CityWatch, June 21, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 49
RETHINKING LA - Tony and Walter live in Los Angeles, just two and half miles apart, and they both want to live quietly and safely in homes surrounded by security fencing.
Tony has called Windsor Square his home for the last six years and he lives in a lovely house provided by his employer as a condition of his employment.
Walter lives in East Hollywood with his wife and teen-age daughter in a house he bought 14 years ago with money he earns as a painter.
In a city of almost four million people, Tony and Walter live relatively close to each other but they have never met. For all practical purposes, they might as well live in two different countries.
Tony’s neighborhood is very quiet at night. The only sound on Irving Ave. comes from the engine of an idling City of LA Public Safety vehicle which serves as the “guard shack” for the 24 hour city funded security that watches over Tony’s home.
Walter’s street is noisy at night, serving as a popular cut-through between Melrose and Santa Monica. It’s only a short walk to lots of great shops and restaurants but pedestrians are rare in this neighborhood because of fear.
Both gentlemen place a high premium on public safety and Walter agrees with Tony who said "Keeping our City safe is the first responsibility of local government.”
When it comes to results, the men disagree.
Tony recently stood shoulder to shoulder with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and proudly announced across the board reductions in the city’s crime statistics, “marking the city’s safest point in more than 50 years.”
Walter’s experience contradicts Tony’s claim and to prove it, he simply holds a police report in each hand, representing the two unsolved criminal invasions that took place in his home this past year.
Tony and Walter have both gone public with their experiences.
Tony is often quoted in the press claiming “crime is at historically low levels, gang violence is on the decline, and the City is seeing the fewest homicides in four decades.”
Walter doesn’t get as much media attention but that hasn’t stop him from speaking out about the gang activity, the criminal element, the abandoned homes, the drug and alcohol activity under the freeway overpass, the dumping, the graffiti, and the other signs of a forgotten neighborhood.
In spite of Tony’s “safe city” claims, he apparently agrees with Walter’s personal safety concerns because his office recently submitted paperwork requesting a variance to city bylaws in order to build a security wall around his home.
Tony’s request prompted John Welborne, Windsor Square Association vice president for planning and land use, to say “Should all of Los Angeles, including its historic residential neighborhoods, become a collection of walled compounds?”
Walter has moved more quickly than Tony, building a six foot tall security wall consisting of wrought iron fencing decorated with Asian designs and supported by a series of brick pillars. This defiant act of self-preservation incurred the wrath of the City of LA’s Building and Safety Inspectors who told him his fence exceeded the permitted 42” height. He was fined for building the fence and then fined again for non-compliance and ultimately told to remove his fence.
Meanwhile, Tony is proceeding with a variance request that was prepared by and funded with public funds, after all, his house is provided by his employer which in turns contributes more than $100,000 per year to the foundation that operates and maintains his home.
In spite of the LAPD report indicating that there have been no “calls for service,” Tony knows what it’s like to feel threatened. Just last year, city librarians held a children’s storytelling session on his front lawn to protest his proposed reduction to city library services and staff.
Fortunately for Tony, an LAPD security detail arrives each morning to escort him as he engages in the business of the day, leaving Office of Public Safety officers to guard his home, all at the expense of the City of LA.
Meanwhile, Walter gets up every morning and looks out onto a busy street filled with speeding motorists, littered with shopping carts, host to fresh dumped trash, pocked with the campsites of vagrants and the campers that favor the shade of the freeway overpass. As he locks the gate, he does so knowing that if his family calls for help, there are no neighbors left to hear them. If they call the police, it will take a long time to respond and will simply generate more useless paperwork.
The ongoing debate over walled homes starts with a public safety failure. On the one hand, there is a credible argument for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) that holds the enhanced safety of open and visible space. Walled environments create hiding places and interfere with “eyes on the street” security.
None of this philosophical debate over walls and their impact on public safety, CPTED, or historic preservation matters much to those who have been victimized and who have failed to receive the support of the Mayor’s office, the Council office, the LAPD, the City Attorney.
Walter has been making the rounds of the neighborhood councils, asking for help making their community safer and in getting relief from the crippling fees, fines, and penalties that the City of LA levies as they simply attempt to protect their homes and families.
East Hollywood has more than 100 languages spoken and the greatest obstacle addressing public safety, city ordinances, permits and variances is simply mastering the most difficult language of all, Bureaucratese.
Walter and his neighbors are struggling to master a system that is Byzantine in nature and unforgiving to the mistakes of the uninitiated.
Tony, on the other hand, is the person in charge. The one responsible for public safety, for the staff who administer and enforce the rules and regulations, who respond to issues on the streets. He even has a staff to help him navigate his request for a variance, one paid for by Walter and his neighbors.
Walter and his neighbors have appealed to the Mayor’s office, to City Council President Garcetti’s office, to the LAPD, to the City Attorney’s office and to the local neighborhood councils.
While on the neighborhood council circuit, they often share space with representatives from the city, including the City Attorney’s office, the City Council office, and the LAPD.
The City Attorney’s office showed up recently to extol the virtues of the Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) program that would expedite enforcement of municipal code issues such as over-height fences using a complaint driven process for enforcement that allows the City Attorney to move swiftly with an internal process that fines violators and increases contributions to the City’s General Fund.
Walter and his neighbors looked at each other and realized that this ACE program targeted the residents and small businesses in their community, not the predators who violate their neighborhood, threaten their families, steal their possessions and destroy their peace of mind. From Walter’s perspective, the City Attorney should be focused on pursing the criminals who are mocking the Mayor’s “Safe City” claim.
The LAPD, a billion dollar department, was represented by Captain Bea Girmala who has made the rounds of the local neighborhood councils asking for a share of their $45K annual budget (now $40.5K) in order to buy tactical gear for her officers. The neighbors watch and wonder, a few thousand from Central Hollywood, a few thousand from East Hollywood, when will they have enough tactical gear so they can send a police officer over to our street?
Through it all, Walter and his neighbors encounter the power of the “Department of No!” They call the Mayor’s office but can never get through to anyone who finds their situation worthy of a call or a response. They certainly never bump into a Mayor’s representative on the neighborhood council circuit.
They call City Council President Garcetti’s office and after weeks of communication with a representative, they encounter weeks of silence, only to discover that this representative had transferred into the Mayor’s office.
They call the LAPD and they wait, only to get great advice such as “Build a security fence!” from the officers who arrive at the scene of the crime hours after the call with no greater response than the creation of more paperwork.
Tony and Walter have a lot in common, they both want to build a fence around their homes.
For Tony, his fence represents failure, after all, he has acknowledged that his first responsibility is public safety.
For Walter, his fence is a defiant act that demonstrates his commitment to protecting his home and his family, with or without Tony’s help.
Walter’s front yard has two lawn chairs in the center, decorated with American flags. He hopes to host Tony someday, just the two of them sitting together, watching the street and discussing great neighborhoods and safe communities.
As they say, good fences make good neighbors.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)