“What are you going to do about the homeless?” a young man demands from the back of the elementary-school auditorium. “Every day we see more people on our streets, and it’s always our neighborhood that carries the burden.”
“That’s right!” snaps a woman in the front row. “Why is it always us?” Before the guest speaker can respond, B.J. Mynatt steps in. She’s not about to let this meeting of the Harbor Gateway North Neighborhood Council become a free-for-all.
“Wait a minute!” Mynatt scolds into the microphone. “One at a time.”
Mynatt flashes a friendly but no-nonsense look toward the guest speaker, who happens to be Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, to make it clear Hahn knows he must be leaving soon. He was not, after all, on the agenda.
Hahn talks to the council about tough choices in tough times. “But,” he says to sustained applause, “there’s no way I’m going to cut our neighborhood councils and the $50,000 we’ve made sure they get each year.”
About 70 people fill the wooden seats. At the front, on either side of Mynatt, sit 14 board members. Around them, standing in the aisles, are city officials from Hahn’s office, from the Transportation Department, from the LAPD.
“There was a question about the homeless,” Hahn says, and he introduces, right there, in the flesh, Armen Ross, his top deputy for homeless issues. Hands shoot up around the auditorium. But there is a schedule to keep, so Ross simply says hello and gives out — in public, for everyone to hear — his telephone number. Call me up, he tells the neighbors. The same thing happens with a man from the housing authority, and an engineer from transportation. Problems with commercial vehicles parking overnight on residential streets? “Let me give you my telephone number,” says a police lieutenant. “We’ll take care of it.”
People look dazed, but busily write down the phone numbers. “They’re all right here!” an elderly man exclaims to no one in particular. “Everyone we need is here. This neighborhood council business is mighty fine!”
Four years earlier, many of these same neighbors waited for hours, on a street corner, in the dark, to be picked up by city buses that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) promised would take them to an orientation session for forming a council. The buses never came, and Mynatt and others saw the episode as just the latest example of their mistreatment by a city that has long neglected the narrow shoestring strip of land running through South Los Angeles that connects San Pedro to the rest of the city.
But this night, at least, City Hall is back in the good graces of Harbor Gateway. When the mayor leaves, dozens of neighbors stick around to ask questions of the remaining city officials, who — happily, it appears — answer their questions and promise to look into problems.
Over on the side, a woman sits behind a table stacked with cookies, cake and coffee. “Don’t you dare leave here,” she says to the assembled neighbors, “without eating some of your money.”
“Please,” Victoria Davidson-Castillo tells the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC). “Give us one more chance. If it doesn’t work this time, we’ll say, okay, we’ll come in and say it’s time to let the baby go.”
Davidson-Castillo is standing at the microphone at a middle-school auditorium in Hollywood, pleading with a panel of ominously silent commissioners not to pull the plug on the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council. But it doesn’t look good. A few minutes ago, at a meeting that is already stretching toward 11 p.m., Commissioner Tony Lucente made it very clear he had lost patience with the organizers of another basket-case council, Greater Cypress Park. He and his colleagues do not appear to be in a generous mood. “There’s nothing that says everybody gets to have a neighborhood council,” one city staffer reminds the board.
And hasn’t Van Nuys already pulled the plug on itself? Over the course of two years the community moved from one council fiasco to another, with meetings that consisted primarily of angry invective hurled back and forth. “Don’t come back until you learn to speak English,” one ex-member insists she was told. “They said I was a fanatic for wanting to organize a diversity slate,” another ex-member says, “and then when we won, they all quit.”
They did all quit. One by one, members of the board of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council resigned in anger, disgust or despair, until only Davidson-Castillo was left. She, alone, did not constitute a quorum under the bylaws, so she couldn’t get the votes she needed to even hold another election.
The BONC members shift in their seats as others step up to testify. “Tonight I feel like there’s a huge light at the end of this tunnel,” Lydia Mather says. “We kept alive something that wanted to die, and people wanted to kill it for a very long time.”
“I believe in community,” Jamie Cordaro pleads. “I believe in everyone. Regardless of how hurtful people can be with their comments.”
He notes that he and other former council members have presented a timeline showing how they plan to knock on doors every weekend for the rest of the summer until they can get the people of Van Nuys to come back to the table. If only they get one more chance.
BONC decides to allow the reorganization effort to go forward, and the handful of Van Nuys neighbors exchange papers that mark out who will be walking in which neighborhoods of what days. “We better make it work,” Davidson-Castillo tells her companions.
The results of their efforts will become clear on September 9, when BONC meets at the Mulholland Middle School to consider new elections in Van Nuys — and to consider competing applications for certification from the Mid Valley Neighborhood Council and the West Van Nuys/Lake Balboa Neighborhood Council.
“Please acknowledge City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka!” a voice declares into a microphone, but council members from around the city ignore the call and get on with neighborhood news and gossip. It is the May 22 Citywide Congress of Neighborhood Councils, a sort of gathering of the tribes of the council network for sharing ideas and boosting spirits.
“Please welcome your fire chief, Captain Bill Bamattre!” What happened to that Watts plan to have the board spend their money on a retreat to Palm Springs, a woman at a West Valley table asks. They didn’t do it, a man answers. DONE got hold of it, made them take their retreat in San Pedro. “Please acknowledge general manager of the Department of Building and Safety, Andrew Adelman!” Did you see that list of everybody’s use of their 50 grand? a man at the San Pedro table gasps. Historic Highland Park spent 15 hundred bucks on soda pop! Glassell Park spent 700 bucks on a limo! A limo! And did you know we spent 500 bucks on the chamber of commerce? It’s all parties, mutters a man from across the table. Fifty grand a year and we spend it on parties.
“Please also welcome — Deputy Mayor Doooooaaaaaane Liuuuuuuuuu!” We are the first caucus that has come from the neighborhood council system, Bel-Air/Beverly Neighborhood Council representative Pam Cook tells the gathering. We’re number one! “Please acknowledge the interim general manager for the Department of Animal Services, Sharon Morris!” As members of the gay caucus introduce themselves, a surprising number announce that they are not “out,” as far as their home councils are concerned. One man blames the anti-gay tension on his council.
A Puzzling Draw
“Come on time,” warned the notice on NELAlist, a listserv for the communities of Northeast Los Angeles. “The meeting will start promptly at 6 p.m.!”
It’s 6:10, and the only people in the Eagle Rock Library community room on this rainy night are two guys sitting in the audience seats. Is it a little dark in here? Slowly, a half-dozen more people trickle in and take their seats at the head table. One woman leans over to ask another: “Am I still treasurer?” “You are!” comes the response. The treasurer makes a noise, but it’s unclear if it’s a cheer or a groan.
Now the two guys in the audience slowly make their way to the head table. They, too, it turns out, are on the board. The only person remaining in the audience is asked, “Are you our guest speaker?” No, I’m a reporter from the L.A. Weekly.
“Have the trash cans been ordered yet?” someone asks. “We have an update on that,” comes the response.
It’s 6:30 now, and someone thinks to turn on the lights. The meeting is under way. Eight people sitting at head tables speak to a room completely empty, except for the president of The Eagle Rock Association, who is there with a presentation on a community garden, and me. But there are things to discuss and the meeting goes on — for two long hours.
“That wasn’t a good one,” then–President Dalila Sotelo insists later. “We usually have a good turnout. Come back next month.”
I let several months go by, then drop in again. Nothing especially important is on the agenda, and it’s pretty clear this one will be a bust. But the parking lot is jammed, and the community room is standing-room-only.
“You see?” Sotelo says with a smile. “You just never know.”