It's around 9:30 p.m. on a brisk Wednesday night in Silver Lake, and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, an affable, native New Yorker who takes an inner satisfaction, if not outright glee, in redefining conventional wisdom, is looking to blow off a little steam. Wrapped in a bright, multicolored poncho that was made in Peru, Herman-Wurmfeld and friend Amy Clarke decide to take a Metro bus to Craft Night at low-key, gay bar Akbar, on Sunset Boulevard, and nearly a mile away. On the way, Herman-Wurmfeld, 47, and Clarke, in her 30s, a self-described “eclectic” pianist and mother who studied at Georgetown University to be a foreign diplomat, listen to a young friend complain about a proposed gang injunction that covers Echo Park and part of Silver Lake. As the bus moves slowly westward along Sunset Boulevard and past upscale men's fashion retailer MRKT and the swanky Black Cat restaurant, they nod sympathetically.
Both Herman-Wurmfeld and Clarke are board members on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, which had just ended another night's work inside the Micheltorena Street Elementary School auditorium. Things did not go well for the two friends — a majority of their colleagues voted to table a motion, which Herman-Wurmfeld and Clarke supported, to oppose the gang injunction sought by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. (Weeks later, that vote comes up again before the neighborhood group, with combustible results.)
When Herman-Wurmfeld and Clarke arrive at Akbar, they head into a dimly lit room behind the bar, where Silver Lakers ranging in age from perhaps 20 to mid-40s are crowded companionably at long tables. As they drink a cocktail or two, with a glue gun they busily add glitter and other decorations to key chains. Julianna Parr, the gregarious Echo Park artist who hosts the weekly gathering, sums up Craft Night's mission: “To draw out the unrealized talents of Los Angeles' artistic community in an arena of bohemia and generosity,” she says with an impish smile.
Herman-Wurmfeld, director of the movies Kissing Jessica Stein and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, starts adding torn bits of a dollar bill to his key chain. He's ruminating over the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, a city-funded, 21-member elected body, which tries to influence policymaking among L.A. City Hall's entrenched politicians and bureaucrats.
“Consensual reality is just that, consensual,” says Herman-Wurmfeld, a decidedly youthful, idealistic Gen Xer known to most as simply Charlie. “So if you don't consent, everything is up for negotiation.”
His “up with people” view of L.A.'s heavily top-down power structure draws eye rolls from some Silver Lake baby boomers, such as Paul Neuman, also a member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. But of course it would, since Neuman's day job is to spin the latest City Hall events and misdeeds in a positive light, as the paid spokesman for City Councilman Paul Koretz.
Neuman half-kiddingly describes Herman-Wurmfeld as the “head of the Utopian wing” of Silver Lake's neighborhood council. Neuman says Herman-Wurmfeld and the members of the millennial generation who tend to make up Charlie's crowd “don't do their homework” before suggesting fixes or offering ideas. Neighborhood Council member Barbara Ringuette, who is in her 60s and a baby boomer, worries that Herman-Wurmfeld and his many friends have “anarchistic” tendencies.
More than just a friendly tiff, the emotional dispute over the proposed Silver Lake gang injunction — which will be decided by a judge — and dueling worldviews within the community have cemented an undeniable fact: This bohemian enclave of 30,972 people is going through a full-blown, divisive identity crisis.
Never mind that Forbes magazine deemed Silver Lake last year the “Best Hipster Neighborhood” in the United States, or that Money magazine declared it one of the country's top 10 “Best Big-City Neighborhoods” last month. Or that L.A.'s modish mayor, Eric Garcetti, lives there. Behind the scenes of this urban paradise, an old-guard, liberal establishment that's been comfortable letting L.A.'s political power structure run things from downtown — such as applying new density development in once-sleepy areas — now consistently bangs heads with younger, Occupy L.A.–aligned artists, college graduates and laid-back misfits out to disrupt the old arrangement.
And all is not well in America's trendiest locale.
While deep-pocketed investors open boutiques selling such items as a $160 iPad case or a $900 leather-flannel shirt, on the tonier stretches of Sunset, Glendale and Silver Lake boulevards near Silver Lake Reservoir, a recently released Los Angeles City Health Atlas shows that other sections of Silver Lake close to the 101 freeway endure high unemployment, troubling poverty, an education deficit and serious health and quality-of-life problems.
“We need to figure out what's most important in our community,” says Alex De Ocampo, who unsuccessfully ran for L.A. City Council this year in Hollywood, a seat won by Mitch O'Farrell. Sitting in his Volkswagen in front of his old family home in Silver Lake, he marveled as a white, tattooed millennial wearing a baseball cap and holding a pit bull on a leash came out of the building where he'd once cared for his dying father. “C'mon, look at that — that's a hipster,” De Ocampo says.
De Ocampo grew up in the “rough” part of Silver Lake, south of Sunset, raised by poor, immigrant parents from the Philippines. The troubling duality found by the Health Atlas study means, he says, that Silver Lake and L.A. leaders “have a big responsibility to make some big changes.”
In early September, a Silver Lake Neighborhood Council meeting erupted, unusually so, in angry chants and jeers after people — many younger than 35 — fiercely protested their failure to push through an advisory vote condemning the city attorney's proposed gang injunction. It got so testy that LAPD was called in.
“The audience was set off,” says Herman-Wurmfeld, who dubbed the unpleasantness “a full rebellion.” Well, this isn't Brooklyn. Nobody got hit. After all, as Forbes alliteratively says, it's “one of the largest creative-class communities in the country.”
Yet Silver Lake has rising obesity among its children and far too many liquor stores. It faces strong disagreements about policies that affect its future, such as whether the car should win over the bicycle. It is awash in controversial gentrification with its rental prices racing into the $1,997-per-bedroom vicinity, more expensive than Malibu or downtown.
The older, more affluent baby boomers seem fixated on micro-issues such as relieving Silver Lake's parking crunch, which sparks the ire of younger folks, who tend to think of the bigger picture: They want to build a more sustainable, environmentally friendly community.
“Their priorities are screwed up,” says Matthew Mooney, a 30-ish musician who champions any kind of transportation that doesn't involve a car.
Perhaps bemused by this spat over the neighborhood is Silver Lake's big population of poor and working-class Latinos, many of whom are concentrated near the particulate-choked 101 freeway, with Sunset Boulevard acting as the divide between richer and poorer. Celia Garza, a nurse at Silver Lake's busy Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic on Sunset, says the clinic is overwhelmed by low-income patients. “I'm seeing people who are unemployed and have uncontrolled diabetes and uncontrolled hypertension,” she says. “And because of the unemployment situation, we see a lot of depression.”
Her boss, Tacy Padua, says the old days of white flight out of the area are “in reverse” in Silver Lake, but she's not so sure that's a positive: “Now we have more specialty shops — almost like shops for tourists. You have to wonder how that's going to help the community.”
As Ace the Cat covertly moves around the living room of their meticulously restored, 1920s Mediterranean home, Barbara and Lee Ringuette — “children of the '50s,” as Lee says — discuss the clashes that erupt these days.
“I like Charlie [Herman-Wurmfeld] a lot,” says Barbara, a slender, bespectacled blonde who worked in L.A. County government for 39 years and is now a dedicated activist, “but I disagree with him a lot, too. Some people may find us not progressive. No. We're pragmatic.”
Herman-Wurmfeld and his allies, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, would have gotten along well with Silver Lake's now-dispersed old-school bohemians and left-wingers. But Barbara says they're “hard to work with” and have an “anarchistic” feel. “They put up roadblocks so nothing gets done.”
Lee Ringuette, a successful TV and film sound man who also likes Herman-Wurmfeld, says Charlie has “moonbeam” ideas. “All of these recent college graduates [in Silver Lake] are frightening. They think all their ideas are perfect. … They are intolerant of other views.”
There's a generation gap in Silver Lake, and the Ringuettes just voiced it. They moved to their home near Silver Lake Boulevard south of Sunset in 1988, seeking a diverse, eclectic community. Silver Lake — with its Latino and gay populations and reputation as a home for misfits, left-wingers and creatives such as underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, TV horror-movie hostess Elvira, architect Richard Neutra, hobo activist James Eads How and gay-rights pioneer Harry Hay — fit the bill.
Silver Lake soon underwent a cathartic change, prompted by L.A.'s bloody and violent late-1980s and early-1990s crime wave.
“We heard gunshots weekly,” Lee says. “The neighborhood got together. We had neighborhood watches and marches, and then the LAPD got involved.” He and Barbara helped bring in the Guardian Angels, a New York civilian crime-fighting group, to learn how to patrol their own streets. “We were taught how to roll behind cars when we were shot at,” Lee recalls.
De Ocampo came of age in Silver Lake during that ugly time, living with his Filipino parents and four siblings a few blocks south of the Ringuettes' well-appointed home. He vividly recalls being 11, taking care of his cancer-ridden father in the De Campos' one-bedroom apartment, when three robbers suddenly broke in. One pointed a gun at his head as they ransacked the place, looking for cash and electronics.
“I realized, 'Wow, we're not in the greatest neighborhood,' ” De Ocampo recalls.
Now manager of a charitable foundation, De Ocampo, 34, lifted himself out of poverty by earning good grades and getting a college degree. A resident of East Hollywood, next door to Silver Lake, he ran for but lost the recent L.A. City Council District 13 primary. His old South of Sunset neighborhood is safer, De Ocampo says, but as he campaigned door to door, especially near the 101 freeway, where he grew up, he noticed persistent poverty and crime — and Silver Lake kids mired in it.
That area is just about 1½ miles from Akbar and its Craft Night and about half a mile from the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council meeting room. “I met a lot of kids and they had nothing to do,” De Ocampo says. He says they'd reap great benefit from far-too-rare after-school and summer programs. Instead, “They get into trouble.”
Lee Ringuette says the old South of Sunset neighborhood began to turn around about 2002, at the beginning of L.A.'s housing boom. People bought homes and fixed them up, landlords renovated apartment buildings, and younger, mostly white tenants started moving in where people from Mexico, El Salvador and other Central American nations had once dominated the rental lines. Since then, Barbara adds, “There hasn't been much turnover. This is a place people want to be.” She's also met a “surprising” number of “showbiz folks.”
Barbara is wary of the negative findings about Silver Lake in the L.A. Health Atlas, which was created by the L.A. Department of City Planning with assistance from Berkeley-based urban planning firm Raimi + Associates over a six-month period. It was funded by the California Endowment and the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
Beatriz Soliz, a director at the California Endowment, says the findings pose a potentially profound question. “What does it mean for someone in their 20s or 30s to move to Silver Lake?” she asks. “Will their lives be shortened?”
De Ocampo found the study to be “eye-popping” for anyone concerned about public health.
Barbara Ringuette, though, is thinking something else. She believes developers and City Hall politicians may use Silver Lake's infirmities to make the case for even more high-end projects. She says, “To say you need more development in South Silver Lake is not correct. Each of the pages and charts [in the Atlas] are interesting, but does it represent a clear picture? Not in the least.”
She must have read the mind of City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who is already saying the Health Atlas shows a “problem” in parts of Silver Lake and Echo Park. O'Farrell's solution? “We need economic improvement and jobs,” says the councilman, who is big on higher density and more building construction.
O'Farrell avidly supported the now-uncertain Millennium Hollywood twin skyscrapers; community activists have sued developers to prevent the project's construction. The proposed skyscrapers apparently are sited directly over, or immediately adjacent to, a perilous “rupture” earthquake fault that went unmentioned in the official Environmental Impact Report.
Clarke, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council member and Herman-Wurmfeld's friend, also sees the Atlas data as having possibly been manipulated by city planners: “It makes me wonder how recently calculated is the information,” says Clarke, whose personal motto is “Think globally, act locally.”
In fact, one statistic in the report that got big play in a Los Angeles Daily News article, and was subsequently repeated by the Huffington Post, was overblown — at Silver Lake's expense. The Daily News noted that Silver Lake's life expectancy rate of 77.4 years ranked near the bottom of 22 other areas in L.A., placing the “Best Hipster Neighborhood” in the United States next to hardscrabble South Los Angeles' 75.2 years and West Adams' 75.6 years of life expectancy. But the Health Atlas researchers included in Silver Lake's life expectancy data from Echo Park (pop. 40,455) and Elysian Valley (pop. 2,530), as well as from much of poverty-stricken Westlake and Pico-Union. That almost certainly dragged down Silver Lake's life expectancy figure.
Despite this mixing of data from poor areas into Silver Lake's more lofty demographics, one telling statistic is the “hardship index,” which is based on unemployment, poverty, income, education level and overcrowding. The parts of Silver Lake and Echo Park near the 101 freeway and Glendale Boulevard, where many low-income Latino families live and increasing numbers of people in their 20s and 30s have moved, rank alarmingly high on this index.
Meanwhile, life around Silver Lake Reservoir, a hilly, affluent area that's home to professionals and is said to have its own microclimate of breezes, is low on the “hardship index.”
At a Silver Lake Neighborhood Council “values and goals” meeting in late July, attended overwhelmingly by white, middle-aged or older residents, by far the most often-cited problem was parking — high unemployment and deep poverty weren't mentioned. Also, there was something about sheep. As 40 or so people sat in a circle and talked about what really irked them, it was twice suggested that sheep should be herded along the jogging path around Silver Lake Reservoir as an environmentally friendly way to keep the weeds shorn.
Dr. Paul Simon, director of the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention at L.A. County's Department of Public Health, who lives in Silver Lake, says the Health Atlas shows that sections of America's hippest neighborhood are facing serious problems — issues far worse than a lack of parking spaces, or stray weeds in the pathway around the reservoir.
For Simon, a high child obesity rate, a “relatively high” density of liquor stores and the 11 percent unemployment rate in Silver Lake, Echo Park and Elysian Valley are standout concerns. By comparison, trendy Venice, whose intense pockets of poverty and gang violence are widely acknowledged even as Silver Lake's are met with arched eyebrows, has an 8 percent unemployment rate, according to the atlas.
“There is a lot of evidence that one's employment influences one's health,” Simon explains. “When you're unemployed, that can create stress.”
And when you're out of work, you don't have easy access to health care.
Padua, longtime executive director of the Free Clinic on Sunset, has seen the truth of that, working since 1978 with low-income and unemployed residents who stream in for free checkups and emergency treatment. Her clients are mostly Latinos whose top two problems are diabetes and hypertension.
Padua says neighborhood kids are obese and have diabetes because they eat poorly and don't have the money to buy fresh chicken, fish or salads at such Silver Lake establishments as Forage, Cliff's Edge and Flore Vegan Cuisine. “Their favorite restaurant,” she says, “is McDonald's.”
Until recently, Rachel Bryant, an upbeat, 26-year-old USC grad who studied film and who works as a cocktail waitress at a downtown nightclub, was part of the so-called “Utopian wing” in Silver Lake.
Bryant met Herman-Wurmfeld at the Micheltorena Street Elementary School community garden, where he volunteers Wednesdays to teach schoolkids about growing herbs and vegetables. Herman-Wurmfeld convinced Bryant to join the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council last fall. An Atlanta native and a Latina, she moved to Silver Lake in 2010 and lives near the Echo Park border, which she affectionately calls “the Badlands.”
One recent afternoon, Bryant dines on fries and a medium-rare cheeseburger at Lamill, a coffee shop on Silver Lake Boulevard, where people are hunched over their MacBooks. At one point, three female zombies with gray faces and frizzy hair drag by — their arms outstretched and a single cameraman recording their distorted moves. A few people give them a quick, nonchalant glance.
Bryant's taking a break from her other work as a filmmaker and “clandestine” artist — she was a co-founder of the Silver Lake Picture Show, which offers free, outdoor screenings at Polka Dot Plaza. Her arm is tattooed with the words “Things Take Time,” which is part of why she quit the Neighborhood Council. “There were endless circular debates on what to do,” Bryant says, and it was “not my cup of tea.” She says of the older, liberal crowd of Silver Lakers made up of Neuman, Ringuette and many others: “It was hard to get people to move into action.”
She's adopted her own long-shot cause: to close the Rampart Boulevard exit of the 101 freeway, near her home. “People come careening off that ramp,” Bryant says, noting that schoolchildren often dash across Rampart. “It's insanely dangerous.”
Bryant sees a “big divide” between people who live north of Sunset and those south of it — with Sunset Junction, where Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards meet, acting as a base camp for the younger crowd. She's worried that “the people who made [Silver Lake] great” — the rebels and artists — “are going to get priced out.”
At the “values and goals” meeting, the mostly baby boomer crowd wanted things from City Hall: sheep, parking spaces, more parks, more street cleaning, enforcement of the city's ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, help for gay seniors. Younger folks such as Bryant, Nicholas Robbins and Matthew Mooney are talking a whole different game.
“The youth in the neighborhood are not connecting with the older generation,” says Robbins, another co-founder of the Silver Lake Picture Show and a playwright and managing director of the Rogue Artists Ensemble theater company. “People my age are very anti-government right now.”
But Robbins did approach the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council for funds for the Silver Lake Picture Show. He argues that Silver Lake's artistic community has long contributed to the neighborhood's vibe but says certain Neighborhood Council board members — whom he describes as “the old guard” — were “not thrilled” about his pitch, intensely questioning him. “They made me feel like I was doing something wrong,” he says. They eventually gave Robbins a few hundred dollars. But, he says, “The folks on [the council], I don't know who they are serving or what they're thinking.”
Mooney, who moved to Silver Lake eight years ago from New York and earned a degree in urban planning from Cal State Northridge, interned for the Neighborhood Council and stayed involved with it. He created a “comprehensive mobility” subcommittee because he felt Neighborhood Council members weren't planning enough pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly ways to tackle Silver Lake's parking and traffic congestion. “It's a one-man show,” he says, “but I had to do it.”
Mooney doesn't own a car, and certainly doesn't want a city parking garage crammed somewhere near Sunset Boulevard, an idea floated by some. He says that would attract even more people into Silver Lake to shop or dine, which would in turn create worse traffic. “A big, ugly parking garage would be the death of the neighborhood,” he says.
The ideas and critiques put forth by Bryant, Robbins and Mooney thrill Herman-Wurmfeld — creating what he calls Silver Lake's “grand conversation.” He says he's convinced that “there are so many little communities that are ready to come to the conversation,” and that in this conversation, the young must be heard.
This kind of talk makes Paul Neuman suspicious. Councilman Paul Koretz's spokesman, a verbose, intelligent guy with a deep knowledge about how things work at L.A. City Hall, says, “You need to do your homework. You need to do your due diligence before things can happen.”
Neuman, who lives near the reservoir, shoots down the idea that there's a disconnect between old and young in Silver Lake. And if the younger crowd isn't happy with the older crowd on the area's Neighborhood Council, Neuman says, “They can run for seats and elect themselves.”
Anne-Marie Johnson, 53, a Neighborhood Council member who was born in Silver Lake and graduated from UCLA, discounts the disconnect, too. “There's a disagreement,” says Johnson, who co-starred in the long-running TV drama In the Heat of the Night and is a forceful presence at neighborhood council meetings, “but not a disconnect.”
Now a part-time aide for 4th District L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents parts of Silver Lake, Johnson says the younger attitudes reflect a “lack of experience of people of a certain age.” It's “entertaining” when newer Silver Lakers start supplying quick answers to the area's challenges. “They think they know everything,” the actress says.
The disconnect, though, was on full, fiery display a few weeks ago when the Micheltorena Street Elementary School auditorium filled up with about 100 people, most of them deeply opposed to the city's plan for a gang injunction.
Neuman, Johnson, Barbara Ringuette, Clarke and Herman-Wurmfeld sat at the front of the room as the advisory motion to oppose the city's injunction idea finally came before the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. City Councilman O'Farrell had already backed the injunction, saying it would “save lives” by restricting the activities of some 300 gang members, mostly from Echo Park. The Echo Park Neighborhood Council had voted to oppose it.
But the Silver Lake board members were stuck in a tie this night. Neuman, Ringuette, Johnson and several others backed the gang injunction, and an equal number of voting members voted against it. Suddenly, a council member arrived late — and voted for the injunction.
The young activists immediately approached the council members chanting “We want freedom!” and “Shut it down!” Amidst the ruckus, the meeting was halted and LAPD was called in. Johnson says the police suggested board members leave for their own safety.
“We're very out of sync with our neighbors right now,” Herman-Wurmfeld says.
Johnson, who describes Silver Lake as a “wonderful family community,” insists the “majority” of residents support the injunction. She says the Neighborhood Council members hung tough that night. “Fortunately,” she says, “we were not intimidated.”
It is 6:30 p.m. on a warm Monday night and it's time for “jazz hands,” although the members of the Silver Lake Assembly don't call it that. In fact, “jazz hands” have much more historic depth than a whimsical dance move championed by famed Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse.
As Herman-Wurmfeld later explains, the revolutionary Sandinistas silently shimmied their hands to show approval during meetings — so they wouldn't give away their location to the Nicaraguan National Guard.** Occupy L.A., according to Herman-Wurmfeld, borrowed “jazz hands” from the Sandinistas, and the Silver Lake Assembly, a weekly gathering of activists and rebels, which grew out of the Occupy L.A. movement, now uses the gesture. “It's a good way to measure the temperature of a group,” he says.
Herman-Wurmfeld sits in a circle with other assembly members at the Polka Dot Plaza, a few yards away from the Mornings Nights Café, a kind of headquarters for skaters, bicyclists and artists. On the table is a discussion to carry out a rolling hunger strike in solidarity with California prison inmates, as well as the fact that El Conquistador, the beloved Mexican restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, is closing, and a posh eatery may replace it.
“Really, what we're talking about is gentrification,” Matthew Mooney says. “I'm not against change, and you can't really stop gentrification, but you can mitigate it.”
Frances Tran, 30, a community activist who's getting her doctorate in molecular biology at USC, starts worrying about one of her favorite local shops, United Bread & Pastry. “I have a feeling that if it ever leaves,” she says, “I will leave.”
Herman-Wurmfeld, wearing his trademark faded purple fedora and “toe” shoes, chimes in, positing that change doesn't necessarily mean another sparkling new restaurant or lounge that offers an $18 martini. “Real change is improving a park,” he says, adding that gentrification is “imperialism.”
That last remark would make many of Herman-Wurmfeld's older colleagues on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council cringe. But his younger comrades on the Silver Lake Assembly give him “jazz hands.”
** Correction: The group known for popularizing jazz hands is actually the Zapatistas of Mexico, and the practice is often traced to the Quakers.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.