Urban Exodus : Families Struggle as the Minority

Times Staff Writer

From everything that the International House of Pancakes people told her, Sheila Ramsey thought she had bought a family restaurant when she took over the franchise on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood four years ago.

Armed with plastic bibs, kiddie seats and boxes of balloons to be given to children, Ramsey was assured that families would flock for pancake breakfasts on weekends and Mother’s Day. But they were nowhere to be found on the weekends that followed, and Mother’s Day was just as dismal. Then came West Hollywood’s annual Gay Pride Parade.

“The place was jammed,” Ramsey recalled.

Change in Marketing

She wasted no time adapting. The kiddie seats, bibs and free balloons were locked away. She obtained a license to sell beer, added a cheery blue cafe awning and wooed homosexual customers, advertising in one gay periodical: “Just as West Hollywood is different from all other cities, so is the West Hollywood IHOP different from all other IHOPS.”

Ramsey’s experience reflects West Hollywood, a place where traditional population curves have turned upside down: The elderly and homosexuals are the predominant inhabitants, traditional child-rearing families a most conspicuous minority. On a larger scale, though, West Hollywood’s inverted demographics are the result of an emerging trend in a growing number of larger cities nationwide: the disappearance of families from the urban landscape.

While West Hollywood has been well-publicized since its incorporation last year as the first city in the nation governed by a gay-dominated council, it is, in fact, not all that different from other urban enclaves in America where gentrification has taken hold.


Beyond Gentrification

Bringing young professionals and a modicum of a tax base to urban areas that were increasingly poor and underprivileged, gentrification has often been hailed as one of the few positive trends of American urban life. A small but growing number of planners and government officials in cities across the country, however, have begun looking beyond gentrification, and they see the loss of families as the most critical urban issue of the 1980s.

“A city that has become hostile to families eventually becomes hostile to the rest of its inhabitants,” said Dr. Robert Aldrich, a pediatrician and urban planner who has led attempts to strengthen the family base in Seattle, where the population of children fell 36,000 between 1970 and 1980.

Civic activists and government officials there have pioneered the movement to halt the flight of families. A program called Kidsplace is altering the city’s day-to-day relations with its children, such as consulting children on park planning, and the city government is working on plans to restructure zoning to encourage the construction of more family housing.

“The basic issue is quality of life,” said Anne Vernez-Moudon, a professor of urban design at the University of Washington in Seattle. “This city has decided that families are crucial to its future.”

It is a notion that is spreading to other cities. St. Paul City Councilman Bill Wilson returned from a trip to Seattle convinced that his Minnesota city needed to bolster its dwindling family population.

“If you don’t have children who grow up in the city and learn that culture and grow roots there, a city can lose its sense of continuity,” Wilson said.

City officials from San Diego, Santa Monica, El Paso, Indianapolis, Des Moines and Flint, Mich., have also made the pilgrimage to Seattle in recent months, returning to spread the message about Kids-place and the danger of family losses.

Move in San Francisco

Recently in San Francisco, perhaps the nation’s most gentrified city, Mayor Dianne Feinstein signed into law a plan that would force developers to pay a series of fees when new high-rise construction projects exceed 50,000 square feet.

The fees would include requirements that developers contribute to child care (or start their own day-care centers) and to city housing funds for low- and moderate-income families.

Now West Hollywood is on the verge of revamping its community plan, which sets the pattern for the 1.9-square-mile city’s growth--a planning process that may ultimately determine what, if anything, will be done to stem the flight of the city’s families.

As the city reshapes itself--tinkering with zoning codes, deciding whether to commit capital funds to a center for elderly residents, mulling over whether to preserve residential neighborhoods near thriving commercial centers--the future of families in the young city may well be at stake.

For after 20 years of continued outward migration, West Hollywood’s remaining families now make up only 5% of the city’s 22,000 households, and a fundamental question already answered in places like Seattle is now surfacing in West Hollywood: whether to court families at all.

Lack of Clout Cited

“Let’s face it,” said Eugene Grigsby, a social planner working as a consultant with the city, “the community of West Hollywood is not very oriented to families, not because of any reverse discrimination, but simply because families here have no political or economic clout.”

Government officials and other civic activists in West Hollywood insist that the city’s families are not treated with hostility, and--paradoxically--the transformation last November from unincorporated Los Angeles County territory into a city may well have hastened a public debate on the future of families.

Under the county’s administration, there was a widespread feeling that West Hollywood’s local, urban-oriented social issues tended to be ignored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which represents a larger, more suburban electorate and seemed more attuned to suburban concerns.

“From my reading of the council’s liberal leanings, I think they might like to maintain the city’s present diversity,” Grigsby said. “But I’m not altogether certain their natural constituencies--that is, gays and seniors--would approve.”

Indeed, some community leaders argue that since incorporation, West Hollywood has become increasingly known as a haven for senior citizens and homosexuals and should remain that way.

“Here you have (Los Angeles) county where the overwhelming majority of communities revolve around families,” civic activist Bernard Siegel said. “West Hollywood is probably the only place where that isn’t the case, and there are a lot of us who don’t want to see that mix change, even if it means we lose some more families.”

Decline Began in ‘60s

The number of West Hollywood’s child-rearing families has been declining since the 1960s, when an apartment-construction boom replaced the city’s cottage-sized residential neighborhoods with glass-and-stucco apartment buildings, and their clout continues to weaken as more and more of them leave West Hollywood.

Grigsby, who is using demographic studies to determine the city’s future social service needs, sees evidence that family ranks are being further depleted, a trend attributed to continuing losses among young married professionals and West Hollywood’s once-sizable Russian immigrant population.

Accustomed to being at the center of community life elsewhere, many of West Hollywood’s 1,000 child-rearing families have a hard time adjusting to life as a minority.

“You have to pinch yourself every once in a while to remind yourself that the world hasn’t gone crazy,” said Irvene Gerstell, who has a 4-year-old son, Jesse. “It’s this city that’s different, not us.”

To people like Gerstell, life in West Hollywood is a constant reminder of their virtual invisibility: The city’s commerce caters to a non-family clientele. Social service and recreation programs for families, standard in most other communities, are nearly non-existent, and the competition is intense for what facilities the city has.

‘Screaming Kids’

Some gays bristled this summer, for example, when they found West Hollywood Park’s swimming pool swarming with adolescents, many from outside the area. “We had screaming kids all over the place,” said John Mackey, a cable television consultant active in gay and civic affairs.

And three mornings a week a small playground in West Hollywood Park becomes a patch of territory prized by both families and homosexuals.

First to stake a claim are the mothers and children of the West Hollywood Munchkins Play Group. A wooden shed is unlocked, toys are passed around and the mothers stand watch while their children frolic in the sandbox, smear themselves with finger paint and race each other on wobbly plastic tricycles.

As noon approaches, a few men gather at the far end of the sandbox. They are homosexuals, drawn to West Hollywood Park by its reputation as the city’s busiest outdoor location for casual sexual encounters. The mothers watch the men warily, but say nothing. Often, they wait until later in the day to complain to police, angered that despite repeated arrests, their children and the homosexuals must occupy the same ground.

“The thing that gets me is that if this was anywhere else, the situation would not be tolerated,” said Penelope Ulander, whose daughter, Ingrid, 18 months, attends the play group regularly.

Play Group ‘Inappropriate’

But Mackey said the play group is “inappropriate here. We don’t need sandboxes, swing sets and those kinds of things in our parks. We’re already deficient in park space, so why not use it wisely?”

Many young professional married couples are often attracted to West Hollywood at first by the city’s sophisticated urban village atmosphere. But with the addition of a child, many parents who previously enjoyed the area find themselves forced to frequent stores and restaurants outside the city.

“When we first came here, we loved this place,” said social worker Karen Gilman, 29, who bought a condominium on Hayworth Avenue four years ago with her husband, Michael, 31, an institutional bond salesmen. “Everything was in walking distance. We could walk to the Comedy Store. We really took advantage of it.”

But the birth two years ago of their daughter, Sarah, put an end to the Gilmans’ night life and forced them to look for more family oriented entertainment. Like many other West Hollywood families with children, they could soon recite the litany of parents discouraged by the prospect of toting their toddlers to adult-oriented restaurants: High chairs were unavailable; children’s menus were not to be found.

“What we wouldn’t give for just one Chuck E. Cheese’s,” lamented Lesley Ficks, a mother of a 4-year-old son.

Family Rentals Rare

Family size rental housing is rare, and landlords prefer single tenants or couples.

“There are all sorts of laws that say landlords can’t discriminate, but they always ask,” Gerstell said. “And you always have to tell them.”

Even the lucky families who find apartments may learn that apartment house life can be hostile, as children’s play hours around apartment courts and pools are often restricted.

Often, elderly tenants complain when children interrupt the quiet of their buildings.

“I don’t see why we should have to put up with unruly children,” said Dora Kline, 67, whose 14-unit apartment building near Fairfax Avenue has had an occasional family. “Believe me, I raised my own family. Now I want some peace.”

On occasion, a few families have heard an anti-family attitude crystallized by one word: “breeder,” a term gays sometimes use to mock heterosexuals.

Councilman Alan Viterbi heard the term regularly when he campaigned last year for a council post in gay bars on Santa Monica Boulevard. “I’d come in and sit down with some of the patrons, and invariably, one of them would say: ‘So you’re the breeder candidate.’ I shrugged it off.”

Gay leaders in the community insist the term is not bandied about often among homosexuals and is not indicative of general gay attitudes toward families. Said Ron Stone, a private consultant who led the city’s incorporation movement last year: “I don’t think it shows any major strain in relations.”

Councilmen Stephen Schulte and John Heilman and Councilwoman Helen Albert, who has strong support in the city’s elderly community, all insist they want to at least maintain the city’s small family population and will be sensitive to their needs. “If families come to us and say they really needed a particular program, I think they’d get it,” said Schulte, who is gay. “We have plenty of money in the coffers.”

Gay Support in S.F.

(San Francisco’s large gay community has supported the family oriented program there, among them influential homosexual Supervisor Harry Britt, whom Karen Furia of San Francisco’s office of child care credited as “one of the early backers” of the plan to enforce high-rise construction fees for child care.)

A few family members, to be sure, have worked with gays and senior citizens on a variety of community issues in West Hollywood.

Ruth Williams, a mother rearing a 15-year-old son, ran unsuccessfully in last year’s council race and is on the board of the Stonewall Democratic Club, a largely gay organization considered influential in the city’s political circles.

“I think a lot of families would like to shut their eyes to what’s going on around them,” she said. “We can’t let that happen. Otherwise, there won’t be any of us left.”

But many West Hollywood families find themselves increasingly isolated from a community that they feel rarely seems to notice them. Karen and Michael Gilman actively campaigned for a favorite candidate in last year’s council race. A year later, their activism has faded, replaced by their preoccupation with their own lives.

After raising daughter Sarah in a converted condominium where only four of 42 units are occupied by families, the Gilmans have grown tired of searching for new friends for Sarah and hustling her back into the apartment every time she threatens a tantrum.

Despite placing their unit on the market several months ago and scanning real estate ads for a house outside West Hollywood, the Gilmans still imagine what the city could be like if even a few basic family needs were met. “I don’t think we would gripe so much about the fact that there were so few of us,” Karen Gilman said. “It might be nice to have a little more green space and a city day-care program.

“That might just about do it.”