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Hollywood sign’s neighbors are not so ready for their close-up

The Mona Lisa is a magnet for visitors to the Louvre, her beatific smile luring crowd upon crowd — everyone elbowing to get their own snapshot or video of the famous painting. I kept walking. It wasn’t worth battling for position.

I was reminded of this after the recent uproar involving the Hollywood sign. I’ve seen it from the Santa Monica Freeway and admired it from Griffith Observatory countless times but never had the desire to see it up close.

For months now, Hollywoodland, the neighborhood around the sign, has been struggling with how to handle the growing number of tourists. Some residents, trying to bring order to the streams of people on the roads and trails leading to the sign, put up directions to a nearby park for the best view . Other residents simply wanted no part of tourists and tore the signs down. Others were more explicit, writing “Tourists Go Away” off Mulholland Highway.

But if you’re going to live on a public street near one of the most recognizable icons in the world, expect company. Don’t like it? Well, Sherman Oaks is a very nice place that’s relatively free of tour buses and lookie-loos.

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A few weeks ago, though, a public meeting was held to discuss the recent clashes. One older man complained that he’d bought his house when the sign was a “wreck” and had hoped it would stay that way to keep the crowds away. Other people talked about finding an equilibrium between homeowners and out-of-towners but pleaded for city officials to keep cars from clogging the streets, to bring in more trash cans and to post signs asking people not to flick their cigarette butts into the dry brush of the hillsides.

There was a common thread, however. The tourist influx had become unmanageable because anyone with a smartphone and a navigation app now could find their way up.

I made an appointment to visit David and Frederique Schafer, who live close to the sign, put my iPhone away and dug out an old mapbook.

It was time to visit the Hollywood sign the old fashioned way.

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My appointment was at 5:30 p.m. Dodging the Friday afternoon traffic by taking surface streets, I arrived at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Beachwood Drive by 4:45 p.m., way ahead of schedule.

Without the handy glowing dot on my GPS, it took me awhile to find Deronda, finally locating it way up in the top of map page 593, to the left of Beachwood.

I wanted to take the first left, but that street was blocked off by cones so I stayed on Beachwood until the concrete turned to dirt and the dirt turned into a park.

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I turned around, got confused and took a left, forgetting I was flipped around and needed to go right. A U-turn would’ve been hard on the very narrow, winding street and I didn’t want to make a three-point turn, thinking I’d block the road just as another car came around a blind curve.

After finally finding a cul-de-sac, I got to the Schafers almost 15 minutes late, precariously squeezing my car between two other vehicles on a steep hill.

This is why they invented postcards.

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The Schafers waved off my apology for being tardy and led me to their back porch, giving me my first up-close-and-personal view of the Hollywood sign. It was breathtaking. I hid my disappointment when they suggested we speak on the front veranda, where it was a little cooler.

David has lived in the home at the peak of Deronda for 12 years and said he loves the neighborhood. “The very first year I had the Brazilian soccer team stop by and a few days later I had Tibetan monks,” he said. “Where else could that happen?”

His wife, Frederique, grew up in France and took the opportunity to practice her native tongue with tourists. “It’s the people you really love,” she said.

But over the last two years, the number of tourists exploded. “It got to the point you couldn’t get out of the house,” said David, who got so fed up he posted a video to YouTube, showing a virtual parking lot in front of his house.

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It’s unclear how many people visit the area every year; the city plans to dispatch some employees on Saturdays to direct traffic, pick up trash and get an unofficial count of visitors.

The Schafers aren’t Luddites. They both have smartphones and acknowledge using their navigation apps. And, when on vacation, they admit they take the same, touristy shots as everyone else. “You just can’t help it,” David said.

The Hollywood Hills situation is an apt metaphor for our lives. There are some people who want to stuff the technological genie back in the bottle, which isn’t going to happen.

But most of us look for ways to cut through the thicket of information the best we can, trying to make sense of all the twists and turns of the Internet, whether it’s plugging an address into our favorite navigational program before we start driving or checking a restaurant’s rating before we choose a lunch spot.

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So Hollywoodland will always be fair game.

Still, while the view is spectacular, take it from me, it’s really not that much fun to drive, or park, in the area.

Some residents have suggested a shuttle service. While it wouldn’t satisfy everyone, they reason, it would cut down on the traffic and provide more order. The question is: Who would pay for it?

Really, what we need now is a happy Hollywood ending.

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jason.song@latimes.com


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