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Cedillo, Gardea and the two L.A.s, 20 years after ‘Falling Down’

Fragrant California sages and other native plants were still babies when this photo was taken in 2008, shortly after the opening of Vista Hermosa Park.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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There is a scene in the movie “Falling Down” -- released almost exactly 20 years ago -- in which laid-off aerospace engineer William Foster tangles with a couple of gang members on a vacant hill just west of downtown Los Angeles. The film is a gold mine for anyone who wants to delve into the rich genre of stories about L.A. as paradise lost, or explore the standard menu of racial stereotypes. The hard-working white guy is the victim, and he’s finally had enough. This is one of those movies.

But forget for a moment the zeitgeist of post-riot, pre-earthquake Los Angeles, forget Michael Douglas as angry, mentally crumbling Foster (known as “D-FENS,” after his vanity license plate), forget the cartoonish gangbangers, the surly Korean grocer and the lazy street services workers he encounters on his crazed walk from the freeway to the Pacific. Let’s focus on the hill, and what it meant then, and what it means now.

It was the 1990s, Los Angeles had been through numerous real estate booms and busts, corporate towers loomed in the background and there was still, close to the high-rent district of downtown, this hill bereft of anything but weeds and bits of graffitied concrete rubble: the remnants of oil wells from a bygone era. Why wasn’t this place occupied by a big glass and steel high-rise, or a blocky stucco apartment building? How could it still be empty?

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That undeveloped hill, and others like it nearby, puzzled me every day as I drove the two miles from my apartment at 4th and Hoover to my job in one of those corporate office towers downtown between 1984 (Newsweek called it the “Year of the Yuppie”) and the 1992 riots, and I remember wondering just how a booming megalopolis like Los Angeles could have a downtown with vacant lots. You’d never see such a thing in Manhattan, Washington, even San Francisco.

There were still a couple of pumps operating in the open, a hill or two away, among ramshackle, subdivided bungalows, each jammed with multiple immigrant families. By then, though, this place -- sometimes called Temple-Beaudry in real estate prospectuses, sometimes Central City West -- was L.A.’s old couch, left on the curb and forgotten. The “Falling Down” scene was fitting. If the hill wasn’t downtown, it wasn’t anywhere else, either. It was nothing. It was nowhere. It remained as vacant a decade after the movie as it was when I lived nearby in the ’80s.

It was also the center of a new City Council district, created to settle a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit that claimed Los Angeles leaders had drawn their district lines to disenfranchise Latino voters. Council members bickered over which of them was going to give up territory to create a new Latino district, until a councilman way out in the San Fernando Valley -- Howard Finn -- died unexpectedly. The City Hall vultures eagerly ate up his Valley district and spit out the pieces here, creating a new Council District 1 that stretched southwest from Highland Park to Cypress Park, Mount Washington, Lincoln Heights, Elysian Park, Echo Park, Chinatown, D-FENS’ hill, MacArthur Park and Pico-Union. Voters in the new district elected Gloria Molina to represent them.

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By the time “Falling Down” was in theaters, another districting lawsuit led to another new Latino-oriented seat, this one on the county Board of Supervisors. Molina took the promotion. Almost immediately, she and the four other supervisors found their county near bankruptcy, their hospital system near collapse and their plan for layoffs countered by the county employee union’s fiery young leader, Gil Cedillo.

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Down the street in City Hall, Mike Hernandez took Molina’s place on the council, and he hired a young city planner named Ed Reyes. When Hernandez was termed out, Reyes won the seat and took as his chief of staff young organizer Jose Gardea. Now Reyes is nearly termed out and Gardea, running to succeed him, is facing Cedillo and local businessman Jesse Rosas.

And the hill -- well, it’s no longer vacant. Nor does it have a corporate tower or another blocky apartment building. It’s Vista Hermosa Park, an almost magical bit of cultivated wilderness, plus athletic fields, picnic grounds, recreational facilities and an incomparable view of those corporate towers to the west, surrounded by new schools and a dense, mostly immigrant population. Yuppies have been succeeded by hipsters, and a few hang out in the park -- and sometimes so do gang members, just like in the “Falling Down” days -- but so also do countless neighborhood kids and families.

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Am I sure this is D-FENS’ hill, and not one of the other formerly vacant hills nearby, now topped with a new high school or athletic field? I’ve studied the clip and checked the perspectives, and I can’t be positive. The house at the top of the street sure looks the same, but the street at the bottom does not. Reyes says this is the one. Check the clip, go to the park, and see what you think.

The city didn’t build this park, at least not by itself. It had no money. But the school district had the land, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy had some resources and know-how, and Reyes had an idea.

“It’s about being creative in trying to find these opportunities,” Reyes said as he walked me down D-FENS’ hill, now planted with pungent sages and other gray and green plants native to the Santa Monicas and the San Gabriels.

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“A council member has that ability if he is ready to engage his community,” Reyes said. “But this isn’t the kind of thing, and it’s not the place, that the conservancy usually does projects. We had to get them out of their comfort zone. It was [conservancy director] Joe Edmiston’s sense of justice that finally made the difference. He saw the lack of public service in dense areas, areas of need.”

This is what a councilman does. A successful one, anyway. He does projects. He busts jurisdictional silos, and sometimes heads, to assemble ideas, funding and community buy-in to build things and to dress his district, much as a decorator dresses a room. But instead of using color swatches and drapes and furniture, the components are parks, housing, retail; the work is more organic. The park goes here next to the dense area where there are people in need but little money to support retail; the soccer field goes there, next to the new school, so students can use it.

Reyes shows off other projects that he and Gardea spearheaded. Some of them are less tangible. For example the new Rampart community police station would likely have been built one way or the other, but Reyes worked to make certain there were public greenspaces, parkways, meeting rooms, even places for community barbecues, to help change the LAPD’s image and its relationship with the people it served. But parks and public buildings bring no tax revenue, so near MacArthur Park, there is a retail project that includes a Home Depot and a Starbucks. This is a big deal for this area. Now, as Westlake becomes less forbidding, young professionals and urban pioneers moved in and rents are going up, meaning less housing for the people who were living here three families to a room.

So Reyes, Gardea and their team worked to bring in affordable housing. New projects actually de-densify this part of the city, relieving the stress of over-stuffed postwar apartment houses in favor of new units, one family apiece, with tenant amenities previously unheard of in this area, like laundry facilities and recreation rooms. One new project offers residents a spectacularly framed view of Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign. It’s a mid-town mid-rise any yuppie or hipster would die for, but it belongs to immigrant families that previously struggled with inadequate housing nearby.

Just as I remember the drive to work and the once-empty hill where D-FENS had his movie stand-off with fictional gang members, I remember the trip home along Sixth Street, usually in the car, but sometimes, after spending a little too much time at the bar with other young lawyers celebrating some merger or acquisition, I made the trip on the MTA’s Line 18. Or sometimes, stupidly, on foot if even the bus had stopped running and I still hadn’t sobered up enough to drive. Clear a path; I’m going home. Maybe the gangs were too busy laughing at my cluelessness to challenge me. Or maybe that happens only in the movies. But I don’t think so.

The walks showed me just how alien I was to this part of town, and vice-versa -- not geographically, but economically, politically, culturally. Reyes would later refer to the Los Angeles of haves and have-nots as a “tale of two cities,” and he was always polite enough not to point out how oblivious people in my Los Angeles were to the people and problems of the Los Angeles he served. I got to know the other Los Angeles a bit better when I walked door-to-door in this neighborhood, doing what all entitled ex-yuppies did in 1990 after their corporate dreams had flamed out but they still had to pay their rent: working for the Census Bureau. The numbers of people per apartment on my lists were staggering. The poverty was mind-blowing. The fear of crime was palpable.

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Years later I became friends with someone who grew up here at the time I was doing my government work. She remembers the obvious gang presence to which I had been so clueless. She remembers finding used needles stuck in the trees, the body-shaped outlines drawn on the sidewalk, the killing of people she had known, like the street tamale vendor. She remembers a community of people locked in their homes.

“You’re in your apartment and you hear someone screaming on the street,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is stick your head out of the window.”

Her playground was a surreal juxtaposition of the two cities. She and her friends would walk to the Bonaventure to ride the elevators as her mother cleaned houses nearby. They’d eat at Langers, where the Superior Court judges like to hang out; they’d check out the landmarks around MacArthur Park, ride their skateboards on the grounds of the vacant Central Receiving Hospital, scurry past the off-limits hills like the one in “Falling Down.” She’d go home to an apartment where her aunt slept on the couch and she, her mother and her sister shared a bedroom. She was due to attend Belmont High School, but instead was sent to school in the west San Fernando Valley, not far from where I grew up.

“Belmont was a scary place,” she said. “That daily bus trip probably saved me.”

Reyes and Gardea point to numerous places around their district where, they say, vision was combined with a feel for the community and a planner’s theoretical and methodical approach to changing the quality of life. There are plans for the river, plans for Chinatown, more plans for Westlake and MacArthur Park. Transit villages, more housing; new projects for a new Los Angeles.

Gardea, at a Mount Washington candidate forum, was asked how he would be different from his current boss. He chose his words carefully.

“Ed’s a planner,” he said of Reyes. “I’m an organizer. I have maybe a different approach.”

Cedillo, meanwhile, is back from Sacramento, where he served in the Assembly, the state Senate and, after a failed bid for Congress, in the Assembly again. The ex-union leader has notoriously sparred over the years with Antonio Villaraigosa, but always refers to him as “my brother.”

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In this campaign, Cedillo is embraced by the Chamber of Commerce, the Central City Assn. and other establishment fixtures of the Los Angeles I knew. He looks around the district, at the lack of development, the lack of retail, the still struggling people, and says, “That’s it?” Just a park on D-FENS’ hill, just a Home Depot and a Rite Aid? He says he can bring more of what a councilman is supposed to bring -- more projects and, with them, more jobs.

The Cedillo versus Gardea race presents the new standard Los Angeles City Council showdown: the termed-out incumbent’s top staffer versus the termed out Sacramento lawmaker. And also, classically, there is a third candidate -- Rosas -- who offers a more grass-roots and nuts-and-bolts vision but lacks the experience or the know-how to deliver. And even a fourth, in William Rodriguez Morrison, who failed to qualify for the ballot but is running anyway, as a write-in candidate. But it’s unlikely that Rosas and Morrison will win even enough votes to force a runoff. Cedillo’s people say he has the election locked up. Gardea backers say he’s got it in the bag.

After “Falling Down,” movies about the Los Angeles meltdown got even goofier. There was “Volcano,” in which Anne Heche stands near MacArthur Park and utters the line, “This city is finally paying for its arrogance.” If only.

And there were films that did their best to bring together, cinematically, the many Los Angeleses, as with “Crash.”

But as I think of the city’s next chapter -- and this district’s -- I can’t help but think of a stage play from 2006. It’s “Water and Power” by Richard Montoya (of the theater troupe Culture Clash -- and an LAPD detective in “Falling Down”) and it expands the rich trove of stories about noir Los Angeles with its story of a white power broker, promises to the Latino community, and two brothers, one of whom is a state senator named Gil. The movie version was screened last year in Northeast Los Angeles and may be coming soon to a theater near you.

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