LaBonge's Griffith Park Legacy Clouds His Own

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MAILANDER’S LA-On 8 May 2007, I fixed a margarita and pulled up a beach chair, and set it on the highest point of the lot, and watched the amazing inferno that became known as the Griffith Park Fire blaze up around the collar of the hillside from which the Observatory pokes its three celestial-longing domes. 

It was not only the night of the fire's greatest damage--it was also the night that the rest of the City of LA and points outlying became best acquainted with the Honorable Tom LaBonge, long of Los Feliz.

David Zahniser, then writing for the LA Weekly, called LaBonge "the Mayor of Griffith Park" for his subsequent overcharged performance in the hours and days after the fire.  And there was no doubt about the Councilman's longstanding intimate relationship to LA's top profile greenbelt.

LaBonge genuinely loves Griffith Park, and he genuinely loves being a politician. It's hard to maintain two passions at once--you cannot serve Park and Mammon.  It's LaBonge's simultaneous love of park and politics that most threaten not only his own legacy, but the political stability of his otherwise tame district as well. The park he loves has been his Agincourt and it has also been his Waterloo.

LaBonge has also been my own Councilman for a baker's dozen of years already, and is now beginning his gun lap. I've watched him at arm's length; I knew his mother at mass. He's widely thought of as a mincing and even occasionally punchdrunk palooka. In his last election, facing tough challenges--he was endorsed by neither the Times nor the Daily News--LA Weekly news editor Jill Stewart, serving as moderator for a candidate debate, openly question his intellectual faculties and suitability for the job--which drew derisive howls from LaBonge's planted faithful in the audience.

But I've never bought the stumblebum pigeonholing. While the bonkeredness of Tom LaBonge remains his top editorial draw, I don't see him that way at all. I rather like to describe him as an ordinary acolyte who much benefited by being politically proximate to a paramount Zen master, and who has heeded the daily learned examples to best advantage.

Those new to LA or still learning ropes may like to learn that LaBonge served Council President John Ferraro--for whom the present City Council Chamber is named, as well as the notable DWP building up the hill--for fifteen years previous to LaBonge's own ascendancy to Council.  In that time, LaBonge worked hard to please residents all over LA's eastside on behalf of the savvy and politically ambidextrous Ferraro, groom to a noted stripper-turned-actress, and the longest serving Councilman in LA history, as well as its president for over a decade.

You can learn much from these types.  With exposure day in and day out, you can learn nearly everything there is to know, in fact.

But the first time he ran for office himself, LA's cultural landscape shifted underfoot, and ordinary, Old School LaBonge ran headlong into the brilliant Berkeley-schooled lesbian, advocate, and lesbian advocate Jackie Goldberg.

And LaBonge lost this race in his own backyard. It was a time when anything Old School was simply seen as Old, and LGBT rights issues were on the ascendance in the area formerly known as the Eastside.

As it's not only a progressive neighborhood, it's a smart neighborhood too. We in the 'hood described the election at the time as potholes v. zeitgeist.  The two were neck and neck through the campaign, but on election day, Goldberg had 300 fellow travelers, some of whom had come south from the Bay, walking precincts and banging out the vote door by door.  Goldberg won, 51-48, and LaBonge would have to wait eight years to represent his longtime home district.

But you can't continue to take any bets against a guy who worked for the guy for whom the whole place of business is named.  LaBonge was elected finally in 2001, and he's termed out next year.  Because he was elected in a special, he will likely be the longest serving LA City Councilmember of this century, unless they revise the rules again.

Entrusted to this manic acolyte were care of two of the City's most vital organs: its central nervous system the DWP, to which LaBonge has maintained the key Council relationship over the years; and the City's lungs, the 4,000 acres known as Griffith Park. 

While LaBonge has a legacy that abuts Hollywood Boulevard and some have even seen him as a postmodern Johnny Grant, as a Councilman his legacy has been mostly tied to the park everyone knows he loves.  In 2002, barely a year into his first term, the Observatory shut down for a major rehabilitation and was closed for three years. 

The rehab and restoration, changing the underground while leaving the distinctive silhouette of the building intact, was architecturally masterful.  But LaBonge's civic ground game for the rest of the park presented oddities when the Observatory re-opened. There was a City-sanctioned shuttle bus from Los Feliz flats trying to capture rides to the Observatory for $8 a throw.  And a completed Master Plan for the park even included dreams of lifting folks from parking lots near the Greek Theater to the Observatory via two aerial trams.

Local-to-Los Feliz park activist Bernadette Soter and husband Chuck saw the Master Plan and gradually turned tail on their former friends Tom and wife Brigid. So did a few other notable Los Feliz community pillars. LaBonge has tried to please everyone, with sweeteners here and committee plums there, but was pleasing almost nobody subsequent to the issuance of the Master Plan. 

The fire may have been an ecological disaster, but it also came at a fairly politically purgative time.  The fire purged a lot of the zanier amusement park features from the Master Plan, at least in the City's mind, as effort quickly shifted to restoring the Park, rather than rearranging it. 

But there has also been lingering trouble at Crystal Springs, where plans to change the lay of the land have managed to make a Palestine of a picnic area.

Allison Cohen, editor of the Los Feliz Ledger, lent editorial support in 2008 to an earlier plan to put two baseball diamonds of a size that might accommodate children's and adolescent teams into the Crystal Springs Picnic Grounds.  If built, the diamonds would occupy nearly 30% of the existing picnic area.

The idea met with fierce resistance, which Cohen believes is limited to a "handful of people."

"The issue is not really about kids' baseball fields in Griffith Park, or trees or picnic tables. It's about a handful of people who are fighting for retribution after losing their leverage in local community politics and therefore, their megaphone directly to Los Angeles City Hall," Cohen posted to Facebook recently.

Cohen also claims that rumors had also been spread about her in the community immediately after she expressed support for the idea.

Rumors appeared that "I was LaBonge’s mistress; that the paper was funded by developers; that I had embezzled money from the now defunct 'Taste of Los Feliz.' You see, I said 'ballfields' out loud, and I had to pay," Cohen editorialized to her readers.

The other notable proponent of Cohen's hope to bring baseball to Griffith Park, community activist and local to Los Feliz neighborhood council figure Mark F. Mauceri, similarly told me this week: "There are people who oppose this, but they oppose everything."

LaBonge favors the Cohen and Mauceri plan for the inclusion of the two diamonds, leading detractors to wonder if this is an eponymous hope, a last-minute effort to name a part of Griffith Park after a man far better known for his love of football than the national pastime.  However, his chief of staff, Carolyn Ramsay, who hopes to replace the termed out LaBonge next year, hasn't publicly committed to any position on the fields. 

And the Rec and Parks Board of Commissioners, who were supposed to resolve the matter at its March 5 meeting, took a rain check instead, postponing discussion until April 2.

LaBonge's district and even his legacy are presently presenting a conundrum to LA's political chatterers. Everyone can see how closely the two-time elected LaBonge, long thought to be a homeowner's stalwart, courted disaster against some vastly underfunded candidates the last time around, indicating to the sharks that homeowners don't have nearly the sway in the district they once did.

Now a huge swath of Sherman Oaks has been artificially grafted on to Council District Four, and there may even be as many as 8,000 renter-friendly votes north of the Boulevard in the Valley.  A Latino, Steve Veres, is daring to run for the seat--he doesn't seem nearly as nimble as Ferraro nor as personable as LaBonge, but he will likely play well to the area east of the Sepulveda Basin and in the district's Hollywood cummerbund.

Hancock Park resident and LaBonge's own acolyte Ramsay has raised a decent war chest but the problem for her is what to spend it on: shoring up old allegiances or mining new ones. The dominance of Los Feliz in the district is fading. The politics of a handful of folks up and down Hillhurst and their 4,000 adjacent green space acres will not remain nearly as much of a factor as it has through the past four decades of Ferraro/LaBonge hegemony.

But the way the district visualizes what it should do with its enormous green space core may yet inform the coming race to replace Tom LaBonge--who will, whether via a field of dreams, a new gridiron, or a soccer pitch, find an underestimated palooka's path to civic commemoration in the interim year.


(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.

 -cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 20

Pub: Mar 7, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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