There’s a woman who wants to get rid of the Hollywood Sign. I can’t blame the impulse: It looks so good attacked by tornadoes and aliens; there’s such a rush in the slow creak and the quick crunch as the corrugated letters peel from their scaffolding and fly off away from Mount Lee. The worldwide fame of the sign is bolted to that image of its destruction, first shown to us by Hollywood in the early 1970s, as the real sign really crumbled. Later in the decade, the Hollywood Sign was destroyed; the white letters up there on the hillside today are a sturdy simulacrum built on top of the last remnants of the original. The sign defines our self-loathing, self-loving, self-generative, self-destructive city.
Christine O’Brien, though, suggests taking the sign down and moving it to Universal Studios on the other side of the hill, or erecting the contextless “H” at some sort of tourist trap in the flats of Hollywood. She lives in the sign’s original namesake, Hollywoodland (the sign once read “Hollywoodland”), a small, steep, disorienting neighborhood where big houses hug the street in front and hang off into nothing in the back. Hollywoodland’s nest of streets writhes out from the top of Beachwood Drive, which strikes up the center of Beachwood Canyon, and the neighborhood is surrounded on all other sides by wild land that is part of Griffith Park, Los Angeles’s mountainous central park. At the right time of day, Hollywoodland’s houses are literally in the shadow of the sign. The best place to view the Hollywood Sign is a matter of mood and purpose, but the most spectacular place to view it, to feel small and awed in its startling hugeness, is Hollywoodland.
O’Brien, along with a handful of demanding neighbors, hates that; for years, members of this group have filed lawsuits, put up barriers in the streets, yelled at tourists, and lobbied for the city to keep outsiders out of their neighborhood. They say their streets weren’t made to handle so much traffic, that emergency vehicles can’t get through, that the wildlife in the park suffers. That’s why O’Brien thinks the sign should be erased. That’s a solution that would satisfy some, but not nearly all, of the residents of Hollywoodland, and probably no one else. There’s another solution, though, to all of the same problems and more, one that’d satisfy millions: Let’s erase Hollywoodland instead.
The strangest thing about the Hollywood Sign is that everyone let a huge real estate advertisement slowly rot on one of the city’s most prominent peaks for 55 years, from when it was planted on the hillside by the Hollywoodland Realty Company in 1923 until it was dug up and replaced in 1978, slowly accruing meaning and sentiment over the same decades Los Angeles was earning its reputation as a place that was happy to demolish its own brief past.
For most of history, no human lived in the place that is now Hollywoodland, although the Tongva people who lived in Los Angeles for thousands of years before it was Los Angeles may have scrabbled up the sides of the peak that is now Mount Lee, gathering food or traveling between villages (there were Tongva villages in what is now Los Feliz, just to the east, and what is now the Cahuenga Pass, just to the west). After the Spanish arrived and forced the residents out, or murdered or enslaved or infected them with disease, their leaders didn’t include the place that is now Hollywoodland in any land grant—the huge tracts that they decided would be private property and gave to their friends. It stayed nothing after Mexico fought and won its independence from Spain, and after the United States invaded Mexico and drove the Mexicans out of California, and for a few decades after that. It was the U.S. that took its 640 acres and made them into private property that could be bought and sold.
The place that is now Hollywoodland “first appeared on the records when the federal government issued a patent to the Southern Pacific Railroad for the eastern (320 acres) half, Feb. 9, 1884,” according to an LA Times story from 1968. In 1890, the railroad sold that half to Julia E. Lord, wife of I.W. Lord, a backer of LA’s first cable railway and founder of the city now called La Verne, in the far eastern reaches of LA County. The U.S. government sold Lord the other half of Hollywoodland in 1900, and in 1905 she sold the whole piece all assembled for $10,000 to streetcar moguls E.P. Clark and M.H. Sherman, who opened a granite quarry there.
Meanwhile, in the flats, a dull-sounding town was beginning to be laid out several hours drive from Los Angeles. Hollywood was founded in the late 1880s by rich Midwesterners who detested drinking and, later, film people. The early residents built elaborate mansions along dusty boulevards, leaving plenty of room for orchards and gardens. Eventually they bent their rules to let Charlie Chaplin build a studio on Hollywood’s western frontier in the early 1910s, and then D.W. Griffith shot Hollywood’s first feature (The Squaw Man) after deciding that Arizona didn’t look Western enough for his Western. By the 1920s developer C.E. Toberman and mad showman Sid Grauman were building whatever ridiculous things their imaginations spit out, right on Hollywood Boulevard—elaborately scaled and detailed movie palaces done up in hieroglyphs (the Egyptian Theatre) and Chinoiserie (the Chinese). (Both are still there.)
The Spanish land grants, those first pieces of private property in Southern California, were all this time being split up and sold off and seeded with rows of bungalows. Between 1922 and 1924, about 1,400 developments were laid out across Los Angeles, and up above Hollywood in the hills, Clark and Sherman decided there’d be one more. Developers Tracy E. Shoults and S.H. Woodruff, along with their publicity man John D. Roche, came up with “Hollywoodland”—like “Hollywood,” but more whimsical-sounding (no one is entirely sure where “Hollywood” came from either).
A developer named Albert Beach had already paved a road into Beachwood Canyon and built houses along its first mile or so; Shoults and Woodruff erected stone pillars on either side at the top of the road to mark the entrance to Hollywoodland (“a line of demarcation,” an early brochure called it), and hired hundreds of men to cut miles of new road into the sheer, scrubby hillsides. Steam shovels were used on the lower section, but higher “roads and building sites had to be carved out of the hills by workers with picks and shovels,” according to the LA Times. When sales began in 1923, buyers chose among what is now a typical LA architectural assortment of French Normandy, Tudor, Mediterranean, and Spanish Colonial styles for their brand-new homes.
Workers too had to haul huge metal rectangles, scaffolding, pipes, wires, and telephone poles up the rough hill to make a billboard for the development, 43 feet tall and very, very long. It seems to have been Roche’s idea, maybe riffing off a wood and tin “H” set in the hills to the west in 1922 by the kids of Hollywood High and visible in early photos of Hollywoodland, although billboards have always been beloved in Los Angeles, where they got their first lobbying group in the 1870s. In his book The Hollywood Sign, Leo Braudy suggests the billboard’s “blocky sans serif” is a variation on a type called Machine that was big in the Midwest in the mid-1800s. In its first years, the sign was lit with 4,000 light bulbs and flashed HOLLY, WOOD, LAND, HOLLYWOODLAND, and it was supposed to be visible from Wilshire Boulevard.
Wilshire was the first commercial strip of Los Angeles built for cars, and Hollywoodland’s housing sites up those high and winding roads were built for cars too. In the flats, a lower-middle-class Angeleno could get from their job to their bungalow to wherever else they needed to go by streetcar, but up in the hills, you had to drive, and that meant you had to have a lot of money. The developers knew what they were doing; here is an LA Times ad from early 1924:
Where will you live …. When the second million come?—Will your family enjoy a delightful home in the clean, pure mountain air of Hollywoodland, with its wonderful climate, broad open spaces and plenty of “elbow” room—or—will you live in a “dwelling” in the flat, uninteresting houses-in-a-row sections of the City, your family’s freedom hampered by this maelstrom of human existence?
The innuendo is deliberate. “When we bought our lot, it was limited to Caucasians only,” a 90-year-old resident who purchased in 1926 recalled in a 1993 LA Times article. “That was in the deed and lasted 50 years.” On the New Deal-era Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps that created “redlining”—designating nonwhite areas as undesirable for mortgage lenders, and shutting them out from the main source of generational wealth in America—Hollywoodland is marked blue, in only the second-highest “security grade,” because the “[s]teep rugged hillside” made construction expensive.
The report notes the neighborhood’s deed restriction, “both as to cost of improvements and racial population.” The residents are described as “Professional & business men, motion picture executives and artists, capitalists, etc. Income $5000 and upward.” The “Hollywoodland sign” isn’t mentioned, because it was just a temporary billboard meant to stay on the hillside through 1925 or so.
Braudy calls a young actress named Peg Entwistle the genius of the Hollywood Sign: She was the first person who seemed to understand it as something more than a real estate advertisement. In 1932, she jumped off the “H” to her death, leaving a suicide note in her purse in the chaparral. The story is that she was a failure in the movies, but she was actually doing all right, and the note made her reasons sound more personal (“If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain”). The industry had become “Hollywood” by then, even if most studios had only paused in Hollywood for a little while on the drift from what is now Silver Lake and Echo Park west to Culver City, and now the Hollywoodland sign had been given a role to play too.
No one else saw the potential in the sign for a long time. Five years later, an “O” fell off the hill after a heavy rain. Maintenance stopped in 1939 as the money ran out and war loomed; the bulbs burnt out and were stolen from their sockets. In 1945, the M.H. Sherman Company sold or gave its undeveloped Hollywoodland land to the city, throwing in the sign with it. By 1949, the “O” was apparently back, but an “H” had crumbled, and City Councilmember Lloyd G. Davies complained “his district was sensitive about becoming known as ‘ollywoodland.’” The Recreation and Parks Committee voted to tear the sign down.
But we know that’s not the way it went. The city council overruled Rec and Parks and allowed the Chamber of Commerce to pay $5,000 to rebuild the “H” and take down the “land.” In 1949, the billboard disappeared and the landmark emerged.
Nobody cared very much. It was the middle of the 20th century in Los Angeles and former soldiers were flooding in with their families, freeways were being built, streetcars were being torn out, stucco was going up in acres, and no one was worrying too much about holding onto a useless and outdated version of the city. Whatever survived survived because it was crazy enough to hold attention, like the Chinese Theatre, or out of the way enough that no one had to worry much about it, like the masonry buildings in an abandoned Downtown, or the Hollywood Sign.
Los Angeles first realized it was old enough for preservation around 1959, when the city tried to tear down the Watts Towers, the garden of decorated spires that Simon Rodia had built over 33 years living in the neighborhood. A committee was formed to protect the towers, and they were named LA’s 15th official landmark in 1963, a year after the monuments list was established.
This was about the same time that the Pasadena Museum put on “New Painting of Common Objects,” curated by Walter Hopps, the first survey of pop art in an American museum, with work from artists like Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Roy Lichtenstein. A year later, Hopps staged the first-ever Marcel Duchamp retrospective. These artists who obsessed over ordinary things, mass-produced things, advertisements, made into art by their context, put the Hollywood Sign into a new context too. The powerful old studio system was nearly dead, the sign itself was always falling apart, and Ed Ruscha painted it over and over from every angle. It still wasn’t really an icon, but it was becoming an aesthetic object, something worth looking at.
A short article in West magazine described the state of the Hollywood Sign in 1972:
[T]he thin metal letters are breached, torn and bent. Most are streaked and stained in a spectrum of rust colors. Scattered in the brush below is the debris of ages. ... Off to the left, in its own graveyard of undergrowth, the original LAND lies in ruins. At the foot of the sign is graphic evidence that someone who once cared enough to paint the sign white did not care enough to carry off the paint buckets.
Just when things would get really dire, though, “some community-service group or chamber of commerce would charge up the mountain with paint and shoring to save the day.” It happened at the dawn of the 1970s, with funding from the Kiwanis Club, and again in 1973, the year the sign was finally named a city landmark. At that unveiling, according to Braudy, “some loud local residents, upset with the constant run of heavy traffic up their narrow winding streets ... brandished placards saying ‘Death to the Sign’ and ‘Down with the Sign.’”
Danny Finegood is probably the second great genius of the Hollywood Sign, and the hero of this story. In the early morning of New Year’s Day 1976, the day decriminalization of marijuana took effect in California, he brought $50 worth of materials and a few friends up to the sign and changed it to read HOLLYWEED. He was an artist—this was a project for his environmental sculpture class at Cal State Northridge (he got an A). He did HOLYWOOD the next Easter, OLLYWOOD during the Iran-Contra hearings, and OIL WAR in 1990, in protest of the Gulf War, although that one was pulled down before the sun rose, according to his obituary. Finegood not only understood the sign as art, but understood it as a collective work—by 1976, those Machine-ish letters staggering along the hillside had accrued enough shared meaning that they could be altered and still refer to that meaning, creating something simultaneously new, familiar, and extremely delightful. (Whoever went out of their way to create PEROTWOOD in both 1992 and 1996 probably had a less nuanced theory.)
As the destruction of the Hollywood Sign in movies like Earthquake helped to spread its meaning around the world in the 1970s, it became important to make the sign resilient and respectable. In these years, “the top of the ‘D’ and the entire third ‘O’ toppled down Mount Lee, and an arsonist set fire to the bottom of the second ‘L,’” according to the Hollywood Sign Trust. Down below, all the money had left Hollywood; its residents in those years were people without homes, sex workers, drug dealers.
Fleetwood Mac was supposed to hold a benefit concert for the sign in 1977, but neighbors shot that down. Another attempt at fundraising finally hit big the next year when Hugh Hefner and Alice Cooper adopted the cause, each donating $27,777.77 to sponsor a letter for a brand-new sign (“Y” for Hefner, the third “O” dedicated to Cooper’s friend Groucho Marx); seven others followed.
In August 1978, whatever was left of the original Hollywoodland sign, along with all the new parts it had acquired over the decades, was demolished, and construction began on a new sign, 45 feet high, in concrete, enamel, and steel. For the first time since 1923, Los Angeles didn’t have anything to look up to on Mount Lee.
Concrete foundations were buried 20 feet into the hill to hold up beams brought in by helicopter because trucks couldn’t get to the site. The new sign, framed in lasers and lights, debuted that November during Hollywood’s Diamond Jubilee, a two-hour CBS special hosted by Raquel Welch and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It looked exactly the same, but it was entirely different—new materials, new strength, and new reverence had made it suddenly immortal. Greg Ashe, a helicopter pilot who flew in beams for the replica, says in a Hollywood Sign Trust video, “That’ll be there when the mountain leaves.”
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce took control of the sign after its reincarnation and established a tax-exempt Hollywood Sign Trust, supposedly to take care of the landmark, which still belonged to the city. Ten years later, a real estate agent named Chris Baumgart was put in charge of the sign trust, and in 1989 the LA Times discovered the Chamber of Commerce had “borrowed” money from the trust fund for its own uses, right around the same time that the chamber was also applying to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a service mark on the Hollywood Sign (neighbors opposed the registration; “We don't think the chamber has done much to deserve our trust,” Christine O’Brien told the Times at the time).
By 1991, Baumgart had become chairman of the chamber’s board as the organization was set to surrender the sign to the LA Department of Recreation and Parks and pay restitution to settle their mishandling of the funds. Rec and Parks was antsy to “start dealing with some chronic complaints from nearby residents” and “develop lookout points that would enable tourists to approach within snapshot range,” the LA Times reported that year. Eventually the state filed suit and “quietly settled” in 1992 with an agreement that left the chamber in control in all but name—the Hollywood Sign Trust became an independent entity, but the chamber appoints seven of the nine trustees and still holds trademarks on the sign. Baumgart was made chairman of the new Hollywood Sign Trust, a position he’s never left.
Under the HST, the sign is locked down like a royal heir: razor-wire-topped cyclone fence; a security system with infrared cameras, motion sensors, and microphones, monitored from LA’s underground surveillance bunker; webcams and a NASA satellite watching.
The only thing they forgot to secure was the view. Howard Hughes had bought 138 acres on Cahuenga Peak, visible just west of the sign, in 1940; he’d intended to build an estate for his fiancee Ginger Rogers, before she left him. Nothing was ever built there, and the Howard Hughes Trust held onto the land until 2002, then sold it to a Chicago investment firm called Fox River Financial Resources for $1.67 million. Fox River kept quiet about the site until 2008, when it put it up for sale for $22 million, threatening, as one partner put it, that “It could be used for one large home or a family compound.” Los Angeles panicked, but managed to negotiate the price down to $9.5 million, just five and a half times what Fox River had paid. The sign was draped with a SAVE THE PEAK banner, and George Lucas, Time Warner, Tom Hanks, the Academy of Motion Pictures, and of course Hugh Hefner, with many other stars and studios, pledged it all just in time. Cahuenga Peak is now part of Griffith Park.
The second strangest thing about the Hollywood Sign is that Los Angeles has shoveled money and resources into keeping people away from it.
You can see the Hollywood Sign hovering above rooflines and poking through trees on any drive through the tangle of Hollywoodland streets, but there are four unobscured viewing points arrayed at roughly equal distances around the neighborhood’s border with Griffith Park. Starting on the east, there is the Hollyridge trail, accessed at the top of Beachwood Drive, off of a city-owned easement that also leads to the Sunset Ranch stables.
In February, the city won a lawsuit brought by Sunset Ranch to keep non-customers (hikers) off the easement; a judge denied that request, but did order the city to move the trailhead off the easement to “a location as closest to the start of the” road as possible. The city attorney’s office responded by agreeing to move the trailhead about two and a half miles away, over to the next canyon; the nonprofit Friends of Griffith Park claims the court was misled about the distance and has filed a motion to get involved on behalf of the public. Sunset Ranch’s own website raves about the Hollyridge trail on its “Best Places to View the Hollywood Sign” page; the city attorney’s office didn’t respond to a question about whether that had come up in any hearings.
The city stationed guards at this entrance in 2014 when they shut it down to install a gate, promising it would reopen in five weeks. The entrance opened again nine months later, a few weeks after signs went up banning street parking throughout most of Hollywoodland on weekends and holidays, for everyone but residents.
To the northwest of Hollyridge is the top of Deronda Drive, where you’ll find a locked green gate covered in “no entry” and “no parking” signs, which you can easily walk around; there’s also a door with a timed lock that’s open during the day.
To the west of that is what I believe is the best Hollywood Sign viewing spot anywhere, a lumpy dirt area at the top of Mulholland Highway, just above the intersection with Ledgewood Drive. There’s parking here for a few cars, a trailhead, and a perfect view of the sign from below, so close you’d definitely be crushed by the “Y" if aliens appeared out of the sky to laser down our major landmarks.
At the intersection of Mulholland and Ledgewood, you’ll probably see a bunch of LA Department of Transportation barriers in the street, covered in “road closed” signs, flanked by official-looking metal signs on poles saying “residents only” and “no access to the Hollywood Sign.” All of this is fake and illegal. When I asked about this display in April, a rep for LADOT said it would have crews take it all down within the week, but “the signs have been taken down several times before. Once they are taken down by the City or nearby residents, they get put right back up,” emails Estevan Montemayor, communications director for City Councilmember David Ryu, who represents Hollywoodland.
Just below the last house on Mulholland, which is just below the perfect Hollywood Sign viewing spot, someone has strung and locked an orange chain across the road. When I asked about the chain, a rep for the Department of Public Works said the department didn't know anything about it, but would “take appropriate action to remove if it is illegally placed there.” As of May 14, the chain, the signs, and the barriers are all there, with more scattered around the neighborhood.
Finally, on the western side of the neighborhood is the vista, a flat dirt overlook next to Lake Hollywood Park with a decent but kind of distant view of the sign. An anti-access group in Hollywoodland called Homeowners on Beachwood Drive United has sued over this spot (and Hollyridge, and tourism in general), claiming that former City Councilmember Tom LaBonge’s staff should’ve conducted an environmental review before clearing it of brush several years ago and making it appealing to tourists.
The Hollywoodlanders who want to shut their neighborhood to outsiders blame GPS and Google Maps for hoards of tourists and hikers marching through Hollywoodland over the past decade or so, although it’s fun to see an LA Times story from 1989 explaining that “Traffic dramatically increased about a year ago after publication of a book that listed a string of winding, narrow streets that could be used as an escape path from the clogged Hollywood Freeway through the Cahuenga Pass.” LaBonge worked with both Google and Garmin to get them to change the directions to the sign in their software so that sign-seekers are now routed way over to the Griffith Observatory on the next peak to the east. The Hollywood Sign Trust also recommends viewing the sign from Griffith Observatory, or from the Hollywood & Highland mall down in the flats of Hollywood.
“The best views of the Hollywood Sign are not always the closest,” their website insists.
At a town hall a few months after Ryu took office in 2015, he told the crowd there were four LAPD officers working “hot spots” in Hollywoodland, along with “pretty much every available [park] ranger,” making for “a lot of overtime,” according to a Rec and Parks representative at the meeting. There’s no regular police presence now, according to a rep for the LAPD, but the department’s Emergency Services Division does still stake out the canyon occasionally to hand out tickets to too-big tourist vans. Hollywoodlanders killed plans for a city-run shuttle through their neighborhood a few years ago, and the most wonderful access idea—an aerial tram running from the other side of the hill up behind the sign, first proposed by a resident in the 1990s—has never gotten off the ground, although it was re-proposed by Mayor Eric Garcetti this month. In 2014, the LAFD and LADOT responded to congestion complaints with a suggestion to ban parking entirely during the day on one side of one part of Beachwood Drive; the neighbors were horrified.
A few weeks before the parking restriction signs went up in Hollywoodland at the beginning of 2015, the city council quietly and quickly passed a motion to “temporarily close public streets in the vicinity of the Hollywood Sign as and when it is deemed necessary.” The motion says it was requested by the LAPD and the LAFD, but there were no attached reports from either explaining why; the streets that would be closed “when it [was] deemed necessary” weren’t even listed.
A few studies of the traffic and parking situation in Hollywoodland have been requested over the years, but LADOT says they “have no record of any formal study conducted,” even though the agency has restricted parking to residents and sent extra traffic officers to the neighborhood. A letter from a group of pro-access neighbors says there are no “statistics demonstrating an increased incidence of automobile or pedestrian accidents” around the Hollyridge trailhead. An LAFD assistant chief told The Hollywood Reporter’s Gary Baum in January 2015 that emergency responders “haven't had any problems getting up there.”
Tony Castanares, who grew up in Hollywood and has lived on Hollyridge Drive since 1981, says that while the restricted parking has pushed some trouble down Beachwood Canyon, it has essentially fixed things in Hollywoodland: “There really can’t be said to be a problem up there anymore.”
The gate at the now-closed Hollyridge trailhead cost $198,870, according to a rep for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks; the guard the department hired stayed, at a cost to date of $353,376. The LA Department of Transportation wouldn’t provide a cost for the parking districts or sign removal; Communications Director Bruce Gillman wrote by email that “LADOT worked directly with [Ryu’s office] to expand [restricted parking] areas; fund additional traffic officers to patrol over Holidays/Spring Break; and respond quickly to constituent calls for blocked driveways, etc. in Hollywoodland,” but said in a separate email that “LADOT routinely patrols all city streets including Beachwood Canyon, enforcing posted parking signage,” and that the money for those patrols and all their signs come out of their yearly budget.
A rep for the city attorney’s office didn’t respond to a question about how much they’d spent working on lawsuits about access in Hollywoodland, which comes out of their regular budget. A rep for the LAPD didn’t give a figure on their outlay. Montemayor said Ryu’s office has spent “at least” $100,000 dealing with people wanting to get to the Hollywood Sign—mostly on traffic enforcement—since he took office in the summer of 2015; his predecessor LaBonge had been working at it since at least as early as 2011.
People want to get to the Hollywood Sign. Angelenos and visitors both want to say they were there, to selfie they were there, to hike in its view for the first time or the hundredth. And Los Angeles has taken several million dollars from its people over just the last few years and put it all into keeping them away from their own landmark, and it’s not a secret who benefits from all that spending: a small, wealthy group of Hollywoodlanders.
“I think there are maybe 50 people who live at the top of Beachwood Drive, and I don’t know how organized they are, but they’re very very loud and very very angry,” says Castanares. Part of the reason he moved to Hollywoodland is that he loves the easy access to Griffith Park, and he believes most of his neighbors feel the same way. Castanares and 29 other residents sent a letter to Ryu in early 2016 saying that “public access to the Park is an extremely important factor that should not be impaired except in extraordinary circumstances.”
When Hollywoodland first opened, Woodruff assured the LA Times that the neighborhood’s “bridle paths and trails in the upper reaches of the tract are open to the public,” and the paper noted that “It has been planned to link these paths up with the city’s system in Griffith Park, so that an extensive trip of unrivaled scenic beauty and variety can be made in a few hours, and without leaving the limits of Los Angeles.”
That was before the billboard advertising his real estate development had become the Hollywood Sign, unintentionally fulfilling the prediction of a 1920s brochure that “this residential area is to be one of the most famous in all the world.” It was before the cars that opened up the canyons choked the city and smeared its views, when Los Angeles was only the 10th biggest city in the United States.
Taking back the Hollywood Sign is not really what we need here in Los Angeles. It’s a symbol for what we need: a city that belongs to all its residents, where the very best is available to the people with the least, where we share our space and value it for being shared. Symbols are important. And the Hollywood Sign is one of the most pregnant in history: It has stood for a housing development, a neighborhood, an industry, a country, the great obsession of the American century. If Hollywoodland is dismantled, the sign itself can start to stand for something new again, and better.
The anti-access crusaders make the best case that Hollywoodland doesn’t make sense anymore in the Los Angeles of 2017. In a video for a series called the Millennial Project, Tony Fisch, the PR consultant who has reportedly been responsible for guiding this group’s messaging away from “quality of life” complaints and toward public safety, says that if there were a fire in the neighborhood, “I first fear for my friends’ lives and my family’s lives, and then I have to think of property value or equity.”
In her video, Sarajane Schwartz, probably the most visible and vocal anti-accesser, says “Our neighborhood juts out further into the park than any other neighborhood; we’re surrounded by combustible parkland on three sides.” Referring to all the people who want to visit Hollywoodland, she adds “I don’t know how any little neighborhood without any infrastructure, without sidewalks, with narrow streets, is supposed to absorb this.”
The militant NIMBYs of Hollywoodland act alone in their defense of the land around the Hollywood Sign, but they are only one cell in a well-funded network that spans the richer parts of Los Angeles, from Venice to Beverly Hills to Silver Lake and Downtown LA. Each cell has its own pet cause—declaring “not in my backyard” about apartment buildings or subways or bike lanes or beach access, hassling the homeless and people from outside their neighborhoods—but sometimes they come together to try and impose their version of a city on a grander scale, like in March, when they attempted to pass something called Measure S to shut down most apartment construction, even though Los Angeles is deep in a housing crisis, nearly two-thirds of renters are paying more than they can afford on rent, and more and more people are being forced out onto the streets.
These are not the most powerful people in Los Angeles. The most powerful people don’t need to scream or push ballot measures to bend the landscape to their liking; they live in neighborhoods so remote and rarefied that they don’t ever have to worry about tourists or hikers tramping through. But these NIMBYs are the people whose ideology is embedded in our buckling concrete—these are the values that gave us cul-de-sacs of bungalows, big front yards, acres of parking, housing segregation, racist policing, ghettoized poverty, a philosophy of the city so structured around inequality that large homeless encampments are loathed, but guaranteed.
LA’s earliest NIMBYs were homeowners associations refusing black people, Asian people, Mexicans, and Jews in their neighborhoods, and their reason is still the rallying cry: “Our property values!” (The Homeowners on Beachwood Drive United argued in their 2015 lawsuit complaint that Hollywoodland’s “parcels were sold subject to conditions, covenants and restrictions that stated an intent and purpose of preservation of the character, dignity and uniqueness of the community.”)
NIMBYs are activists, and extraordinarily effective ones. They tend to have money and time, and professional and personal connections to the right people, and to know how to present themselves to the people in charge.
But NIMBYs also have a lot of power because private property has so much power—it’s how 138 acres in the Hollywood Hills can be “worth” $1.67 million one day and, with no changes at all, be “worth” $22 million the next, this idea that a person (or company) can pay for the exclusive right to use a piece of land, and get a police force and a court system and all the other defenses a government can offer to preserve that exclusivity. That’s not inevitable: We could decide instead to give some land to everyone who needs land, or to share all of the land and make decisions about it together. But capitalism demands private property, and here in the U.S. we are especially sentimental about this demand—our national dream is to have a few kids and a charming slice of private property with a big white fence around it.
And when everyone agrees that your home is your castle, eventually you decide you want to dig a moat around it, and then you want to defend it with medieval ruthlessness, and you don’t want to be able to see any serfs from the turrets, which means that dale down the street shouldn’t have any benches in it because people might sleep on them and there definitely can’t be a mule-cart stop on this block. And then the people who control the private property are also in control of the public property.
Destroying Hollywoodland—using eminent domain, maybe, to force the residents to sell their million-dollars-to-start houses, demolishing most of them, turning the rest into interpretive centers, restrooms, cafes—would cost way more than what the people of LA have spent keeping Hollywoodland for Hollywoodlanders, magnitudes more. But it’d be money spent on all of us, on public land, public access to the city’s most famous piece of public art, in a city that spent decades pushing people out of public spaces.
Maybe it sounds extreme, to take a neighborhood from its residents, but Los Angeles does it all the time.
Bunker Hill, on the outskirts of Downtown Los Angeles, was typically Angeleno from its start in the 1870s. A local historian described its “architectural crazy quilt” in 1872, arcing hill roads lined with “frame houses that did not follow any particular style but rather conformed with their owners’ imagination and aspiration,” as quoted in the 1995 article “Lost Streets of Bunker Hill” by planning scholars Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Gail Sansbury. In the 1880s, the city’s rich moved in, building elaborate Victorian mansions before leaving a few decades later for trendier neighborhoods where they could spread out: Beverly Hills, Hollywood, West Adams. The mansions they sold to landlords, who chopped them up into tenements; there were no new buildings built on Bunker Hill from 1930 to 1940, but the population went up by 19 percent, until by 1940 only 2.2 percent of the units were owned by their tenants.
So it was a pretty poor neighborhood of renters when the American Housing Act of 1949 passed and gave Los Angeles the opportunity to redevelop, renew, revitalize—seize—Bunker Hill. “The pressure for change came from the business and real estate sectors, as well as nearly every public agency in the city,” write Loukaitou-Sideris and Sansbury. All they had to do was show that the “quaint community of bohemians, retirees, and blue-collar workers,” with its mix of residences and businesses and its streets that were shared by drivers and walkers, was a dirty, crime-ridden hellhole. The LAPD, the Department of Public Health, the Planning Department all agreed that it was. A documentary about the neighborhood made by USC students in 1956 depicts “vibrant streets and the accounts of neighborly life,” but photos commissioned by the City Housing Authority in the 1950s show crowded parking and the backs of “poorly maintained” buildings.
The Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project was adopted in 1959, and the city began clearing out the neighborhood in 1960. About 11,000 residents, mostly poor, were displaced; 396 buildings were demolished, taking about 7,300 housing units with them. Many of the residents had nowhere to go but Skid Row and the surrounding neglected streets of “the old downtown.” For a long time, Bunker Hill was a ghost town, and then a parking lot, and finally, after decades, a hostile dystopia of “superblocks and megastructures,” accessible to cars that knew the secret entrances, but bewildering to humans.
LA is still trying to make something of Bunker Hill. Disney Hall was built in the aughts, then The Broad museum in the teens. For many years, the county has been trying to coax a developer into building housing on Bunker Hill, to make it a neighborhood again after all this time; the first rental tower finally opened in 2014, with studios starting at $2,295 a month.
Down below, a city campaign of developer incentives and boosterism has turned “the old downtown” into The New Downtown, with handsome old masonry buildings converted into expensive lofts above expensive restaurants, and new little parks, and bike-share stations, and boutique grocery stores, closing in on all sides around a more-teeming-than-ever Skid Row. The new Downtowners want to redevelop, renew, revitalize that neighborhood too. Los Angeles has more than 90 neighborhood councils, set up to give a little power to every part of the city, a way for residents to organize and to advise their government. In early April, Downtown voted not to let Skid Row have one.
Bunker Hill was taken with the help of the Housing Act to make an office park. Chavez Ravine, just to the north, in Echo Park, ended up a baseball stadium. Another piece of land hilly enough to ward off developers for a while, it was settled by Mexican-Americans around the beginning of the 20th century. “Goats grazed on hillsides, and residents raised a variety of domesticated animals, from pigs to peacocks,” Nathan Masters wrote in a history at KCET in 2012. As the century progressed, the community had a grocery store, an elementary school, and “regular religious processions through the village.”
After the Housing Act passed, using “photographs that selectively depicted ramshackle structures and street patterns defying suburban norms,” Los Angeles declared Chavez Ravine a slum and revealed plans to demolish it, reengineer the landscape, and build a modernist public housing complex called Elysian Park Heights. They promised the families who lived there that they would be able to come back when the new development was finished, and the City Housing Authority began a campaign of eminent domain to buy up the ravine.
For a moment in 1951, the LA Times—not typically a friend to the poor—took up the cause of the residents of Chavez Ravine. Their motive for such compassion was revealed in the rest of their coverage of Elysian Park Heights, which focused on a crusade to kill off 11 large public housing projects planned throughout the city. This crusade was led by private developers, who couldn’t profit off of public housing, and a group called Citizens Against Socialist Housing, with the assistance of the Times. The U.S. was waging the Korean War and the House Un-American Activities Committee was making its second investigation into Hollywood: It was a perfect moment to start convincing Americans that building housing for people who needed it was not only not moral, it was dangerous.
A Chamber of Commerce letter to the city council put a fine point on the red-baiting: “In our opinion, our local housing problems should be solved in the American way, without subsidies, without regimentation in political housing.”
In 1953, Elysian Park Heights was cancelled and the city bought the land from the housing authority for just under $1.3 million, “a considerable bargain,” according to the LA Times. For a while they just let it deteriorate into the slum they swore it was, still fighting in court to evict the last holdouts of the old neighborhoods.
In 1956, Mayor Norris Poulson suggested to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley that Chavez might make a nice spot for a stadium, were the team to move to the West Coast. In exchange, the Dodgers could buy the Los Angeles Angels and give their stadium to the city. On May 9, 1959, sheriff’s deputies and bulldozers cleared out the last few residents of Chavez Ravine.
These are old and famous stories, what happened to Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine, embarrassing sins the city would never repeat. Now it clears out poorer, less-white neighborhoods and hands them over for more profitable uses in subtler ways. The Housing Act was supposed to bring money back into midcentury American urban neighborhoods—the white middle and upper-middle classes had gone to the suburbs rather than share their cities; the government helped them out, with new roads for commuting and zoning that kept subdivisions for the subdivisioners. But now the white middle and upper-middle classes have come back, and they expect the government to help them out again.
Gentrification is usually told as an individualist story: The artist who thrives off “grittiness” and low rent on a giant loft, a tuned-in commercial real estate agent, a pour-over coffee place with an owner who just really loves the energy in the neighborhood, and, one day, after the developers arrive, the young designer/lawyer couple and their baby, who are really very tolerant but still have very good justifications for fighting the affordable housing that’s been proposed up the block.
But gentrification is a process by which a neighborhood organized (however ad hoc) around the needs of a poorer community is reorganized—redeveloped, renewed, revitalized—deliberately around the needs of a richer community. Gentrification needs a government that won’t pay too much attention when landlords let their apartments grow mold and harbor cockroaches, or slip renters a little cash to get out quickly, or evict all their rent-stabilized tenants at once, or illegally rent their buildings out on Airbnb for 25 times what they’d get from a long-term renter, or quadruple the rent on a sandwich shop that’s been run by the same family for three decades. Gentrification needs a police force that is set up to make the white middle and upper-middle classes feel safe, that cracks down on loiterers and partiers, that casts gang injunction nets that keep black and Latinx people off their own streets with broad and vague criteria for criminality that makes them all into suspects. Gentrification needs better trash service, kid-safe parks, bike lanes, light rail, because buses won’t do.
The program of gentrification that has become so familiar and efficient in Los Angeles does the same thing the Housing Act did, only it doesn’t announce that it’s coming. In the past 15 years, it has run its course through Hollywood, Downtown, Venice, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park, and now everyone has got the measuring tape out for Boyle Heights and Frogtown, both of which lie along the LA River, hated and ignored since the 1930s for its ugly concrete banks, lately the center of developer attention because the Army Corps of Engineers and the city have intentions to make it into a real river again.
I was once in a room with a member of the Los Angeles City Council who represents some of the richest areas of the city. Debates over development are tough, he was saying, because on one side you have homeowners who have sunk their life savings into a home for themselves and on the other side you have developers who should be allowed to make a lot of money off their investments. Somehow, he had left out the majority of Angelenos entirely: the 54 percent or so who rent, who have just as much stake as any landowner in what the city looks like and does and who it works for. We all live here.
In the same conversation, the city councilmember said he didn’t like to use the word “NIMBY” because it’s not very nice. But NIMBYism is destructive. It has made life worse for most people in Los Angeles, in little ways we can see right in front of us and huge ways that are harder to recognize from up close. In Malibu, NIMBYs have kept people off the beaches that belong to all Californians, blocking off public walkways for decades sometimes. In Silver Lake right now they are trying to keep a decommissioned reservoir from being turned into a public park, and to undo a road diet that has made the streets safer for walkers and bikers. In Los Feliz, they’re renovating a park, at a cost of nearly $100,000, so that no one has anywhere to sit, because the wrong people were sitting down in the park. On the Westside, they’ve tried to foil Waze’s shortcuts because they don’t like people driving on the streets that run past their houses. In Glendale, they pushed a winter shelter to the outskirts of the city, making it harder for homeless residents to get to, but reducing “complaints from residents and retailers.”
In 1986, NIMBYs passed Proposition U to keep LA sprawly, cutting down the density allowed in commercial areas by half. (Prop U is still doing its job, and some of its backers were still around 30 years later to campaign for Measure S.) Around the same time, NIMBYism banned funding for a subway under Wilshire Boulevard; the very same congressman both proposed that ban and repealed it 20 years later, when public sentiment changed. The Purple Line is finally under construction.
Across the region, NIMBYs fight halfway houses, throwing insults at the hypothetical tenants, and they call the cops and call their councilmembers to get rid of neighbors who can’t afford to sleep anywhere but on the street. They demand private parking on public streets while the city has made it illegal for people who can’t afford a home to sleep in their cars on those same streets. The idea is that homeowners’ money has bought the force to keep certain people off their property, but also off all the land nearby.
Even when NIMBYs don’t get their way, NIMBY agitation often leads to a settlement with developers in the form of mitigations like infrastructure improvements, or sometimes just a lump of cash paid to a homeowners’ association or other resident group, as Curbed reported in 2013 and Hillel Aron expanded on in a recent story in LA Weekly. “It’s very common. And it’s getting more common,” one land use consultant told Aron.
NIMBYism is an ideology of exclusion, entitlement, segregation, hatred for the poor. And its adherents are zealots for their causes.
One of the scariest places I’ve ever been was a glass-walled meeting room next to the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, a few canyons over from Hollywoodland, where a group of neighbors from a very nice neighborhood had gotten together with a representative from their city councilmember’s office, a representative from the city attorney’s office, and a representative from the LAPD to complain about their poorest neighbors. They said people without homes in their neighborhood scared them. They were afraid to walk down the street.
When one of the people they’d been talking about walked in, these residents jeered and the city council staffer pointed at him and screamed like he was a child who had misbehaved. A young white man in a zip-up sweater, there with his wife, was nearly in tears as he stalked up to the man, hissed that this was his fault, and huffed out the glass door. There was a general consensus in the room that there should be more surveillance cameras to watch their neighborhood, and more poor people should be arrested, and overall the city wasn’t paying enough attention to their needs. The city council staffer kept calling the poor neighbors “the transients”; an outsider asked if she could use more respectful language and was shouted down.
Did they know about the neighborhoods in South LA that have been fighting for years to shut down, or enclose, or even study outdoor oil drilling operations that sit among homes and spray cars with petroleum and sicken kids with the smell? NIMBYism defines “backyard” both broadly—far beyond the limits of a literal backyard—and narrowly enough that it doesn’t have to account for any parts of the city it doesn’t want to.
The people in that glass room kept saying “quality of life,” but they never said whose life. One neighbor held up a photo of tents clustered in one spot in the neighborhood, then a Photoshop showing the spot as parking spaces in front of an ivy-covered wall. “And we get more parking?” said the young man in the sweater, back after just a few minutes, and everybody laughed.
We can begin to create justice in Los Angeles by taking a neighborhood from a rich community and opening it up to everyone.
First we’ll have to abolish the Hollywood Sign Trust and truly give the sign itself to the people of Los Angeles. We can set something up to charge corporations if they want to use its image, but otherwise it’d be free for everyone. We can save money by getting rid of most of the cameras and sensors, and we can just let the sign be hijacked once in a while, because we love when that happens.
If we want to do the land seizure by the eminent domain book (even if a tide of pitchforks and torches rolling up Beachwood Canyon would make a striking image), a judge will have to decide whether the benefit to the surrounding communities will outweigh the costs to the people forced to sell their houses. Will the people in lower Beachwood Canyon, below the gates, and the people in the surrounding canyons that open up into Griffith Park, and all of Los Angeles benefit if Hollywoodland becomes public land? A free and open Beachwood would take some of the burden off the other canyons, and there’d be no more permit parking problems cascading down to lower Beachwood. Los Angeles would finally get its hiking trails and its monument, unobstructed. But California law says the city will have to offer the highest possible appraisal price to the homeowners, and they could (would, probably) choose to drag things out in court.
It would be hard, it would be expensive, it would take a hell of a fight from the 54 percent, a real zealotry for the cause of taking public space back for the public in Los Angeles. But it’s possible.
There’s a poetry to it, too, severing the last connection between the sign and Hollywoodland, the sign and Hollywood, the sign and “Hollywood.” When it stands finally unencumbered by commerce, the sign can become a symbol for the idea that it’s good and right to demand better things, more space for ourselves—a lesson we can learn from the NIMBYs. That it’s good to call the visions and desires of the past incompatible with our dreams for a freer future. Good to say we don't want to live like this, and to build the kind of place where we do want to live. Here on a hill, pulling all our gazes heavenward, is this beautiful piece of authorless art, heavy with the meaning crammed into it by millions of people around the world and through the decades, but floating easily along the ridge. It’s already all of ours. Now let’s take it.
Editor: Sara Polsky
Copy editor: Emma Alpern