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At 20, W. Hollywood Heeds Own Score

Times Staff Writer

Kathy Page moved to West Hollywood from Brooklyn more than 20 years ago because, she recalled, “I fell in love with a man.”

The man is no longer in the picture, but Page finds much to like in West Hollywood.

To her, the city is easy to navigate without a car, with shops and restaurants within walking distance along Santa Monica Boulevard. And there are plenty of buses.

“I don’t own a car, and I never have,” Page said.

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West Hollywood turns 20 this week. The 1.9-square-mile community won cityhood as a beacon of tolerance for gays and lesbians, who make up about one-third of its population of more than 37,000.

But over the last two decades, West Hollywood has come to represent more than a home for gay-pride parades and AIDS awareness.

The city raised a monument to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay man who was beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998. Same-sex couples walking hand in hand cause no stir on the city’s streets.

But the acceptance of gays is only part of today’s West Hollywood streetscape.

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Since cityhood, the east side has become home to thousands of immigrants from Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, many of them Orthodox Jews.

The newcomers have added kosher meat shops and Russian-language bookstores to the local mix of businesses, as well as new tensions.

Other parts of West Hollywood have emerged as hot spots for celebrity watching, from the House of Blues, the Standard Hotel and the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, to trendy eateries along Melrose Avenue.

And then there is the city’s obsession with pets.

West Hollywood takes animals very seriously. In 2002, the City Council declared that there were no pet owners in West Hollywood -- only pet guardians. The city has also banned the declawing of cats and other pets, calling the procedure unnecessary and cruel. And it has considered regulating pet-grooming establishments.

Sasha Kushner, 29, was having a late breakfast Monday at an outside table at Joey’s Cafe with her tiny terrier, named Layla, after the Eric Clapton song.

Kushner said she liked the way the staff at Joey’s treated her dog. If Layla needs water, a server will fetch it, with a smile, unlike at other restaurants.

After paying her check, Kushner tucked Layla into her purse and walked west on Santa Monica Boulevard past a theater showing the musical “Bark,” described by one critic as “the canine version of ‘Cats.’ ”

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West Hollywood is sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Hollywood and is considered a mecca for artists and entertainers as well as gays.

For some gays especially, West Hollywood has long been one of the few places in the Los Angeles region where they felt like they could be themselves.

Tony Melia, 72, moved from Nebraska to West Hollywood in 1957 “because there was very little oppression of gay people.”

West Hollywood was appealing because he and other members of the gay community “very much wanted to take charge of their own lives.”

The area remained an unincorporated district governed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors until 1984. That year, a coalition of residents -- gays, senior citizens and others -- got a cityhood measure placed on the ballot.

At a panel discussion Monday on the city’s anniversary, Avice Wiseman, 82, recalled how she and others had “stood on street corners collecting signatures” for the ballot measure. Rent control and senior-friendly transportation were among the issues most important to her, and the progressive city she helped create provided both.

For others, the key issue was the prospect of having a City Council concerned with the needs of gays and lesbians.

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The history of the “Creative City,” as city leaders dubbed West Hollywood, has experienced its share of bumps.

And Mayor John Duran is reluctant to overplay the harmony in the city.

“Democracy is always tumultuous,” he said.

He is concerned about the impact of gentrification on West Hollywood. The city’s rent-control law was overridden a few years ago by state legislation, and as a result, rents have soared.

There is not enough affordable housing for working-class people, seniors or people with disabilities, he said.

Rather than having more and more residents priced out of the market, Duran foresees the development of mixed-use housing along the city’s major avenues -- something many residents oppose.

Over the last year, some residents have protested plans to tear down several historic buildings to make way for more dense developments. They complain that the city has turned its back on its past.

“There were some rough spots” in interactions between longtime residents and the new Russian community, Duran said.

Santa Monica Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare, highlights the differences.

The west side, near Beverly Hills, is dotted with gay bars and fitness centers. On the east side, near Hollywood, many of the signs on shops are in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Some residents complain that the newcomers keep to themselves and are not always as tolerant of gay lifestyles as people in other parts of the city.

West Hollywood has a Russian Advisory Board that is helping to ease any tensions, Duran said.

But on Monday, residents found much to praise about the city.

“It is extraordinarily well-managed,” said Alan Gansberg, 43. He praised City Hall’s quality services and its responsiveness, even though he is not a member of one of the groups most associated with the city.

“I’m not a Russian Jew, I’m not a senior, I’m not a gay or a lesbian or a transgender, but I really like living here.”


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