If you drive west along Santa Monica Boulevard from Hollywood and cross La Brea, you can sense your arrival in West Hollywood. Besides the bright-blue street signs, the city got the power company to bury lines underground and pull out the wooden electric poles that dominate the boulevard to the east, clearing the skyline for trees. And even though some of it’s a bit loopy, public art livens up the newly landscaped median. With almost 40,000 people in less than two square miles, WeHo’s not exactly a pastoral oasis in the middle of L.A.’s urban sprawl. But nearly two decades after its incorporation, West Hollywood is still a compelling example of a progressive government at work.

By the late 1970s, renters across the county were being walloped with soaring rents. The city of L.A. passed a rent-control ordinance in 1978, and activists hoping to get the same sort of deal for the unincorporated parts of the county saw the failure of Proposition M as a bitter lesson. “Renters made up 20 percent of voters,” explained Larry Gross, executive director of the renters’ rights group Coalition for Economic Survival (CES). “And the anti folks targeted homeowners.” But the pro-rent-control numbers in West Hollywood were so strong, Gross and other activists thought cityhood was the next best step to ensuring some kind of renter protection in at least one corner of the county.

With the coalition’s grassroots organizing and signature-gathering abilities, the cityhood movement was born. “It brought together a lot of folks,” said West Hollywood City Councilwoman Abbe Land. “Everyone may not have agreed about rent control, but they believed in local control.” Two other constituencies usually ignored by politicians of the day, the elderly and West Hollywood’s burgeoning gay and lesbian population, also saw the benefits of forming their own city. Eighty years before, the neighborhood was called Sherman, and was best known as a rail hub. In a fateful decision, the area didn’t become part of the city of Los Angeles and nurtured a hopping nightlife industry that remained outside the LAPD’s influence. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s relatively lax control of the area (which started calling itself West Hollywood in the 1920s) helped attract the gays, who were often trying to escape police persecution. West Hollywood was successful economically, and residents regularly grumbled about tax revenues pouring out of their neighborhood to other parts of the county.

Although the county was relatively supportive of West Hollywood’s incorporation, landlords and property owners were aghast at the idea. In 1984 their fear was borne out, with a vote that garnered national attention and the election of four out of five inaugural City Council members from CES’s renters’ rights platform. “They rolled back rents and forged one of the strongest rent-control ordinances in the country,” Gross said. They also elected openly gay politicians and elder activists, who wanted plenty of city money to go to social services and community building. Over the years the left-leaning city councils have passed some ordinances that seem a bit off kilter, such as the recent ban on cat declawing. But what at first glance looks like lefty do-goodism run amok has proved to be forward-thinking. Land’s push for a ban on Saturday night specials, for instance, served as a model for a similar state law outlawing the guns across California.

CES remains a force in the city (despite Sacramento’s gutting of rent-control ordinances in the Wilson years) and holds renters’ rights seminars twice weekly for activists who come from all across Southern California. West Hollywood has also influenced the Sheriff’s Department — being stationed in WeHo is considered a plum assignment, and past captains have tended to move up the chain of command, taking with them new perspectives on everything from lewd-conduct enforcement to dealing with police-wary communities like the city’s growing Russian population.

West Hollywood’s progressive paradise is hardly perfect. Traffic and parking are a nightmare, while condo associations and commercial developers have used their gentrified muscles to fight affordable-housing initiatives, to the dismay of old-timers like Gross. “Sometimes people who don’t represent anybody have a big voice,” he complained. “There’s this tendency to try to please everyone all of the time.” Still, Land argues that this resident revolution worked. “I think West Hollywood has served as a model,” she said. A model that can provide an example to other cities looking to do something different.

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