July 10, 2023 - From the July, 2023 issue

Zev Yaroslavsky’s Los Angeles: A Political Memoir-Excerpts

Zev’s new book, ‘Zev's Los Angeles: From Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power. A Political Memoir’, excerpted here with his permission, …” revisits the period in which Los Angeles”, as former LA Times’ Editor Jim Newton notes in his eloquent & recent book review, “became what we know today: big and complex, multiracial, exciting, divided and far deeper than what meets the eye.” Newton adds, “Zev Yaroslavsky left a lasting mark on LA over decades on the City Council and the Board of Supervisors, and his thoughtful reflections earn his memoir an honored place in the history he helped make and now helps us to understand.”  Zev’s intent in writing his memoir is succinctly summarized in his (below excerpted) introduction: “The stories I’m telling aren’t just vivid historical moments. Each one offers lessons about how to use power, how to make government listen to the people it serves, and how to bring about change…” In addition to sharing with readers Zev’s introduction, TPR also includes his reflections on 1986’s City of Los Angeles Proposition U, which he co-authored, where he refutes the revisionist history now peddled by YIMBYs that the voter-approved ballot proposition was and still is a barrier to offering more and denser housing in LA, causing today’s housing shortage.

Zev Yaroslavsky

“The stories I’m telling aren’t just vivid historical moments. Each one offers lessons about how to use power, how to make government listen to the people it serves, and how to bring about change…” -Zev Yaroslavsky, 'Zev's Los Angeles: From Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power. A Political Memoir’


Ever since it opened, my family and I have enjoyed memorable nights at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. People come from all over the world to savor performances by great classical musicians. But the tone in the hall was decidedly different on a mild November evening in 2014. That night, more than 1,000 guests came to celebrate with me as I retired after four decades of public service to the City and County of Los Angeles. Business, political, cultural and community leaders, as well as colleagues, staff, friends and family mingled in the glittering concert hall—an institution which had transformed the cultural life of the city, yet didn’t exist when my career began.

The contrast between Los Angeles then and now was striking, and as the evening went on I couldn’t help but reflect on the changes in my own life that brought me to this moment: More than sixty years before, I was a toddler growing up in Boyle Heights on the east side of the Los Angeles River. As a teenager living in the Fairfax neighborhood, I became a social activist fighting for civil liberties, battling to free three million Jews from Soviet oppression, and marching against the war in Vietnam. By 1975 I was walking precincts on the city’s Westside, heading to an upset victory in the race for a vacant city council seat. Two decades later I was elected to the county Board of Supervisors, where I served for another twenty years. It had been quite a ride.

The child of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, I grew up in an exceedingly modest household where books were our most prized possessions. My parents lived from paycheck to paycheck, and we rented a small apartment in a duplex in Boyle Heights, a community of immigrants in East Los Angeles, at 724 N. Breed St., where my sister and I shared a small bedroom. Although you could see the lights of the civic center from our home, they might as well have been a million miles away. What were the odds, I thought, that a kid like me could end up helping to govern the largest county in America and its second largest city?

Just as important, who could have imagined how dramatically Los Angeles would grow and change in the same period? Although traffic was as bad as ever that night, the city was in the throes of a transit revolution, with new subways and light rail networks crisscrossing the region. The county, which nearly went bankrupt twenty years earlier, was in its best fiscal condition in nearly four decades. Although the physical city had long been a punch line for jokes about urban sprawl, it had become one of the world’s great urban centers—even as our neighborhoods, beaches and mountains enjoyed strong protections that would preserve them for generations to come. During these eventful years, Los Angeles had become one of the world’s premier cultural centers. All of this and more would have been unthinkable decades earlier, and I was lucky and proud to have been a part of it.

Of course, it wasn’t all good news. Los Angeles’ homeless population had exploded, and Skid Row was a national embarrassment. Income inequality was preventing vast numbers of people from enjoying the fruits of our economy, threatening our social cohesion. Racial tensions still flared across the region, and the troubled county jail was riddled with corruption and sickening abuse. The streets were patrolled by a police force that, after decades of racial turmoil, was still struggling to transform itself into one that valued constitutional policing and respected the people it served, regardless of the color of one’s skin. Immigration, which helped build Southern California, was now a flashpoint for economic tensions and increasingly contentious debate. There was still work to do, but I took pride that I had been in the thick of battles on the most compelling challenges facing our region.

That’s the story I’ll be telling in this book. But it’s not just an account of my personal journey, or the growth of Los Angeles. The message I hope to convey is that local government is more important today than ever and that we can make it work. The stories I’m telling aren’t just vivid historical moments. Each one offers lessons about how to use power, how to make government listen to the people it serves, and how to bring about change---all without sacrificing one’s values or integrity.

From the beginning I had one foot planted inside the halls of government—pushing the system to change and bend to my agenda—and the other on the outside, challenging the powers that be when they moved too slowly. For me, that’s not a contradiction. Being consistent for its own sake was never my objective. I resisted attempts to pigeon-hole me on an ideological spectrum and took comfort in French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s observation: “We do not display greatness by going to one extreme, but in touching both at once.”

I’m a progressive who believes in paying his bills, so I joined forces with conservative and liberal colleagues to prevent a county bankruptcy. I fought hard for the rights and dignity of working people, but never hesitated to differ with public employee unions when I thought their demands overreached. I partnered with powerful business and real estate interests when we shared common goals, fought them vigorously when I thought they were wrong, and went over their heads, directly to the people, when they gave me no other choice. I was one of the few straight politicians who took up the cause of gay and lesbian rights in the 1970s, an issue that was uncharted territory and perceived to be fraught with political risk for most elected officials. It didn’t matter. Then as now, I was determined to be a champion for those who most needed one. I was fortunate to be in public office, and felt obligated to take risks and get things done on behalf of the people who put their confidence in me—big things and little things.

During these years, an arc stretching from the 1950s to the present, Los Angeles has been transformed from a sprawling and parochial city into a diverse, international metropolis. The sky’s the limit in a region where constant, inevitable change is part of our DNA. And my journey is living proof of this.

Elected office wasn’t even remotely on my radar screen as a young boy. But there were some signs that foreshadowed my life to come, like volunteering to be the first in Miss Russell’s 4th grade class at Melrose Avenue School to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory, and later sneaking into the backstage of the Fairfax Theater to hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak on behalf of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in the fall of 1960. One of my earliest thrills came after her speech, when she walked over to shake my hand as she headed for the stage door exit. Weeks later, I convinced my father to take me to the Shrine Auditorium to see JFK at a campaign rally. I nearly poked the future president’s eye out with my makeshift “Kennedy for President” sign.

And then there was the day, February 23, 1964, a short three months after President Kennedy’s assassination, when I rode my beat-up, barely functional bike with a coaster brake from our Beverly-Fairfax neighborhood to Los Angeles International Airport to see President Lyndon Johnson. A crowd had gathered but I elbowed my way to the front, where Johnson was shaking hands with hundreds of well-wishers. I watched him work the line and could barely believe that he was inching toward me. Then the President of the United States briefly grabbed my fingers and shook them. Mission accomplished!

Although these early experiences may have provided clues of what was to come, I would have been unconvinced at the time. After all, I was an LA kid who passionately loved the Dodgers and not so secretly coveted Vin Scully’s job as the team’s radio voice. By the time I was in high school, however, I became obsessed with issues consuming the nation and the world, like civil rights and the Vietnam War. I was anxious to get into the mix because I grew up in a home that lived and breathed social activism. I learned how to fight for what I believed, in part because of my parents, Minna and David Yaroslavsky. They were humble but proud teachers, union activists, staunch Labor Zionists, and lifelong Democrats. At the dinner table and by the lives they led, they tutored my sister and me about right and wrong—about social and economic justice, and about our moral responsibility to make the world a better place.

I never shied away from taking on the status quo, because voters didn’t elect me to just mind the store or keep the lid on. They wanted me to move heaven and earth to turn ideas into results. But to me, that was not an obstacle. Barbara understood this clearly when she hung a sign in our kitchen: “A pessimist has no motor; an optimist has no brakes.”


Although my door was always open to everyone, my main responsibility was to speak for those who didn’t have an army of lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants to represent them. I was their advocate, because that’s exactly what they elected me to be and what they were paying me to do. As Harry Truman once said, “There are 14 or 15 million Americans who have the resources to have representatives in Washington to protect their interests…The interests of the great mass of the other people—the 150 or 160 million—is the responsibility of the President of the United States.”

Unfortunately, we live in an age when millions are skeptical about government, and it’s hard to blame them. The once solid foundations of our democratic institutions have come under attack as never before, and support for them is at an all-time low. It’s easy to be cynical, but I’ve lived my entire life convinced that holding public office is one of the most important callings in a democracy—a singular opportunity to improve the lives of those we are elected to represent.

Proposition U: The Nuclear Option

When you think about the issues that people discuss around the office water cooler, zoning isn’t one of them. During the mid-1980s, however, traffic planning and zoning was arguably the talk of the town. Commercial growth was booming in areas where it wasn’t expected. Although construction had visibly transformed downtown Los Angeles, high-rise growth between 1975 and 1985 grew at a three times greater rate in West Los Angeles, the South Bay, and the San Fernando Valley. These were more like suburban communities, portions of which were being rapidly transformed into high density centers. This wasn’t just an abstract concern for neighborhood residents. If their daily commute was suddenly extended by an hour, or a permanent shadow was cast on their homes because of new development, they had every right to seek redress from city government.

It didn’t take much insight to realize that slow growth sentiment was sweeping across Los Angeles. With the proper catalyst, it could become an unstoppable grassroots movement. So, in the spring of 1986, Braude and I met in his office for lunch and held what came to be known as the “Tuna Sandwich Summit.” We were joined by our deputies, Cindy Miscikowski and Ginny Kruger. Both our districts had development crosses to bear. I had to contend with projects like the Beverly Center and the Westside Pavilion, both mega-shopping, dining, and entertainment destinations. Marvin was dealing with high rises on the Brentwood side of Wilshire, as well as a massive six-story structure on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, known as the Fujita building. Each of these projects was built in strict accordance with the existing zoning code, known as “by right” projects, and they became poster children for land use planning reform.

The Fujita building was particularly egregious. It bordered an entire block of modest, single-family homes with virtually no separation from its neighbors, not even an alley. Homeowners’ lifetime investments plummeted in value when the new building cast a permanent shadow on the entire block. In the ensuing years, all the homes on the block were sold, demolished, and replaced with a block-long parking lot. This was a senseless tragedy, and yet it was perfectly legal. Once again, the city’s zoning code failed to balance real estate interests with those of city residents.

It was clear to Marvin and me that we were being subjected to a war of attrition, unable to control this tsunami of development. Or could we? During our lunch I suggested that the time had come to use the nuclear option—to bypass the mayor and City Council and take our case directly to the voters. We agreed to launch an initiative for the November 1986 ballot that would cut in half the allowable square footage for new buildings on commercially zoned streets that served local neighborhoods.

And that’s how Proposition U was born—officially titled the “Reasonable Limits on Commercial Buildings and Traffic Growth” initiative. Our aim was to redirect more intense commercial development into designated centers as the city’s 1970s “Concept Los Angeles” directed, rather than to transform each of the city’s neighborhoods into a regional center. We exempted from Prop U’s control high-density centers such as downtown, mid-Wilshire, Koreatown, Hollywood, Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley, and every redevelopment area in the city.

Thirty-six years later, critics who weren’t even born in 1986 claim that Proposition U is the cause of today’s housing shortage. They are wrong. Proposition U did not reduce density on a single property that was zoned “residential.” There were those who suggested that we include such a provision in our initiative, but we never considered it. Our beef was with commercial overdevelopment on neighborhood-serving commercial streets, like Pico or Fairfax, not with residential development. Although commercial zoning allowed for residential uses, it was far more profitable to build retail or commercial projects than residential ones. That’s why, to this day, there are few apartment buildings on commercially zoned streets. It is telling that neither the proponents nor the opponents of our ballot measure ever raised an issue over its impact on residential development.

Finally, to permit some future flexibility, Proposition U allowed future mayors and city councils to modify the measure, without voter approval, but in compliance with environmental laws and legally required public hearings. A decade and half later, that’s precisely what the mayor and city council did. To the extent that a one-paragraph initiative could be surgical and nuanced, this was it. In an analysis of the initiative, the Los Angeles Times got it right, even though it editorialized against our measure. Proposition U, the Times report said, didn’t force voters to choose between growth or no-growth. It’s “about where Los Angeles’ intense commercial development should be allowed to take place, and how to go about it.”

We had one final objective. It was our hope that Proposition U would change the culture that had turned City Hall into a development free for all. We believed that once the mayor and Council members heard from the voters, they would get the message that money shouldn’t talk; people should. Not surprisingly, our colleagues hated what we did. I can hear their voices now: “This simply isn’t done. It’s an egregious violation of council etiquette, like campaigning for a colleague’s defeat.” The hypocrisy was breathtaking, but we paid it no mind. There was simply no way to achieve such sweeping reform using conventional legislative means.

Along with hundreds of neighborhood volunteers, Braude and I gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to qualify the measure, and we quickly won a spot on the ballot. Los Angeles residents would now have the opportunity to directly vote on growth policies affecting them. Critics took aim, arguing the measure would stifle commercial growth and impact the regional economy. Others said that it would disproportionately affect communities of color. These arguments rang hollow in every part of the city, despite the opposition of most of the City Council and tacit opposition from Mayor Tom Bradley.

We built a broad coalition of supporters from San Pedro in the south to Tujunga in the northeast, from South Los Angeles to the Westside, and from Boyle Heights east of downtown to Woodland Hills in the west San Fernando Valley. Voters were itching for a way to fight back, and we gave them a weapon with which to do so. Proposition U passed 69 percent to 31 percent. It was a landslide by anyone’s definition, winning overwhelmingly in each of the city’s 15 council districts. The voters agreed that although the city needed to grow, it had to do so while striving to protect its quality of life.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.