Jerry Schneiderman was not your ordinary real estate developer. For years, he was a rabble rouser who took on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority after tunneling for the Red Line subway collapsed parts of Hollywood Boulevard.
“You can never stop a government public works project entirely,” Schneiderman told me last summer for the L.A. Weekly cover story “Beverly Hills Versus the Westside Subway.” But “you can starve it.”
Schneiderman died in December 2011, but years earlier, in 1979, his business partner had been murdered by a hit man. Schneiderman was never the same, and was always on the lookout for his own safety. Los Angeles journalist Chip Jacobs has written a gripping book about Schneiderman's story — The Ascension of Jerry — which took years to research and write. Jacobs and I recently talked about Schneiderman, who struck up a friendly working relationship with me back in the late 1990s…
L.A. Weekly: I talked with Jerry a few months before he died. He said you were working on a book with him for years. Why did you decide you wanted to spend so much time and write a book on a man the average person has never heard of?
Chip Jacobs: Having written only about a half-dozen crime stories during the course of my career, I had no outward business devoting myself to a book about a whacked murder triangle in '79 L.A. — one bubbling out of real estate greed — that scared Jerry so badly. I might as well have applied to the Navy SEALs, experience-wise.
But the more I learned about his past, not just the spectacle of lame hit men and violent, blue-collar embitterment in an angry age reminiscent of today, the more I realized that people who survived such terrible ordeals frequently had no one who'd believe their psychic damage and few avenues to release it.
So though Jerry was hardly a household name, even during his prolific political shenanigans of the 1990s, the dark pain fueling his activism was extraordinary, if not gigantically entertaining. Come on: a brilliant, former space planner-turned-developer-turned-civic-prankster dressing up like a corpulent councilwoman, or spreading rumors of a vapory creature busting the MTA for subway safety violations. Jerry was unique and invisible all at once, perfect, too, because he was a smirking contradiction.
Weekly: Jerry could come off as somewhat paranoid and maybe even a little crazy. Was he really that way? If so, was it justifiable? And did his stories more often than not turn out be true?
Jacobs: Sometimes, Jerry could be delusional by inflating his sense of importance influencing public events. When we worked together on an L.A. Weekly story that was the first to connect former Councilman Richard Alatorre with the slumlord who'd later get him indicted on federal charges, Jerry could be a little infatuated with his own bravado. But if you pressed him, really challenged him, he'd admit he was only a fly in someone's ointment and not their executioner.
His sanity is harder for me to gauge. Still, anyone who took the sort of personal risks he did — effectively begging for powerful people to hurt him after he called out their dishonesty, or slapped massive lawsuits against their favored agency, or sent then-mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan a dartboard with his face on it — is not only a bit crazed but revealing their need for attention, for recognition, for due respect. Beyond all that, Jerry's social activism was his catharsis against a city that dropped strange murderers into his lap, pulverizing the trusting person he might've been otherwise.
When I was at the L.A. Daily News in the mid-1990s, Jerry pretty much kept me on the front page with tips that led to salacious articles about redevelopment corporate welfare and subway boondoggles that showed we aren't any less corrupt than Chicago.
Overall, I'd give him about .750 batting average for being right. Compared to other sources I've had, that makes him a perennial All-Star. Just about the only tip he gave me that had no legs was about the husband of a current U.S. senator (who looks like Glenda the Good Witch grown old) plundering of a union trust fund. There were never stories about UFO landings from Jerry.
Weekly: What's a side of Jerry that you know about, but few other people saw?
Jacobs: “I want to save people.” In private moments during interviews for this book, when Jerry would take stock of the hellish aftermath of being chased by a murder corporation that flattened his old world, he would just blurt out that line. “Save people.” Dumbstruck, I'd ask how that related to what I was asking him about 1979. He'd ignore my question, and then start talking about the former suit-wearing gangbanger he dispensed invaluable business advice to, or the Hollywood runaway agency he helped support, or the good-hearted troublemakers he took under his wing.
He even gave Alatorre consulting work after he helped knock the man out of office. Not many civic agitators had such a compassionate heart, fragmented as it was. His mischievous eyes would light up talking about some old lady his investment strategy helped.
Yet when I dragged him back to the murders at the heart of my book, something almost otherworldly occurred. A shadow that looked like a pyramid would creep across his face. Blood drained from it, and gone was the light from his eyes. He never got 1979 out of his bloodstream.
Weekly: Why should anyone care about Jerry's story?
Jacobs: First and foremost, this is a real-life story of pitted survival — survival over the execution of a partner that Jerry had once idolized, survival over the pancaking of a family that never saw his bravery close-up, survival over self-doubt that he somehow helped instigate his own misery and survival over perpetual fear of killers around the next corner because humanity was not to be trusted.
Why should Joe Blow care one lick about Jerry Schneiderman in a sea of celebrities and heroic tales: because his life story is an improbable exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder that most people only associate with combat veterans or eyewitnesses to unspeakable brutality.
As science learns more about this condition, and who is especially susceptible, they should lay claim to Jerry's brain. Why? It was a receptacle of tenacity, fear, confusion and a will to rewire itself to learn how he could matter in a world that had done him wrong. Two months of life in hiding and terror in a plot the Cohen brothers would have trouble inventing can do that to an Angeleno.
Weekly: Jerry loved to shake things up, particularly with the MTA and the building of the Red Line subway line in LA. Why was that? Did he have a genuine outrage about injustice, or did he just get his kicks from pissing off people?
Jacobs: That's a trenchant question that deserves a two-part answer. When Jerry staged his first civic stunt against a Hollywood homeless-service center that then-Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg was trying to construct, I suspect raw anger was catapulting him.
Back then he was a double divorcee, with five kids, living in one of his buildings with that astonishing brain and pummeled sense of innocence. He'd been betrayed by his old partner and Goldberg's bulldozing style. Even so, as time went on and Jerry understood the concentration of power in the hands of the Establishment, it ignited in him a desire to stand up for the little guy, even if that little guy was a small businessman with no cachet.
It irked him that no one apologized for subway tunneling that destabilized dozens of Hollywood Boulevard buildings.It upset him that the Los Angeles Unified School District was constructing schools over toxic land left out of environmental impact reports. It rankled him that the Community Redevelopment Agency was handing out millions in corporate welfare while you could fill the L.A. sports arena with that area's down-and-out.
Once Jerry saw he had a talent for shaming, tricking and battling the hyper-powerful, he donned a cape around him, knowing it was the best legacy he could recreate from a tattered psyche.
Weekly: Jerry left behind a large family. How is everyone doing?
Jacobs: You ever see wobbly-kneed people a few hours after they've disembarked from a long cruise? That's how I'd describe Jerry's extended family right now — looking for a handrail to steady their transition from pleasant seas to rocky land.
Each one of his kids is hurting in their own way. I don't know the specifics about his real estate and business interests, though I do know that replacing Jerry's wiles and imagination is like the Colts replacing Peyton Manning with a young buck — one, arduous climb back up the mountain.
At his funeral, which his two ex-wives attended, hundreds mobbed the service. If there was a universal emotion besides grief, it was undiluted anger that Jerry, interesting, maddening, rascally Jerry had snipped his mortal coil, leaving them without a guiding star or, at the very least, the character in their lives.
I'll never forget, either, the expressions of his associates at the grave site. It was glazed stupor, everyone knowing not only had they lost a friend who rarely opened up about his brush with psychopaths but the sharpest dealmaker in the room.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.