Neighborhood Groups Strive for Common Link

No one really lives in Los Angeles.

They live in Silver Lake, Echo Park, Downtown, Hollywood, North Hollywood, Mt. Washington, Boyle Heights, Studio City, Beverly-Fairfax, Westwood, Venice, Encino or one of the dozens of other distinct communities scattered across the cityscape.

Whether recent transplants or natives, most Angelenos do not identify with that amorphous, arbitrary, political mass known as Los Angeles. Instead, they identify with their community or, on a smaller scale, their neighborhood, however disorganized and seemingly anonymous to all but realtors, developers and planners.

What Los Angeles has become as it has grown in spurts is really a sprawling collection of villages, some urban, many suburban and a few exurban, tied together at best by a mesh of crowded freeways.

The result is a parochialism that, while encouraging a healthy pride among the growing groups of residents trying to improve their neighborhoods, also tends to isolate them.

Too late do they find out that the road-widening project destroying the trees and ambiance of a bordering neighborhood is going to hit them next, or that another neighborhood is suffering similar problems as theirs because of poor planning.

Missing is a network through which neighborhood groups can share common experiences and interests, help each other monitor the city's arcane planning and development process and perhaps join together to act on broader regional issues.

It was with establishing such a network in mind that a smattering of scattered neighborhood groups gathered in Westwood last weekend. As such meetings go, it was a good beginning.

There were, of course, too many speeches, but at the end, after the lawyers stopped talking, plans were discussed for a newsletter, a hot line and another meeting. Those interested in helping were asked to call 213/474-1651.

Though the effort is a positive one, the tentative name the formative group has given itself, Not Yet New York, is, I think, quite negative. There are many aspects about New York that are quite desirable, such as its cultural attractions, shopping, select street life and neighborhood spirit.

Indeed, if such a spirit existed here and was channeled through community planning boards of the type that are in New York, many of the problems the group in Westwood expressed concern over could begin to be solved.

But, perhaps I just read the name of the group wrong, and that the emphasis was not on the NOT in Not Yet New York, indicating disapproval, but on the YET , and consciously or subconsciously, the members have established Manhattan and its environs as a model to strive for.

Whatever, there was at the meeting a sincere expression of of frustration over the city's lack of responsiveness to the needs and goals of neighborhoods and a desire for residents to assert themselves more in the planning process. It is a worthy goal, despite the name.

Grace Simons . . . was not at the gathering, but one would like to think her spirit was. Grace, who died recently at the age of 84, had devoted the last 20 years of her vigorous life to the continuing battle to protect and nurture Elysian Park.

It is sad to note that if it had not been for the zealous defense by Simons and the others she inspired, the park's 575 hilly acres bordering Echo Park would long ago have been whittled down to next to nothing. Among the many threats to the park over the years has been an expanded Police Academy, a short take-off-and-landing airport, temporary classrooms, wider roads serving Dodger Stadium and an oil-drilling project.

With her background as a journalist--she worked for a French news agency in China and for various newspapers here--Grace cast a wary eye on every proposal to "improve" the park. It was her contention that bureaucrats will act to serve, first, themselves by creating projects, whether needed or not, just to keep busy, and, second, special interests so as to gain favors of politicians indebted to the interests.

(Her comments could have some applicability in the emerging debate over the future of Pershing Square. See Letters to the Editor.)

"Usually, the last thing on their minds is the city's welfare and the needs of its residents," she told me once in a rambling interview. Then she added with a sparkle in her eyes and a ready smile, that "maybe they just act that way out of ignorance." Grace at times could be very cutting.

To protect the city's parks, neighborhoods and quality of life, warned Simons, "you must be vigilant and you must organize." It was a statement made five years ago that could have served as the keynote to the gathering of neighborhood activists last weekend.

In recognition of Grace's contributions, the city a few years ago named the community center at 1025 Elysian Park Drive the Grace E. Simons Lodge. Tomorrow night at 7 o'clock there will be a memorial meeting there honoring Grace.

At the meeting, it might be appropriate to raise the issue of the proposal by the Department of Water and Power to take 1.5 acres of the park for a pumping station, when the agency could alternatively rehabilitate its existing facility. If Grace could be there, I am sure she would use the opportunity to protest the incursion.

Alert . . . the historic Blacker House in Pasadena, designed and built by Greene & Greene in 1907 and considered by some to be more impressive than their Gamble House, has been sold. That is fine, but Pasadena Heritage reports that many of the exquisite interior craftsman fixtures have been removed for sale.

The preservationist group is concerned because the fixtures had been designed by Greene & Greene specifically for the house, and their removal lessens the value of the fixtures, the house and its historical integrity. They are urging the new owner, who lives in Texas, to return the fixtures. Keep tuned for further details.

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