VOICES-I first met Jerry Silver in 2006, shortly after the L.A. City Council approved a lawsuit settlement that gave Clear Channel and other big sign companies the right to put up more than 800 digital billboards on the city's commercial streets.
I had read an L.A. Times article about the settlement, and had gotten in touch with Ted Wu, head of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, to find out what, if anything, could be done to stop this travesty. Ted told me that Jerry was a stalwart ally in the anti-billboard fight, and that the three of us should meet.
At that point, I had only been involved in local neighborhood politics, but meeting Jerry marked the beginning of ten-year foray into activism on a citywide scale and an eye-opening look at how the city actually operates beyond the slick surface of public pronouncements and political posturings.
Many CityWatch readers probably knew Jerry, who founded the Homeowners of Encino and was head of that group for more than thirty years. He was also active in other community groups, including the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, an informal organization Ted Wu and others had started in the 1990s to advocate against a growing scourge of billboards.
We met in Jerry's office, an upstairs room of his Encino home, to work on a mission statement and other documents needed to officially register the coalition as a non-profit organization, with myself, Ted and Jerry as the board of directors. The first thing I noticed were the shelves covering the walls of that room. They were filled with hundreds of files and boxes, all neatly labeled with titles, dates, and other pieces of information. This was a stark contrast to my own home office, cluttered with stacks of papers and documents organized according to a system that even I didn't totally understand.
I was soon to learn that Jerry was a stickler for details and if I didn't pay close enough attention to those details, I would hear about it. That was especially true when Ted decided after less than six months to step down as president and I inherited that position, which meant that I had to make sure that meeting minutes were taken, actions logged and reports made on time to federal and state agencies.
Jerry left the board after three years, but that attention to detail, as well as his knowledge of the workings of city and state government, were critical to getting the organization off on the right foot and actually having some effect in the way politicians and members of the public regarded the city's visual landscape and how it was being despoiled by outdoor advertising. I didn't seen him after that, although we had some email exchanges, but when I heard the news that he died on May 30 of this year, memories of him took up a large space in my thoughts.
Those thoughts weren't limited to recollections of the tidy shelves in his office or how he knew just how to get through to someone in a city council or state legislative office, but also dwelled on the role of community activist that he played with such vigor and dedication. There are others like him, going about the work of keeping tabs on development and other matters affecting their communities, informing neighbors and advocating on their behalf with powers-to-be at City Hall and elsewhere, but to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, they don't get no respect.
Community activists, especially those in homeowners' groups like Jerry's, are frequently excoriated as NIMBYs who want to freeze their communities in simulacra of the 1950s. At best, they are selfish people who want to protect their investments in their homes at the expense of their fellow citizens who suffer from a lack of affordable housing. At worst, they are racists who want to keep undesirables and "others" from moving in next door.
None of the neighborhood activists I know personally fit this description. But it's convenient for politicians who have long enabled and profited from a system of real estate development that promotes segregation and the lack of affordability to allow the blame to fall on the heads of homeowners. And it's worth noting that developers and their political allies seldom live in neighborhoods threatened by traffic congestion, noise, lack of infrastructure and other ills that people reasonably want the city to address before approving projects that will make those problems worse.
Elected officials regard community activists as nuisances, their presence in City Hall greeted with all the warmth of a gardener greeting the appearance of weeds in the flower bed. While paid lobbyists for various interests go in and out of council members' offices, unpaid people from community groups and other organizations hang out in City Hall corridors, hoping to buttonhole their representatives for thirty seconds of conversation before that person disappears into an office or elevator.
Jerry Silver got a nicely written obituary in the Daily News that described his years of volunteer work in the community in a positive light. The obituary noted that he didn't want any memorial, and indeed, he struck me as a person disinterested in personal glory, but it's a shame that those who put so much into their neighborhoods, and by extension, the entire city, have to die before getting recognition.
The obituary also described him as a "needle" in the side of developers and politicians. For anyone who dislikes that picture, perhaps thinking of the gadflies who appear at every city council meeting and take up time with irrelevant rants, I would say that feeling the needle of people like Jerry Silver is a good thing. For them as well as anyone inclined to feel indifferent, I would ask this simple question: Would the city be a better place without people like him?
(Dennis Hathaway is the past president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight (now Coalition for a Scenic Los Angeles). He is currently writing a book about the long tenant-landlord battle at Lincoln Place Apartments in Venice.)