Thirty is always an awkward birthday. You’re not really a kid anymore, but the full spread of middle age has yet to hit. You’re not a hip as you were in your twenties, but you’re still cooler than you’re going be in your next decade. You start living with the awareness that your mistakes are no longer going to be dismissed as youthful frivolity.
So it goes with West Hollywood. We are not quite sure how to celebrate our 30th anniversary; we not even sure a lot of people even care. The majority of our residents were not around in 1984 and our Council members who were not there for the birth of the city are anxiously tying to figure ways to tie themselves to the momentous event.
Most people are at least vaguely acquainted with the semi-official myth of the birth of West Hollywood. But beyond “and on the seventh day John Heilman rested,” most seem folks have little knowledge of our city’s genesis.
For our 25th anniversary the city produced a politically correct play that was meant to lionize two of our Council member who where actually present at the inception. The John Heilman character was depicted as an intense, moody young attorney while the Abbe Land character was ever ready to mount a soap box, passionately arousing our Russian residents to storm the Winter Palace to cast their ballots.
While that fictional portrayal of West Hollywood’s birth was delightfully acted by a host of local talent, the real creation story of the City of West Hollywood is far more interesting and inspirational. It was a moment when a place that people cared passionately about stood up and became a community.
Over the years I have shared many a pint, debating with local philosophers as to whether West Hollywood is a geographical place or simply a state of mind. Of course the short answer is that West Hollywood is both. West Hollywood, the State of Mind, is a special place with special meaning for each of our thirty-some thousand residents.
But before West Hollywood the State of Mind existed there had to be West Hollywood the Place. That place existed long before our incorporation in 1984.
A few thousand years ago we were a beach; waves lapped the cliffs along Sunset Boulevard. As the sea withdrew, West Hollywood was sprawling swampy grassland, populated by condors, giant sloths, mastodons and saber tooth cats.
Arguably, West Hollywood’s founding event took place in Plummer Park, where the first abode was built in the shelter of the sycamores of Rancho La Brea. Landed Mexican families found it was politically astute to marry the canny New Englanders who were making economic inroads in California before the Mexican-American War, thus the adobe was eventually replaced by the father of Eugenio Plummer, the self dubbed “Last Don” of Alta California.
The area experienced numerous incarnations thereafter. West Hollywood has been a poinsettia field, a railroad town, a movie studio, a gay mecca, a Russian refuge and the only city that can truly claim to have been built on rock and roll.
Two political events coincided to create West Hollywood, both as a geographical entity and a state of mind.
The first was the incorporation of the City of Beverly Hills. The stars of that affluent suburb did not want to be incorporated into the City of Los Angeles, which had a well-deserved reputation for corruption. Beverly Hills became the western border of the tiny village of Sherman, an unincorporated borough that served as the service yard for the trains of the legendary Red Line. As state law prohibited one city from completely surrounding another, the area directly east of Beverly Hills could not be incorporated into the hungry maw of the City of Los Angeles.
The second event came to be West Hollywood’s spiritual defining moment. Prohibition created West Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard between La Brea and Doheny suddenly became a lucrative “no man’s land,” outside the jurisdiction of the police of either Los Angeles or Beverly Hills. A forgotten and isolated area under the lackadaisical jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff, West Hollywood came into its own. Alcohol flowed in the trendy Sunset Strip clubs and restaurants frequented by Hollywood’s elite while the Red Car serviced the blue collar workers patronizing the bars along Santa Monica. Sloan’s on Melrose and Huntley was West Hollywood’s longest running bar, opened in 1919 just prior to Prohibition.
Thereafter West Hollywood the place became the glamour of the Sunset Strip, the site of some of the most beautiful art deco and colonial revival buildings and mansions in Los Angeles. Rows of bungalows were built to house aspiring stars and starlets who were contracted to the major studios. The tolerant attitude brought in all sorts of bohemians, and it was never clear what came first to West Hollywood, its gay population or its design industry. But by the mid-Fifties it was clear West Hollywood was becoming a haven for gay men. Indeed by the early Sixties we were so prevalent that Barney’s Beanery had to post a sign telling the “faggots” to stay out.
By the Sixties the Sunset Strip glamour had faded from the great night spots like Ciro’s and the Trocadero. The clubs like the Whiskey, Pandora’s Box and Gizzari’s brought a new incarnation to the Strip. Jim Morrison and the Doors were the local house band, and Janis Joplin would hang out with Mario Magleri over whiskey up at the Rainbow Bar and Grill. Heavy-handed action by the Sheriff’s Department action actually provoked a riot on Sunset. I have no idea where Cleveland got off being the heart of rock and roll but you can’t have an anatomically correct portrait of rock without the Sunset Strip.
I moved to West Hollywood in late 1979. To say it was a crazy time would be an understatement. I got a single on Westbourne for next to nothing, but there was no parking as I was just down from the Sports Connection. Once I found a parking place on Friday, my car did not move until Monday. The great thing about West Hollywood was that you walked to everything and, being a young gay man, you wanted to be walking that Boulevard. Every time you stepped out the door, the possibilities were endless.
Santa Monica Boulevard was swarming with gay men. From the Spike, the Eagle and Hunters on the Eastside to Studio One, Rascals, the Four Star and the Blue Parrot in Boytown, just walking the Boulevard seemed like an act of liberation. We were the shock troops of the Sexual Revolution. There was nothing that penicillin couldn’t cure. Anything someone put under your nose should be inhaled. We were changing the world, and it seemed like it would go on forever and there were no consequences.
By 1984 Boystown was West Hollywood’s only bright spot. The Strip had seen better days. Scandia and the Cock and Bull and the other pillars of its Golden Era were closing. The rock scene had faded with clone-like hair bands reduced to “play to pay.” The median strip where Red Cars once glided were weed-choked islands along a rutted Santa Monica Boulevard. Parking was horrific. West Hollywood Park was a homeless encampment; residents only ventured into the park for recreational purposes after last call in Boystown. You knew you were entering West Hollywood at La Brea due to the profusion of hustlers and transgender prostitutes.
In short, it was not hard to see why many people were skeptical that West Hollywood could ever be a viable city.
But the weakening of rent control on the county level resulted in huge rent increases, and suddenly people who never had a reason to talk to each other were doing exactly that, whether it was at the laundromat, the check out line at Safeway or at French Market or the Silver Spoon. Economic necessity suddenly created a new sense of community. Like scores of others, I volunteered to knock on doors and register voters. Individually and collectively we were taking charge of our destiny. We were going to build a new city where people were empowered, and we would be a model of diversity and democracy.
The drive for incorporation was truly a grassroots campaign. But fortunately we had the organizing genius of Larry Gross, the head of the Coalition for Economic Survival, the local renters rights group, coupled with the vision of Ron Stone, the founder of the West Hollywood Incorporation Committee, and the media savvy of Bob Craig, the publisher of Frontiers, who proclaimed that West Hollywood was on the verge of becoming a Gay Camelot. The rest, as they say, was history.
We have seen some impressive changes in 30 years and most of it has been for the better. At 30 we have moved beyond simply celebrating our accomplishments as a city to a quiet contemplation of where we are going and what kind of community we are creating for the next generation. While we may not be the “City on the Hill” that we aspired to in 1984, we have not given up on that vision.
As we witness all of the construction and new development, it is hard to wonder what the future holds for West Hollywood. Will we still be a diverse community of free and often non-conformist spirits or will we just be another affluent Westside enclave? Fortunately the future of West Hollywood is not pre-ordained, and we have opportunities to write the next chapter in the life of a remarkable community.
Steve Martin is an attorney and former member of the West Hollywood City Council.