They say that a year in a dog’s life is equal to seven in a human’s life. But what about a year in a city’s life?
The City of West Hollywood this year is celebrating its 30th birthday, which technically makes it relatively young. But each of those 30 years has been filled with more activity than one would expect in such a small town (1.89 square miles and a little more than 34,000 people). One could argue that West Hollywood is approaching middle age, and with vigor.
As busy as West Hollywood seems now, with almost 1,500 new housing units under construction or being planned along with half a million square feet of retail space, in some ways no year was busier than 1984, the year of the city’s incorporation. It was on Nov. 29 of that year that voters turned out to adopt a measure that established West Hollywood, until then an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, as its own city. The measure passed in a two-to-one vote. That same day voters elected a City Council whose gay majority — Valerie Terrigno, Stephen Schulte and John Heilman (who still serves on the Council) — was the first in the country and drew attention from around the world. Other members elected to the first Council were Helen Albert and Alan Viterbi.
The campaign for cityhood was a long one. That’s because for decades West Hollywood residents were happy to be part of Los Angeles County rather than the City of Los Angeles, which had a reputation for harassing gay people and cracking down on the sort of bars and clubs that made the Sunset Strip popular. In fact, in 1924, West Hollywood residents defeated a proposal to become part of the City of Los Angeles, preferring to remain part of the more accepting county.
But while the county was relaxed in enforcing laws with an impact on sexual orientation and nightlife, it also wasn’t very attentive to the needs of renters, who then as now dominated the city’s housing market. It was the construction of a hotel in his neighborhood in 1983, and a county decision to limit the hours at the pool at West Hollywood Park, that prompted Ron Stone, then 37, to take a look at the impact of development and the county’s governance on the area.
Stone, a gay man who since has died of AIDS, early on got the support of Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES). A major goal of that Los Angeles-based activist group was making sure people had access to affordable housing. CES, many of whose members were seniors with limited incomes, had campaigned in 1983 for a proposition that would have put stringent rent control in place in Los Angeles County. But given that most of the county’s residents were homeowners rather than renters, it failed. In West Hollywood, however, the measure passed by a five-to-one majority, much greater than the two-to-one majority in the vote for incorporation.
CES’s work on the countywide rent control initiative gave it a large base of supporters in West Hollywood, enabling it to work with Stone to get 25 percent of the area’s registered voters to sign petitions saying they wanted the area to become its own city. With that petition and economic data, the newly formed West Hollywood Incorporation Committee convinced the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a state agency tasked with assessing the feasibility of West Hollywood as a separate city, to give its blessing. To win LAFCO’s support, Stone initially focused on self-governance as an issue.
Adam Moos offers perhaps the most detailed analysis of the creation of West Hollywood, published as part of “Power of Geography: How Territory Shapes Social Life,” a book edited by Jennifer Wolch and Michael Dear. Moos argues that the fact that a greater percentage of local voters supported the county rent control bill than supported incorporating West Hollywood suggests the reason for cityhood was more a desire to protect renters rights than gay rights. In fact, Moos explains, Stone initially had trouble winning the support of the comfortable gay establishment, some of whose members were landlords or home owners and weren’t as out front on LGBT issues as were activists in San Francisco and Los Angeles. For example, Sheldon Andelson, a gay man and major West Hollywood landowner, wouldn’t support the effort. At first, neither would Stephen Schulte, who was planning to run for the Los Angeles City Council. Eventually, however, Stone approached the Stonewall Democratic Club and the Harvey Milk Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club and won their support. Other gay leaders were won over by the prospect of living in a city governed by gay people. But what really united the disparate groups — seniors on limited incomes, renters and LGBT residents concerned about discrimination — was the city’s soaring rents and the lack of any effective way to regulate them, given the conservative makeup of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
When the Board of Supervisors agreed to put cityhood on the ballot on Nov. 29, 1984, 44 people announced their candidacy for five seats on the West Hollywood City Council — 19 of them gay or lesbian. All of the candidates supported gay rights and rent control of some sort. The campaign for cityhood and the City Council was a contentious one.
Larry Gross keeps in the CES files copies of leaflets making specious claims of a connection between CES and Nazi’s because one CES-endorsed candidate was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU had argued that even Nazis had the right to demonstrate in public under the U.S. Constitution. Another leaflet tried to tie candidates endorsed by CES to Yasir Arafat and Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, a radical organization advocating independence and separatism for African-Americans. Another urged that residents not vote for Heilman, Viterbi, Albert, Terrigno and Douglas Routh, another CES-endorsed candidate, because of what it alleged where CES’s ties to Fidel Castro and Jesse Jackson.
Local landlords and developers were among the biggest opponents of incorporation. One of them was Francis Montgomery, a landowner who had built a house for his family in the 1920s above Sunset Boulevard, where his family had purchased land in 1860. Today the Montgomery family still manages the Sunset Plaza. Francis Montgomery hoped to convince seniors in West Hollywood that cityhood would give LGBT people undue influence, a strategy that failed. So he and other landlords and developers formed West Hollywood Concerned Citizens to lobby against cityhood and ask the county to create a special rent control district for the West Hollywood area that would be weaker than what a new City Council might pass. That effort also failed.
John Heilman, a 27-year-old lawyer when he was elected to the first City Council with CES endorsement, recalls how unusual people saw the incorporation of West Hollywood.
“When we first incorporated, people viewed us as a novelty because we were the first city with a LGBT majority on the City Council,” he said. “Some people said we couldn’t succeed. And right away we were hit with the AIDS crisis and the loss of so many talented residents, employees and community leaders. But that just made us redouble our efforts to improve our community and tackle the challenges we faced.
“We fortunately attracted a great group of people to work for the city, people who were attracted to our innovative spirit and our commitment to serving the community. We are a very special place, and now, 30 years later, no one seriously questions how well this city has succeeded.”
West Hollywood Mayor John D’Amico, who is seeking a second term in the March 2015 election, takes a forward look.
“Cities are never finished,” he said. “West Hollywood has had an exceptional first 30 years, and you can bet there’s more innovation, more civil rights work, more creativity, more services, and more affordable housing — and much more heart to come.”
Among the highlights of the city’s history are the following:
• The ordinances adopted by the West Hollywood City Council within the first year of cityhood the landmark rent stabilization ordinance (which, upon its adoption, was one of the strictest rent control laws in the country), an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS, a domestic partnership ordinance and an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. Today, many of the city’s landmark ordinances have become mainstream policies nationally.
• In 1985, the City Council established its social services program that over its history has provided millions of dollars in grants to fund programs for people in need. These services have included services for seniors, people with HIV and AIDS, members of the LGBT community, people with disabilities, alcohol and drug use recovery programs, support programs for Russian-speaking immigrant, services for people who are homeless, food programs and health care services for people who are uninsured. Today, the city’s Social Services Division budgets approximately $5 million per year to support programs that affect thousands of people in West Hollywood. City residents live longer and have lower rates of chronic diseases than residents of L.A. County as a whole.
• The onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic had a significant impact on West Hollywood because of the disease’s elevated infection rate among gay men, which caused a devastatingly high number of deaths in WeHo. The city was one of the first government entities to provide social services grants to local AIDS and HIV organizations. The city sponsored one of the first AIDS awareness campaigns in the country in October 1985. Today, 12 percent of households in West Hollywood have a person living with HIV/AIDS.
• The city has been an outspoken advocates for the legal rights of LGBT people. In 1985, the West Hollywood was one of the first cities in the country to adopt a domestic partnership ordinance. In October of this year, the City Clerk’s office registered its 10,000th couple as domestic partners. The city also created the nation’s first municipal transgender task force in 2001, which in 2009 became the city’s Transgender Advisory Board.
• West Hollywood was one of the first cities in the country to pass a resolution in support of marriage equality, paving the way for same-sex marriage initiatives all over the county. In a monumental moment in U.S. history in June 2008, West Hollywood, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Register-Recorder Clerk, began to issue marriage licenses and perform civil ceremonies for same-sex couples. That was done following the Supreme Court of California’s ruling on Proposition 8. After a legal stay, in June 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal in Hollingsworth v. Perry and West Hollywood launched a marriage celebration. West Hollywood City Council members and city officials performed hundreds of civil ceremonies.
West Hollywood also has received high marks for sound general and fiscal management policies. The city, with its diverse revenue base, recovered more quickly from the 2008 recession than most cities in the nation and receives top ratings from agencies such as Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. During the past five years, the city’s revenues have steadily increased and have surpassed pre-recession levels by 12 percent. The city has invested in a series of capital projects, including the West Hollywood Park Master Plan. In 2011 the city celebrated the opening of the new LEED-rated West Hollywood Library to showcase the city’s rich intellectual, literary, and cultural diversity. A new Aquatic and Recreation Center is currently in design development.
In 2013, the city conducted a community study — one of the most intensive such projects in its history. The study updated the city’s demographic data and provides information that informs funding priorities for social services initiatives. Ninety percent of respondents rated their quality of life as excellent or good, citing pedestrian orientation, central location, safe and quiet neighborhoods, amenities and well-kept infrastructure.
The city also is exploring technological advancement. At West Hollywood City Hall, staff members have formed an Innovation Catalyst Group that explores the development and implementation of groundbreaking ideas. Through this group, the city has launched initiatives such as a monthly TEDx lunch series for City Hall staff members and has laid the groundwork for resources such as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) initiative, an Open Data initiative, and a new web-based platform for civic engagement.
Today there is a debate among residents who see West Hollywood as moving away from the principles on which it was founded (primarily the provision of affordable housing in an urban village atmosphere) and those who argue that the city must grow, albeit in a managed way, if it is to continue to thrive. But there’s no question that the West Hollywood of today would not be as livable and accepting as it is without its incorporation as a city 30 years ago. As to what it becomes as it evolves, check in with WEHOville in five years for a look at that.