Silver Lake's Nasty Land Feud
THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF SILVER LAKE is the only place in Los Angeles that has more cheese stores than doughnut shops. It has a reputation as a hipster haven, but in reality it's a destination for the upwardly mobile to raise children. Politically active. Informed. Opinionated. Think of it as Berkeley with a wax job.
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Now it's a barren mess.
"It's a mixed neighborhood," says 28-year resident Sheila Girlum. "You can't tell who's rich and who's poor because they dress the same." The only thing missing, she says, is more black residents, "and I don't know why they're not here."
Even with its idiosyncrasies, Silver Lake is far from unique. Like everywhere, its political dramas are packed with passion and rife with absurdity. In an area where the majority of residents have their own yards, the firestorm has been over a roughly six-acre plot of green space, the Meadow.
It sits at the north end of Silver Lake Reservoir and has been closed off from the public, by most accounts, for 60 years. The open-air reservoir is being decommissioned as a source of city drinking water due to tighter environmental rules.
The question now is whether the admittedly public land surrounding the reservoir, long fenced in, should be opened to the public. Or should it be a wildlife sanctuary for birds and coyotes?
Open it or keep it closed?
Councilman Eric Garcetti of Council District 13 vowed to double the green space in his district when he took office, stating on his Web site, "We dug in deep, creating parks from an alleyway in Hollywood, vacant lots throughout the district, and pockets of land adjacent to the Los Angeles River." His goal was simple: more parks. Open it.
But a "public planning process" has stumbled along for a decade, involving surveys, community meetings, forums and workshops for a project that sounds like it was lifted from a comic book villain's agenda — The Silver Lake Master Plan.
Unveiled in 2000, the master plan outlined the possible future of the reservoir, including a completed walkway/jogging path around the lake and a potential new park. Nothing was for sure. Then last year, suddenly, the groundbreaking for the Meadow was announced. Those who felt blind-sided objected, immediately setting off accusations from supporters that they were just rich people trying to keep the unwashed masses away.
"All the wealthy think they own the beach and that land is there for us to enjoy," is how Matthew Spizer, a 10-year resident, puts it.
To the other residents living around the closed-off lake it's not that simple. What seems like an open-and-shut case of NIMBYism to outsiders is a complex issue to the residents. "Nothing is galvanizing people like the Meadow," notes five-year resident and blogger Will Campbell, who says he's for opening the fenced-in land.
When asked what he thought of the city-developed Silver Lake Dog Park, not far away on the southern tip of the lake, Campbell admitted, "From a public-works perspective, it leaves a lot to be desired as far as the design — and what they do to maintain it."
The Silver Lake Dog Park was built 10 years ago after Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg commandeered a quiet patch of city green space. Many residents warned that it was too small to survive the wear and tear from dogs.
Today it stands as a symbol of a broken promise to Silver Lake, derided by some as the worst dog park in L.A. ("Nasty, nasty, nasty," says one dog owner on the Yelp Web site.) If you drive by, you can see that it's now a plot of mist-fine dirt with off-leash dogs prancing in dust clouds and fecal piles — after rain, it's mud and wet fecal piles. There is grass, but not in the plural sense of the word. The fountain is broken. Shade is minimal. If you happen to walk by on a warm day, it smells of mustard gas. It'll make your eyes water and your throat burn.
"It's kind of torn up," says dog-park regular and Silver Lake resident Tracy Richardson.
WITH THE CITY NO LONGER bothering to keep the dog park decent, the Silver Lake Small Dog Park Association is raising funds to build infrastructure and install drainage to spirit away the worst of the muck. The group's Web site is aptly named www.weneedgrass.org. While association member Xandra Kayden speaks highly of the city's efforts to help, the dog park is fodder for apprehension.
Garcetti, noting that the dog park was not created on his watch, says he is trying to funnel state park funds into fixing it, but it "won't ever be what we envision for the Meadow." His aide, Julie Wong, says "dog urine creates a problem for grass growing."
Kelly Hunt is among those who are skeptical about the city's ability to keep its word. She waters city landscaping in front of her house and was told that the contract to maintain the landscaping had run out.
Garcetti says people voluntarily water some public trees. "The city doesn't do 100 percent of all the irrigation," he admits.
Hunt had also documented an overflowing trash can near the entrance to the Meadow. "I watched it stay like that for a month!" she exclaims.
So, with some healthy mistrust of downtown government, a pinch of self-anointed empowerment and an invitation to residents last month to express their opinions at a packed public hearing, the debate over the Meadow turned a peaceful pasture into a minefield.
Neighbors took sides: Open it for public use. No, keep it closed for the wild animals, for safety reasons, or to avoid attracting traffic to the Silver Lake Boulevard bottleneck. They noted the inconsistent information given by Garcetti and District Director of Community Development Heather Repenning. Then opponents floated the notion that adding a public park could invite crime. That was it. The word "crime" meant something. "We were being accused of code words," says 25-year resident Renee Nahum. Using the word "crime" meant that they were racists.
Then name-calling began. Those who wanted the fence to remain were called "neophobes," "terrorists" and "aliens" by those who wanted it removed. Each side accused the other of being a vocal minority. They exchanged "squeaky wheel" barbs.
Both sides misrepresented expert opinions. The n-word (NIMBY) was used without hesitation. The Meadow itself was called "ground zero." The only thing missing was Daryl Hannah hanging out in a tree.
But if you ask Silver Lakers if there's a feud, they will tell you "no." They will say that everyone simply wants what's best, despite the heated e-mail blasts, cutting blog comments and banners draped on homes.
Last October, a compromise plan drawn up by resident and land developer Brian Wakil suggested that the city open part of the Meadow but keep some parts closed for wildlife that flourishes there. Under the Wakil plan, plaques would explain the wildlife and the famed architecture nearby. It would be less of a park and more of a nature walk.
But Garcetti and Repenning rejected it, with Repenning saying Wakil didn't include enough "open space" as defined by City Hall. Garcetti, being politically graceful, sidestepped the issue, saying, "It's about changing the debate from yes or no — into how."
Garcetti insists that "nothing is set in stone," but many Silver Lake residents believe he made it clear, at a hearing last month that attracted 400 locals, that City Hall's plan to develop a park at Silver Lake — much like Goldberg's decision to install a dog park 10 years ago — is a done deal.
Next, a "mitigated negative declaration" must be certified by a vote of the Board of Public Works and the Los Angeles City Council, stating that no real harm will come to Silver Lake's environment, traffic or community. But no date for that vote has been set yet.
Just up the road from all this is Rowena Reservoir, another example, on a smaller scale, of this battle for tiny bits of the green space left in Los Angeles. That "reservoir" is a beautiful pocket park and pond behind big, closed gates. The city keeps it locked. Many neighbors don't want it open. People in Silver Lake say the label 'NIMBY' is vile, marginalizing, simplistic, hostile, undeserved and bullying. But when asked why the Rowena Reservoir park is closed, without missing a beat, they said, "Because they're NIMBYs."
Tina Dupuy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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