On a nighttime drive through the heart of his municipality, Mayor John Heilman took note of the winds of prosperity that have swept over West Hollywood since its dramatic birth in 1984.
“Hotels are booming and the range of entertainment is expanding,” Heilman said as he wheeled down the Sunset Strip. “Things have changed for the better. We are so fortunate and blessed. When we first became a city, it was pretty dead.”
The famed 1.9-square-mile slice of cityhood--sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Hollywood--has always been popular, but its fortunes really began skyrocketing about five years ago as a slew of fancy eateries, spruced-up luxury hotels and swank night spots began making money hand over fist.
Fifteen years ago, West Hollywood residents voted to make their unincorporated niche the 84th city in Los Angeles County, a move that was heralded worldwide as creating “A Gay Camelot"--the first openly gay-run city in the nation. The mayor and the majority of the City Council members were homosexual, as were a third of the city’s residents.
The politics of sexual orientation seem to catch the public’s eye, even though the desire for strict rent controls is what galvanized the voters to push for local control in this wildly diverse, renter-dominated city of 37,000.
Today, as West Hollywood celebrates its 15th anniversary, the city has matured. Its budget has more than doubled since its founding to nearly $36 million, including $2.8 million for social service programs--more per capita, city officials say, than any other city in the country.
But West Hollywood, like most urban pockets, also has special needs, particularly among the elderly, who make up 19% of the population and among Russian immigrants, who account for an additional 10% to 15%. In addition, West Hollywood has the highest per capita rate of people living with AIDS of any city in Los Angeles County.
“There are those who can afford Starbucks coffee, and there are those who face a different kind of existence,” said Heilman, a civil rights attorney who is one of three gay men on the five-member City Council. “We have people on waiting lists for affordable housing who are forced to spend 50% of their income on rent.”
Programs funded by the city pay for a wide range of services--hot meals, health care, low-cost housing, taxi coupons for senior citizens, early childhood education and even pet care for people with AIDS.
Business Boom Feeds City Coffers
With bills to pay, city officials are busy paving the way for future economic growth, and developers are clamoring for a piece of the action. And with the city’s general fund reserves more than doubling to $16 million in the four years that ended in 1998, the reasoning is that what’s good for the Sunset Strip, Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue will also be good for the city’s coffers.
“You have to have a healthy revenue base to fund programs, make improvements to parks and the city’s infrastructure,” said the 42-year-old mayor, who is a professor at USC and Whittier law schools.
In 15 years, cityhood has brought a strong sense of community to West Hollywood, something that was lacking when the community was an unincorporated area and residents had to turn to a county bureaucracy for help.
“We have something special here,” said Lila Goodman, 66, as she left a senior citizens poetry workshop at Plummer Park. “You call City Hall and someone, a live person, answers the phone. You don’t get one of those recorded menus of choices.”
For Dick Sheppard, a 66-year-old retired actor with AIDS, cityhood is paying $173 a month for a brand-new, city-subsidized one-bedroom apartment “with a nice big living room” that gets the morning sun.
“There is a good feeling living in this city,” he said. “I would be really struggling if I didn’t have this place, living day to day.”
Others, like Michael Niemeyer, owner of Micky’s, one of the oldest gay bars in the city, sees one of the benefits as an easing of hostilities between gays and sheriff’s deputies who patrol the city under contract with the county.
But others see negatives. Albina Spektor, a 27-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, deplored crime and homelessness on the eastside of town.
“Improvements are good, but you still have to lock your doors,” she said.
Tony Vincent, the owner of Sunset Towers, an entertainment company on Sunset Strip, said he didn’t like running a company in a city where city leaders, he complained, “perpetuate a particular lifestyle.”
“A personal lifestyle should remain personal,” he said.
A Place Where Gays, Lesbians Feel at Home
Mayor Heilman, a native of Cleveland, is the only council member left who has been around since the beginning. A self-described workaholic, Heilman says he enjoys burning the midnight oil at City Hall. He helped write the city’s tough rent control ordinance that was defanged earlier this year by a state law allowing landlords to set rates at whatever the market will bear once a tenant vacates a unit.
He worked to establish the West Hollywood Community Housing Corp., which manages more than 160 subsidized apartments. And he played a pivotal role in the passage of ordinances granting domestic partnership rights to gay and lesbian partners and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
His struggle to find his own identity made him determined to make it easier for younger gays.
“It was very empowering for lots of gays and lesbians around the world when we became a city,” Heilman said. It is important, he added, for young people “to realize that there are professional gays and lesbians in positions of power, whether in the City Council or administrative positions. There weren’t that many role models 20 year ago.”
Today, West Hollywood has become a focal point, a place where gays and lesbians feel at home.
The Metropolitan Community Church, a gay and lesbian church that claims a worldwide membership of 42,000, moved its headquarters from Culver City. “We knew we had to be part of this community,” said Nancy Wilson, who heads the church.
But just as West Hollywood has become a center of gay life, it has also been a place where gays are occasionally targeted for hate crimes, such as a brutal baseball bat beating last summer of a transgender female. Three men were convicted of the beating.
“Fifteen years ago, a transgender victim probably would not have gotten the level of attention and concern that our victims receive today,” said Deputy Don Mueller, the public liaison officer for West Hollywood sheriff’s station, who is gay. “Many gays were afraid to walk into the station.”
Just as West Hollywood has become a symbol of unity for gays, the City Council has coped with scandal and controversy.
The city’s first mayor, Valerie Terrigno, was ultimately forced to resign from the council after she was convicted of embezzling money from a program for the poor.
In August, City Manager Charles Makinney, who was with the city for five years, was abruptly fired. Heilman, one of the three council votes needed to remove the manager, said he felt the manager wasn’t qualified for the job. Supporters of Makinney focused their outrage on another council member, Jeffrey Prang, who also supported the firing.
Prang was accused of sexually harassing a male city employee during a June visit to Portland, Ore., for a gay pride parade, during which a delegation from West Hollywood toured local bars to drum up support. Prang later publicly apologized.
After an internal investigation, the City Council revamped its sexual harassment policy to include elected and appointed officials.
“It’s sad,” Councilman Steve Martin said. “The city has never been at a higher point. This is the year we should be exiting our adolescence, but unfortunately we have degenerated back to grade school.”
The turmoil in City Hall comes just as the city has launched a $32-million project to reshape Santa Monica Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. The city took over the maintenance of the section of historic Route 66 because of dissatisfaction with the state Department of Transportation, which long had been responsible for its upkeep.
In addition to repaving the boulevard, sidewalks will be widened, making it easier for restaurants to have outdoor dining. The city plans to plant more than 1,000 jacaranda and evergreen elm trees and create pocket parks.
Proposed major developments include the Gateway project, a 300,000-square-foot retail, movie theater and office complex being planned near La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard on the eastern edge of the city, which critics say has not received the same level of attention as the more upscale western side.
The Sunset Millennium project, an even larger and more controversial development proposed for La Cienega Boulevard and Sunset, is expected to bring more than 600,000 square feet of retail, hotel, live theaters and restaurants to an already heavily congested area. Nearby residents say it will worsen traffic and that giant billboards will lower property values.
“Sunset is already a parking lot,” said Lois Sidney, a longtime resident. She said city officials are under too much pressure to pay for social programs with such developments.
Heilman sees some development as inevitable as the winds of economic change. But he stressed that residents’ concerns receive much more attention now that West Hollywood is run as an independent city.
“This year’s been difficult, but a lot of years have been difficult for this city,” he said. “The community has weathered storms in the past and it will weather whatever storms there are in the future.”
Celebrations marking the city’s 15th anniversary will be held today from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave. Festivities will include chamber music by members of the West Hollywood Orchestra, a disc jockey playing hits from 1984 to the present, and a Diana Ross impersonator.