Chris Shabel was not a TV reality star, a famous actress, or a one-time pop singer. She also never held elected office or was considered a political insider at L.A. City Hall. But for decades, she did something very important.
As a determined neighborhood activist in Hollywood, Shabel actively used all her rights as a citizen to make life a little better for herself, her neighbors, and other Angelenos. People may not know her name, but Shabel was invaluable, and she died on Saturday at the age of 80.
I had gotten to know Shabel, a polite and generous woman who could always find something to chuckle about, as a reporter for the Los Angeles Independent newspaper chain, where I covered Hollywood, the neighborhood in which Shabel had lived for decades.
It was the late 1990s, when Hollywood power brokers were aggressively pushing for redevelopment at any cost, often making decisions that benefitted their own agendas and not the residents who actually lived in Hollywood.
The rich and powerful sometimes moved their agendas forward by loosely following rules and ordinances that were supposed to protect the best interests of the public. When the power brokers did that, Shabel and other unafraid activists would step in.
It's not fun reading 300 pages of an environmental impact report for a multi-million-dollar redevelopment project.
It's not fun getting up early in the morning, driving to City Hall, and attending numerous mind-numbing city planning and City Council committee meetings.
It's not fun filing all sorts of public records requests and shifting through those hundreds of pages.
But year after year, that's what Shabel did, and sometimes she won a fight or two. The victories were usually in the small details.
Instead of, say, allowing a huge condominium project to have only 100 on-site parking spaces, which would be cheaper for the developer to build but would screw up traffic and street parking for the surrounding neighborhood, Shabel and other activists would apply enough political pressure to get the developer to build 150 parking spaces.
Instead of, say, allowing a developer to build a gigantic skyscraper that's 40 stories tall in a residential neighborhood of one- and two-story homes, which would jam up street traffic, dramatically alter the character of a neighborhood, and cause all kinds of seen and unforeseen consequences that would forever change the quality of life of longtime residents, Shabel and other activists would get the developer to scale down the project.
Sometimes Shabel would win these battles, and sometimes she wouldn't.
But she never stopped fighting. She never let the power brokers break her spirit or her conviction of what was right, just, and fair. Shabel's grassroots activism and citizenry were essential for the health of any democracy. She was one of those everyday heroes that too often fail to get the media attention they need and deserve.
Shabel also actively used her right to free speech, hosting a cable access TV show, Neighborhood Point of View, for years with her friends John Walsh and Miki Jackson. They blew all kinds of whistles and exposed as much hypocrisy and corruption as they could, and Shabel would calmly moderate their sometimes high-pitched discussions with a twinkle in her eye and a mischievous grin.
Shabel, Walsh, and Jackson were featured in L.A. Weekly's annual People issue in 2008.
Shabel, who's survived by daughters Jacquie and Patricia and grandson Rhys, was kind, smart, passionate, and dedicated — and an excellent citizen activist. She will be greatly missed.
Patrick Range McDonald is a contributing writer to L.A. Weekly.