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Queerville, USA

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

It probably doesn’t matter that the place was once called Sherman, or that a village grew up there to support the rail sheds of the Pacific Electric line that ran in all directions across the region. The important thing was that West Hollywood, even before its birth as a city 20 years ago this week, was 1.9 square miles of ground that was distinctly Not Los Angeles.

As a sort of leftover morsel of unincorporated county territory stuffed between Hollywood and Beverly Hills, West Hollywood was always a place apart. Real estate prices were lower, at first, and L.A. taxes didn’t apply. Most important, perhaps, the LAPD’s authority stopped at the border.

By the 1920s, the free-wheeling movie colony that made Hollywood its home looked to West Hollywood as an escape valve of sorts. There were nightclubs in Los Angeles, to be sure, but to stay open they had to come to terms with corrupt LAPD cops seeking payoffs. Clubs along the 16 blocks of Sunset Boulevard that became known as the Strip received their share of harassment from the county Sheriff, but it was often a more polite arrangement. Soon movie moguls and gays made West Hollywood their home, and the once-dingy stretch of Nowhere gradually became upscale.

In the 1930s came the Trocadero, the first of the great Hollywood club-restaurants where stars mingled with press agents, gossips, gamblers and gangsters. Others soon followed.

Santa Monica Boulevard was already known as a refuge for gay Southern Californians in the 1960s when the roadhouse-bar known as Barney’s Beanery became a popular gay watering hole. Accounts differ on whether an official state crackdown or a poor attempt at humor prompted a sign over the bar reading "Fagots Stay Out." Los Angeles gay activist Morris Kight led a three-week demonstration at Barney’s in 1970. It wasn’t Stonewall, but gay liberation had come to L.A.

By the 1980s, West Hollywood had become a capital of gay culture.

Still, it was rent control that led to the establishment of West Hollywood as a city in 1984. Elderly renters who found themselves facing the prospect of losing their apartments to rising housing costs formed a coalition with activists to create a city with the power to keep rents down. They found their voice in the Coalition for Economic Survival, which joined forces with gay activists and reached an accord on the type of policies they expected the new city to promote.

On November 6, 1984, voters in the unincorporated territory created the city of West Hollywood. At the same time they elected a City Council majority that was openly gay, and at a time when gay culture was beginning to go mainstream, and AIDS both galvanized the gay community and stoked the fires of anti-gay backlash, West Hollywood suddenly was recognized around the world as the first "gay city."

That council first met on November 29, 1984, and that is the day that the city takes as its birthdate. The council’s first order of business was to elect Valerie Terrigno mayor, but it wasted no time in immediately banning discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, and prohibiting rent increases and evictions. Any rent increases over the previous three months were voided.

In short order, the council adopted the nations’ prototype domestic-partnership laws. Later, it became the first city to ban the cheap and deadly handguns known as Saturday night specials.

And then there was Barney’s. The sign was still there, and the restaurant by that time was distributing matchbooks that replicated the slogan, misspelling and all. The city attorney notified the owner that his sign was in violation of the new city’s anti-discrimination law. Outraged Barney’s supporters argued that the new city was unnostalgic and humorless. But the owner, Irwin Held, reluctantly agreed to remove the sign, which was taken down by Mayor Terrigno and another council member.

The city’s euphoric early days were not without setbacks. Just before West Hollywood’s first anniversary, a federal grand jury indicted Terrigno on embezzlement charges and she resigned her office.

But the new civic leaders showed they knew how to run a city and remain true to their convictions. They ran a budget surplus and made grants for AIDS research and counseling. The senior population — bolstered by a continuing influx of former Soviet refuseniks — were given transportation vouchers for free taxi trips to the grocery store.

There were some odd and unexpected changes in the early 1990s. The recession hit hard, and civic leaders began to rethink their no-growth stance. Developers, who at the time of the cityhood vote said they would abandon any city with the nerve to impose strict rent control (some painted their doors red as a mock-communist protest) returned to the city and began building at a frenzied pace. The Sunset Strip became glamorous again, as the city supported its social programs with a growing tax base.

Today, it is a dense urban village, where a person of modest means can live in a rent-controlled apartment, run into his or her elected representatives in the grocery store or the gym, take advantage of some of the world’s most progressive governmental policies from animal care to disease research, enjoy the West Coast’s best nightlife, and take part in a diverse but close-knit civic community.

But not you. Not if you’re not rich, or you don’t already live here. West Hollywood has become in some ways a victim of its own success. The waiting lists for those rent-controlled apartments are long, and besides, state law erased the permanent rent freeze that the city passed at its inception.

"Twenty years ago, if you were young and gay and wanted to come to L.A., you had to come to West Hollywood, because you couldn’t live in Santa Clarita" without being harassed, said Councilman Jeffrey Prang. Now, though, younger people can’t move in. The rents are too high. West Hollywood is no longer a place to start out, but a place to aspire to.

Many elderly residents, young aspiring entertainment professionals, and activists who once would have made West Hollywood their home now make it a point to be in "West Hollywood Adjacent" — in other words, Hollywood. Just as people once headed for the patch of unincorporated territory to be near L.A. without being in it, now Los Angeles provides a place for people who can’t quite score a home in West Hollywood.

"You get to age into West Hollywood now," joked Councilwoman Abbe Land.

Even though it’s more costly to move in now, she added, West Hollywood is a success because residents want the city to mean something.

"We really are a city that still to this day is committed to our social values," Land said. "I think it’s because we constantly strive for it. We are willing to be a leader and take a stand. We are a city that is not afraid to do things."

Land and other founding members of the city government will speak on November 29 at an all-day birthday celebration.

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