By Gary Baum
This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"It’s a disaster waiting to happen," says VFX supervisor Jeffrey Kleiser (RoboCop) of the reality of living a few hundred feet below Los Angeles’ famed Hollywood sign. His midcentury A-frame house, once owned by folk-rock band The Association — of the 1967 hit “Never My Love” — is the residence physically closest to the city’s most enduring icon. So he often deals with Darwin Award nominees who trespass the sign. “It’s late at night, they fall down, knock on your door and go, ‘I’m bleeding. Can I use your phone?’ It’s more drama than you want when you’re leading a peaceful life.”
Far more worrisome for Kleiser and his neighbors in parched Beachwood Canyon these days, though, are visitors who smoke. “If someone dropped a lit cigarette in the bushes, with all of these cars lined up, there’s no way a fire truck could get in to do its business.”
In the not-so-distant past, only the bravest visitors trekked up through this devil’s knot of dead ends, blind curves, narrow streets and treacherous inclines to get to the sign, just a few miles north of Sunset Boulevard. Then the Internet and navigation systems disrupted everything. “Before GPS, somebody from Omaha was afraid to head up here,” says Tom LaBonge, the local city councilman. “Now they’re not.”
Now there’s a never-ending pilgrimage of travelers, thousands a day — an exponential uptick from half a decade ago — embarking on a strange, possibly sacred journey to commune with the sign. Giddy teens from the heartland, gay friends excitedly chatting in varied European dialects, elderly Asian couples walking hand in hand, Muslim families crowding into the camera frame in their hijabs: They come, they see, they selfie.
Paris has the Eiffel Tower. New York has the Statue of Liberty. And, for better or worse, L.A. has the Hollywood sign. “There’s so much about Hollywood that’s diffuse. Hollywood and Vine looks like a street almost anywhere,” says USC professor Leo Braudy, who wrote The Hollywood Sign, a definitive book about the landmark, in 2011. “Part of the way the sign works, and it’s why the Eiffel Tower works, is to prove that you were here. I don’t know what else would work — a photo of a star on the ground?”
But if you live on these streets, you likely view the situation through a far less sympathetic lens. In this dark vision, rental cars perpetually block your driveway as slack-jawed outsiders take the same picture day after day. You contend with public urination and find used condoms strewn about.
Everyone involved agrees that the situation has become a powder keg. “Neighbors have been yelling,” says Tamer Riad of Rockin’ Hollywood Tours. Homeowner Heather Hamza, whose husband, Karim, runs a diving company servicing film productions, claims she’s experienced “aggressive” tourists “cursing and spitting at me.” She adds that, after the recent holiday period, “There is rising, palpable tension between the residents and visitors. Everybody is infuriated. I shudder to think if any of these people coming up here have weapons in their cars. One of these days someone will get shot — it is that bad.”
A sign originally erected to advertise a neighborhood to the world has become that neighborhood’s deepest frustration, and affluent residents have been fighting back. Although several thousand houses lie in Beachwood Canyon and neighborhoods adjoining the nearby Lake Hollywood Reservoir, most of the clamor comes from a few dozen activists in the area. They have lassoed various government and commercial entities into doing their bidding. They’ve persuaded Google, Garmin and other tech giants to literally take their exclusive neighborhood, where the average home costs $1.5 million, off the map for people searching for the sign. They’ve pushed City Hall to enact strict new parking regulations and to go after tour-bus operators. They’re fighting for the closure of a trailhead gate to Griffith Park and the removal of one popular viewing spot. And they’re not done.
Some residents say that a key element in winning the hearts and minds of city officials is a 30-minute advocacy film that, according to its producer, former actress and onetime Hollywoodland Homeowners Association president Sarajane Schwartz, required “thousands of hours” of collective labor and the expertise of “professional editors who live in the neighborhood and donated their time.” The wry narrative includes an overlaying of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as doofusy tourists ride Segways, light up in hazardous areas and take nude pictures or pose with liquor bottles. THR was offered a rare screening of the closely guarded documentary: “We thought it would attract more people [if posted online] because it would just tell people where to go,” says Schwartz. “And we didn’t want it to end up on The Tonight Show — you know, making fun of us.”
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The sign was built by Mexican laborers in two months during 1923, a gimmick to promote the colonization of Beachwood Canyon. Today, it’s as reclusive a neighborhood that isn’t gate-guarded as you can find in the city. A polyglot of design influences cantilever along vertiginous hillsides strewn with chaparral, oleander and agave. It long has been the kind of you’ve-made-it place where serenity prevails, aside from the occasional thrum of a gardener’s illegal leaf blower.
"A large part of the charm of the neighborhood was its tranquility,” asserts 28-year resident Marjorie Skouras, an interior designer for clients such as Kourtney Kardashian, entertainment attorney Skip Brittenham and RatPac financier James Packer. Adds branded content producer Harley Tat: “It used to be so quiet up here that you could hear a whimpering coyote. And now it’s a hiking hullabaloo.”
Historically, the canyon’s Bohemian streak has lured everyone from Aldous Huxley to Anthony Kiedis, Busby Berkeley and Madonna. Until last year, when he died, 97-year-old Louis Zamperini, the real-life subject of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, lived around the corner from Danny Masterson and Bijou Phillips. (Jolie and Brad Pitt live in the next canyon over, where a severed head was found by a hiker not far from the sign in 2012.) “You have a young, cool buyer next to someone who’s been there for 30 years and is a certifiable hoarder,” says realtor James Harris, who sells in the area and appears on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing. Lately, the new increasingly has bumped out the old: THR reviewed property records of about 450 houses closest to the sign and found that nearly a third had sold in the past five years — and nearly twice as many turned over during 2014 as had in 2004.
This is because Beachwood has emerged as a younger, more chic cousin to neighborhoods such as the “bird streets” above the Sunset Strip a few miles westward, a nest of similarly switchback-style roads with avian names and far higher prices. (The likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Aniston long have alighted there.) “For some younger celebrities, the eastern part of the hills has become more romantic now,” says another realtor, James Nasser. “And what costs $4 million in the birds, you can get three times the house in Beachwood.” Agrees Harris: “Good luck finding something for $2.5 million in the birds. Here you can.”
Chord Overstreet, that blond dude with the big lips from the Glee ensemble, recently snagged a place in Beachwood, but bold-facers are the exception. The canyon remains full of successful below-the-line players who, at least once upon a time, secured a foothold and a mortgage: in-demand costume designers, sound editors, visual effects artists, screenwriters and the like. They’re the ones who frequent the quaint Beachwood Market — where they can catch up with, say, French film composer Alexandre Desplat or CAA’s Maha Dakhil. And they’re the ones raising an apocalyptic stink about the incursion of touristic hoi polloi to their hitherto rarefied hideaway.
Unlike Mount Rushmore or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Hollywood sign is an accidental icon. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce lopped off the last four letters of the atrophying original lettering — Hollywoodland — in 1949, opting to promote the industry in the face of the East Coast’s upstart television sector. The Hollywood Sign Trust was created in 1978, when the letters were falling down yet again and Hugh Hefner, Alice Cooper and others anted up a total of $250,000 to refurbish it.
Over time, the sign became a beloved international monument, encompassing everything from the tragic (the 1932 suicidal jump of starlet Peg Entwistle) to the comic (repeated letter-switching stunts — Ollywood, during Iran-Contra, or Hollyweed, noting decriminalization legislation of marijuana). Still, civic leaders never have been able to formulate a realistic, big-picture plan to capitalize on the outsized affection that outsiders project on the city’s most prominent landmark.
In short, it’s a mess. Surprisingly, THR found that no local agency or organization — not the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, not the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, not the mayor’s office — bothers to track how many people visit the sign or even tries to put a dollar figure on how it directly impacts tourism. The city itself technically owns the sign and the land — it sits in the public Griffith Park. Yet L.A. has ceded responsibility for its maintenance to the state-registered trust, which in turn features a board whose seats are majority-controlled by members of the chamber. The all-business chamber, in turn, pulls in revenue from the trademark rights to the sign it possesses, which are administered through a contract with a licensing firm called Global Icons. (A portion of the revenue goes to pay the trust’s costs. A Chamber spokesperson could not provide information about the revenue the sign generates.) Meanwhile, various municipal departments have overlapping territorial claims and needs striating the sign. These include Recreation & Parks, fire and police, the Department of Transportation and Water & Power. Also in the mix, of course, are all of those sharp-elbowed private citizens.
In recent years, these mad-as-hell residents have directed most of their ire at LaBonge, the lame-duck councilman who represents a district spanning Hancock Park to Sherman Oaks that’s centered along the spine of the Hollywood Hills. “There’s a vocal group that doesn’t want anything up there,” says LaBonge. “And that’s not right.”
It’s said you can’t fight City Hall. But in L.A., rich homeowners have habitually gotten their way. Every urban scholar’s case in point: In the past century, as the region’s freeway system metastasized, working-class communities such as Boyle Heights and Hawthorne were bisected despite ardent protest, while planned routes through tonier areas (the 710 extension through South Pasadena; the so-called “Beverly Hills Freeway” along what now is Santa Monica Boulevard) never materialized.
"There’s this privatization of public spaces in L.A., where people who are affluent expect to be insulated from the public," says urban design professor Jenny Price, a visiting lecturer at Princeton and veteran of the Southern California coastal-access wars (she created the popular Our Malibu Beaches app, to David Geffen's chagrin). “But the scandal here isn't the wealthy homeowners. It's the city's complicity. Not just in getting permitted parking but in intentionally disseminating misinformation about a park they own. That's the scandal.”
The homeowners’ revolt is led by a resident named Tony Fisch, a veteran corporate PR strategist whose LinkedIn résumé touts his experience in “message architecture and rapid response.” In that vein, residents have redefined the terms of the discussion. Quality-of-life complaints about crowds, noise and trash have been cannily muted for the purpose of optics in favor of safety-first talking points.
"We have substandard streets in a fire-prone area," says Christine O’Brien, a key member of the contingent and a past president of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Association. “It’s not just our safety; it’s the entire city’s safety since the city’s main communication tower is at the top of Mt. Lee!” Adds Fisch, “If a fire starts up here, many hikers could be trapped on the trail.”
Officials’ analyses are less dire. “We have talked to our field emergency responders, and they haven’t had any problems getting up there,” says Los Angeles Fire Department assistant chief John Vidovich, who implements policy related to departmental code. Battalion chief Charles Butler, who oversees the unit that works the area around the sign, elaborates that residents are partly responsible for the spatial challenges the department faces: “Those streets are narrow, but the homes there were originally built for families to have one car. Now they have multiple, and they often use their garages for storage and park on the streets. I don’t know that the tourist issue is actually a main factor. It’s a multipronged issue.”
Nonetheless, the Beachwood group’s campaign has been remarkably effective. First, they mostly rooted out tour operators who had frequented their neighborhood in buses or large vans by needling police to crack down on commercial vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds by bringing in portable scales for spot checks and issuing severe fines. (Fisch: “We had to ride them and embarrass them and push them, but they did it and it’s worked.”) This selective enforcement has embittered operators such as Fidel Rutwaza of Star City Tours, who claims that commercial vehicles benefiting homeowners haven’t been targeted. “Filming trucks from production companies are up there almost every day [for location shoots],” says Rutwaza. “They’re way heavier than a van.”
Next, the residents, bolstered by the imprimatur of LaBonge’s office, quietly persuaded Garmin, a producer of navigation equipment whose GPS units are used in cars, as well as mapmakers at Google and Apple to steer visitors looking for directions to the sign to avoid Beachwood’s streets. These changes were enacted between 2012 and 2014. Now tourists are led to more distant, sanctioned viewing spots, either officially (at the Griffith Observatory) or else commercially (a lookout at the Hollywood & Highland shopping center).
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Populist public-space proponents greeted the move as a cartographic crime. “A few dozen homeowners in one of the city’s wealthiest ZIP codes — who bought their homes knowing (I assume) about the letters hanging just outside their bedroom windows — have found a way to keep people out of their neighborhood by manipulating technology,” wrote prominent tech blog Gizmodo's Alissa Walker about this unprecedented digital mapmaking move. Her Nov. 21 post went viral.
Residents also have pushed to choke off curbside parking on many of the streets closest to Griffith Park. Bending to the pressure, the City Council created preferential districts, which restrict parking for everyone but residents. Then a Dec. 16 resolution immediately cut off parking entirely at “peak times,” which turned out to be nearly every holiday weekend, all summer weekends and whenever else “is deemed necessary.” (Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation told THR that it has performed “no formal traffic studies” in the area.)
Still, the homeowner activists are far from satisfied. Hardliners want the city to close a freshly upgraded trailhead entry point into Griffith Park within their freshly minted preferential parking district (recently completed gate improvements, including mechanization, cost taxpayers $213,000 and reopened Jan. 5). And, near the Lake Hollywood Reservoir, by an overlook at the edge of a popular dog park, they are agitating for the outright razing — the “returning to nature” — of what they regard as an illegitimate vista of the sign. Furious homeowners assert that the vista site — essentially an irregularly shaped flat expanse of dirt, a few stones positioned for optimal selfie-snapping and a retro Smokey the Bear placard warning of a “very high fire hazard severity zone” — was illegally developed without following proper city procedure and public review by LaBonge with his discretionary funds. “The councilman went rogue,” says O’Brien.
LaBonge asserts that little was done at the vista other than weed abatement and minor enhancement. “They are welcome to write to the city attorney if they have an issue,” he says. The homeowners are threatening to strongly support any fire- or traffic-related liability lawsuit that they’re convinced eventually will arise at the site with their accumulated documentation.
The conflict is a central issue in the election to replace LaBonge in March. Candidates who haven’t adopted flush-the-tourists-out stances — such as his former chief of staff, Carolyn Ramsay — face stiff opposition from a powerful voting bloc (“She is not campaigning up here for good reason,” says Fisch. “There is no support.”), while others in the wide-open field of candidates are defining themselves by their hawkishness. “I don’t care how draconian or how drastic, I will consider every measure,” says another contender, David Ryu.
Yet despite such protectionist stances, talk of grand plans to develop the sign, a perennial political nonstarter, are back in fashion. For his part, LaBonge would like to see a new trail carved out on Department of Water & Power-owned land from the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre just east of the 101 Freeway leading up to the sign. But environmentalists say such a project would endanger the habitat of special predators in the area — bobcats, gray foxes and a solitary 5-year-old urban mountain lion who recently recovered from mange.
Others want city-sponsored shuttles, either to the disputed trailhead gate or other viewing sites. Residents such as Hamza aren’t in favor: “The homeowners are dead-set against the shuttles because they are treating a residential area like Disneyland.”
Cable cars and funiculars are another idea, with a proposed system linking the sign to the family-friendly Travel Town miniature train museum in Griffith Park. “But who’s going to pay for it?” asks Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust. “And when you get to the top, then what?”
Another idea repeatedly floated: a viewing platform on Hollywood Boulevard; LaBonge has evoked a London Eye-style Ferris wheel. Tomas O’Grady, a candidate to replace him, imagines a ticketed attraction funded by a bond or parcel tax and kitted out for souvenir sales. “The allure for tourists in Beachwood and by the vista site is only because there is no alternative,” he says. “We need an irresistible magnet somewhere else.”
Absent amid all the long-shot concepts are coherent, actionable steps to oversee access and shape tourism around a landmark. The city never has moved forward with clear plans to build a visitor center, properly control parking, manage trail access, strictly enforce rules (about smoking and alcohol, for instance) and inform visitors how to interact with the sign in a way that is satisfying and sensitive to residents. Imagine this type of chaos at the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore (both are managed by the National Park Service).
Millions of tourists from throughout the world deplane at LAX, and quite likely the thing they most want to experience is the Hollywood sign. Alas, these visitors, who want to capture a little bit of the ethereal promise of glamour and the good life that the monument so effectively embodies, are instructed to park at a faraway shopping center or observatory and vaguely encouraged to bushwhack through unforgiving wilderness if they want to get closer.
"The city of dreams should be on top of the ability to express the fantasies of those dreams," says Hefner, who paid to save the sign decades ago, then doled out again to conserve an adjacent patch of wilderness from development in 2010. "It’s simply good sense."
"It used to be like chasing a rainbow, getting to the Hollywood sign," says Gerry Hans, president of the nonprofit Friends of Griffith Park. Adds Braudy, the USC professor: “That hard-to-get quality lures people. You may not become a movie star, but you can get as close to the sign as you possibly can.”
The irony is that beyond a certain point, the closer you get, the less there is to see. “When you’re right up against it, it looks like a metal fence,” says Beachwood resident Hope Anderson, director of a documentary on the history of the neighborhood, Under the Hollywood Sign. "You can’t see the letters at all." Notes architect Therese Kelly, leader of the scholarly outing group L.A. Urban Rangers, “What’s interesting when you get there isn’t so much the sign but when you turn around and look at the city below.”
Still, tourists will keep coming — and not all residents can blame them. Doron Ofir, the reality TV casting whiz (Jersey Shore) turned executive producer (Rich Kids of Beverly Hills), closed in October on a midcentury pad on Hollyridge Drive with views of the sign from nearly every room. “I used to have a poster of the sign over my bed growing up in Long Island, so living here is a reaffirmation of the dream that I made as a latchkey kid,” he says.
Ofir, still giddy at the prospect of leaving a life of condos in the flats, retains a romanticism for the icon outside his windows in the hills. “Yes, there are looky-loos, but this is where you live, the entertainment capital! If I was the grand poobah of everything, I would light it up with LEDs. It’s Tinseltown!”
Photo: THR/ Austin Hargrave