|By ROSANNA MAH, The Independent Staff Writer
It has been close to two decades since West Hollywood first became a city, a move which some of its critics say was doomed to failure.
However, since West Hollywood was first incorporated on Nov. 29, 1984, becoming the 84th city in the Los Angeles County, it has not only fended for itself but grown to become one of the most influential cities, standing at the forefront of the fight against AIDS to championing for the protection of civil rights and gay rights.
Despite three failed attempts, the city’s pioneers, made up of grassroots rent control advocates, believed that the city could establish independence and one day serve as a model for others to follow.
“This city only exists because people were active and fought for their rights,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition of Economic Survival.
1984 CES rally in Plummer Park which launched the campaign that resulted in the incorporation of West Hollywood, the election of CES members to the West Hollywood City Council and enactment of one of the strongest rent control laws in the nation.
Gross said that West Hollywood residents won a difficult battle with county Board of Supervisors in order to become a city, and it ought to be proud of its many accomplishments — especially its strong rent control laws and a commitment to providing social services to its low-income seniors, gay and lesbian and the Russian communities.
“On a percentage basis West Hollywood has provided these types of services much if not more than other cities,” he said.
Helen Goss, legislative director who has worked at city Hall for 20 years, said several courageous residents like Ron Stone, a community activist and founder of the West Hollywood Incorporation Committee, believed in the potential of the city and fought for cityhood.
Stone, affectionately referred as the father of West Hollywood, later died of complications of AIDS in the late 1980s.
Now, 20 years later, even some are surprised that a 1.9 -square mile city could have weathered years of economic uncertainty, reaching its present state of boasting a $60 million annual budget and providing a multi-million array of social grants that cater to a population of over 37,000, mostly made up of gays and lesbians, seniors, immigrants and families.
More importantly, officials say West Hollywood has moved out from small-town suburbia mode to become a success story, going so far as to lay claim to the legendary Sunset Strip — a fabled playground for celebrity stars, restaurateurs and club owners.
The Sunset Strip features some of the most popular nightclubs, hotels and restaurants in the world and is home to most of the after-Oscar parties.
Legendary performers are attracted to West Hollywood because of its varied night life, places like Whiskey a Go-Go, The Roxy, House of Blues and The Viper Room.
John Durban, an openly-gay mayor, believes that another accomplishment of the tiny city involves gaining a reputation as the gay capital of the West Coast and emerging as one of the foremost leaders of the political and social agenda for gays and lesbians.
“You can’t talk about West Hollywood history without the gay and lesbian perspective,” Duran said.
West Hollywood was among the first in the country to pass an AIDS discrimination ordinance. Later it adopted a groundbreaking piece of legislation known as the equal benefits ordinance, that requires all city contractors to provide medical benefits to employees and their domestic partners.
It is also one of the few cities in the nation where same-sex couples feel safe to display public affection under the rainbow flags that are proudly displayed along the famed Santa Monica Boulevard.
And when it comes to gay pop culture, gay fashion, gay music and gay lifestyle, people immediately think of West Hollywood, says Duran.
The city draws over 400,000 visitors across the nation when it hosts festivals such as the Christopher Street West L.A. Gay & Lesbian Pride celebration and the Halloween Carnival.
Despite strides in social and political arenas, West Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to its brand image.
The city, though legendary in many aspects, is often neglected or overlooked by mainstream media — a sore point with some residents and city council members who are justifiably proud and territorial over the city’s name and history.
Jeffrey Prang, a City Councilman, recently railed over a recent Los Angeles Times article that questions the West Hollywood’s ownership of Sunset Strip, saying it was a ridiculous notion that the famed Strip could be mistaken as belonging to a part of Los Angeles.
On a separate occasion the Los Angeles Daily News mistakenly referred to the city as “the West Hollywood area of Los Angeles” during a write up on the Oscar parties.
Jean Dobrin, a community activist, has repeatedly criticized West Hollywood-based businesses that market themselves as being in Los Angeles.
“We wish they’ll always say West Hollywood but sometimes people get it wrong,” said John Heilman, a councilman and one of the founders of West Hollywood. That is a challenge we will “work hard to correct,” he said.
A marketing campaign has since been launched by the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau to brand West Hollywood not as “gay city” but as the “creative city” that is home to many former Soviet Union immigrants, seniors and families.
Duran, who enjoys referring West Hollywood as the “emerald city,” (from the Wizard of Oz) says the city is so unique in its diversity that there can be no comparisons to its neighbors like Beverly Hills or Los Angeles.
“When you look up there at the Sunset Strip, the Argyle hotel, the Millennium project and all the excitement going on, then you look down at Melrose, the architecture and interior design industry ...” he said.
“To me, [West Hollywood] is beautiful.”