Tired of Someone Else's Idea of Progress

My parents wouldn't recognize me now. I hadn't lived up to my potential, hadn't found a direction, hadn't committed myself. I was a model underachiever. I had lost a lot of jackets.

Now I'm a bona fide community activist. I make calls, hand out flyers, study documents, attend city planning meetings, look for problems and try to create solutions. I called politicians for our block party. I go out on neighborhood patrols.

I started slowly, though. Very slowly.

It began in the spring of 1990 when a flyer for a local group, the Miracle Mile Action Committee, was taped over the mailboxes in my apartment building. Weeks went by before I wrote down the phone number. A couple of days after that I called. They asked me to picket a construction site, but I was scheduled to work that day.

Almost a year went by and then, last spring, the committee called me. The MMAC was not pleased with the construction boom in the neighborhood, the increase in crime, the daily challenge to find a parking space within walking distance of our apartments.

The group wanted to help do something about it, and I was glad. I was falling in love with Miracle Mile's community and old buildings, and I was concerned about many of the same issues. Before the committee recruited me, I had no idea I could help.

The Miracle Mile District was built during the 1920s and '30s on a stretch of bean fields near the La Brea tar pits. The Spanish Colonial and Art Deco houses and apartments were hand-built by craftsmen. They are beautiful, and lot of us feel lucky to call them home.

For the last five years, though, a contingent of developers has been tearing down the old buildings one and two at a time. But sometimes whole blocks are destroyed. One corner of the district--an area encompassing the three blocks north of Wilshire for six blocks on the west side of La Brea--has lost more than 50 buildings.

The pattern is familiar. One day a fence goes up, then there are bulldozers, cranes and rubble. Soon there is nothing but scraped earth. Usually two adjacent buildings are demolished at once.

Much larger buildings are then built on the lots--high rent, high security, high profile--but it wouldn't be true to say the old ones are being replaced. As in much of Los Angeles, the community these old buildings housed is special and endangered. It's good to meet your neighbors here, maybe invite one over for coffee, help carry in their groceries. When the old buildings are taken piecemeal to the dump, the community is being thrown out, too.

A friend says I prefer living museums to conventional ones. That may be a good way of putting it. I'd rather walk down Cochran or Cloverdale than tour the County Museum a few blocks west. The buildings on these streets renew my faith in craftsmanship, quality, the beauty of human work.

So I was eager to help when the MMAC contacted me again. They asked for a donation to help them finance their battles in the city bureaucracy.

I said I didn't have much money, but I did sometimes have a couple of days a week to spare.

On my next day off, I represented the MMAC at a meeting of the Los Angeles City Planning and Land Use Committee.

Easy as that.

The committee was considering variances from zoning laws requested by a developer who wanted to tear down a stately 66-year-old building and put up a structure that would replace three apartments with 28.

I told the Planning Committee that our neighborhood was crowded enough, that parking was bad enough, that the old building was too beautiful to lose and the proposed one too ugly to tolerate.

I was exhilarated--terrified, but exhilarated.

It's awkward being a novice in a world of professionals. But either we come to an agreement with the developers and government or Los Angeles continues to lose its beauty and heritage.

One person's work can seem minimal. City Hall ignored my arguments, and the proposed project has zipped through the bureaucracy without a hitch.

We're pursuing the matter through administrative processes, but it's too late for the old building. It's gone. A crew sneaked in one weekend and tore it to pieces.

The best we can hope for on this now-empty lot is the construction of a building that is better than the one proposed. But perhaps the battle over this one building will help preserve the historic character of the neighborhood as a whole.

I feel I've been cheated by all these years of inaction. I cheated myself.

I cheated myself when I acquiesced to people who said community work is futile.

I cheated myself when I took "No" for an answer rather than asserting my beliefs or braving bureaucratic complexity and inertia.

I cheated myself when I thought some people could get things done and the rest of us could do nothing but live with someone else's idea of progress.

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