Profiles in Power : Can Jackie Goldberg Teach L.A. a Lesson? : Experiencing One of the Hottest Political Debuts in City History, the Councilwoman is Calling for an Urban Vision That’s Defiantly Liberal

<i> James Rainey is a Times staff writer who covered Los Angeles City Hall for four years. </i>

All 15 City Council members were in their seats. Newspapers, mail and other distractions were laid aside. The kibitzing of aides and reporters had descended to a low rumble. A rare day for the Los Angeles City Council.

Less than two weeks after Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and three other rookie lawmakers had been sworn into office, the city legislature settled into its first substantial debate. The issue was the breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Specifically, the council was being asked to endorse a bill by then-state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) that would let voters decide whether to dismantle the country’s second-largest school district into several smaller and, ostensibly, more manageable units.

San Fernando Valley Councilman Hal Bernson came to the ornate wood-and-marble chambers confident that he would win an endorsement for the Roberti bill. With six other council members answering to constituents in the Valley--where support for the breakup was strongest--an eight-vote majority was within his grasp. Lambasting the school district’s low test scores, high dropout rates and repeated outbursts of violence, he quickly set the mood for the debate. The district was a “miserable failure,” Bernson pronounced, “a Titanic sinking from its own weight.”

While other council members took their turns, Goldberg stewed. For most of her adult life she had been a high-school teacher. She had spent the previous 22 months teaching government and English as a Second Language at Grant High School in Van Nuys. For eight years, she had been a member of the Los Angeles School Board, a period during which financial support for schools had slipped drastically. Now she was witnessing what she believed was a retrograde attempt to re-fight the integration battles of the 1970s and to isolate the district’s poorest schools.

When her turn came, Goldberg rose slowly, pivoted to face Bernson and took the debate the one place it hadn’t been: right into the classroom. In three minutes, she wove a tale of her teaching experiences and the uncredited successes of many Los Angeles schools--an infusion of images so immediate and so personal that the banal, bureaucratic air was blasted aside. At the end, she was jabbing her finger in the air, narrowing her eyes and tilting her considerable frame forward. Bernson seemed to shrink into his overstuffed chair.


“I don’t want to hear from you that it’s a failure until you go look at it!” her voice rang out. “There are people out there every day who go out and look in the faces of children from all over the world and all over this city. And they say, ‘This is the only institution left in America that says, “Come on, come all of you!” We will do the best we can.’ ”

A hush followed. A few members were still scheduled to speak, but recognizing that Goldberg had seized the moment, they declined. By submitting an amendment to send the subject to committee for more study, the freshman councilwoman had also stolen the parliamentary initiative from 14-year veteran Bernson. The result was a 9-6 vote to move the issue to the council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, where it sat when the state Assembly Education Committee killed the bill the next day.

“It was a pivotal point for her,” Bernson aide Francine Oschin says in grudging admiration. “It put the whole council on notice: This is a formidable politician. And it set the tone for everything else that has followed. She gets a tremendous amount of respect.”

One council member puts it more succinctly: “Nobody messed with her after that.”

Nearly 20 months into her first term, Goldberg is still in the midst of one of the hottest political debuts in recent Los Angeles history. Allies and foes count her as one of the city’s emerging political powers, a woman whose vote and influence are courted as if she were an archduke of the city’s political aristocracy, not just a fledgling duchess. In a byzantine City Hall--where, the adage goes, rookies spend their first year just looking for the restrooms--Goldberg has scored a string of legislative victories that have countered the prevailing political climate.

She won health benefits for live-in partners of city employees, both gay and straight, despite the city’s preoccupation with costs. She passed a proposal to help police crack down on black-market gun sales when local officials have despaired of stanching violence. She got the city to launch a constitutional challenge of Proposition 187, despite the anti-immigrant fervor and the political danger for anyone who opposed it. And she opened a hairline crack in the insular wall that surrounds the Los Angeles Police Department, authoring a policy that will put civilians in charge of investigating police officers’ internal discrimination and sexual-harassment complaints.

“She has had more influence per minute than any other new council member, probably in the history of the City Council,” says two-term Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. “She knows how to get things done.”

Goldberg’s propensity to speak out, while many of her colleagues hang back, has made her an instant media favorite. Yet she has assiduously avoided the strident poses that have stereotyped her in the past. “A lot of people thought she was going to be a bomb-thrower,” says Eastside Councilman Richard Alatorre. “But she is a no-bulls--- kind of woman. She is a person who likes to work for consensus and that is what we need.”

In the often parochial world of City Hall, she has even earned the respect of a conservative like council President John Ferraro for looking beyond her 13th District to the needs of the city as a whole. To the surprise of many observers, Republican Mayor Richard Riordan regularly seeks her counsel. “I think Jackie could be an excellent mayor,” he says. “She is very bright. She has a good staff. And she delegates to them, which is a key. The fact she gives people that kind of power shows real leadership.”

Her position of prominence is only likely to grow, as the City Council moves through its most dramatic period of flux in modern times. Fully half of the council has departed in the past four years, including its preeminent power for the past decade, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who in December took a seat on the county Board of Supervisors. A canny inside player, he crafted his victories through a mastery of information--knowing how to wring it from the bureaucracy and how to present it to his colleagues in compelling fashion.

Goldberg shares those traits and may be Yaroslavsky’s natural successor, in the view of many City Hall regulars. All this acclaim is even more remarkable for a woman who, by conventional political standards, would be stuffing envelopes somewhere in a back room. Overweight, sometimes unkempt, liberal and lesbian. Any one of those characteristics might have been enough to derail her hopes of public office.

But Goldberg has made a career, a life, of defying categorization. She is a onetime sorority pledge mother who helped stage the takeover of a university administration building. She is a founder of a feminist guerrilla theater who was president of the Los Angeles School Board. She is a devoted mother who is the first open homosexual elected to L.A. city office. The triumphs she forges are usually for society’s underdogs--the poor, immigrants, anyone who isn’t likely to get a decent shot. And for herself. The pudgy high-school girl who couldn’t get a date, couldn’t win a student office and couldn’t get a fair shake from the in-crowd, hasn’t lost an election as an adult.

A television reporter burbled something on election night in 1993 about Goldberg “bringing flower power to City Hall.” It’s not the first, or last, time that Goldberg’s life has been reduced to her years of student activism at Berkeley. But the councilwoman who pummeled Bernson owes much more to her nearly quarter-century as a classroom teacher.

When she speaks on the council floor, her training with distracted teen-agers seems all too apropos. Council members often spend much of their droning, thrice-weekly meetings catching up on their mail and swapping one-liners. So Goldberg punches home her messages with repetition. One, two, three times during the debate on the school district breakup, for example, she cited the high achievement of Los Angeles students on Advanced Placement tests. When she’s not speaking, she strikes an almost motherly figure--placing a hand on a colleague’s shoulder during a chat or worrying about another’s sore throat.

Goldberg insists that politics can be a high calling, but that you have to calculate and scrap at every turn if you hope to win. So when she appealed to the council for health and dental benefits for the unmarried partners of city workers, it was not so much a ringing call for social equality as a simple explanation of the employment marketplace.

Goldberg reported that 19 localities and a raft of corporations, including Levi-Strauss & Co. and Warner Bros., had already instituted domestic partners benefits. Yet when she tried to apply for medical benefits for her own partner, Sharon Stricker, she found that the city provided only for married couples. Goldberg then found a bureaucrat in the Personnel Department who had collected figures suggesting that covering all couples would not trigger a landslide of new benefits applications. She used the calculations to project a $1-million expense, spread across the city’s $9-billion budget.

That was good enough to push the issue before the City Council, avoiding committee hearings and securing approval from council President Ferraro, not known for his liberal social agenda. “There are different attitudes and different relationships than years ago,” Ferraro said later. “Some people might say that’s not normal, but who’s to say what is?”

Similarly, when she wanted the council to pass a gun-control proposal, Goldberg didn’t rail about the National Rifle Assn. or the growing lists of murdered children. Instead, she came to the council armed with what a teacher would call a “visual aid,” a blood-red map of the city. Red stickers covered the 3-by-4-foot cardboard depiction of Los Angeles, one for each firearms dealer who held a federal license, but not a city business license or land use permit. When the map was erected on the council floor, members circled the display, noting the intrusion of red dots into virtually every corner of Los Angeles--next to churches, across from schools and throughout residential neighborhoods. Unanimously, the lawmakers broadened the definition of a gun dealer, agreeing to assume that people with federal firearm licenses are selling guns--a finding that would allow police to demand other permits without a laborious preliminary investigation.

In other ways, large and small, Goldberg has been an innovator. In her first budget debate, while most of her colleagues jousted for programs in their districts, Goldberg won funding for a teen job-mentoring program and several medical clinics that serve residents all over the city. In addition, the council had paid out $27.9 million in litigation the previous year, but Goldberg was the first council member to demand a report on what was being done to reduce future court losses. Most recently, she has launched a riveting series of hearings on gender and race discrimination in the Fire Department, an institution that has operated for years with little public scrutiny.

Not everyone has been charmed, though.

Outside her office door, she has posted a “No Gifts” sign to head off the plants, pen sets, hams and sports tickets that have been a traditional stock in trade between council members and lobbyists. Goldberg calls it an “anti-cynical statement,” but some of her colleagues see it as an example of a self-righteous, more-egalitarian-than-thou strain. A woman who wants everyone to know she is the real people’s champion.

Even on the floor, council members say, Goldberg has occasionally gone out of her way to question their values and morals if they clash with her own. One particularly unpleasant standoff followed San Fernando Valley Councilwoman Laura Chick’s initial vote against the domestic partners ordinance because of cost concerns. Goldberg froze her out for days. She could scarcely look at Chick (who eventually voted for the measure) and refused to speak at all when they passed on the council floor.

“I reminded her that I was a part of the last minority in America that it was still OK to attack viciously at a national political convention,” Goldberg says, “and that there were still people who felt it was OK to hurt us or beat us up.” But that doesn’t justify such behavior, says another council member: “Being an ideologue sometimes means that you think your values are better than other people’s and that you are somehow better than other people.”

Goldberg remains unapologetic. “It was a real personal thing to me,” she says.

In her district--which stretches along the foothills from Echo Park, Silver Lake, Glassell Park and Hollywood to Mt. Washington and Atwater Village--the first plumes of dissension are rising on the horizon, stoked by a small but angry network of conservatives who fought the creation of a needle-exchange program in Hollywood for drug users and a leash-free dog park in Silver Lake. They are bolstered by Prop. 187 supporters, who are furious at Goldberg for initiating the city’s court challenge of the measure that bars health services and education to illegal immigrants. The councilwoman explains that she was upholding a sworn obligation to block unconstitutional legislation, but 187 supporters say she was thwarting the people’s will and, worse, doing it with their tax dollars. They promise to recall Goldberg, whom Prop. 187 booster Glenn Spencer describes as “part of a crowd of left-wing revolutionaries that wants to destroy the borders of the United States.”

Few political observers believe a recall petition will go anywhere. Such sharp reactions, though, are likely to continue. “She represents a species that was supposed to have become extinct, not just here in Los Angeles but everywhere: the white, urban liberal,” says Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor. “What you have now on the City Council is white moderate-to-conservatives and minority liberals. And then you have Jackie. She goes against the conventional wisdom of the direction things are going.”

In fact, Goldberg represents a white, urban liberalism infused by both the old and new left that is most conspicuous in San Francisco and New York. Her ideal Los Angeles is an almost sentimental echo of high school civics, in which power emanates from the people and City Hall is the ally of final resort.

In Goldberg’s Los Angeles, politicians would teach. Her first lesson plan is to wipe out the public’s obsession with welfare cheats and illegal immigrants and to address what she believes are people’s real fears--less pay, lost jobs and a lower standard of living. The discussion over crime would be broadened to assess the value of expanding the Police Department at the expense of all other city services.

Although that last objective could threaten her remarkably cordial relationship with Riordan, nobody at this point expects her to challenge the mayor in the 1997 election. Whenever she’s asked about running, Goldberg has a standard retort: “Hey, I thought you were my friend.” She is rare among politicians in that she provokes only passing cynicism when she says, “I’m not in this to get reelected.” After all, she returned to teaching once before, when she left the school board. When she leaves City Hall, there will always be another classroom.

For a lot of kids, the Inglewood of the 1940s and 1950s was a fine place to grow up--a town of neat bungalows and duplexes, filled with workers from the booming aerospace factories of the South Bay. Down the road in Hawthorne, the Beach Boys were telling a generation of Californians what they should be: young, blond and carefree. Plump, smart, outspoken and Jewish, Jackie Goldberg was none of those things.

She was, she says, an outsider from the start. Hebrew lessons and Girl Scouts composed the twin bulwarks of her life when she was 12. But when the two were suddenly scheduled for the same night, Jackie faced a crushing choice. She went to the Scout leaders and pleaded with them to change their meetings to another night, but they refused, noting that none of the other girls had the same “problem.” She eventually decided to stick with Hebrew school and to be bat mitzvahed. But years later she can still recall the devastation of losing many of her scouting friends.

The ostracism would only grow as she became older. A band teacher once graded her down, Goldberg says, when she missed a performance on Passover. And slurs were common. “You know those kikes that live in the Fairfax area?” a friend’s father once announced to Jackie’s brother, Art, in an attempted compliment. “You’re not like those cheap Jews.” This sense of exclusion was only waiting for an outlet, which a teen-aged Jackie found in the civil-rights movement. “I was never uncertain about race issues,” Goldberg now says. “I had no trouble believing that segregation was wrong, because I grew up in a place that was not tolerant of Jews.”

With her friend Barbara Rhine, a “red-diaper” baby whose parents were onetime Communist Party members, she joined a series of actions, from picketing a Slauson Avenue sandwich stand that banned blacks at the counter to protesting a segregated Torrance housing project. Jackie’s parents weren’t politically active but they were supportive. Her father, Eddie, was a housewares salesman who had been beaten down by enough bosses, according to Goldberg, that he always empathized with the underdog. Her mother, Rose, an elementary schoolteacher, was the energetic center of the family who believed in organizing, whether it was the temple or the PTA.

When she arrived at UC Berkeley in 1962, Goldberg found a camaraderie that she says “changed my life forever.” But even in Berkeley, she would stand apart. While many of her classmates talked late into the night about a coming “revolution,” she wanted to work, as much as possible, within the system.

When Berkeley students pressed their demands for the right to organize politically on campus, some were willing to risk violent showdowns with the police. But Goldberg was notable among student leaders who argued for a peaceful resolution with university administrators. That made her suspicious, even a sellout, to the men who were the charismatic leaders of what became known as the Free Speech Movement. They openly chided Goldberg for living in a sorority, in the belly of what they considered the bourgeois beast.

But her value to the movement would ultimately be recognized by some of the most aggressive student activists. As a sorority member, Goldberg presented an attractive bridge to conservative groups like the Young Republicans and to campus administrators, who distrusted the more abrasive members of the student coalition. Nicely turned out in pressed pinafore and sorority pin, the baby-faced Goldberg projected a model of respectability to the outside world, even as she stood atop a commandeered police car outside the student union.

“She had camouflaged herself so well, in a sense she gave us respectability,” says fellow Free Speech Movement leader Michael Rossman. “She managed to retain her integrity while working in the heart of the system.”

The greatest misconception of that romanticized era, Goldberg says, is that the rebellious students were alienated and cynical. “We were the exact opposite of that,” Goldberg once told an interviewer. “We were willing to take risks . . . because we were so tied into the system and we felt it was worth the risk to change it.”

If in college she was the radical who was not radical enough, in her later political life she would become the lesbian who was not out enough. As Goldberg prepared to run for the City Council in 1993, it was not the religious right who objected to her candidacy. It was two gay men who planned to run against her who suggested in gay political circles that Goldberg had not been forthcoming about her sexual orientation.

The dispute created a storm in Los Angeles’ close-knit gay and lesbian political world, as Goldberg balked at publicly identifying herself as a lesbian. She had promised her son, Brian, a senior in high school, that she would not raise the issue until he graduated. Brian, now 20, has been a focus of Goldberg’s life since 1975, when she flew to Florida to adopt him. She had vowed that her political life would not become his burden. But when the political pressure from gay activists increased, Brian gave his blessing.

Goldberg then told the press what had long been an open secret--that she and Sharon Stricker had been lovers for more than a decade. While pleased that the world knows about the woman she loves, she is still disturbed that she wasn’t allowed to approach the issue in her own time. She sees a culture all too intent on cataloguing its citizens. “I personally think most human beings, not all, are bisexual,” says Goldberg, acknowledging that many people would be disturbed by her theory. “Culture makes it impossible for most of us to look at more than one (sexual orientation) or another.”

Goldberg and Stricker were teachers nearly 20 years ago when they met in the campaign to integrate Los Angeles’ schools. For the past 15 years, they have shared an airy, hilltop home in Echo Park. Everyone who knows them agrees that Stricker, a poet, writing teacher and sometime performance artist, has brought balance to Goldberg’s life. Now the two women often finish each other’s sentences, or communicate without speaking at all. And since the inauguration, when the two walked down the steps of City Hall hand in hand, she has played an integral role in Goldberg’s public life. “They complement each other so well,” says Rose Goldberg, 84, who had worried her daughter might never find love. “Sharon has been the other half of her.”

Although most people identify Goldberg with the ‘60s, she says she was never tempted by the counterculture. “I wanted to be involved,” she says. “I wanted to be a teacher, like my mother.” For nearly 25 years she was one, first in suburban Chicago and then in the Compton high schools, where she was acclaimed for creating a program that taught students how to read during every class period, not just during their one hour of English. But classroom reform didn’t go far enough for Goldberg and a close circle of friends in Echo Park, many of them veterans of 1960s activism and the school desegregation battles of the 1970s.

This left-wing cadre mustered enough votes in 1983 to push the little-known teacher onto what had long been a centrist Board of Education. Her first years on the board, unlike her fast start on the City Council, were rocky. She eventually launched initiatives that boosted the pay for bilingual teachers, restored sixth period in high schools, and opened campus health clinics that offer condoms and AIDS counseling. Her tenure, though, was marked by endless rounds of budget cuts--reducing the number of nurses, counselors, music instructors and playground directors--that left her dispirited and exhausted.

But critics say that a more important, and disturbing, legacy comes from Goldberg’s support for a three-year, 24% pay raise for teachers. She argued that the money was needed to settle a strike and to hire more teachers, but state legislators never came through with the financing. The raises are still widely viewed as deepening the school district’s financial crisis. “It was a lack of understanding of the fiscal element,” a former school official says of Goldberg. “You don’t spend bucks that aren’t in the till. It’s irresponsible.”

It says a lot about Goldberg that she is not defensive about her early school board years. Less than a year into her first term, she was labeled “manipulative” and “devious” by a few colleagues. Her supporters sometimes confronted board members in their offices, jeering and taunting them, and Goldberg veered off on tangents, once proposing that the district denounce human-rights abuses in El Salvador. Now she laughs and rolls her eyes at the memory. “I learned,” she says. “I learned.”

Two Goldberg family outings:

A stifling late afternoon, last July. Jackie and Sharon are sitting in the bleachers of the East Los Angeles College gym, watching Brian play basketball. It’s only junior college, and summer league at that, but Stricker whoops as if it’s the NBA finals. Goldberg, who keeps score in a palm-sized note pad, rides the referees mercilessly. “Just call it the same way at both ends! The same way!” she shouts. “That’s all we ask.” An hour later, Brian smiles and hugs the two women he calls Mom and the three go off to dissect a pizza and the game.

April 29, 1992. Goldberg is attending a teacher’s conference at Jefferson High School when the verdicts are delivered in the first trial of the officers who beat Rodney G. King. By the time she arrives home, Sharon and Brian are there. They don’t really need to speak to know where they are headed. Fifteen minutes later, all three press into the crowd surging outside Los Angeles police headquarters. Pumping fists in the air, they chant, “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!”

For Goldberg, these two scenes represent equally important notions of citizenship--raising a family and raising hell--that can’t be separated. They embody the feminist admonition that the “personal is political.” “I’m not an egomaniac. I didn’t believe that I could change everything,” she says about her decision to run for City Council. “But I knew, at least, that I could be addressing the hopelessness, the joblessness, the lack of things (for young people) to do.”

And one could not find a more challenging crucible than the 13th District. Only three districts in the city are poorer and nowhere is there a greater variety of ethnic groups. The district probably wins the unenviable prize of suffering more combined damage in the riots and the 1994 earthquake than any other section of the city.

The quake was particularly punishing, wiping out nearly 1,300 housing units and an untold number of businesses. Abandoned Hollywood apartments became dens for street urchins and drug users, a ghost town that created a second generation of problems. It was almost a cruel afterthought when several blocks of Hollywood Boulevard sank nearly a foot, cracking walls and closing businesses above the troubled Metro Rail subway tunnel. This is the inhospitable political ground where Goldberg’s skills are most harshly tested.

“We think our job is a little different,” Goldberg says. “It’s to organize people.” To get the job done, she has employed a staff that doesn’t look like others at City Hall. Fourteen of the 19 are women. Most are brown-skinned and bilingual. The two receptionists are men. (This is by coincidence, not design, Goldberg insists.) Nearly all of their resumes are replete with references to community activism, union organizing and, for one, a stint as a New York cabby and club singer. “Jackie’s Liberation Front,” as the group once lightly dubbed itself, is epitomized by hyperkinetic chief of staff Sharon Delugach, who dropped out of high school at 15 to work for the United Farm Workers.

Her staff was at its best in the days following the Northridge earthquake. They virtually took over the operation of an understaffed Federal Disaster Assistance center in Hollywood, opened a food warehouse in a district office and shuttled supplies to people camping in parking lots. Today, the field representatives spend hours on the street--knocking on doors, surveying their constituents, so many of whom are recently arrived immigrants, and trying to beat back the notion that nothing can be done. Their goal is to teach communities to demand services from the city bureaucracy and to work with each other to fight the familiar menu of urban ills: graffiti, drug sales, violence.

Whether this model for municipal action will work is an open question on star-crossed Hollywood Boulevard. Several of Goldberg’s early moves drew praise: First, she restored regular on-street parking to give shoppers a place to stop. Then she helped create an Adopt-a-Block program, in which companies pay to paint buildings, trim plants and polish stars along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her work with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency helped the boulevard land an uptown tenant, the nonprofit gallery and educational center called Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibits. But the true challenge, many believe, will be in retaining traditional entertainment companies and attracting new businesses to Hollywood.

A spokesman for Tribune California Properties lauds her support of the company’s expansion of its KTLA (Channel 5) studios on Sunset Boulevard. Capitol Records, which had been wooed by Santa Monica and Burbank, has pledged to remain in its historic record-platter building just off Hollywood Boulevard. Capitol executive vice president Ralph Simon says Goldberg provided “fantastic” backing of the firm’s plan for an expanded “creative campus.” Others, however, have left. Motown Records fled Hollywood for Wilshire Boulevard two months ago and KIIS FM/AM Radio is now in Burbank.

In Hollywood business circles, the “jury is still out” on Goldberg, says one prominent businessman. “The boulevard needs to be programmed with some significant business ventures to provide the property taxes to make the social services and parking reconstruction and housing all possible.” Others note that a staff full of social activists doesn’t include a single person with serious business credentials, mirroring an agenda that’s more focused on social issues than economic development.

Her zeal to defend the dispossessed could be one of Goldberg’s greatest political risks, if it alienates business people and the homeowners organizations that are still a bedrock of municipal voting strength. Micheal Frances of Silver Lake, for instance, voted for Goldberg but now wonders if she spends enough time worrying about the concerns of people like him. The movie-studio executive assistant formed a neighborhood organization to address the issue of homeless people who had been camping on Riverside Drive in a worn fleet of cars, campers and buses. He got particularly irked when Goldberg’s office arranged to install a toilet and trash cans that seemed to lend an official imprimatur to the encampment.

“I have found myself reminding her office that the people who pay her salary are the people who vote and pay property taxes in this city,” Frances says. Goldberg aides say that some constituents are intent on perpetuating a myth of her as a liberal softy. They point out that they removed several benches from Hollywood Boulevard that were roosting spots for street people and have set an end-of-March deadline for disbanding the Silver Lake homeless encampment.

Still, the heart of Goldberg’s vision is to help neighborhoods that can’t make it on their own. She spends hours at community meetings, which fuel her conviction that democracy at its most quotidian level can still work. For Goldberg, all her efforts pay off in moments like the one last summer at an elementary school near Los Angeles City College. There, nearly 100 Latino, Anglo and Asian Americans had gathered to elect leaders to represent a neighborhood that doesn’t even have a clear name.

Four months earlier, two Goldberg field reps had written every resident in a 14-block area around Virgil Avenue, announcing a plan to renovate their neighborhood. A comprehensive survey followed and, finally, long days of front-porch meetings to convince people that their streets could be better. The lure was $2.3 million in federal transit funds from a program called the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative--money that can be used for street benches, trees, awnings and new storefront facades. The project combines the key elements of Goldberg’s politics: community engagement and government aid. The Virgil Avenue area is one of three in District 13 that Goldberg has targeted for intense organizing. (The other two are Yucca Street in Hollywood and Drew Street in Glassell Park.)

As the assembly settles into plastic chairs and the balmy night air blows in through open double doors, Goldberg asks for suggestions to make the neighborhood better. The crowd is reticent until an older Filipina gets things started. “Plant vines on walls,” she rasps, “to block the graffiti.” Next comes a taqueria owner, still wearing his apron. He is sick of tackily painted signs along Virgil Avenue and wants a common design standard. Then a woman with a toddler on her knee describes the cars that hurtle down her street. She wants speed bumps to slow them down. Enthusiasm builds and suggestions come faster and faster. “OK,” Goldberg calls out, beaming. “Right on!” Seldom has she looked happier than surveying that scene: people of all races, many of them working poor, cooperating with one another and taking a chance on the notion that government can work. She could be a ward boss straight out of the Lower Eastside in 1910, not just a neighborhood organizer out of the ‘60s.

The culmination of the evening comes when the neighbors mark multicolored sheets of paper to choose who will serve on a new neighborhood council. “This is what it’s all about,” Goldberg says in anticipation. “This is what I love!”

A Filipino American named Romel De los Reyes is one of those asking for the group’s vote. He sells clothing at his Virgil Avenue boutique and dreams of designing his own line of clothing. But for now, he is just relieved that his sense of isolation is abating, that others seem ready to fight for their neighborhood. When Goldberg announces that De los Reyes has been elected, he strides to the front of the assembly and, fairly swelling with pride, pumps her hand. “Even in a small group or family, we have to vote. That is the Constitution,” he says later. “This is our system. This is the American way.”