Saving the pristine mountains
As an opinion leader, I amplified the voice
of opponents of massive housing project

Through my association with the Satyrs Motorcycle Club, I had met a wonderful, older couple, Phil Romer and Jim Morgon, founding members of the club who often hosted its events at their compound in La Crescenta, named ‘The Ponderosa.’
In mid-1966, I learned that one of their four houses was vacant. I told Phil and Jim the unvarnished truth; that my time was running out at my North Hollywood home where by partner had walked out after six months leaving me with a mortgage I could not afford. They knew everything about the situation, and eventually took pity on me, but not without some persuasion. Their previous tenant had stiffed them out of about six months’ rent, so they were wary at first.
After they agreed to rent to me, I had to wait a month or so while they personally, without any help, refurbished the one-bedroom cottage on Stevens Street. They re-varnished the gorgeous hardwood floors, repainted everything and generally fluffed up the place. I was a bit embarrassed.
A few days before Thanksgiving 1996, the movers arrived. In pouring rain, I loaded up my little 1982 four-door Honda Civic to the hilt, and everything soon arrived ‘up the hill.’ All the dishes and cooking utensils were still in crates, so Dan Brodzik cooked a complete turkey dinner at his WeHo home, packed it up and brought it up the hill. We shared my first dinner in the glass-enclosed sun room of my new home. Today, it has been the place I have hung my hat for exactly 15 years and one month.

The big pine tree died of disease in 2010

It’s a modest dwelling, painted green on the outside, allowing it to blend with the once-dense foliage surrounding the structure. The living room, home to the black leather furniture I acquired when I lived in an apartment above the garage in Silver Lake, fits perfectly, now complemented by the black, 46” flatscreen TV mounted on a glass and shiny black metal stand, which is a work of art itself (and cost as much as if it were a Picasso.)
The one bedroom is barely sufficient to accommodate my California King waterbed, the same one I inherited from Peter Sorenson when he moved out of the Hawley Boulevard condo in San Diego in 1982. The elegant, dark wood frame with the high headboard (painted black many years ago) is 29 years old, but the mattress has been changed several times, more than once because my dog Maxine popped it with her claws.

The redeeming features of my cabin, though, are the front porch and the extra space behind the kitchen where I sit writing this now. The porch is glass on three sides, affording a superb view of the north slope of the Verdugo Mountains from my 1,700-foot elevation, and just a sliver of downtown L.A. peeking around the edge of the hills. Actually, my view of downtown is seasonal, since a few years after I moved in the neighbors across the street and downhill grew a 40-foot-tall tree that, when leafy, blocks the view of downtown.
The den off the kitchen is a multi-purpose space. To my right, the washer and drier are crammed into the corner. In front, the upright desk with ancient radio/amplifier atop, with an antique dual cassette recorder resting on it. I tried the tape player a few weeks ago for the first time in a dozen or more years, but could get no sound out of it; I was too unmotivated to check why (it could simply be a lose connection) because I have long since digitized the 20 to 30 tapes gathering dust in a box atop the player.
Some of those digital tracks are accompanying the clickety-clack of the keyboard as I write. There are about 3,000 of them, about a third obtained from the file-sharing site Napster (slap-slap on the wrist) before it was sued into oblivion by the Recording Industry Association of America. Back in the eighties, after Stewart died, I donated my collection of 12-inch vinlys to Bjorn’s friend, David, in San Diego who promised to make good use of them, but I replaced almost all of them and then some from Napster. Most are now on a thumb drive in my car, where I still listen to and enjoy them frequently.
To my left, a little further away is the kitchen table, currently covered with a barely started 1,500 piece jigsaw puzzle that provides distraction when I need a rest from writing.
It’s been a happy home, all these years. Earlier, my neighbors to the east were an elderly Lesbian couple. I hardly ever saw them, but they both passed away some years ago. To my west, is a yellow, three-bedroom Spanish-style house, also owned by my landlords, and occupied at different times by three gay men (the most recent, with his very old mother), two of whom died while tenants in the house. Behind me, towards the mountains which are about six blocks north, is the Ponderosa, Phil and Jim’s modest two-bedroom with fabulous pool and even more fabulous orchid-filled greenhouse.
On the northwest edge of their lot, is another one-bedroom cottage occupied by Riley Black, currently and often before, president of the Satyrs M/C club. I am indeed fortunate to have shared this neighborhood with them for so long.
Across the street and downhill lives Joanne, who was pregnant with her fourth and final son when I moved in. Grant is now a strapping teen. She has become a good friend; she brought dry ice for my freezer when the power was out for three days last month.
Most of all, our dogs have become bosom buddies, and make such an odd couple; her Badger is a miniature Dachshund who’s legs might be all of two inches tall. He can and does comfortably fit under Roxy’s belly – she is my black Lab mix, only half the size of a regular Lab. They often play together with wild abandon, chasing each other across my hardwood floors, slipping and sliding and leaving horrible claw marks as they frolic. Luckily Joanne loves to have Roxy as a guest – even sometimes comes to the door to ask for a playdate – so it is with equanimity I leave Roxy at Joanne’s house when I am out of town; its vastly preferably to the kennel, for me and the dog.

Saving Oakmont
From my front porch I have a panoramic view of the virgin Verdugo Mountains, where only one street of ugly cliffside dwellings cling to the steep mountainside. But, this could have been a completely different story.
In 1995 I was promoted to Opinion Editor at the Glendale News-Press (the position a luxury they jettisoned years ago) that gave me a platform to pontificate on any topic I chose, well, subject to the agreement of the Editorial Board – the editor, managing editor, city editor and perhaps a couple of others. Since it was part of my job to bring ideas for editorials to the board, I was de facto setting the agenda for debate in the entire city.
See some of my Editorials here.
From early in the decade, one burning issue had consumed the community, especially the wealthy residents of the northern neighborhoods of the city, which includes a portion of La Crescenta adjacent to the unincorporated part where I live. A developer had already built perhaps 50 hideous houses on the upslope on a tract called Oakmont View that scarred the northeast face forever.
Now he wanted to build Phase 5, a development of 572 more houses further up and around the north side of the mountains. Check out the a diagram of what it would have done to the pristine mountainside.

oakmont for web

The view from my front porch. The black overlay is the project border. Note the pristine hillside it sits on.

Mid-decade, a group calling itself Volunteers Organized in Conserving the Environment (VOICE) had formed to oppose the development, which languished in the city planning office for years. Opposition had certainly slowed down the process, but the plan seemed to move inexorably forward because the city’s hands were, essentially, tied.
Under the U.S. Constitution and state law, the owner had an unfettered right to develop his property to the “highest and best” use, within the limits of regulation imposed by local authorities and the state. He could not be deprived, for any reason, without “just compensation.”
Early in my tenure, I became well connected with VOICE and all the city officials involved in Oakmont. When I became opinion editor, I was relatively free to use the columns of the paper to advance the goals of development opponents, since this was the (anti-business) position agreed upon by the editorial board. I did so, eloquently and frequently. Of course, I was constantly provided with fodder by VOICE and other elected officials sympathetic to its aims.

One in particular was the rising Democratic star, deputy U.S. Attorney Adam Schiff, who won his first electoral victory in 1996 for the 21st State Senate District seat, which included Glendale and the surrounding communities. I had gotten to know Schiff when as a reporter I covered his electoral race for the News-Press, and was uncommonly impressed; he struck me as an ‘honest Abe’ type of politician, one who could be trusted.
Perhaps this was because I agreed mostly with his positions and his general political philosophy, but even then I was a cynical curmudgeon who had seen far too many upright men (and some women) thoroughly corrupted by a broken political system as soon as they attained elective office.
The four-year melodrama that began with House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1995 shutdown of the federal government when President Bill Clinton refused to blink – The Impeachment – was well under way. Not only was it a national trauma, it also gave Schiff an opening for advancing his political ambitions. Our Congressman, Rep. James E. Rogan (Republican-CA 27) was an unapologetic, nay, proud manager of the Clinton impeachment on the floor of the House, and his 2000 re-election campaign became a de facto referendum on the impeachment process.
Adam Schiff won what was then the most expensive congressional campaign in U.S. history. I hugely regretted allowing the News-Press to endorse Rogan in 1998 (I was outvoted), but made amends two years later with outspoken editorial support for Schiff, something I believe he appreciated because he became a vital source on many issues. Our professional relationship was mutually beneficial during these years.
One issue Schiff adopted as his own was saving Oakmont V. He took up the cause at the local and state level. As a state senator, he had considerable clout in the Legislature. In 1998, he began, quietly at first, working on the only feasible way to stop it: buying the land from the developer. He knew there was considerable opposition to such a move on the Glendale City Council, so he put together an offer they could hardly ignore by getting a $5 million state appropriation to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy expressly for this purpose. In September 1999, he brought his plan to the community at a wildly successful Town Hall, held on the development site a couple of miles directly downhill from my house.
Read my op-ed on his Town Hall here.

Not long after I left the News-Press for the San Gabriel Valley Newspapers the following year, the deal was consummated, the mountainside saved for perpetuity. It is now known as the Verdugo Mountains Open Space Preserve, and my view it is still precious.
Post script: The above was written in December, 2011. In June 2012, I moved to Pasadena, and although I no longer have a splendid view of the north slope of the Verdugo Mountains, I remain proud of the role I played in preserving them for everyone to enjoy for generations into the future.