by Grace Hut
In 1993, Richard Riordan, a Republican multi-millionaire with ambitions to privatize the City of Los Angeles, was elected mayor. Riordan was one of the city’s high profile boosters who saved the iconic Pantry Café that has been open continuously since 1924 from a wrecking ball. When the city’s main library was torched by an arsonist, Riordan stepped in with donations and fundraising. He had also worked tirelessly to bring football back to Los Angeles. But against the backdrop of increasingly neoliberal economic policies aimed at creating favorable conditions for private, corporate interests, Riordan’s election stirred concern about the introduction of big money into local politics. How much influence would this popular Republican have over the feudal system that is the Los Angeles City Council? Who would the city come to belong to?
One of Riordan’s most influential initiatives was his campaign to reform the 1925 City Charter. The charter reform campaign was in large part a response to secession movements taking place in Los Angeles, particularly in the San Fernando Valley. There, residents and community organizations felt that the San Fernando Valley wasn’t getting a fair share of Los Angeles’ resources and political attention, and sought to establish the valley as a separate city to achieve increased local autonomy and responsiveness from the government. Riordan spearheaded the response to the secession movements with an idea to reform the City Charter and establish neighborhood councils—localized advisory bodies made up of locally elected members with no legislative powers—to incorporate community perspectives into government. Other parts of the charter reform included increasing mayoral power by granting mayors the ability to dismiss city department general managers, as well as establishing neighborhood planning commissions with power over most zoning decisions, subject to City Council review.
Riordan and his allies, largely composed of wealthy executives, investors and appointees to the Fire and Police Commissions, raised over one million dollars to push voters to support the charter. It was within this context, amid fear of wealth and elitism influencing the future of the city, the Naguals Press formed and began wheatpasting posters in critique of Riordan’s actions. The charter reform went to public vote and passed, although, as the press’ posters stated, “76% of Los Angeles doesn’t know what the issue is about.” Perspectives among those that were invested in the charter campaign were mixed. Some thought the neighborhood councils had potential to democratize local government. Others felt that the reform campaign took the political bite out of the secession movement and didn’t go far enough to give people true legislative abilities.
Opinions and effects of the neighborhood council system remained varied during implementation. In some communities, power struggles emerged between institutions with lobbying power, such as chamber of commerces and neighborhood associations, and the neighborhood councils. In other communities where there had previously been fewer community institutions for representation, people hoped that their voices might finally be heard. Even now, the neighborhood councils are sites of disagreement. One enduring reason for criticism of neighborhood councils is that they are composed of unpaid elected members who volunteer their time to serve on the council, making them biased towards wealthier residents who can afford to dedicate time to a volunteer position. Consequently, neighborhood councils often exclude working class perspectives and are instead run by business interests who utilize the council platform to leverage their existing power. Some neighborhood councils have become drivers of gentrification for this reason.
the butterfly effect
The neighborhood council in Lincoln Heights, a predominantly low-income, Latinx and Asian neighborhood just east of Downtown Los Angeles, has become one such site of contestation over the topic of gentrification. The USC Medical Center located in Lincoln Heights holds significant sway over the council and has the potential to influence land use decisions that could raise the already rising property values in the area and displace residents. But in the upcoming neighborhood council election, a slate of progressive residents, community organizers and advocates affiliated with the Facebook group “Lincoln Heights Intel” is running to ensure the council takes a hard anti-gentrification stance by advocating for community management of land, tenants’ rights and protections for unhoused people. While the results of this push have yet to be seen, it highlights the potential power of neighborhood councils to facilitate or prevent gentrification.
Note: As of this publishing, the slate calling for land justice in Lincoln Heights swept the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council.
In either case, Riordan and his money have permanently shaped Los Angeles politics. Riordan continues to leverage his millions to influence the political landscape of the city; he recently strained his already negative relationship with the Los Angeles Teachers Union further with a $1 million donation to an independent campaign to defeat LAUSD school board president Steve Zimmer, the candidate backed by the union. Riordan is no longer the subject of Naguals’ snipes, but their contestation of his power can be felt in other posters that question the consolidation of political power among private interests, like those that call out Councilmember Gil Cedillo and today’s mayor Eric Garcetti. Governance continues to be conducted without regard to the perspectives of poor Angelenos and Angelenos of color, always raising the question: Who owns the city?
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