Friday, November 29, 2013

The County, Part 2

Monrovia, California

November 29, 2013

I continue to find things out, very slowly.  (That might be a fitting inscription for my tombstone, except that it might not fit.)  I've been writing about the Los Angeles area for the past couple of blog postings, and I'm going to continue down that path.

I mentioned last time that there are 88 incorporated municipalities in Los Angeles County, and that some of them because of their comparatively small size use the resources of the County for policing and fire protection and that sort of thing.  West Hollywood is a case in point.  It's a full-fledged city, but is also an enclave of the City of Los Angeles.  Its distinction is that it is basically an inclusionary, liberal, and identifiably gay city, with a gay male population of 41%.  Its city council members are mostly gay, and its city flag is the familiar rainbow flag associated with the LGBT movement.  In addition to its gay population is a somewhat inapposite community of Russian Jewish immigrants, most of whom arrived there shortly before and after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  West Hollywood's Russian-speaking population of around 6,000 people is the largest such concentrated group in the U.S. outside New York City.  Thus as you saunter down Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood you are likely to see same-sex couples walking pairs of poodles, cheek-by-jowl with old women in babushkas carrying home vegetables for the evening's meal, passing storefronts featuring young male manikins wearing purple sequined thongs.  The image of elderly old-world Russian couples and dashing young gays living side by side in tolerant harmony is one worth musing on.

I said that West Hollywood is an enclave of Los Angeles, but technically it is not completely surrounded by the City, since it shares a border on its western side with Beverly Hills, another separate city within the City.  Traveling from Hollywood (which is part of Los Angeles) on the Sunset Strip to Beverly Hills, you wouldn't really know you were on the edge of a separate city unless you paid careful attention.  But within West Hollywood are some rather famous spots, and some rather unusual municipal phenomena.  It is home to the Chateau Marmont, perhaps best known as the place where John Belushi crashed and burned. It also has the Viper Room, outside of which River Phoenix collapsed and died.  West Hollywood was known long before its incorporation as something of a "wide-open" community, offering legal gambling at a time when it was prohibited by the City, and having a reputation as liquor-friendly during Prohibition.  Thus many nightclubs and cabarets sprang up in West Hollywood.  Today the city has a law decreeing that pets are to be called "companions," and their owners "guardians."  It has also outlawed the de-clawing of cats.  I don't know whether or not the Bob Barker/Drew Carey admonition to "have your pet spayed or neutered" has been challenged in West Hollywood, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were, as the idea of a guardian removing a companion's testicles without his permission might be abhorrent to many citizens.

I had always thought West Hollywood seceded from Los Angeles, but that is not the case.  Before 1984 it was an unincorporated and rather erose chunk of County land partially within and partially adjacent to the City, a little like East Los Angeles is, except that East LA and West Hollywood, though only a few miles apart, might as well be in different worlds.  On the map West Hollywood has the odd gerrymandered look of an area that was simply left over.  Its shape sort of resembles a pistol pointed eastward toward the heart of Los Angeles.  (See the map, above.)

Anyway, West Hollywood was formed in 1984 out of some spare real estate that had once been known as the community of Sherman, being named for Moses Sherman, a railroad magnate.  (Sherman Oaks, a region of the City of Los Angeles up in the San Fernando Valley, also was named for Sherman.)  The area that eventually became West Hollywood was for some years a sort of railroad town, with rail yards for the local interurban electric street railways that Moses Sherman started, and some of which he sold for several million dollars in 1904 to Henry Huntington (nephew and heir of Collis P. Huntington), another much more powerful railroad magnate about whom I have written before in this blog, who started the Huntington Library in San Marino after marrying his uncle's widow.  In about 1925 the region began to be known as West Hollywood.

Moses Sherman was born in Vermont in 1853, and in his early 20s moved out to Arizona, where he was a school teacher and administrator, and a capitalist.  He became Adjutant General of the Territory of Arizona, and thereafter referred to himself as General Sherman, a title that must have seemed both prestigious and pretentious in the last quarter of the 19th Century when Civil War hero General William Tecumseh Sherman (no relation) was still a revered presence in American politics.  After building the Phoenix Street Railway in Arizona, Moses Sherman journeyed to Los Angeles and started building trolley lines here.  He continued to build street railways, the most prominent of which ran north-south up through North Hollywood into the San Fernando Valley, connecting Van Nuys and Canoga Park to the downtown area.  Sherman Way still bears his name, and Hazeltine Avenue was named after one of his daughters.

(The likes of Moses Sherman, William Mulholland, Collis Huntington, and other early capitalists who ran and shaped Los Angeles, carving it up, cutting into its hills, and diverting its waterways for their original purposes, were undoubtedly the inspiration for the fictional characters Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross, the latter played by John Huston, in Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown.)

The fact that West Hollywood is now surrounded mostly by LA proper is not due so much to the omission of this piece of land from the incorporation into the City as it is to the rather disorganized way the City itself grew to gobble up many of the little communities that were adjacent to its core central district.  Hollywood, for instance, was once an outlying suburb to the northwest of Los Angeles proper, then elected to join Los Angeles itself.  Beverly Hills was sort of the same, except that it decided to become a separate city.  West Hollywood just stayed part of the County.  Besides growing northward into the San Fernando Valley, thanks in part to the Sherman rail line, the City grew westward to the ocean, incorporating Pacific Palisades, Venice, and several other communities, eastward toward Pasadena, gulping up Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, and several other little towns, and southward as well, cutting a thin corridor for itself down to San Pedro on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and incorporating that city in 1909 so as to have its own commercial seaport.

Along the way, the City left many little areas either unincorporated or separately incorporated.  The result, when you look at the map of the City, is a metropolis that is wildly irregular in shape, interspersed with a bunch of separate cities. Contrast this pattern of development to that of the nation's other great city, New York.  There you find five pretty much solid chunks of land, each of which is now (as of about the last decade of the 19th century) a borough of that city, whereas each had been a separate county before, and in fact still is.  Thus New York City uniquely consists of five boroughs, and five counties, two adjacent ones on eastern Long Island (Queens and Brooklyn), one on the southern tip of the mainland (The Bronx), and two on their own islands (Staten Island and Manhattan).  New York, for as far-flung as it is, is still one huge monolith, which you can traverse from one end to the other by means of bridges, roads, railways, and ferries, without venturing outside the city limits.  The same cannot be said for Los Angeles.  There is no freeway or easy street route that will take you through the City from one end to the other without passing at least briefly through a non-city area, either incorporated or unincorporated.  Observe this on the map above, in which the colored areas are those of the neighborhoods or districts that are part of the City and the grayish-white areas are not part of it.

Los Angeles County continues to fascinate, and throughout it I continue to discover its little oddities.  For instance, the City of Arcadia (between Monrovia and Pasadena), home to the Santa Anita Race Track, has the second-highest per capita income of any city of over 50,000 in the U.S., exceeded only by Greenwich, Connecticut in that category.  (Arcadia's per capita income, by the way, is more than $67,000.)  Most locals don't know this.  Over on the other side of Monrovia is a tiny incorporated city called Bradbury, which broke away from Monrovia in 1957 and is now served by the public-safety agencies of the County.  Bradbury has a population of a little over 1,000, and consists almost exclusively of gated communities, boasting the highest average home price for a single zip code in the nation, in excess of $4.2 million.  It's one of those places few know about, and the residents like it that way, I'm sure.  It was the home of the late beloved evangelist, the Reverend W. euGene Scott, the garrulous white-haired preacher wacko who plied the late-night airwaves during the latter decades of the 20th century from his broadcasting headquarters in Glendale.  His widow Melissa Scott still lives there.  Another resident of Bradbury is Lynsi Torres, the thirty-something heiress to the In-N-Out Burger fortune and the youngest female billionaire in the country, whose house is thought to be worth $17 million.  But the most expensive property in Bradbury seems to be one known as The Bradbury Estate, clocking in at over $78 million.  Even in the absurdly inflated LA County real estate market, where a house the size of a decent Michigan garage can go for several hundred thousand, that, my friends, is an expensive place.  Unlike the more accessible and ostentatious neighborhoods of the west side of LA where the glitterati dwell, this is a community where billionaires and millionaires, businessmen, athletes and Saudi princes, go to live in privacy.  For all that, though, its brown and barren hills on the south edge of the San Gabriel Mountains do not look particularly attractive or inviting.  But then maybe that's the idea.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The County

Monrovia, California

November 17, 2013

In my last posting I talked about someone I call Diabetes Woman, and I want to give you an update on her. Following my two less than amicable encounters with her I continued to pass her from time to time on my way down to the parking lot on Hill Street.  I'm not certain what her hours of operation are, but on my way into work at around 8:00 a.m. she's not yet at her post, and when I work all day at the downtown location she's not there at 4:30 in the afternoon when I go back to my car.  However, many times my day on the job is split between the downtown complex and a satellite County office.  The downtown complex includes the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, named after a man named Kenneth Hahn, and the Los Angeles Central Superior Court, named after Stanley Mosk.

Kenneth Hahn was a mildly interesting man.  He was born in Los Angeles in 1920 to Canadian parents who had just moved there, and spent his entire life as a resident of the area, dying in 1997.  In addition to serving for forty years on the County Board of Supervisors, from 1952 to 1992, he also designed the current seal of the County of Los Angeles, which was modified slightly in 2004 to eliminate the Christian cross with which he had adorned it.  (Hahn was very a religious Protestant, often quoting scripture.)  Although Los Angeles was founded by Spanish priests and named for the Virgin Mary, it is now under the fortunate umbrella of the nominally nonsectarian American government, so removing the cross was a good move, albeit a tardy one, on the part of the County.

Stanley Mosk served as a California Supreme Court Justice for 37 years, from 1964 until his death at the age of 89 in 2001.  Prior to that he served as state Attorney General.  Of politically liberal Jewish heritage, he and his family moved to Los Angeles from Rockford, Illinois during the Depression after his father's business failed.  Mosk became the longest-serving state Supreme Court justice, and after his death the central downtown Superior Court building was named in his honor.

The two buildings named after these guys occupy most of a large block whose boundaries are Hill, Temple, First, and Grand Streets, with a narrow public area called Grand Park between the buildings.  They are connected by an underground parking lot where the Superior Court judges and other court officials as well as the higher-ups in the LA County administration park.  The satellite office I often go to is located in East Los Angeles, and is named for Gloria Molina, the County Supervisor for that area.  That office, a modest two-story building, is at the corner of Sunol Avenue and East First and we refer to it simply as "Sunol."  It is on my walks back to my car during the middle of the day to drive to Sunol--anywhere from about 11:00 a.m. to noon--that I see Diabetes Woman.  However, occasionally in the morning I would see her sitting high on the steps that go up the hill to the top of the Fort Moore Memorial.  I assume she slept somewhere up there then would come down to Hill Street to take her post in front of the entrance to the parking lot connected to the Cathedral.

Here let me digress again from Diabetes Woman to say a few words about the County of Los Angeles.  LA County is vast, both in area and in population.  At over 4,000 square miles it is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.  And its population of over 10 million (some estimate it to be closer to 11 million, since many of its inhabitants do not wish to make themselves known to the authorities lest they be subject to deportation) makes it the most populous county in the United States, with more people than 42 individual states have. The majority of the population lives in the southern half of the county, while its northern region is thinly inhabited mountains and high desert.  For you Michigan folks, think of it this way.  Pack three times the population of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties combined into the same area those counties occupy, then add another area the same size that is mostly empty.

LA County's population is diverse though heavily Mexican, as you might expect (appropriately so considering that this area was part of Spain and then Mexico from its "discovery" by Europeans in the 1500s until the middle of the 19th century).  The general demographic breakdown is about 48% Hispanics, 28% non-Hispanic whites, 14% Asians (mostly Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Japanese, in that order), and 9% African Americans.  Languages other than English and Spanish often heard include Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Armenian, Tagalog, and various Slavic tongues.  For those who no longer speak any language, the County contains the largest cemetery in the U.S., Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, and of course two of the most famous--the Forest Lawns of Glendale and Los Angeles.

Human diversity aside, the County is rich in geological, botanical, and biological variety as well.  Its highest point of elevation is a little over 10,000 feet and its lowest is sea level.  Cacti of a number of species abound, as well as native evergreens, sycamores, cottonwoods, oaks, and wildflowers, and a plethora of non-native plant species, including several varieties of palm trees, eucalyptuses, ficuses, citrus trees, and more ornamental lawn trees than you can count.  Up in the mountains and deserts as well as at the edges of the cities there are coyotes, mountain lions, bears, deer, foxes, bobcats, vultures, bald eagles, feral parrots, black widow spiders, and rattlesnakes.  Little lizards are everywhere.

Los Angeles County encompasses the City of Los Angeles, but also no fewer than 87 other incorporated municipalities and over 140 recognized unincorporated regions that account for over 65% of the County's area.  Apart from the 3.3 million people of the City of Los Angeles, the County contains at least 14 other cities with populations of over 100,000.

It is in one of the unincorporated areas, East Los Angeles, just outside the city limits of LA, where Sunol, the satellite County office I referred to above, is located.  East Los Angeles, bounded on the west by the City and on its other sides by Monterey Park, Montebello, and several other municipalities, has a population of over 125,000, more than 97% of whom are Hispanic. It would rank as the tenth most populous city in the County, except that it isn't a city, just a piece of County land.  I am not sure why this area, essentially a Mexican ghetto, does not belong to the City proper, since it is geographically just an extension of the Boyle Heights area of LA, also known as East Los Angeles.  At any rate, because it isn't part of any city, it is directly governed by the County of Los Angeles and policed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the largest sheriff's department in the United States.  The County itself is politically administered by a Board of Supervisors, consisting of five elected Supervisors, who hire an executive director, and each of whom presides over his or her own fiefdom, with primary jurisdiction over the unincorporated areas and sometimes concurrent and overlapping jurisdiction over the incorporated cities.  Many of the smaller incorporated cities contract with the County for police and fire services in lieu of having their own.  Supervisor Gloria Molina, as far as I can discern, is the de facto mayor of East Los Angeles, its alcalde.  The other four County Supervisors are Zev Yaroslavsky, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Michael Antonovich, and Don Knabe.  It is in the upper atmosphere of the vast Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration where these Supervisors wield their power.  My office, the Department of Consumer Affairs, is down in the basement, away from cell phone reception and natural light.  That is one of the reasons I enjoy going over to Sunol.  There I have a nice naturally lit desk by a window on the second floor, my own direct phone line, and out front a truck that sells tacos for a dollar apiece.

Well, that's a boatload of statistics and miscellaneous information, and really, what county doesn't have lots of stuff you could say about it?  I guess the point of it all is to emphasize that LA County is much more than the television and movie industries.  (To give it its due, however, Hollywood does a pretty good job of depicting the one and two story stucco sameness of the tightly-packed urban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, barred windows and all, usually when it does one of its many "tough corrupt cop" movies about the LAPD or the County Sheriff's Department.  Tough and corrupt are reputations both police forces have worked long and hard to earn.)  In fact, although media production is a big part of the economy, it's only the most famous part.  The rest of what makes the place run is what the average person does every day everywhere (other than driving snowplows, maybe).  In fact, holding up Hollywood and the wealthy neighborhoods of the west side hills and their glittering, privileged denizens as representing the essence of LA is little like trying to understand Detroit by examining Bloomfield Hills, or equating the south side of Chicago with Evanston, or driving around in Westchester County to see what the Bronx is all about.

It is, as I said, to East Los Angeles that I often journey about halfway through my day, and that is when I walk past Diabetes Woman on my way northward down the hill to the parking lot in Chinatown.  Not long after I wrote the last blog posting, I saw her at her usual post, still holding the sign whose efficacy I had had the temerity to question.  As I went by I expected her to stare yellow-eyed reptilian daggers at me or mutter something obscene.  Instead her eyes were bright and she smiled and held up a key that was attached to a blue lanyard around her neck.  "Look," she said proudly, "I got an apartment!"  She was beaming, and I was momentarily nonplussed by her unexpected display of joy.  I slowed down just enough to answer back, "I'm happy for you."  Our past animosity was forgotten by both of us in this moment of her joy.  It was obvious that she felt she had attained a new level of respectability, one that would elevate her status in the world in the eyes of suit-wearing types like me.  I wouldn't dream of disabusing her of that notion, though I can't say it makes much difference to me.  But it certainly was making a difference to her.

So Diabetes Woman no longer lives among the scrub in the abandoned ancient graveyard at the top of the Fort Moore steps, sleeping, as I imagine it, huddled in a blanket or two and surrounded by her small collection of worldly possessions, one of the more than 58,000 homeless people in the County, enough to fill Dodger stadium.  As I began crossing over the freeway I glanced back and saw her making the same happy boast to another well-dressed passerby, speaking to her warmly, like a friend.  But she still panhandles at her spot.  I suppose she now has at least a small amount of rent and/or household upkeep to pay for in addition to whatever she needs to do to obtain food and clothing.  A person, after all, has to make a living.

At the outskirts of Chinatown I passed a few more familiar denizens of my walk, including the funky always-smiling young Vietnamese guy who runs the parking lot, whom I once saw wearing bright red lipstick and eyeliner for no reason I could discern.  I also passed several of the same superannuated Chinese men and women I see shuffling slowly past me in shapeless pants and dresses, making whatever slow progress their long day requires, up the steep hillsides to the small apartments overlooking Hill Street, whose balconies are hung with drying laundry and red and gold talismans of luck and hoped-for prosperity.

This time I didn't think of the depiction of the perverse and treacherous diversion of the wealth of Los Angeles played out in Chinatown by John Huston and Jack Nicholson.  Nor did I dwell on the baldly hypocritical and insulting praise of the Mormon Brigade chiseled in the stone and glorified in bas relief on the Fort Moore Memorial, honoring the Pioneers who bravely "settled" Los Angeles for the country in the mid-1800s.  Instead I was reminded of the many souls who have journeyed to the County with no political or economic agendas other than to try to escape the terror and bigotry and degradation of their native lands, whether from south of the border, from across the vast Pacific, or out of the American deep south, most to a better life but some to something less than the promised land they expected.  Some were homeless and found homes, however modest; others left homes and became homeless, out here in the land of big dreams and often much smaller joys.

I thought of the final lines from "Lapis Lazuli" by William Butler Yeats, where he describes the images of three ancient Chinese men, climbing toward a little house:

There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes, mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.