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Deaths in the Family


By Frank Gruber

Santa Monica as a community sustained two losses last week -- longtime City Council Member and recent mayor Herb Katz, and longtime African-American community activist Clyde Smith.

Former Mayor Katz will be buried today at Woodlawn Cemetery after a ceremony at St. Monica's Church. 

Herb Katz was the quintessential activist-as-insider; you read of his achievements in The Lookout's article about his death and you wonder how one man could have had a finger in so many public pies.

And then you wonder how he could do all that and at the end of the day everyone still liked him, or how, in fact, when it came to politics, more people liked him at the end of the day than early in it.

I did not have a personal relationship to Mayor Katz and I don't have any great anecdotes to reveal about him. 

One thing that always interested me about him, however, was that he was in a certain sense, when it came to planning, Santa Monica's last "modernist," and by that I mean someone who was educated as an architect in the idealistic tradition of 20th century modernism.  It's hard to believe now, but not that long ago people believed that urban ills could be cured by architecture, and specifically, in part, by tall buildings surrounded by open space.

The heights of buildings are hot political issues in Santa Monica and there are those who worry that allowing anything to be built higher than two stories is the first step to making Santa Monica Manhattan on the Pacific.  I always smiled when Council Member Katz would try to explain that if buildings were a little taller, there could be more of that other hot political commodity in the city -- open space.

He was ignored, of course, but that idealism that attracted me -- a sweet idealism that fit his character.  He seemed born to be a city council member and ultimately, thank goodness for him, a mayor, and I'll remember him sanctifying in a secular way such events as beach parks, pancake breakfasts and memorials for well-loved restaurateurs.

Herb Katz
From top: Herb Katz at the OPA pancake breakfast, Chez Jay and Beach Park opening. (Photos by Frank Gruber)

Herb Katz

Herb Katz

* * *

I did not know Clyde Smith at all, and I attended his memorial service Saturday in part to learn more about Santa Monica's history as well as to sit in tribute to a man who personified, locally, the activist as outsider.

I don't mean that Mr. Smith was some kind of radical shouting from the outside; he was a consummate joiner and volunteer, and his memorial service was full of testimonials to his service to the local chapter of the Red Cross, the Salvation Army (at his death Mr. Smith was the chairman of the Salvation Army corps in Santa Monica), the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and he had been active in the Pico Neighborhood Association and the Santa Monica College Advisory Board.  For many years he worked on the development and planning of Virginia Avenue Park.

Iao Katagiri, of RAND Corporation, told those at the service Saturday that she knew Mr. Smith originally from what she thought would be a specific project for another organization Mr. Smith was active in, the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews), but that Mr. Smith managed to extend her activities not only within the NCCJ, but also out to other organizations like the Red Cross and the Rotary.

Ms. Katagiri said that Mr. Smith liked to make "sense, not soundbites," and that his characteristic response to her attempts to beg off from some project was, "Darlin', you'll be fine."  (Maybe that should be a soundbite, or at least a catchphrase.)

But for all that, Mr. Smith occupied an intriguing place in Santa Monica politics.  As a black man born in 1946 to a family already established in Santa Monica in the Pico Neighborhood, he participated in the awakening we call the Civil Rights Movement, and did his part to raise awareness of discrimination in the city.  He did so at a time when the black community in Santa Monica was ripped apart and decimated by public works -- the building of the Civic Auditorium in the '50s and the Santa Monica Freeway in the '60s.

One would have thought that when left-wing government came to Santa Monica, with the movement for rent control at the end of the '70s, Mr. Smith would have found allies in Santa Monicans for Renters Rights.  But he didn't.  Instead, he became part of SMRR's opposition, because he opposed that part of the SMRR agenda that called for the building of affordable public housing in the Pico Neighborhood.

Ultimately his efforts and those of likeminded neighbors caused Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the City's primary building of affordable housing, to build its projects in other neighborhoods and on commercially-zoned land; there was a cost to that, however, because land was more expensive outside the Pico Neighborhood. 

But as a property-owner in his neighborhood, a neighborhood that was largely poor and heavily minority, Mr. Smith was asking for what property-owners in white middle and upper class neighborhoods take for granted as their God-given right and expectation: that government will try to raise their property values. 

In effect, Mr. Smith was a proponent of gentrification when leftwing rhetoric was saying that residents of minority urban neighborhoods should be against it.

One does not have to buy into ugly stereotypes and shibboleths about public housing that do not apply in any case to housing built and operated in Santa Monica by Community Corp. and other responsible providers in Santa Monica to conclude nonetheless that Mr. Smith was largely correct in his argument that at a certain point enough real estate had been made public in the Pico Neighborhood.

The fact is that Santa Monica is a better place because affordable housing has been scattered around the city in many neighborhoods and in commercial zones along transit corridors.  Researchers such as Lance Freeman at Columbia University have shown that what drives minority residents away from their urban neighborhoods is not gentrification, but the crime and lack of services that characterize neighborhoods that do not receive private investment.

And we have public, affordable housing in my neighborhood, Ocean Park, and you wouldn't know that it was what it is unless someone told you.

Mr. Smith was at times a controversial figure.  He had run-ins with the City over various ventures and over the planning of Virginia Avenue Park.  No need to go into that history now.

As an opinionated columnist, I am sometimes asked if I ever change my mind.  While I haven't changed my mind on the question whether government has an obligation to provide good housing when the market fails to do so, and that diverse economics make for good cities, I have changed my mind over the years about whether there can be too much public affordable housing -- even of the best quality -- in one place.

Activism is a funny thing.  I wasn't active in Santa Monica politics in the '80 when Mr. Smith was opposing more public housing in Pico, but if I had been, as supporter of public housing I would no doubt have opposed him.  Yet, years later, and although I didn't know him, I came to agree with him.

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