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Peace and love cause a big stir in Atwater Village

Little Atwater Village pulled out all the stops last week at the ceremony to light its Christmas tree, a redwood that towers handsomely over the commercial drag.

No one had ever seen a crowd like this -- 1,400 people jammed into a bank parking lot, quite a turnout considering that fewer than 20,000 people live here. There were pigtailed girls handing out candy canes. There were dogs tolerating Rudolph costumes. Santa dropped by.

"We have such a gift here," said the celebrity emcee, Catherine Dent, an actress and a local. Then she asked everyone to turn to a stranger, to make a new friend. Smack in the middle of one of the world's largest metropolises, they did.

Had you stumbled upon this scene, you might have assumed that this sort of thing, this sort of placidity, pervades Atwater Village the rest of the year, too. You would have been wrong.

There was no sign of the bickering that has consumed civic leaders -- over whether they should buy environmentally friendly Christmas lights, or which group of city boosters should have the honor of supplying those candy canes to the pigtailed girls.

No sign of the deep divisions between old guard and new, of the accusations of hate speech and gay-bashing, of the charges that some have tried to turn Christmas into some sort of anti-war protest.

No sign that a Neighborhood Council member would feel compelled to declare, on a community Internet forum, that he is "a White Christian Heterosexual Male." No sign that a proposed theme of "peace" for the tree-lighting had been roundly rejected.

For a century, Atwater Village had been home to a diverse collection of working-class families. Civic leaders boasted of its small-town feeling, but some began to believe that sentiment was mere cover for the fact that nearby neighborhoods, such as Silver Lake, had undergone sweeping renewals. Atwater Village, some felt, had been passed by.

Eventually, gentrification arrived with a wave of urban professionals. Today, Atwater Village is a study in contrasts.

There are quaint landmarks -- the Tam O'Shanter Inn, where Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Walt Disney used to dine; Club Tee Gee, a charming, wood-paneled bar where daytime patrons squint into the light when someone new walks in. And there is a bustling collection of new stores, galleries and cafes, a wine shop, dog boutique and yoga studios, most along Glendale Boulevard, its commercial spine.

A few years back, Mark Newman-Kuzel, a dynamo with his cat's name tattooed on his wrist, waded into the mix, and not gingerly. As the owner of a cleaning company, he was not thrilled with the business environment in Atwater.

"There just wasn't a whole heck of a lot getting done," he said.

Those shortcomings were most palpable, he said, during the Atwater Griffith Park Chamber of Commerce's annual tree ceremony, when the redwood was draped with scrawny strands of lights, and snickering could be heard in the small crowd. Two years ago, he joined the chamber board. This summer, he went for broke.

He and 11 others formed a slate of candidates, dubbed the "Vibrant Village." They won, backed by almost unanimous support from the new shops, and he became chamber president -- knocking off Betty Bartlotta, a business-community fixture and tart-tongued storyteller who has owned Club Tee Gee since the early 1980s.

Bartlotta and three others defeated that night were stunned. No one had ever campaigned for the chamber board; often, the board hadn't even managed to fill all of its seats. Here were young upstarts -- "newbies," as Newman-Kuzel says -- holding strategy meetings late into the night and distributing campaign handbills.

"We were just hungrier and more enthusiastic," said Newman-Kuzel, 48. "And clearly, the bulk of Atwater Village wanted a change."

But it rubbed some people the wrong way.

"We were caught with our pants down," Bartlotta said. "We were very much embarrassed by the whole thing. All of this? In a tiny village?"

She sighed and picked at a basket of popcorn.

"It's happening everywhere -- new people want to push out the old," she said. "We are not part of their plan."

In early October, Lenore Solis went across town to a chamber board meeting. Solis, 49, was on the "Vibrant Village" slate, but had a foot in the other camp, too; her family had run an interpreting agency on Glendale Boulevard since 1972.

A conservative whose office is adorned with nine crucifixes, Solis was fired up by the debate that had taken place that night between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Topic A at the chamber meeting was the upcoming tree ceremony. Newman-Kuzel was thinking big -- a big crowd, a fashion show. But one question he asked caused a stir: "Do you think the Pledge of Allegiance is too political for a Christmas event?"

He was, he would say later, merely posing the question. But they had said the Pledge at the holiday event for years, led by young Los Angeles Police Department Explorers. Solis was outraged that Newman-Kuzel would even consider tinkering with that tradition.

"I said: 'Are you nuts?' " Solis recalled. "That's the flag of our country."

Newman-Kuzel dropped it. But later that night, he proposed a theme for the tree-lighting ceremony: "Peace in Atwater." It was, Solis said, clearly a political position -- and the tree-lighting ceremony, she said, is no place for politics.

"It's a universal event -- well, maybe not to a Jewish person, but it's a universal event," Solis said. " 'Peace in Atwater?' What, instead of violence?"

The board voted: no peace.

Solis is also a member of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council. A few weeks later, that group was wrapping up a meeting at which Newman-Kuzel had made a successful pitch for $4,000 in public funding for the tree-lighting ceremony, amid an acerbic debate over whether it made sense to buy environmentally friendly lights that cost more than regular lights.

Someone asked Solis about a rumor going around town that Newman-Kuzel was trying to do away with the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag.

"He was trying to turn it into . . . maybe a little bit of a West Hollywood thing," Solis responded at the meeting. As for threatening to cancel the pledge, she said: "It would be peace, and anti-flag, and 'Bush is an idiot.' "

"We can't politicize it," replied Jeff Gardner, a former Chamber president who had sparred with Newman-Kuzel over the lights. Gardner pointed out that Newman-Kuzel had referred to his partner as his "husband" at the 2007 tree ceremony. That was controversial, Gardner said -- and, he suggested, politically charged language.

"Because he lives in that world," Solis replied, "he thinks that everybody is cool with it." She also said Newman-Kuzel is "from a different planet."

The next day, rumors were flying about what had been said, particularly in the community's large gay and lesbian community. And, said Lourdes Rivas, owner of Pampered Birds, an exotic-bird shop on Glendale Boulevard: "There were tapes."

Luis Lopez, 34, owner of a local auto repair shop, is another member of the Neighborhood Council. He records meetings, he said, because he doesn't take very good notes. Lopez, who said he was offended by the discussion, began e-mailing audio clips around town.

Rivas is gay. Her shop is adorned with a mural of birds and the rainbow of the gay community. It had never been an issue, she said, until now.

"I've never heard of anyone attacked here -- black, white, straight, gay, ugly, fat, skinny," she said. "To go after people personally like that was hurtful. And these people pretend they represent us. They somehow step to the front of the line, when no one has asked them to."

The popular Neighborhood Council blog became a hive of outrage.

"What kills me the most is that . . . people were saying they want the event to be inclusive," one local wrote. "How then, in the same breath, can they say . . . that a gay man mentioning a husband is inappropriate?"

"Burn them at the stake!" another replied. "The PC Police have spoken!"

Phillip Alexander, a council member and recent Assembly candidate, joined in. He argued that liberals were taking advantage of innocent remarks to attack conservatives: "I am a White Christian Heterosexual Male that believes in Gun-Ownership, Personal Responsibility and Limited Government."

"I'm glad that you are proud and secure," Lopez replied.

Newman-Kuzel did use the word "husband," and still does today.

"It just came out," he said. "There was no gay 'agenda.' On stage, you just get excited, and you want to thank your parents, your kids, your husband, your wife, whatever. . . . I thought we lived in an open-minded, loving community here."

Initially reluctant to comment for this article, he said he just wants to move on.

There are too many positive developments in Atwater Village, he said, to stay mired in this.

"I have tried to take the high road," he said. "That is all I can do."

The tree-lighting ceremony was, by all accounts, a success. The Explorers presented the flag and led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"The tree is beautiful this year," Bartlotta said. "I'll be the first to admit it."

Last month, the chamber voted to eject Solis. She remains unrepentant, and says she was only standing up for the flag. She is now running for Glendale City Council.

Gardner, the former chamber president, distributed a synopsis of the dispute around town charging that "spectacular accusations" were actually a "cover up" for the funding dispute over Christmas lights. To label this gay-bashing, he wrote, "is to seriously devalue the problems of people really experiencing discrimination."

Solis said she and Gardner are pushing to have Lopez, who distributed the tape, thrown off the council for making "unsupported allegations" and "agitating tensions."

"No matter who you are, you're able to present your ideas," Solis said. "I guess that's what this country is all about."

Gold is a Times staff writer.

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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