Los Angeles’s Neighborhood Councils

In 1999, the City of Los Angeles established DONE (which stands for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment — municipal types love an acronym). DONE, in turn, established the neighborhood council system “to promote more citizen participation in government and thus, ideally, make government more responsive to local needs.” This year I’m running in the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council race as a Region 6 Representative. So far, I’ve been endorsed by progressive political organization, LA Forward Action, and mobility advocacy organization, Streets For All.

If the goal of the neighborhood council system is truly to promote more citizen participation in local government, it’s hard to see it as anything but an utter failure thus far. Consider that in 2020, 81% of eligible Californians voted in the presidential election — despite next to no impact on the outcome. In the last mayoral election, only 20.1% of Angelenos voted — and that was higher than usual. In the last Silver Lake Neighborhood Council election, about .1% of eligible voters cast a vote. That’s one tenth of a percent, if you missed the decimal. If “all politics is local,” that message has not been received by the vast majority of Angelenos.

Here’s a message from the mayor, which so far has 546 views — .01% of Los Angeles’s population (assuming no one’s watched it more than once). The only comment, so far, is “resign.”

This year, to vote in neighborhood council elections, voters must request a ballot online, fill out the ballot and return it by mail by the deadline (between 6 April and 15 June, depending on the region). As a result, many neighborhood councils are full of board members who’ve received no more than a handful of votes. I’m running unopposed — so assuming that I return my ballot in time and cast a vote for myself, I’m a shoo-in.

Anyone sixteen-years-old and over is eligible to vote in neighborhood elections. Neighborhood elections aren’t open just to residents of that neighborhood — but also those who own businesses in the neighborhood, those who work in the neighborhood, and to those who belong to an organization (e.g. non-profit, church, club, &c) in the neighborhood. Voters can also vote in more than one neighborhood election, provided they meet the particular council’s definition of a stakeholder — which in some cases even includes people with demonstrable “community interest.”

For whatever reason, the Neighborhood Council system does not represent all Angelenos. The neighborhoods of Brentwood and Pacific Palisades are represented by community councils. Sherman Village and a chunk of San Pedro are not represented by neighborhood councils, for whatever reason. Nor are portions of Century Cove, Century Palms, and Florence — all on South Los Angeles’s Eastside. On the other hand, Sycamore Grove — an historic neighborhood notable for being one of the first two communities annexed by Los Angeles, is represented — according to the city’s website, by two neighborhood councils. Same goes for Contreras High School, located in old Crown Hill but now claimed, for whatever reason, by both the neighborhood councils of Downtown and Westlake North. City parks, which aren’t technically home to any residents, are sometimes represented by three neighborhood councils.

The city’s neighborhood council website is pretty terrible. It’s text-heavy and counter-intuitively designed. It’s full of broken and misdirected links. A link to see 2019 election results redirects to the 2021 elections — which haven’t happened. The most recent viewable results are from 2016. Neighborhood council elections are decoupled from other elections and have different dates from one another — almost as if they’re designed to confuse and dissuade voters from participation.

The outreach, isn’t great — but the language accessibility is pretty good. Some 56% of Angelenos speak a language other than English at home and, while the narrow majority speak English with proficiency, some 48% of Latinos, 43% of Asians, and 21% of Native Americans do not (in Los Angeles County, any way. I don’t know the exact figures for within the city but assume they’re fairly similar). Neighborhood council information is available in English, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Khmer, Spanish, Russian, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese — which is a good start — but after 22 years, one has to wonder why not in other languages. More Angelenos speak French or Arabic than they do Khmer, more speak German than Thai, and more speak Italian or Hebrew than Hindi. Is there a limit to how many languages information can be translated into?

Having attended several neighborhood council meetings over the years, I’ve long suspected that rather than encouraging citizen participation in city politics, they generall deflect civic engagement into a vast, empty void of indifference — effectively insulating city council members from the legitimate concerns of their constituents. In past meetings, I’ve expressed concerns about pedestrian infrastructure. The sidewalk I requested along Glendale Boulevard was never built — and so people hoping to walk to the library have to cross Glendale, cross Fletcher, cross Silver Ridge, cross Silver Lake, and cross Glendale one more time just to get to the public library.

I was commissioned to paint a map, that I was paid for, but that went unused. It was designed to promote usage of the neighborhood’s roughly 50 public stairways and stair streets — two of which have remained closed “for review” for more than three decades.

Most neighborhood councils are populated by landlords or business owners — many of whom who don’t live in the neighborhoods they represent — and most of whom are aligned with the obstructionist NIMBYS who do. Taxpayers allocate neighborhood councils with $42,000 of annual discretionary funding. Oddly, even someone like me who is interested in local politics struggles to point to where any of that funding goes (besides the one time I was paid for the aforementioned unused map).

I reluctantly decided to run, this year, out of both frustration with the current situation and inspired by the wave of grassroots Progressivism sweeping local elections and activism. In the 2019 election, the Silver Lake Progressive slate unseated the preexisting, reactionary council. There are now two Progressives on Los Angeles City County — despite the efforts of powerful millionaire Neo-liberals who backed well-funded, do-nothing incumbents. There are numerous grassroots activists and organizations demanding more than lip service from the polite, smiling, empty suits who, at best, pay lip service to the concerns of the engaged citizenry.

As a political novice, I don’t really have a sense of how much can by done by neighborhood councils. That said, my priorities include, but are not limited, to issues of mobility, environmentalism, and housing (or MEH, for those who demand acronyms).

MOBILITY

  • Accelerate the adoption of Mobility Plan 2035. First adopted five years ago (over the predictable opposition of two of city council’s most predictable reactionaries, Gil Cedillo and Paul Koretz), there’s no clear reason why we should wait fourteen more years for bicycle lanes to be striped.
  • Demand better bus stops. Every bus stop should have, at the very least, seating, shelter, lighting, and maps of both routes and systems. Ideally, they’d also have waste bins, charging stations, WiFi, restroom facilities at the busiest stops, and some aesthetic considerations.
  • Every major street should have an ADA complaint sidewalk on both sides. Glendale Boulevard and the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge are two egregious examples of streets which do not.
  • Beg buttons should not exist. Many illnesses spread through contact transmission and pedestrians should be prioritized over cars at every crosswalk.
  • Speed humps and curb extensions should be installed on streets which suffer from frequent incidents of traffic violence. It should not be incumbent on individual citizens to study traffic patterns and request that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) take the necessary steps to slow traffic. Instead, the LADOT should identify streets on which traffic moves at dangerous speeds and make those changes automatically.
  • Signs imploring drivers to “slow down” do nothing and are a waste of resources. Networks of slow streets and car-free streets should be created in every neighborhood.
  • Streets around schools should be made car-free zones, at least as students arrive to and depart from school.
  • Metro’s 2/302, 4, 2, 96, 175, 201, 603, and 704 bus lines should have dedicated bus-only lanes where they are negatively impacted by traffic caused by single-occupant vehicles.
  • All public stairways and walk streets should be opened to the public. Roughly 50 have always been open to the public whereas three have been closed for decades in violation of a court decision that city cannot withdraw streets and stairways from public use while allowing some to use those streets.

ENVIRONMENTALISM

  • Plant native plant species along streets and in parks where possible. Natives function symbiotically with native fauna and fungi in ways that merely drought-tolerant non-natives do not.
  • Demand more green infrastructure from developers. Green roofs, solar panels, and gray water systems are more important that rooftop amenity decks — especially in freeway adjacent developments where no one ever uses them.
  • End parking minimums.
  • Advocate banning leaf blowers across the entire city. Currently banned from neighborhood to neighborhood, there is zero enforcement of these massively polluting, completely unnecessary nuisances.
  • Construct bioswales and pave new sidewalks and streets with permeable materials.
  • Push to daylight streams, at least sections of them, where feasible.

HOUSING

  • Create immediate safe-parking for residents who live in their cars.
  • Purchase local motels and convert to supportive housing.
  • Advocate for the construction of social housing and increase requirements for affordable units in new constructions.
  • Upzone all residential zoning. There are no reason that we can’t at least build fourplexes in every neighborhood and, along thoroughfares, taller residential buildings.
  • Institute a vacancy tax.
  • Don’t allow landlords to raise rent for new tenants above the 3% annual rent increase currently allowed for tenants already inhabiting a unit.
  • Install a self-cleaning public restroom at the Silver Lake Triangle Plaza — which hosts outdoor two weekly farmers markets and summer film screenings.
  • Establish protections for legacy businesses in order to protect small business owners.

I’d love to see more cultural promotion too. Self-guided walking tours promoting Silver Lake’s overlooked Asian American, Latino, and Queer histories… festivals promoting local food and music of Silver Lake along the lines of the old Sunset Junction Street Fair (post-pandemic, at least)… and community driven efforts to clean and green the neighborhood — that sort of thing.

If you’re similarly encouraged to get involved, please run in the next election and in the mean time, find out what neighborhood council(s) elections you are eligible to vote in and request ballots. If you live in, work in, or have stake in Silver Lake, request your ballot and mail it in before 6 April.


Here’s my candidate statement, in case anyone is curious:

I have lived in Silver Lake for 22 years. I have explored, written about, and made maps of Los Angeles communities for fourteen years and have been car-free for ten. My passions include but are not limited to art, culture, environmentalism, history, housing, and mobility. My goal, if elected, would be to preserve and improve affordability, sustainability, transit, and livability in Silver Lake.

He vivido en Silver Lake durante 22 años. He explorado, escrito y elaborado mapas de las comunidades de Los Ángeles durante catorce años y he estado libre de automóviles durante diez. Mis pasiones incluyen pero no se limitan al arte, la cultura, el ambientalismo, la historia, la vivienda y la movilidad. Mi objetivo, si fuera elegido, sería preservar y mejorar la asequibilidad, la sostenibilidad, el tránsito y la habitabilidad en Silver Lake.



Support Eric Brightwell on Patreon


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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