February 18, 2008
Idon't know about you, but I'm proud of the fact that the most celebrated symbol of our city isn't a statue that was a gift from the French. I also think it's fitting that it isn't burdened with heavy ideology, profound symbolism or deep meaning. Nobody ever accused the Hollywood sign of inspiring high-minded musings about the essence of our city, let alone the exalted mission of our nation. If anything, it evokes a sordid lust for fame and fortune.
I imagine all those aspiring starlets from the Midwest coming to L.A. and sighing as they look up at that sign for the first time. I'm pretty sure they're not thinking about the tired, the poor or those poor devils yearning to breathe free.
Erected in 1923 as an advertisement for an upscale real estate development, it turns out that 85 years later, the Hollywood sign is still doing the trick.
Last week, a Chicago investment firm that owns 138 acres just to the west of the "H" announced that L.A. officials had failed to muster the $22 million it claims is required to preserve the site. The Chicago guys claim five luxury homes, or one insanely big family compound, will fit on the parcel.
But, true to form, Councilman Tom LaBonge, one of the city's biggest cheerleaders, is fighting back. Last Wednesday, LaBonge called a news conference in front of Griffith Observatory to ask the boys from Chicago "to do the right thing" and sell the parcel for the $6 million the city says it's worth. Standing a few feet from the observatory's slightly creepy bronze bust of James Dean, LaBonge argued against developing the land, mostly on ecological grounds. The city needs more open space. New houses there would be vulnerable to fires. Griffith Park's wildlife need the corridor the parcel provides.
But the crux of his argument was cultural, even spiritual.
"I'm not a poet," the loquacious and famouslyrambling councilman demurred at one point. But LaBonge's clumsy rhetoric nonetheless hit the right points: He talked about the hike he took in the hills that very morning, the "strength" that an untouched Cahuenga Peak gives our city and the need for L.A.'s most prominent symbol to rise above all the "clutter" below. Earlier, he told The Times that the view of the sign against the pristine hilltop was "good for the psyche of Los Angeles."
But preservation has always been a hard sell in this city built on impulse, boosterism and real estate speculation. Even the original sign wasn't supposed to last more than a year and a half. Particularly in Hollywood, a place director John Schlesinger once called "an extraordinary kind of temporary place," it's hard not to see the irony of opposing development to preserve the uncluttered view of a sign that was built as an advertisement for real estate. Perhaps more than any other metropolis, in Los Angeles you have to defy history in order to preserve it.
This isn't the first time the Hollywood sign has been at the center of controversy and our municipal psyche. Six years ago, before Angelenos voted on the fate of several secession movements, the city of L.A. and the proponents of the ultimately stillborn city of Hollywood went to court over who would get the sign if the city's voters granted a divorce. L.A. would have lost.
In the late 1970s, a campaign to save the deteriorating icon also inspired a rare outburst of non-sports-related civic pride. It included the first act of L.A. civic philanthropy I was ever aware of. I was in elementary school in Glendale when shock rocker Alice Cooper donated $27,000 to buy the sign a new "O," and I remember thinking it was cool that that scary-looking guy cared. Other donors, such as Gene Autry and Hugh Hefner, were not yet on my radar screen.
LaBonge wants to sit down with the Chicagoans to see if they'll see reason. But he confesses that Plan B may include calling up some rich Hollywood types to ask them to throw down some cash for the common good. The price tag is a whole lot higher than it was in the 1970s, and buying chaparral may not be as sexy as forking over the purchase price of a mammoth new 45-foot high letter.
But, silly as it sounds, this might be another one of those rare moments when Angelenos actually muster up some civic pride.
They shouldn't think they're doing it just for us locals. They'd also be fueling the dreams of the huddled masses from Peoria and beyond.
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