Opinion: Let’s Say Happy Birthday to West Hollywood

West Hollywood residents celebrate cityhood at a November 25, 1984 meeting of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which supported incorporation on behalf of renters. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald-Examiner Collection.)

With Thanksgiving almost here, one thing the residents of West Hollywood might want to give thanks for is the incorporation of this city, which occurred on Nov. 29, 1984.

Yes, we have our issues these days. But what city doesn’t? We also have some things to be proud of.

For one thing, West Hollywood was the first city in the world to have a governing body (the City Council) whose majority consisted of gay and lesbian people (Valerie Terrigno, Stephen Schulte and John Heilman.) Since its incorporation, West Hollywood has become a place where people who don’t identify as heterosexual can feel comfortable holding hands with their partners when walking down the sidewalk.

There’s more:

— The ordinances adopted by the West Hollywood City Council within the first year of cityhood included a landmark rent stabilization ordinance (which 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 a social services program that since then 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 immigrants, services for people who are homeless, food programs and health care services for people who are uninsured.

— The city was one of the first government entities to provide social services grants to local AIDS and HIV organizations. 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, who made up roughly 40% of the city’s population. The city sponsored one of the first AIDS awareness campaigns in the country in October 1985.

— The city has been an outspoken advocate for the legal rights of LGBT people. In 1985, West Hollywood was one of the first cities in the country to adopt a domestic partnership ordinance. 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’s first City Council, elected Nov. 29, 1984. L-R Alan Viterbi, Steve Schulte, Mayor Valerie Terrigno, John Heilman and Helen Albert.

What really united the disparate groups (seniors on limited incomes, renters and LGBT residents concerned about discrimination) to campaign for cityhood was the city’s soaring rents and the inability to regulate them, given opposition from the then-conservative Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. What brought those disparate groups together was a campaign led by Ron Stone, a gay man who since has died of AIDS, and Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival. Their work resulted in the formation of the West Hollywood Incorporation Committee, whose members included John Heilman, who has been on the City Council since 1984, when he was 27 years old.

The campaign for cityhood wasn’t an easy one, with some local landlords and developers and members of the affluent gay establishment opposing it. For example, Sheldon Andelson, a gay man and major West Hollywood landowner, initially wouldn’t support the effort. Another opponent 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. Montgomery hoped to convince West Hollywood’s seniors that cityhood would give gay people too much influence. 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 failed, and today the Montgomery family still owns and manages the Sunset Plaza.

Today there is a debate among residents about where West Hollywood is headed. Some advocate for construction of more housing to address the radical increase in rents, which has left a large percentage of our residents having to spend 30% or more of their income for shelter, with some ending up sleeping on the sidewalks. Others object that more housing would increase density and disrupt the “urban village” environment. Some residents are concerned about the proliferation of expensive members-only clubs like SoHo House and San Vicente Bungalows and pricey gyms and restaurants.  And pretty much everyone is concerned about the proliferation of homeless people and the decline in local retail establishments, issues that are affecting many cities.

But now and through this weekend, let’s just give thanks to the fact that West Hollywood exists, that we live in a city that is committed to acceptance and support of people of all varieties.  And if you were around then, please feel free to share your memories of the successful campaign for cityhood and your life in West Hollywood during its first ten years.


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Ham
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Ham

Incorporation has not been beneficial to homeowners. The city has been poorly managed and has earned a terrible reputation nationwide.

Woody McBreairty
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Woody McBreairty

You should ask John Heilman to write a commemorative piece since he is part & parcel of the birth of the city.

kab1200
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kab1200

I remember my landlord at the time told us not to vote for cityhood, as it would ruin the rental situation. (they rarely raised the rent anyway). I guess they did not want to have to follow the rules of rent control. That was a fun pass it down apartment for years.

Woody McBreairty
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Woody McBreairty

Hard to believe it’s been 35 years, it seems like yesterday. West Hollywood has many founding fathers (& mothers), so many dedicated & determined people who worked so hard at realizing this dream. I think we got the signatures of practically everyone in West Hollywood throughout the whole process. I still have the networking list of phone numbers of the CES Steering Committee members, most of whom are no longer with us, but were/are all equal partners in the founding of the city. The senior members are now gone & those of us who were “youngsters” then are now the… Read more »

Ruth Williams
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Ruth Williams

Ain’t it the truth! Those of us still around should have a reunion, and remember those that are no longer with us, Time goes so fast. I first met Norman in the early 70’s when we first discussed rent control in the County because rents were tripling, and Norman introduced me to Larry who was the head of CES & we managed to get it for L.A. County. When it was due to phase out I remember we had one of the first meetings in my living room to explore options with Bill Press, Larry Gross, Norman, and I’m sure… Read more »

Larry Gross
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Actually that meeting at your apartment with Bill Press was with just you and me. We stressed the importance of rent control being extended to all tenants not just seniors as he was advocating. He ignored us and ended up doing a report on ABC, I believe, that was horrible. We were so pissed. Nevertheless, we overcame that and many other obstacles.

Steve Martin
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Steve Martin

Let’s hope that we can re-kindle the joy and hopefulness of 1984 in the coming year.

carleton cronin
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Here at its inception – and still here, making noises. This article should be part of every city employee’s orienting discussion. History is too easily forgot in the chaos of daily life. Thanks for the reminder, Hank.

Jason
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Jason

Happy Birthday Weho!!!