November 26, 2002 - From the November, 2002 issue

Neighborhood Councils May Be Necessary, But Great Cities Have More Than Great Neighborhoods

The drive for secession may have ended on November 5th, but the feelings of alienation and being underserved are still present in Hollywood and the Valley. Going forward, it will be the neighborhood councils that carry the torch for the development of neighborhood identity and the call for city services from City Hall. TPR is pleased to present this editorial from Rolly Kent, in which he examines neighborhood councils and one's sense of place in this metropolis of Los Angeles.

Several weeks before the recent election, a neighbor running for Hollywood City Council stopped me and asked if I'd sign a petition for his candidacy. He needed a certain number of signatures, and we had served together on our neighborhood homeowners board. But to his surprise, and somewhat to my own, I refused. He was taken aback and asked me why not. I said I thought the Hollywood secession was a bad idea and my refusal was not personal towards him, but was based on a strong feeling that not everything had been done to make Los Angeles work better. He replied that he knew a lot about small cities and had concluded that they work better than big ones. I said maybe the ones he was familiar with, and while I could not defend crummy governmental policies, still, to me, there was something still alive in the idea of Los Angeles, and both Hollywood and the Valley contributed to this greater idea.

Now that the two secession measures for the Valley and Hollywood have both failed, the new poster child for Los Angeles government is the neighborhood council which will not only get my streets repaved but will heal the wounds of those who are now stuck with Los Angeles as the place they live. The neighborhood empowerment idea has been played out in several cities, such as St. Paul and Minneapolis. As I happened to live in Minneapolis not too many years ago, and as I also served as the president of a homeowners association in that fair burg, I continue to think that neighborhoods and cities have rather different, even contradictory natures. I recalled that in Minneapolis our homeowners group shut down a big entertainment center that disrupted the formerly quiet nature of our area. Neighborhoods almost always think locally like that, just as in my Hollywood neighborhood people post warnings and descriptions about drug dealers who park on our streets and do their business. Taking matters into your own hands, even to the point of seceding from the city, is the ultimately expression of what neighborhoods can do as a collective force. Politically, its power is based on self interest and whereas homeowners associations have been known to play on politicians' hunger for votes in getting potholes and sewers fixed, or closing down topless dance halls or rowdy night clubs, neighborhood councils tend to become venues for budding office seekers or squeaking neighborhood wheels for whom no oil would ever be balm enough.

The anger many secessionists feel about L.A. seems based on the same neighborhood impulse to get better services and security for my local area of sway. The mayor has said that the city must do better in the delivery of services. There is always room for improvement, of course, and this is an enormous city where enormous local problems add up, over the several hundred miles that is L.A., into frustration and misery. So perhaps the new neighborhood councils will get those potholes filled, the graffiti and gangs to disappear, the schools improved.

Yet, what seems to be missing in Los Angeles is a sense within ordinary people that they have a deep relationship with Los Angeles, with the dream of Los Angeles. It certainly may be that too much local suffering wears down aspiration and connection to the largest unit of the public all of us belong to-Angelenos. What makes a city great-and Los Angeles is a great city-is not the same sets of factors that make good neighborhoods, or even great neighborhoods. I love my neighborhood, but even a great neighborhood does not make a city great.

It will take more than bumper stickers reviving the "I Love L.A.!" theme to bring about the kind of self-awareness that goes into committing oneself to our city. "The vision thing" which the first George Bush struggled with is sourced in the gamut of desire, desire which is a continuum from the merely craven or selfish all the way to the sublime and heavenly. You need the continuum in order to get to the vision thing; but what usually happens is you end up with a lot of broken concrete between self interest and public interest, between one's own dream and a common dream of the city. You end up with cosmetics instead of the cosmos, the facelift and not the uplift.


If desire is what gives a city its breadth of energy and reputation, neighborhoods are almost anti-desire. In neighborhoods I know of, it is not uncommon to see people strolling around in their pajamas. I even have a neighbor who does his gardening in his underwear, and people smile and wave to him. He's that relaxed about where he is. Experts on neighborhoods can probably list all sorts of markers for what makes a good neighborhood-dogs, kids, people in pajamas, pies being traded across backyards. But what makes a city great? Minneapolis has done a remarkable job promoting its image as a city of good government, perhaps based on its neighborhood empowerment scheme that L.A. city officials studied. But even if it is true that Minneapolis has better government than L.A., which I doubt, Los Angeles is a great city and Minneapolis is not. When you think of great cities-Paris, London, Hong Kong, New York-it still comes back to the way in which only certain cities in the world cast more than a physical shadow. The great city is one that casts its shadow into the imagination. The poet Wallace Stevens noted, during the Second World War, that the human imagination is a force within us reacting to the violence around us. The reality of most cities is that the price of all that desire and energy and city life is something perhaps approaching the ungovernable. Some of the greatest cities seem to teeter on anarchy.

It is curious that despite all the calamities and disasters that are part of L.A.'s fame-the earthquakes and riots, the Oj Simpson trial and the Wynona Ryder trial-L.A. is a world class city, one of a very few. We are up there with the Parisians and, for whatever reasons and desires, they even envy us.

But that then brings us back to the power of imagination, the vision thing. We want L.A. to have both the local and the great, the comfort and the stimulation, the staidness and the mix of ages and cultures, even of languages. Only connect the passion and the prose, E.M. Forester wrote. To retreat from an exploration of what makes L.A. great is the true secession. L.A. is a city of neighborhoods, of course, but neighborhoods do not tell us everything about who we are.

What was it just a year ago we were waving flags about? It wasn't just that America had been attacked. It was that our premier city, New York, had been attacked AND not least that the very idea of what makes a city great had also been attacked. The city as an idea represents human community, it represents people in relationship to one another, from private to public dealings, and it also represents people's aspirations towards time which we never have enough of.


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