was the special guest at a soiree held at Reichenbach’s Hollywood home, where association members ate hors d’oeuvres and drank wine. This evening, Sanchez talks about the increase in car burglaries and Hollywood’s most recent murders. After the update, Sanchez opens the floor to questions. Abrahams raises his hand immediately and wants to know why the police haven’t done anything about the bird lady of Hollywood, whose enthusiastic feeding of thousands of pigeons drives Abrahams crazy (see “For the Birds” sidebar).
Once Sanchez leaves, Reichenbach gets to the fourth item on the agenda.
“Welcome to Hollywood,” she says dramatically about the proposed homeless plan. “The neighbors just heard about it. They are very upset. I am the lucky one who organizes that area. Garcetti should have notified the neighbors. Now there will be a big protest. Garcetti needs to hear that this is not nice. They need to make it something else.”
Most of the group silently nods.
A week later, Reichenbach is pacing outside the terrace room at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, where the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council (HUNC) is meeting. There is no love lost there.
One of Reichenbach’s most contentious battles began in 1999, when her newly formed Franklin-Hollywood Hills Community Council was jockeying for position as the certified neighborhood council against the Hollywood Alliance. At the time, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment rejected both their bids to form and asked them to join together instead. The suggestion sparked a series of public outbursts that led Reichenbach to drop out. The Hollywood Alliance would finally win certification and change its name to Hollywood United Neighborhood Council, but not before Reichenbach accused her rivals of breaking city laws by not seeking her approval of the new name and the council’s new bylaws.
Since then, the official council (HUNC) and Reichenbach’s many associations have butted heads over numerous community issues and accused each other of various wrongdoings, including barring each other from meetings, secretly taping meetings and tearing down public notices.
“Fran will cover events in her newspaper [The Beachwood Voice] but won’t say it is council-sponsored,” says HUNC treasurer Maurece Chesse. “They really hated us and would try to stop everything we would do. They would look at an agenda and get a quick meeting and try to take credit for having the meeting ahead of us. She doesn’t bring a lot of people in. We try to bring in everyone, and we don’t put our spin on any fliers that go out. We put out the facts.”
The usual suspects have joined Reichenbach to monitor HUNC’s meeting — Dodson, Schmidt, Abrahams and Kelly. The meeting is open to the public, but Kelly says that their little group of 20 chooses to wait outside. Tonight’s main topic is the homeless plan. While most of the group is busily filling out speaker cards, Abrahams and Dodson are scoping out a homeless encampment across the street.
“The church is to blame for it,” says Dodson, who is critical of the church’s homeless feeding program.
The meeting has attracted about 50 people, an unusually large crowd. Tonight’s attendees are a mix of social-service providers, homeless men and Reichenbach’s cronies. All are restlessly waiting for item 7B — the homeless housing plan — to be called. Two hours later, it is. At the podium, Abrahams is immediately berated by a HUNC member for referring to the homeless as “bums.” Abrahams shrugs it off and complains about the homeless encampment across the street. A couple of minutes later, the homeless man who lives across the street takes the podium. “I am sorry I don’t have the money to put my things in storage,” he says. “I am not a drunk, nor do I do drugs.” Another homeless man, who goes by the name of D.J. Poo, follows and tells Abrahams that he is “one of the bums who lives across the street,” and then adds: “I am not no bum. I am a human being.”
A week later, Reichenbach has again assembled her Gower Association. Inside the Vanguard Nightclub, Abrahams and Kelly are chitchatting next to a table lined with bottled water, cream puffs and pinwheel sandwiches. It is a small turnout, made smaller when Reichenbach bars three HUNC members from joining the meeting.
“She shut the door on us,” says Norma Foster a few days later. “She told us that this was a strategy meeting and we were not allowed to be here. She wanted to know if we were for the project or against it. We said we were here to learn more about the project. We went there as friendly people to listen to what they said. We are supposed to listen to stakeholders.”
Reichenbach, who is wearing a brown skirt and turtleneck with a pair of beige Uggs, reminds the 15 in attendance of the association’s struggles with the needle-exchange program.
“This is another one of those plans,” she says. “On one hand we feel sympathy for the homeless, but it is hard not to wonder if it will exacerbate it. HUNC hasn’t made a decision. They have a hard time wrapping their brain around it.”
The meeting is about strategizing and rallying the troops. “Who is willing to go to City Hall and the CRA about this?” she asks. All hands are raised. Kelly promises to contact the local middle school. Another member agrees to approach the Church of Scientology. The remaining members agree to write letters.
“We are on our own,” says Reichenbach. “We have to command to be invited to the table. They have generated disrespect for each and every one of you. Something happens when Garcetti’s fax goes off. The only way to stop it is to unite in one voice with cameras.”
Fran Reichenbach grew up poor in Lennox, a small unincorporated area sandwiched between Hawthorne and Inglewood. She barely made it out of high school, and got pregnant and married soon after graduating. Her husband, she says, was later diagnosed, after their divorce, with schizophrenia. At 22 she married again, this time to a pastor in the Church of the Living Word, and had another kid, but Reichenbach and her husband left the church when she said it turned into a cult. The two split, and Reichenbach got a job in sales, raising her two kids alone, until she met Bill, whom she’s been married to for 21 years.
Reichenbach began her career as a rabble-rouser in the mid-’90s. With the help of Abrahams, she fought a plan to build a tiled walkway in front of a coffee shop on Beachwood Canyon Drive — a stretch of road that leads to the Hollywood Hills and million-dollar homes like hers. The two formed the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Association in 1996 to fight the project, which was backed by a Hollywood Hills homeowners association. Reichenbach and Abrahams’ group believed that the walkway extension would narrow the road where it hairpins up into the hills, thus slowing traffic and making it more difficult for fire trucks to get to the homes in the hills. They passed out fliers, went door to door gathering signatures, and even blocked part of the roadway that would be extended in front of the coffee shop to make their point.
“The homeowners association said, ‘We don’t care,’?” says Reichenbach. “They yelled at me, and one of the guys called me the C word. He was on his fourth martini. They ended up winning because I didn’t know what I was doing. I spent two weeks in bed. I couldn’t believe that something like this would be pushed on the neighborhood. I didn’t know where justice was and why the voices of the people weren’t listened to.”
The taste of defeat didn’t sit well with Reichenbach. Two weeks later, she started The Beachwood Voice as a “source of local information to the community to elevate awareness and empower us to make beneficial changes to our neighborhood.” The 32-page quarterly, with a circulation of 5,000, is available to Hills residents and can be found in coffee shops, restaurants and grocery stores in Hollywood. It is published from her home.
The newspaper, which is also available online, mostly features reviews of local restaurants and shops, tips for raising pets, coyote alerts, as well as the travel exploits of her daughter Anah, a performance artist who goes by the name Hoopaliscious. It also includes rants against the Bush administration by her husband as well as puff pieces on friends, including Music Box co-owner Thaddeus Smith, who is a member of Reichenbach’s Hollywood Gower Neighborhood Association and an advertiser in TheBeachwood Voice.
The paper’s main thrust is its coverage of, or editorializing about, local issues. The cover of a recent issue was titled “Can Hollywood Be Saved? — Proposed Skid Row-like Housing May Signal End of Revitalization.” One of the cover photos showed a homeless African-American man begging for money. Another shows a group of kids lying on the street, lined up next to each other under blankets. The article, written by Reichenbach, blasts Garcetti as a man who “should be closely watched,” and she describes the project as a plan to “house chronically homeless without a morally responsible price tag.” She calls the proponents of the plan “paid lobbyists” and depicts the homeless youth as violent, drug-addicted misfits.
“So they play, love, maybe deal some drugs, get high and fight amongst themselves in full view of all the residents, businesses and tourists,” she wrote. “They use the parking lots, neighborhood streets and Caltrans property as their bathrooms, drug dens, sleeping quarters, brothels and more.”
Since the article hit the streets, Garcetti’s office has received 18 letters from concerned Hollywood residents.
“A lot of them asked if this is a shelter, if this is a halfway house,” says Garcetti spokesperson Josh Kamensky. “There is a lot of misinformation out there. I hope folks will get involved. There is a lot of support from L.A. Voice that represents hundreds of parishioners in the area.”
TheBeachwood Voice’s one-sided depiction of the homeless situation has miffed some Hollywood residents, including Judy Miller, who contacted Garcetti’s office after reading TheBeachwood Voice rant.
“I was deeply concerned at the lack of sympathy,” says Miller. “I am totally supportive of any kind of help for the homeless we can give. If people who live up in Beachwood Canyon can’t have enough sympathy to give a helping hand, they don’t deserve to live here or in their million-dollar homes. I couldn’t believe that in such a progressive city that this was being discussed. It was a biased viewpoint of how one person sees the world. This wasn’t a story. It was her venting.”
A week earlier, a flier about the proposed permanent-shelter plan, ominously titled “Important Announcement,” was circulated around the Hills community. The flier read: “The building will be used to house ex-convicts, drug addicts, ex-gangs, you name it .?.?. This kind of unsafe environment will increase the crime rate, and our neighborhood will never be the same again.” The flier was unsigned, but those interested in additional information were directed to firstname.lastname@example.org, the e-mail address of the Hollywood Gower Neighborhood Association.
“I am absolutely appalled that someone wouldn’t sign it,” says Hollywood Hills resident Judy Marks. “I firmly believe that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. That flier to me was the opposite of love. It was about fear. I am not political, but this was designed to stir up fear. Life is scary enough.”
Reichenbach, though, maintains her detractors don’t understand her. She says she’s compassionate about the homeless, but takes a tough-love approach. “I think anyone who thinks I’m heartless isn’t paying attention,” says Reichenbach. “People are shocked to know that I am a liberal progressive, but the deal is I want what it is best for the homeless, and those are the homeless who want to get better and are willing to work and get better and they will play by the rules. Some people just want to be on the street. This project on Gower is the wrong project for the wrong target community.”
Despite her detractors, Reichenbach has made some strong allies in the Hollywood community, including former Los Angeles Police Department Hollywood Division Captain Mike Downing, who is now a commander at South Bureau. While stationed in Hollywood, Downing was a regular guest at Reichenbach’s Christmas parties.
Florentine Gardens spokesman Bill Hooey got to know about Reichenbach’s friendship with Downing when she sent Hooey an e-mail about excessive graffiti on the sprawling nightclub’s walls.
“You don’t know Captain Downing since you are new here but he is the type of person that wants to know if part of the system is down,” wrote Reichenbach. “Don’t take it personal. It is the way business is conducted in this neighborhood and always will be. We also realize that the city is tapped regarding resources and we are now asking the owners of the property to be responsible neighbors and to step up to the plate and paint over graffiti as it happens.”
On another occasion, Reichenbach sent Downing a fearful, if not downright paranoid, e-mail after Hooey had admonished her for complaining about the nightclub to local authorities.
“His tone is rather menacing,” she wrote. “He feels that I have done him a huge disservice by reaching out to you. He obviously doesn’t understand neighborhood empowerment or protocol. Hubby thinks that this guy has the capacity to do harm. Hooey’s tone demonstrates that he has something dark running in the background. Hubby also is concerned that this guy might get drunk or high sometime and take a drive to get it off his chest and find himself at our home. This is the risk one runs for doing the right thing. Perhaps you and I should meet with him so that he can understand that this is nothing personal and also maybe he can understand that you are going to protect me. Let me know what you think of all this. Curious about his background now.”
Three years ago, the corner of Garfield Place and Hollywood Boulevard was the home of the Velaslavasay Panorama Gallery, an eclectic boutique and gallery, and an outdoor studio that sold gigantic movie props, including a 6-foot-high Styrofoam statue of the Aztec god of rain. Now, the site is a vacant lot, is fenced off and littered with beer bottles and empty chip bags. A garbage bin filled with palm fronds sits in the middle of the lot. Just outside the fence, a homeless man begs for change while a Latino man hangs secondhand clothes for sale on the fence. Nearby, a shopping cart brims with plastic bags and empty soda bottles.
“We get a lot of vagrants here now,” says Shaila Mulji, the manager of the recently renovated Hollywood Downtowner Inn, as she looks toward the 2.5-acre parcel between her business and the Gershwin Hotel across the street. “The fact that it is vacant is adding to the problem. My husband has to hose down the place regularly. I have seen some pretty bad things. We have had to chase people off the property. It is a huge problem.”
On a boulevard famous for its Walk of Fame and, more recently, for its new upscale, high-rise developments, nightclubs and trendy restaurants, this little stretch of Hollywood, which is made up mostly of mom-and-pop grocery stores, a porn shop and a few Thai restaurants, has seen precious little change.
Over the past few years, the lot has had its suitors and been the object of heated protests and public battles. The first brouhaha began in 2002, when fire officials made plans to replace the outdated Fire Station 82, on Bronson Avenue, on the lot with money from a $533 million bond measure approved by voters in 2000. The Garfield Place site was large enough to accommodate a training facility and was in the middle of the Fire Department’s service area.
The proposed plan included buying a couple of parking lots used by apartment dwellers as well as one 16-unit and two 13-unit apartment buildings. At the time, Council Member Tom LaBonge was onboard, assuring affected residents that they would be reimbursed for their troubles.
Under the tutelage of Reichenbach, a group of 10-plus area residents formed the Eastwood Coalition in 2003 to block plans to build the new fire station on the Garfield Place lot. They worried that it would cause too much noise and would stunt hopes to make the area more of a destination for artsy types.
Reichenbach was also concerned that it would take even longer for fire trucks to reach the hills. The group staged a protest that attracted more than 100 picketers, including some of the to-be-relocated apartment residents. After numerous volatile meetings, public tantrums and threats of more protests by the group, city officials backed down, even though the city was in escrow with two apartment owners and was negotiating to buy others. In the end, the city had to pay a settlement of $100,000 for canceling escrow.
The city then tried to put the fire station on another vacant lot it purchased for more than $2 million a few blocks away, but the Eastwood Coalition and some storeowners stymied that plan, too. Eventually, fire officials took Reichenbach and the Eastwood Coalition’s suggestion and looked into the Florentine Gardens nightclub, the once-popular World War II servicemen’s hangout and the site of Marilyn Monroe and Jim Dougherty’s wedding reception in 1942. Fire officials had previously turned down the site, believing the estimated $15 million to $30 million price tag was too high.
Not surprisingly, revived efforts to take over the site didn’t sit well with Florentine Gardens’ owner, Kenneth MacKenzie, who accused fire officials of pandering to Reichenbach and wealthy homeowners. MacKenzie claimed that his club had historical significance and that Reichenbach didn’t like the nightclub because it catered to a mostly Latino and African-American clientele.
“The people of Beachwood Canyon applied pressure on Garcetti and LaBonge, and they stopped it from being built in the strategically best area,” says Florentine Gardens’ spokesperson Hooey. “People on the eastern end, who don’t have political clout, who are mainly minorities, and the working poor are being thrown to the wolves.”
While the city was looking into purchasing the site, both sides duked it out. Reichenbach organized carpools to City Hall and sent out e-mail news flashes alerting members that the nightclub was offering patrons free drinks in exchange for protesting. For his part, MacKenzie rented a bus and shuttled patrons to City Hall, and held barbecues.
After a three-year-long battle, the City Council voted in October to build the fire station on the nightclub’s property. The council agreed to keep the historic club’s exterior. The city made a formal offer for the property, but MacKenzie rejected it.
“They are willing to destroy a landmark just to have a fire station,” a distressed MacKenzie said after council’s decision.?“I became one of Reichenbach’s targets, and she was able to move the city and the Fire Department to take my business. I am a person with principles. I am fighting it.”
Finally, after months of debate and public hearings over whether to take the site by eminent domain, the City Council voted 12-0 last week to drop the plan. Reichenbach wasn’t pleased.
“We will make sure it will be relocated to the correct site, since the city failed to get brave enough to go through eminent domain,” Reichenbach tells me just hours after the vote. “It is another broken promise by the city of L.A.”
The next suitor for the Garfield property was Bond Development, which bought the land from the city to build a Whole Foods Market. Developers immediately butted heads with Eastwood Coalition members, who believed that the health-food chain wouldn’t fit in with their “existing historic buildings” and small mom-and-pop businesses. Members feared that they would lose parking spots, and that traffic would be unbearable. They recommended a smaller store with more parking spaces, the closure of Garfield Place to through traffic, and the widening of Hollywood Boulevard to add a turning lane. Eventually, Bond Development backed out of the plan.
“I don’t know why people opposed the Whole Foods,” says the Hollywood Downtowner Inn’s Mulji. “We are the area that has been left out. This block has been held back. We are putting our blood, sweat and tears into this place. But there is not much we can do. God only knows what will end up here.”
Back at the homeless encampment, Abrahams is frustrated with waiting for the CHP to show up. He picks up his garbage can and begins his route, which winds its way through thick fields of ivy, bougainvillea and prickly plants to the Hollywood Dell community. Abrahams, with tongs in hand, picks up needle caps and a couple of T-shirts that are resting on top of a bush. Two homeless men are sleeping nearby.
“It is our property now,” says Dodson. “We have the keys to the kingdom. We have done for Caltrans what they can’t do. We go where no one else dares.”
A CHP cruiser finally pulls up an hour later. Abrahams rushes excitedly to tell the officer about the homeless men he has seen on his route. The officer drives toward Cahuenga Boulevard, where the homeless man, in his early 20s, is still relaxing in the midmorning sun. Abrahams, Dodson and Vanderbur arrive at the scene when the officer is on his bullhorn asking the man to leave.
“It is moving day,” says Dodson with a chuckle as they watch the homeless man slowly dress and gather up his skateboard and personal belongings. “We would have had a tough time with him.”
“He’s a boarder. He’s young, dumb and full of cum,” adds Vanderbur. “The transient population is unwilling to make choices and accept services available and lead a productive life. They have a limited perspective. A lot are crazy. When you don’t eat well, and do drugs, you will drive yourself crazy. They are not making the connection that they have to access social services.”
The man has made his way down the hill and is talking to the police officer, who is sitting in his cruiser. Abrahams grabs the opportunity to rush up to the encampment with his garbage can and throw out what is left at the site.
“I’m hit-and-run,” he says. “There is a tactic and strategy to this.”
A minute later, the officer drives toward the two remaining encampments as the homeless man ambles toward the trio.
“Are you the supervisor?” he asks Abrahams.
“Yes,” answers Abrahams.
“Were you here a week ago?” he asks as he sits down on a nearby curb and shakes out the dirt from his tennis shoes. “Do you know where my stuff is? You took everything I own. I had three sleeping bags.”
Without replying, Abrahams jumps into his van and drives off toward the officer.
The man just shakes his head and claps when Abrahams speeds off.
“It is private property,” says Dodson matter-of-factly.
“There is no posting on there,” says the man, who frantically begins to search for something in his bag. “I didn’t know it was private property.”
“Well, you know now,” Dodson snaps.
“I guess I should have figured this out before I became homeless,” he replies. “You guys have a swell day. Like I planned on being homeless.”
As he skates past the two women, he yells: “You are like witches. You should have a cauldron. It is fitting.”
Two of Fran Reichenbach’s most loyal lieutenants, George Abrahams and Laura Dodson, share their mentor’s hands-on approach to cleaning up Hollywood. A computer analyst, Abrahams spends at least 10 hours a week picking up trash, returning shopping carts, cleaning up homeless encampments and removing graffiti. The rest of the time, he obsesses about pigeons. Actually, pigeon poop.
Abrahams and Dodson have spent the better part of a year conducting video and photographic surveillance on Susie Kourinian, a Hollywood seamstress who has a shop on Vine Street. They call her the “bird lady” because of her penchant for feeding the estimated 6,000 pigeons that live in Hollywood. They claim that Kourinian drops birdseed at 29 sites and spreads an estimated 112 tons a year.
Their file on Kourinian is as thick as a phone book. It contains detailed maps of Kourinian’s routes, a CD with dozens of minutes of film footage, statements by disgruntled residents and business owners, as well as information about diseases caused by pigeons. There are also dozens of photos that show Kourinian feeding the birds, and photos of empty bags of Pennington Wild Bird Seed, which they claim were taken out of trash bins. In one photo, the bags are tagged and dated and carefully lined up side by side. Abrahams and Dodson use gloves.
“We have had it up to our eyebrows,” said Abrahams. “In terms of harm, pigeons present a unique hazard. They can transmit a variety of diseases that aren’t transmitted by other birds. Any group will tell you to not feed the pigeons. It is not good for the pigeons or the people. It is not the actions of a true animal lover.”
Kourinian freely admitted to feeding the pigeons for the last 10 years. She said it hasn’t been a problem until recently.
“He [Abrahams] follows me every day and every hour,” she said. “They are mean people who don’t like animals. I rescue the birds. He is not a person worried about the community. He is like a hungry dog. He has too much time on his hands. There are people killing each other. Why are they going after people who are feeding the wildlife?”
Kourinian said that the harassment has affected her work, and that she has been prevented from buying seed at a local store because Abrahams persuaded the owners not to sell to her. She claimed to sleep most nights at her seamstress shop because she doesn’t want Abrahams and Dodson to know where she lives. She said she filed a complaint with the LAPD, to no avail.
Abrahams and Dodson have also taken the matter to the police. However, there is no specific law or municipal code that bars Kourinian from feeding the pigeons in Hollywood. “There is no section that covers bird feeding in Hollywood,” said LAPD Officer Armen Sevdalian. “And we haven’t had the resources to stake out a bird feeder.”
Sevdalian said that they have approached Kourinian twice, asking her to stop feeding the birds. He also has looked into Kourinian’s allegation that Abrahams was hired as a private investigator by a disgruntled business owner to follow her.
Councilmembers Tom LaBonge’s and Eric Garcetti’s offices have attempted to play a mediating role. However, Dodson and Abrahams are pushing the City Attorney’s Office to expand an ordinance that bans pigeon feeding in central downtown to include the entire city. City Attorney Bill Kysella said his office is looking into it. So are LaBonge and Garcetti.
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