In 3 Years, Identity Shifts From ‘Gay Camelot’ to ‘Creative City’ : On the Positive Side, Success on Civil Rights; Some Unhappy With Quality of Public Services
West Hollywood, once called the “gay Camelot,” is characterizing itself in an advertising campaign celebrating its third birthday as the “creative city.”
“We’re done shaking the earth,” Mayor Alan Viterbi said. “We were one of the cities willing to take risks, having been born out of a desire to make changes. Now we’ve got to show people we’re still succeeding--and in a positive way.”
Viterbi said the city of 37,000 has made significant gains in civil rights issues over the last three years. It has established ordinances prohibiting discrimination against anyone with AIDS or an AIDS-related condition in the workplace and discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and city services.
“We established human rights not only as a legislative policy but a paramount policy . . . whether it’s the rights of tenants or the life style of a minority,” Viterbi said.
Although the city will celebrate its anniversary today, the actual date of incorporation was Nov. 6, 1984, the same day voters elected the first City Council in the country with a homosexual majority. At its first meeting a few weeks later, the City Council named Valerie Terrigno as mayor, the first avowedly homosexual mayor of a U. S. city.
Within a year, the city adopted a rent control law, placed restrictions on new construction and became only the second city in the country to legally recognize gay couples.
The city also suffered its first major setback when Terrigno left office in 1985 and later was convicted of embezzling $9,000 in federal funds from a private counseling agency she previously had managed.
If the city’s image was tarnished by Terrigno’s fall, the damage, according to officials, was temporary.
“It caused a negative spate of publicity for the city, but it dissipated far more quickly than I anticipated,” Viterbi said.
Council member John Heilman agreed. “I think that’s really old hat,” he said. “I don’t think anyone uses that against the city or the gay community.”
The city again drew attention to itself in 1985 when the City Council voted to eliminate Christmas as a city holiday. The “Grinch law,” as it was called by some residents, was repealed in 1986.
Still, Heilman said, the city over the last three years has earned the respect of officials of other cities and is no longer considered a curiosity.
He cited a 30% decrease in the crime rate and a tough rent control law, which rolled back rental rates to 1984 levels and restricted annual rent increases, as the most significant accomplishments of the city.
“We’ve had our share of controversy. We’ve made mistakes,” Heilman said. “But, as a whole, I think we’re moving the city in the right direction.”
However, some residents, like Ron Stone, disagree.
Stone, one of the original leaders in the incorporation campaign, said: “Where we are right now, I’ve got some real problems. It’s not a perfect situation.”
Stone said the city is doing a bad job of resurfacing streets. “It’s not a very pleasant surface . . . not very pleasant to drive on,” he said. “And it’s going to be that way for the next 10 to 15 years.”
Stone also opposes a plan to construct a $25-million Civic Center in West Hollywood Park, saying it would limit the amount of green space in the city.
Ira Stein, one of the nine original cityhood committee members, agreed.
“West Hollywood is one of the most deficient cities in the state (in amount of parkland) because the city does not want to spend the money to acquire an appropriate Civic Center site, which is sad,” he said.
Officials maintain that current plans for the design of the center actually would increase green space by nearly one-third.
Stein said there are other problems. He said the cityhood committee had projected that a maximum of 30 staff members would be necessary for a city the size of West Hollywood.
“They’ve far exceeded what the projected staff was going to be,” Stein said. “They’ve hired staff to do things that are not necessary, when they could be spending more money to actually have better roads, better sewers and more social services.”
Viterbi said the number of staff was at about 100.
“I agree the number is bigger, but their projections were unrealistic,” he said. “We run a tight ship. The city provides a lot of services. Find me someone at City Hall who is not doing his job and I’ll fire him.”
Viterbi said he is pleased the way things are going and looks forward to adoption of the General Plan in the spring. The plan will determine how much development will be allowed in the 1.9-square-mile city.
For now, he said, the attention is on promoting the city’s design, entertainment and restaurant industries. An aggressive marketing scheme has been undertaken to create a new reputation for West Hollywood as the “creative city.”
Viterbi said once the General Plan and the Civic Center are approved, the hard work will be over.
“We’re getting to the point now where things might actually get boring,” Viterbi said. “Nothing will be as grand in scope as the first three years. My biggest fear is that as a city we will become bored with ourselves, with the major accomplishments already behind us.”
A public reception is scheduled for 5 p.m. today at Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park.