November 21, 2006
LIVING AMONG rich people, it turns out, is a lot of work. When I bought a house in the Hollywood Hills a year ago, I had no idea I'd have to join the Oaks Homeowners Assn., pay dues, go to fundraisers, read a newsletter, sign petitions and show up at protests. I thought only poor people got riled up like this.
The main difference between our fights and the ones in South Central is that we tackle cutting-edge problems. While people there are concerned with police brutality, we're taking on The Man over brownouts. Also, we get whatever we want — the Department of Water and Power will be updating our electrical system next month. So if the cops hassle you next summer, people of Watts, come cool off on Canyon Drive.
Feeling that I had to do my part in all this hillside complaining (the latest newsletter features an article called "So Much Noise from SO Much Construction"), I decided to walk down the block for a meeting about cellphone towers. After all, the reception in my house is so spotty that I often have to ask my agent to repeat himself. Do you have any idea what it's like to momentarily not know if your points are off the net or the gross? It was time to fight the power.
The purpose of the meeting, however, was to keep the cell tower out of our 'hood. Apparently, the aesthetics of turning a 25-foot pole into a 50-foot pole with a little box on top was offensive, and opponents feared that the radio frequencies might someday be proved harmful. I had plenty to learn about rich people.
Alexander von Wechmar, one of our homeowners association board members, had collected more than 230 signatures on a petition to get rid of the pole extension. Apparently, this was his second meeting on the topic, and he brought five T-Mobile representatives to come debate. He set up a lectern, a sound system, lights, a video camera — and, despite the fact that no media were there, a stack of press releases. More than 50 people from the neighborhood gathered under the cell tower that we had health concerns about. We were not the smartest group of protesters.
But we had clearly seen "Erin Brockovich." When a T-Mobile lawyer said he was only there to talk about health concerns and not how ugly his pole extension might or might not be, people went ballistic, yelling "Boo!" Von Wechmar leaned into the microphone and said, "You don't give a [barnyard epithet] about the people!" which went over big time. When the T-Mobile people then refused to come to the lectern, he added: "Are you guys scared or what?" For the record, the T-Mobile people were clearly scared. As was I.
Just as the meeting was getting out of control, Von Wechmar pulled out his Johnnie Cochran moment, bringing up Sylvia Jacobson, a feisty elderly woman whose house is right in front of the new pole. Jacobson made an impassioned speech worrying about the unknown long-term health effects of the cell tower. This argument was somewhat weakened when she revealed she was 93 years old. I'm thinking she should focus more on the dangers of surprise parties and loud noises.
Two hours into the meeting, my cellphone embarrassingly rang, which I used as an opportunity to walk away and never come back.
When I checked in with Von Wechmar a few weeks later, things had gotten worse. Just as the Oaks was making its usual progress on the issue — Councilwoman Janice Hahn introduced a motion on pole aesthetics to the public works committee last week — Von Wechmar discovered two new cell towers going up on our block. One of which was right at the bottom of my street, being erected by my provider. I was really psyched.
Von Wechmar, fortunately, thought I was kidding. "If you're lucky, you can even see it from your home," he said. "You should wave at it. It sends waves back."
He told me about some progress he had made researching the Southern California Joint Pole Committee, a secret, nongovernmental agency run by one man. "This man has enormous power," Von Wechmar said, "He knows where all the cell tower poles are going."
Discussions with T-Mobile, meanwhile, had completely broken down after someone painted over the company's construction markings and cut some wires. Tami Nystrom, T-Mobile's manager of development and construction, told me she had never run into this much resistance. She pointed out that in its first month, the disputed pole had funneled 1,200 calls a day and sent 252 calls to 911. She also tried very hard not to say that my neighborhood was bat-poop crazy.
Nystrom also explained that the towers cost thousands of dollars and are only placed in spots where users complain about losing calls. And because our block is a dead end, those complaints probably came from people who live near me. People who probably stayed far away from the meeting.
Even though I felt bad for T-Mobile, I'm happy to live in a neighborhood where people care this much. I met a bunch of cool neighbors that night, and we bonded the kind of bonding that only occurs over shared hatred of a giant telecommunications company.
Though I fear what's going to happen when the homeowners' association notices all those ugly power lines.
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