Councilman Plays Role of Cultural Mediator

Times Staff Writer

Jimmy Delshad was recently moderating a breakfast meeting to plan the annual fundraiser for a Beverly Hills Iranian American charity.

The event draws mostly members of the city's Iranian community. But Delshad had other ideas.

"Let's invite Larry King! ... Dennis Ross? Paul Anka?" he said, waving a Montblanc pen in the air, searching the skeptical faces around the table. "Let's reserve tables for Americans up front ... get a lively MC ... hire a band?"

Delshad is Beverly Hills' first Iranian American councilman. And since his election last year, he has emerged as an unlikely ambassador between the traditionally insular Persian community, which makes up about a fifth of the city's population of 36,000 residents, and the rest of Beverly Hills.

His election was considered a milestone for Beverly Hills' Persians, who until recently had played a relatively small role in civic affairs. But many residents now see him as a mediator in several long-simmering cultural conflicts between Persians and non-Persians.

The biggest issue is the ornate architecture Persians favor when remodeling their homes. Some residents believe the soaring columns and grand entryways favored by some Iranians are too garish and ruin the vintage aesthetics of the surrounding community. The city has drafted new architectural guidelines that some Iranians say target them unfairly.

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Taking the Lead

Delshad is the most prominent face among Persians of a new generation, who are assuming leadership roles in civic life. In doing so, they are attempting to reverse the clinging impression that Iranians refuse to assimilate.

A working mother of three, Nooshin Meshkati, who is co-president of the El Rodeo PTA, is typical of a younger generation of involved mothers. She arrived in Beverly Hills as a high school student, when her family transplanted itself to the city before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. When her children started school, getting involved in their education came naturally to her.

A computer scientist by profession, Meshkati's first goal was to get more computers into classrooms. "I started to get active in the PTA, and then everything just grew out of the school, extending to the city, the state like a chain reaction," she said. "You realize immediately -- to do more, you need a bigger body involved."

In coordination with other Persian mothers, Meshkati put on multicultural dinners at El Rodeo and got the school board to make "Nowruz" -- the Persian new year -- a school holiday.

There is a marked contrast between the community today, Meshkati said, and in the early 1980s, when parents like her own rarely set foot in PTA meetings. "It doesn't feel separate anymore, like the pot has melted," she said.

Energized by their effect on schools, Meshkati and others stepped forward to help Delshad in his campaign for City Council. The candidate and his supporters quickly discovered that they were teaching American government as much as running a campaign.

At the outset of Delshad's run for City Council, only 1,500 of the city's 8,000 Persians were registered to vote. When encouraged to register, many were reluctant, afraid their names would end up on government lists, that they would be forced into jury duty. By registering, many thought they had actually voted, and had to be summoned to the polls on election day by Delshad campaign staff.

Meshkati went door to door with a sample ballot to explain the concept of absentee voting.

Delshad appointed two campaign managers: one for non-Persian residents and one for Persians. Soraya Nazarian, a local philanthropist, ran the Persian campaign; she set up countless informal meetings, called doreh in Persian, in Persian living rooms across the city, and instructed the community in the very concept of rights.

"They had to be awakened to the idea, and how they could profit, rather than be afraid," she said.

Persians began migrating to Beverly Hills in 1978, on the eve of the Islamic Revolution.

The wealthiest scrambled out of Iran with suitcases full of cash, and bought property.

The influx changed the aesthetic appearance of Beverly Hills. Some Persians razed European-revival homes, built with Tuscan and Mediterranean influences and colors, and erected towering white flat-front mansions, with imposing columns. Such homes were referred to disdainfully as "Persian palaces."

Following traditions from Iran, some residents threw weekly parties for 50 or more people, where dinner was served at 11 p.m. and dancing and loud music continued late into the night.

Some city residents enjoyed the cultural diversity that Iranians brought to town. The decades before they arrived "were a glamour-less time. It was all jeans, T-shirts, and everything brown," said Greta Furst, who has lived in the city since childhood. "When the Persians came, with their women in wardrobes from Paris, wearing makeup, we regained glamour."

But more than a few residents had different feelings. They considered the homes out of place and disrespectful toward Beverly Hills' architectural history.

Ellen Stern-Harris, a third generation resident, is among the most vocal critics. The first "monster home" in the city, she said, was built next door to her peach-colored French Normandy style cottage in the flats. "They just knock it off and build a huge Persian palace," she said.

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Architectural Styles

To address the clash over the homes, the city's planning commission has crafted an ordinance creating a catalog of five architectural styles. To be approved for construction, single-family homes must fall into one of the styles. The five styles are American colonial, European revival, Spanish colonial, contemporary and period revival.

Under the ordinance, construction plans for houses that do not abide by the five categories must go before a design committee appointed by the City Council for revision and approval. The ordinance also would scale back the maximum size of houses, allowing them more square footage only if mass-reducing features such as porches or recess areas are included.

When the rules were first discussed, some in the Persian community considered the move an attack on them. But as details became public, some of those concerns dissipated.

Beverly Hills architect Hamid Gabbay, who is on the commission and worked on the proposed code, is a supporter of the review process.

"Some people wanted to make it sound like a controversial issue," said Gabbay. "But it's nonsense. It has nothing to do with minority issues. It's architectural issues."

Seeking to defuse the issue, Delshad has been explaining the cultural need for large homes -- three generations under one roof, big gatherings -- to colleagues on the City Council.

He envisions a Beverly Hills where Persian culture coexists gracefully with the city's heritage. He also wants to set up a sister city relationship in Iran.

Delshad said blending cultures has been his passion for decades, ever since he settled in L.A. after college and married an American, Lonnie Gerstein.

He grew up in Shiraz, an Iranian city fabled for its springtime orange blossoms, and came to America three decades ago as part of the generation of Iranian students who intended to acquire technical education abroad and return to industrialize their nation.

He began attending Sinai Temple with his wife and in-laws and later became one of its leaders. When the rise in Persian immigration began in the late 1970s, he had a special perspective.

"I saw how we were intimidating to others, by creating the impression we were here temporarily, that we were rich and didn't need you, that we selected separation," he said.

He wanted Persians to feel their culture was respected and Beverly Hills residents to feel their new neighbors had a stake in the community. He became president of Sinai Temple in 1999 and worked to get Persian families involved in the temple activities. His election to the City Council, he said, accomplished a mission.

"I wanted to prove that the community is ready."

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Times staff writer William Wan contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction Mansion owner -- An article in Monday's California section about Beverly Hills Councilman Jimmy Delshad quoted Ellen Stern-Harris of Beverly Hills as saying that a "monster home" was built next door to her French Normandy style cottage. While that passage implied that the house was built by an Iranian, Stern-Harris did not say that she thought it had been built by an Iranian, and in fact it was not.
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