Neighborhood Activist Allan DiCastro's Rules of Engagement With The City Hall Leviathan
In these lean budget times, services are being cut, which means more trash, potholes and unwanted liquor stores in your neighborhood, in a city already known for having well enough of all of the above. City workers have many more demands on them and are being asked for contract concessions, and so are more surly than usual.
Add it up, and L.A. residents have to learn how to master the byzantine ways of city government to get some help in their neighborhoods. Allan DiCastro, president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Council, or MINC, has mastered it, insofar as it can be. After the jump, DiCastro explains what you have to do to get the city to solve your problem.
DiCastro has been quite successful, as Mid-City has improved markedly in recent years.
When he first started years ago, he was reporting 189 graffiti incidents a week to the police. He called every week, week after week, telling the police of the location of the latest ones. Slowly but surely, the number went down with DiCastro still calling. Now, through his and LAPD's own sheer persistence, the number is 10 or 15, he says.
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Then there's land use. A proposed 7-Eleven on Washington Boulevard, which is a key neighborhood artery, would have resulted in three liquor stores plus the beer-and-wine-selling 7-Eleven -- all in a two block radius. (Sometimes it seems as if LA's entire economy consists of liquor stores, 7-Elevens and autobody shops!) DiCastro and the neighborhood council have defeated the plan, at least for now. (As many neighborhood activists will tell you, constant vigilance must be your default setting.)
"The city works, but you have to stay on top of it, and work it," he says.
Herewith: DiCastro's Rules of Engagement.
Let's say you have someone who consistently drives up to the curb every Monday morning and drops some trash bags on the sidewalk in front of your house, or there's a house down the block with scary squatters. What do you do? Often, the first thing to do is call 311, where they can answer questions, put in a service request or point you in the right direction.
But just as often as not, that won't solve the problem (Sisyphus should be your guiding myth here.) So..."Learn the rules. Research (the bureaucrats') answer to see if it's right." If need be, go around recalcitrant bureaucrats," DiCastro says.
In one mid-city neighborhood, a homeless man was living out of a car with his three dogs. It's a free country, but that seems like a bit much to folks on the block. DiCastro told them to consider calling the Homeless Intervention Program, Animal Control and Parking Enforcement. If no luck on the first agency, call the second and then the third.
But really, you need to put it in writing. Send e-mails. That way, when you contact the bureaucrat's boss to ask again, you have a written record of your requests. As DiCastro notes, the email address of everyone in city government is "Name.Name@LA.org."
Are you getting the subtext? Persistence is key.
But also, be compassionate! "They're overwhelmed," DiCastro notes. "Put yourself in their shoes and don't take it personally if you can't get help."
Get a docket number or case number, as well as the full name of the person you're dealing with. Create a map of your block with all addresses, so if you're calling in a problem, you can give an address.
Pretty soon, city officials will get to know you and realize they may as well take care of the problem because you aren't going anywhere. "Now, they know me, and it's, 'Oh, it's Allan, he's not going away.'"
DiCastro tells his charges to "Think Brentwood." Why is everything so nice there in Brentwood? Well, there's the obvious, but DiCastro reasons that it's also because those people know how to work the system and aren't afraid to do it. In time, it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: The rich people in Brentwood get what they ask for from the city, and Brentwood's property values rise as a result of the beautification or whatever, and so they get richer, and so they get what they want from the city, and so on....Many rich neighborhoods were once not.
DiCastro can't work alone on his neighborhood, and he has advice for other neighborhood councils who want to step up their game.
Be tough with the volunteers, he advises. Don't let them off the hook but tell them how much you appreciate their effort.
Attract talent -- city or county planners who can work on land use issues are valuable. Certainly police officers are a good score.
By moving your meetings to a police station, you can deter counterproductive crazies from disrupting your meeting, and you'll be able to develop a relationship with police. Get volunteers to sign up for community police classes to deepen that relationship further.
Create a strict budget process with well-defined hurdles for people to get neighborhood council money. Be creative with your spending. Mid-city has a program in which they give a skateboard to kids who volunteer to clean streets. They have a small army of kids cleaning streets and it's relatively cheap labor.
Other innovative ideas: The neighborhood council approaches some businesses (including some that are nuisance properties) and offers them free design advice, from paint colors to landscaping. A board member is a designer by trade. The council mitigated crime in alleys by simply increasing the wattage of the lighting and by also grabbing some city money for still more alley lighting.
Another crime-fighting solution: Thinning giant Ficus trees that were obstructing the street lights.
All of this intense granular knowledge was on display this week at a MINC meeting DiCastro presided over. The residents brought their complaints, and DiCastro, with the help of John Harmon, a conscientious aide to Councilman Herb Wesson, pointed them in the right direction.
"That's illegal dumping. Go to Street Services."
"We've been trying to get ramps on the 10 freeway cleaned and weeded for six years. It's CalTrans. They're just not going to do it."
"They can't have a permanent yard sale. You can only have two yard sales a year. Go to Building and Safety. If not, try Street Services. Then LAPD."
DiCastro: On the barricades.
For more on Mid-City and its upswing, check out this 2008 piece by Scott Gold of the LA Times.
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