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Local Heroes

In the 15 years since West Hollywood’s incorporation, residents have worked to create a welcoming, diverse city, centered on pride, activism and progressive politics. There have been a number of people who have helped along the way. The following are but a few.

Jerome Cleary: Community activist and host of local cable show Jerome Cleary

Cleary is everywhere. He can be seen at City Council meetings, and at the city’s planning, rent-stabilization and fine-arts commissions. That’s in addition to his thrice-weekly television appearances on a public-access television show discussing issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTG) at-risk youth, the WeHo condom controversy, crystal-meth addiction in the gay community and rent control. His latest effort is bringing a WeHo walk of fame to Santa Monica Boulevard, honoring non-entertainment folk who’ve contributed to the formation of a progressive society. This recent up-and-comer is a fount of ideas who offers a lively vision of local politics.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger: Founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami

Rabbi Eger is the first "out" lesbian to have her own congregation. Eight years ago she left her former L.A. synagogue with 35 others to form Kol Ami, so that she could bring a reform gay and lesbian congregation to WeHo. Since then, Eger has seen her congregation expand nearly 750 percent. "I think our success has grown from welcoming all people, gay, lesbian and straight members," she says. "And the fact that we are active in the community has helped bring people to our services." Kol Ami has been so successful, it is building a new synagogue, set to break ground in spring 2001. Eger is very active outside of her own congregation. She was instrumental in launching the new WeHo chapter of the City of Hope, for lesbians with breast cancer; recently spoke out against Proposition 22, the Knight marriage initiative; and has aggressively pursued Dr. Laura Schlessinger, preventing her from using the Torah for anti-gay rhetoric. Kol Ami has donated toys to Russian immigrant children, and for five years has held Holocaust memorial services. "One of our biggest goals now is to increase outreach for at-risk LGBTG youth," she says. "And to get more straight members within our congregation."

Donna Feinstein: Helped to establish "Saturdays in the Park"

The "neighborhood mom," as she is known, may not be in any high positions of educational power; she’s not president of the PTA, nor is she on the WeHo school board, but dagnab it, she gets the job done. Working on the grassroots level is her game. When she found out that a paltry number of WeHo kids attended the local elementaries, she set out for change in the form of "Saturdays in the Park," a monthly city-sponsored program designed to bring neighborhood families together to develop trust in the community and public schools. "The idea is that by getting local children into our neighborhood schools, more parents are involved and parent involvement translates into higher test scores," she says. "Saturdays in the Park" meetings have quadrupled in attendance in the last year. Yet, outside the park, Feinstein has found other ways to improve the schools. "I’ve crashed booster-club meetings outside the district, and attend open houses all over L.A." She was recently bestowed the "Angels Amidst" award by the West Hollywood community, for nonstop dedication to local school-support programs.

John Heilman: Mayor of West Hollywood

Employed by the city since 1984, Heilman has been mayor of WeHo four terms. He plays the role of hizzoner with understated flair. "I guess it’s because I’m the only one from the old guard that’s really left," he says. Heilman has seen the city grow from a small community into a commercial powerhouse of restaurants, clubs and storefronts. He helped establish rent stabilization and affordable housing, as well as the first domestic-partnership ordinance and the first ordinance banning discrimination of those infected with HIV. Heilman also teaches law at Whittier College and does pro bono work for the ACLU. "I plan to be around for a while," he says. "I really enjoy making a difference at the local level and seeing how that can influence people regionally."

Helen Levin: Executive director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center

In 1989, just one year after her arrival in the U.S., Levin assumed her current position and established herself by creating programs that offered free citizenship classes and provided furniture, food and clothing to émigrés. Her programs assist nearly 1,500 people annually, seeking to ease the transition in lifestyle for many of the non-English-speaking Russian Jews who make up a substantial segment of the city’s population. In addition to her daily duties at the center, she co-founded the Annual ChildrenHoliday Festival for newly arrived Russian youth, serves as commissioner of the L.A. consumer-affairs committee, and sits on the boards of many other commissions. She is determined to save people from the hardships she endured when she first came to Los Angeles, after nearly a decade spent trying to immigrate. "I still remember being shocked by the price of a bus ride," she recalls. "It’s hard for anyone who moves here at first."

Ron Stone: Lead advocate for city incorporation

Chairman of the West Hollywood Incorporation Committee in 1983-84, Stone, who died of complications of AIDS some 10 years ago, is known as the father of West Hollywood. His ardor was directed at keeping big developers out of the city, preventing over-development in its residential areas, envisioning instead WeHo as an "urban village." Stone’s objective was strong local government. "The county government could not be big and local at the same time. I was one of 7 and a half million deciding my future. Now Ione of 36,000 with a voice," he said after the city was incorporated. In 1994, the city of West Hollywood named the building that houses a cluster of clinics on San Vicente Boulevard the Ron Stone HIV Center, to honor his advocacy of city politics and tenacious battle for gay and lesbian rights.

Julie Summers: PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) president of Foundation House and executive board member

There is a new building under way on the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, classified as the largest regional homeless center in the state. Embedded in the budding foundation of this progressive marvel is the blood, sweat and more sweat of Julie Summers. "Due to our location, [PATH] is particularly suited toward gay, lesbian and transgender issues," says Summers. "As a shelter, we’re sensitive to those who are HIV-positive, being attuned to help them medically and emotionally." Her energy is focused on handling the massive fund-raising campaigns and laying the groundwork for the shelter’s completion, expected in fall. It is hoped that the center will serve nearly 6,000 homeless people each year. "It will be a tremendous benefit to the city of Los Angeles," says Summers.

Nancy Wilson: Pastor of WeHo’s Metropolitan Community Church and vice-moderator of MCC Worldwide

Wilson grew up a strict United Methodist, and she had it in her head at 13 to become a minister — not so easy a task for a woman in the late ’60s, because the denomination barred women from ordination. At age 21, while in seminary school, she came to know herself as a lesbian, and "that wasn’t allowed back then, or now," smiles Wilson. In 1972, she found her own way to preach, in Boston, for the Metropolitan Community Church, the first Christian church created to include gays and lesbians. Wilson is now the pastor of the original MCC Los Angeles, in West Hollywood, where she feels the toughest challenge is the "constant struggle between assimilation and queer spirituality." The church is noted for its proactive stand against hate crimes and consistent outreach to gay youth. With a 300-member congregation and 40,000 members worldwide, the MCC is a beacon to members of the gay and lesbian community shunned by other denominations.


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