Council President Jose Sigala was in dire need of a gavel, banging his pen on the table with increasing urgency while trying to shout down his out-of-order colleagues: "Mr. Cebada! Stick to the agenda!" "Mrs. Mendoza! There are children in the audience -- including your own!"
The audience at the school auditorium was no more civilized. One woman called a councilman an unprintable epithet.Sigala pleaded with another woman to wait to speak until a public comment period. "Rules?" she replied, incredulously. Sigala intimated that if she kept it up, she might have to be removed. She was 80 years old.
By 9:30, a councilwoman was slamming her palm on the table, pleading for one last vote -- on a $1,000 budget item that had been the source of more bickering. A school official flickered the lights, reminding them that once again they had gone past their allotted time at the school and forcing them, mercifully, to wrap it up.
"Well," Sigala said on his way out, without a hint of irony, "everyone decided to behave themselves tonight."
Considering how the council has behaved of late -- and that Echo Park is in the grips of a venomous dispute over gentrification and the future of the storied neighborhood -- he was right.
Power of the people
The Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council is one of 88 neighborhood councils created in Los Angeles in the last nine years. Each is a junior varsity city council of sorts, with the ability to pass judgment on new development and other things, but its power lies largely in advising politicians who have real power.
The system was created with good intentions, to empower local neighborhoods that felt disconnected from City Hall.
But creating 1,500 new politicians was never going to be pretty. Some councils have degenerated into fiefdoms and glorified homeowners associations. There have been allegations of theft and brazen violations of open government laws. Echo Park is hardly the worst of the lot.
But the divide here is particularly resonant because at its heart is the sort of gentrification shaping so many neighborhoods in the interior of Los Angeles.
Echo Park was one of the first L.A. suburbs and, later, was the site of some the city's first white flight.Now, the Anglos are coming back -- white return? -- and in recent years, that has begun to redefine life in the ethnic enclave that developed in their absence. Latino businesses and families have been pushed out, largely by rising rents.
Construction proposals began popping up in the community, and many didn't look like the bungalows and cottages that had long peppered the hillsides of Elysian Heights, Angelino Heights and the neighborhoods around Dodger Stadium. They were condos.
Condos began to take on great symbolic meaning among some Latinos, because the perceived market -- younger people, many with money and without children -- did not look like Echo Park. Not like ethnic Echo Park, anyway.
Complaints were rising that the neighborhood council was rubber-stamping development with little regard for issues such as affordable housing.
"At the end of the day," Sigala said, "it was an issue of arrogance."
Latino leaders began looking at the makeup of the council, which in 2006, Sigala said, had one Latino but represented a neighborhood that was nearly 70% Latino.
"Race became a proxy," said Greg Morrow, an incoming member of the council's planning and land-use committee who is pursuing his doctorate in urban planning at UCLA and is building two homes he designed in Echo Park. "It became a proxy for the issues people were talking about -- for social change. Cities evolve, but when you get down to it, people are just not into change."
Line in the sand