Attorney Tom Doniger hadn’t even started unpacking after moving into his house in Windsor Square when a neighbor knocked on the door and gave him a list with the name and address of every resident on the block.
“I’ve lived in lots of other places and I’ve never known my neighbors before,” he says.
Recently Doniger has come to a new appreciation of the neighborhood where he has lived for six years.
“We look out for each other,” he says. “During the riots, we would all meet in the street to check on each other. And I was out of town during the Northridge earthquake, but my wife grabbed our 2-year-old son, Sam, and ran next door.”
After these disasters, close-knit neighborhoods like Doniger’s are on the rise, says Bill Christopher, coordinator for the 2 1/2-year-old Plan L.A., an umbrella of 17 groups representing 250 neighborhood coalitions.
“This city has been buffeted by significant events,” says Christopher, a Beverly Hills architect and urban planner. “In the wake of riots, fires and earthquakes, the effort to find a personal sense of community has definitely risen.”
“We’ve always had neighborhood groups,” he continues, ticking off examples: the Hillside Federation with its concern for fire protection and mountain preservation; Westside Federation, opposing the Beverly Hills Freeway; Citizens of South Central, defeating the Lancer incinerator.
But the events of the past two years have kicked such activities into a new gear, emphasizing personal connections as well as political action, he says.
The Multi-Cultural Collaborative opened its downtown office in May, 1993. “We were one of those groups formed in the aftermath of the civil unrest,” says co-director Cindy Choi. “And with three co-directors and an administrator, we’re one of the best-staffed. This is a big effort.”
Working with 12 community-based organizations--some old and some newly formed--they are working on an ambitious urban agenda that “talks about people being first,” Choi says. “Whatever happens here must involve community input on a substantive level.”
They hope to evaluate how inner-city communities are served by public entities, such as City Hall and the police, and to provide alternative models.
Although they’re just getting geared up, she is optimistic: “For a lot of us, the riots were a catalyst,” she says. “It’s amazing how these communities have been surviving, though they have virtually been abandoned. I see pockets of hope and pockets of extreme resourcefulness.”
“After the riots,” says community activist Lois Arkin, “everyone started re-evaluating what our priorities are supposed to be in this city.”
In many cases that was on a leadership level, says Christopher. “But it was in the wake of the earthquake that people really began to realize their interdependence on a grass-roots level.”
The result, he says, is not so much a huge increase in the number of formal organizations as a search for more personal connectedness.
At the Los Angeles Police Department, Mark Kroeker views the same phenomenon through a longer lens. As deputy chief in charge of police operations for Operation South Bureau, he concentrates on community work.
“I see a tremendous amount of good neighborhood activity today in places where it has never happened before,” he says. “Neighborhoods are what’s happening.
“You might call it a movement. It’s almost like the fitness craze. People are discovering the discrete parameters of how neighborhoods are formed and discovering how to convert an urban setting into a neighborhood where people know each other and take accountability for each other.”
Because each of the LAPD’s 18 districts have emphasized community-based policing since the riots, the department has an overview of the new activity, says Kroeker. He sees an emerging pattern of police-neighborhood teams, each with a little element of hometown.
Although he sees this movement as “fueled by the ongoing fear,” Kroeker is not willing to lay it all on the riots and earthquake.
“I see a more linear approach--it started happening way before that--maybe with Proposition 13, then the tremendous patterns of demographic turbulence. I think we realize, as we head for the year 2000, that we have to make some changes.”
Jon Shaughnessy is a founder of the Neighborhood Councils Movement, which aims at bringing decision-making under local control in Los Angeles. An event like an earthquake that tumbles neighbors outside in their pajamas can be a particularly persuasive catalyst, he says.
But evening strolls, dog-walking and children playing in the streets also provide a sort of social control, Shaughnessy says. “Part of what we want to know is that most of the people we meet every day are our friends.”
He calls the Los Angeles transformation of recent years a “sea change.”
“There are about 8 million people living in this region who have figured out they aren’t going to hang out with 8 million people and are beginning to suspect the people they should know are the ones who live within walking distance,” he says.
“The only way to be prepared for the future is to do things in the present that increase our connectedness. Maybe it’s your block. Or maybe just your apartment complex. Many people use the same laundry room and don’t know each other’s first name.”
Connection “is a basic human longing,” and that longing is a national phenomenon, says Betty Didcoct, director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), based in Langley, Wash., a national clearinghouse for community activities on all levels. “We’re having a big surge of correspondence and phone calls from people all over the country,” she said.
FIC’s first Celebration of Community last summer at Evergreen State College in Olympia attracted almost 1,000 participants who came to learn more about creating community.
“We frequently hear from people living in the city who say they are ‘looking for more connections’ in their lives, or who just want to know the people living next door,” Didcoct says.
Here is a sampling of how Los Angeles neighbors build small communities in the big city. Although their experiences are diverse, each had a first step: knocking on someone’s door:
* “The tendency in this neighborhood was to come home from work, close the door and not even look outside,” says Geoffrey Saldiva, founder of the the Rampart Rangers/East Hollywood Neighborhood Watch. “I was guilty of that until the problem became too bad.”
That was five years ago when he returned from a vacation to find four drug dealers working out of his driveway in the neighborhood between Vermont and Hoover.
The police put neighbors in contact with downtown Hollywood groups that had developed non-confrontational civilian patrols. The Rampart Rangers learned to make their presence felt, starting with citizen patrol groups of 40 or more. “The idea was to observe and report crime, not intervene,” says Saldiva.
Says LAPD Officer Webster Wong of the Rampart area: “They’ve made a difference. They’ve let us become aware of the problems these people are facing and helped us to deal with it.”
The group also organized activities for children, planted 60 fruit trees and has been able to block some applications for licenses to sell beer and wine in the neighborhood. Now they are part of the United Streets of Hollywood and can see a difference.
“Walking the streets together you build a sense of camaraderie,” says Saldiva. “I was surprised to find a lot of people I grew up with still in the neighborhood.”
* “We started out fighting development, project by project. We began to see we needed to do something more,” says Paul Doebler of the Palms del Rey Planning District.
When Xerox transferred him from New York nine years ago, he and his wife bought a house in a pleasant wood-shingled complex.
But the area, south of Venice, was being steamrolled by developers, including three major proposals for malls the size of Westside Pavilion in Doebler’s neighborhood. “It just got to the breaking point,” says Doebler.
Not only has the group controlled the malls and cleaned up a major crime problem, he says, neighbors have developed a sound plan for a livable mix of light industry and housing instead of proposed entertainment arcades with pubs and theaters.
“Good lord, we’ve actually changed the tide,” says Doebler. “We’ve fended off all the malls, we talk to the police regularly and we get consulted early in the game instead of having to show up or hearings when everything is set.
“Community is what it’s all about,” he says. “You know all kinds of people you wouldn’t know otherwise. It’s the difference between civilization and chaos.”
* “We were a neighborhood in which no one knew anyone,” says Lois Arkin of the two blocks in the mid-Vermont area where her nonprofit Cooperative Resources and Services Project (CRSP) is slowly building a community. “We had a mixed-use neighborhood with about 500 intergenerational people, some extended families, 13 ethnic groups and four major languages,” she says.
“What we didn’t have was any trust in one another. People had their street demeanor on--that impenetrable wall.”
After the riots, her group--which has developed food and housing co-ops in many areas--decided to focus on creating a neighborhood that is economically and socially healthy.
“There was basically fear of the street,” says Arkin. “Two women who had been neighbors for 23 years had never met.”
Small steps such as a neighborhood newsletter and tree-planting have grown to three community gardens, a junior recycling co-op and Sunday brunches in the middle of the street to slow down traffic on their side street.
“In our first meeting when we asked what people did and didn’t like about the neighborhood, we didn’t get started--everybody talked about crime,” says Arkin. “We could have focused on dealing with crime issues, but decided to concentrate on building community and a sense of trust. As people developed more street presence, we hoped, crime and the fear of crime would go down.”
Six months later, when they asked the same questions, she says, “Crime was way down on the brainstorm list.” The LAPD’s Mark Kroeker put it another way: “There’s a factor worse than fear,” he said, “and that’s loneliness. People are realizing they need interconnectedness. They can no longer be urban islands.”