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Out of the Past

By Frank Gruber

December 13, 2010 -- I attended last Wednesday night’s scoping meeting for the Environmental Impact Report for the “Bergamot Transit Village” project. I don’t have much to add to The Lookout’s account of the meeting Transit_Village_Will_Impair_Transit_Residents_Say, 12_10_2010, except to say that I was especially struck by one comment.

This was from a resident who said he had moved to Santa Monica in 1970, and that when he looked back to those days, all he could see was that things had got worse, because of all the development.

I don’t go back as far as 1970, having moved to the area (Venice) in 1978 and into Santa Monica in 1983, but I had to wonder -- was it so great then, and is it so bad now?

What I know about 1970 was that Santa Monica’s long run as an industrial town was coming to an end with the closing of the Douglas plant. The City Council was so alarmed at the city’s economic decline that it was about to propose building an island and causeway in Santa Monica bay. That mistake was avoided, but others were made over the next 20 years.

For instance, too bad that in response to Santa Monica’s economic evolution the City didn’t require that half the square footage in the Airport office park, Colorado Place, the Arboretum and the Water Garden be built as residences, including condos for families. That would have prevented a lot of problems, but it was against the suburban ethos of the time.

But it’s not like there wasn’t genuine impetus for economic development.

In 1970, downtown was slipping into oblivion, Main Street was a skid row, the commercial boulevards were worn down and ugly (still are for the most part), the Civic Auditorium, only about ten years old, was considered a white elephant, the water in the bay was dirty, and tourist facilities were antiquated. (P.O.P. had come and gone.) When I moved into Ocean Park in 1983, nearly every block had one or more abandoned houses. The Dogtown boys called it “where the debris hits the sea.”

My editor says that he misses the old Third Street Mall and its used-book stores, and I know what he means. I can understand nostalgia for funkiness, or nostalgia in general (don’t we all love our younger days, in retrospect?), but back then to see a first-run movie you’d have to get yourself to Westwood or drive down Lincoln Boulevard to those crummy UA Theaters in the Marina. The Internet would have killed the bookstores anyway -- at least now the movies are close by.

And by the way Santa Monica has a lot more parkland now than it did then. And great hospitals. More cultural facilities. One of the best community colleges in the state. A rebuilt Pier. Better shopping. Great schools (then and now).

People complained about traffic in 1970, too, and I’m told that 20,000 Douglas workers made a little traffic themselves. Traffic is bad on the freeway today, but before the freeway, in the good old days, it took about as long to drive to downtown L.A. on surface streets as is does now when the freeway is congested.

Over these 40 years there has been a lot of change all over Southern California (as there had been for the 40 years before that, and the 40 years before that). Santa Monica looks pretty good. Apparently the 40-year resident at last week’s meeting stuck around. Where else would you want to go?

* * *

To my knowledge Jay Johnson doesn’t speak for the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), and so my instinct about his suggestion to Jerry Rubin that he should resign from SMRR is to treat the whole thing as the venting of one unhappy camper. In other words, “who cares?” (See story _SMRR_Leader_Blames_Peace_Activist_for_Winterer_Loss_Requests_Resignation, 12_10_2010)

But Mr. Johnson’s angst does make me think about SMRR and its current situation. While it’s hard to question the viability of a political organization that came 56 votes short of electing six members of the City Council -- and believe me, I don’t question that viability -- Mr. Johnson’s demand for more loyalty from SMRR Member Rubin does bring up the question whether SMRR still has a consistent message to demand loyalty to.

Question: would Mr. Winterer have received the SMRR endorsement if the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) had not packed the meeting with his supporters, who then blocked the endorsement of longtime SMRR stalwart Pam O’Connor and almost prevented SMRR from endorsing Meas. Y? What if that had happened; would SMRR still be a “progressive” organization if it had opposed Y?

And what about the SMCLC’s then focusing its energies during the campaign against SMRR candidates Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, and for non-SMRR candidate Susan Hartley?

This is not a new thing. The factions within SMRR, typically based either on development-politics or personalities, go back decades. Until now, however, the factions have all bought into SMRR’s basic tenets.

If Mr. Winterer lost his election because of Jerry Rubin’s support of Robert Holbrook, then by the same measure Abby Arnold may have lost her election to Mr. Holbrook back in 2002 because of a lack of support from a wing of SMRR (not to mention a last minute hit piece against her). But at least both sides in 2002 would have supported Meas. Y if it had been on the ballot, just as then both sides supported the living wage.

As for SMRR unity, last week the five SMRR members of the council couldn’t agree on which one of them of them should be mayor: three voted for Richard Bloom and two voted for Kevin McKeown. The rivalries are such that they couldn’t split the office between the two (something “wise and menschy” as Bobby Shriver put it).

So you have Mr. Johnson complaining on Mr. Winterer’s behalf, and you have the SMCLC blaming his loss on the Santa Monicans for Quality Government mailers – which were partially funded by two SMRR candidates, Ms. O’Connor and Gleam Davis. (I wonder if Mr. Johnson asked them to resign from SMRR.) Meanwhile the SMCLC leadership is continually bashing SMRR as being pro-development.

There is one overriding fact, which is that the anti-development community could never have elected even one councilmember without SMRR. The fundamental dispute, as exemplified by Jerry Rubin’s saying that he couldn’t support Mr. Winterer because he had supported Meas. T, is between old-fashioned liberals on one side and no-growthers who call themselves progressives but sound like Tea Partiers on the other.

SMRR came to power in the ’80s and confronted the Southern California Growth Machine, and as a result Santa Monica didn’t develop the way Glendale did, but SMRR nonetheless promoted economic development. Yet over time, the anti-development, neighborhood protection types were brought into the organization and ultimately took over much of it.

Question: could Ken Genser, Kelly Olsen, Mike Feinstein, Kevin McKeown or Richard Bloom, all of who ran on anti-development platforms, have won an election in Santa Monica without SMRR’s cash and volunteers?

I’d say the no-growth wing in SMRR should be happy with what they got, and leave Mr. Rubin alone. SMRR has bigger problems than him.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on


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