"Free at last!" exclaimed a Los Angeles gadfly as victims of eminent domain flocked into L.A. City Hall to celebrate the abolition of California's redevelopment agencies.
Today is VR day, the date on which the Golden State's more than 400 redevelopment agencies must dissolve themselves. In Los Angeles, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA/LA) will lay off 192 employees, leaving behind nothing but destruction, wasteland, and bad debt.
Many cities are in even worse shape than L.A. Today the East Bay town of Hercules went belly up on a $2.4 million redevelopment bond.
But the demonstration in downtown L.A. – at a city hall now surrounded by chain link fence and dead grass after the police crackdown against Occupy L.A. – rocked a place redevelopers all over Southern California once looked to for inspiration. Throughout the 1960s, Downtown L.A. was razed. Over the subsequent decades, the vacant land created by uprooting 20,000 residences and many more businesses was rebuilt with large buildings, which now suffer from double-digit vacancy rates. In the county, only the city of Glendale, which was similarly favored by an expensive redevelopment of its center, suffers more vacancies than Downtown L.A.
Prior to today's City Council session, local activists, cranks and victims of the CRA held a press conference in the rotunda. In attendance was Gordon Pattison, whose residence – a palatial Victorian on the now-defunct Bunker Hill Ave. that Pattison's family owned as a combination family home and rental property – was among the last houses destroyed to make way for what is now the interior of a Wells Fargo skyscraper.
The press conference and subsequent speeches to the City Council were organized by familiar local gadfly John Walsh, a plaid-jacketed City Hall regular who invoked Martin Luther King in a speech in Council Chambers recounting the CRA's bigoted and abusive history; praising a "coalition that spanned from Marxist-Leninists to libertarians"; and duly praising Gov. Jerry Brown – who, out of expediency as much as principle, pushed the state law wiping redevelopment agencies out.
Walsh and his supporters brought along a prop headstone reading "RIP CRA." Security guards in the council chambers tried to suppress the headstone, though the government's prohibition on political displays in chambers holds council members to a different standard than it holds the public. Councilman Paul Koretz prominently features a bobblehead of President Obama on his desk.
Somewhere to your right you see Valarie Stewart, whose father Nick Stewart used the money he made playing janitor Lightnin' on the Amos 'n' Andy TV show to build and operate the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Mid-City. The CRA seized this historic site and now operates it as a performing arts center named after infamously corrupt former City Councilman Nate Holden.
This was standard behavior for the CRA. The agency (the most secretive and impenetrable government body I have experienced in Los Angeles) wrapped itself in rhetoric about raising living standards for the poor, but in practice the CRA deprived tens of thousands of working and lower-income residents of their homes and livelihoods while granting vast subsidies to billionaires.
Stewart's family long ago abandoned its efforts to get their theater back. She attended today in hope of making a statement to the City Council, but the non-agenda-items comment period (the only portion of a Council event in which citizens are given an open forum to demand redress of grievances) expired before she had a chance to speak.
The comment period lasted less than half as long as the time the Council allotted for a ceremony in honor of Rob Dyrdek, during which most of the council members spoke individually to praise Dyrdek's hard work in the expansion of skateboard parks; Dyrdek was then given time to praise each of the council members in turn.
And with that redevelopment comes to an end in California – at least until eminent domain abusers find another guise under which to make theft of private property sound like high-minded vision. The CRA's phone line still plays a normal-office-hours message but warns that "our menu has changed."
This gang of thugs deserved a more ignominious end. But the important thing is that it is an end, and it was worth heading even to L.A.'s grim, sparsely populated downtown to celebrate it.