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Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica by Mark E. Kann (Temple University: $24.95; 336 pp.)

May 04, 1986| David G. Epstein | Epstein, an urban anthropologist and lawyer, serves on the Santa Monica City Council. and

Santa Monica, a suburban beach town of fewer than 90,000 souls, now has a Kremlinologist to add to its carrousel, airport and underpass murals.

Mark Kann dissects the left hemisphere of Santa Monica's body politic with the obsessive attention that other academics reserve for the Chinese Communist Party or the militant Shi'ism in Iran.

Kann did a lot of hard work on this book, which is replete with 25 pages of footnotes and organized like a doctoral dissertation. Alas, it also reads like one. Kann relentlessly reviews the literature, doggedly lays out the facts, and offers his interpretations only at the end.

There are only a few outright mistakes of fact (misspelling homeowner leader Tom Larmore's name, confusing a "nuclear-free zone" initiative by citizen-peaceniks with a City Council-sponsored rejection of evacuation as a civil defense strategy).

The reader who does plow through to the end, however, is likely to end up with little more than the notion that Santa Monica is a "middle class" community whose government was taken over for a while by some "middle class" radicals, and reformed somewhat. The radicals then lost control, but remain a major political force in the community. This history, Kann suggests, might offer an example for the American left, but probably not a very good one.

Kann seems never to have picked his audience. He seems to want to help his friends on the not-quite-socialist left by offering them a lesson or two from Santa Monica, where a coalition called Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights held sway on the City Council for four years. In the end, however, Kann seems to doubt that Santa Monica is much of a model for organizers.

In form, the book is less an organizing manual than the sort of tome that professors write for other professors, to gain promotion and prestige in their fields--but without the clarity and precision of the best academic writing, whether scientific or learned commentary.

In method, the book is journalism, relying as it does on interviews with the players and clippings from the local papers--but without the crackle and insight of first-rate reporting.

Too bad, because Kann picked a first-rate subject. Except, so far, for violence, Santa Monica politics has everything--drama, betrayal, intrigue, tragic and comic characters, a smidgen of sex, and even serious disputes about how we want to live and how to decide. A book like "The Milagro Bean Field War" shows how entertaining, and yet serious, it can be to follow such matters in a face-to-face community.

Kann focuses mostly on the Santa Monica left itself, and so may have been led to conclude that Santa Monica is more of a special case than it really is. Some of its elected officials do talk '60s movement-ese. The Wall Street Journal did call Santa Monica a "Beautiful Peoples' Republic." But it is hardly unique.

From San Diego to Marin County, California coastal communities are divided on the issue of growth between, on the one hand, the "drawbridge politics" of people who like their towns just fine, thank you, and don't want high rises in their neighborhoods, oil on their beaches, or new faces in town, and, on the other, what Kann calls the "growth machine," the land developers and land owners whose business is development, and whose efforts bring revenue to municipal coffers and sometimes unwelcome change to our streets.

In metropolitan communities with large numbers of renters, rent control became an issue during the real estate boom years of '70s inflation and the Jarvis tax revolt. Cities big and small adopted rent control legislation.

What distinguished Santa Monica was that its beach town drawbridge politics combined with metropolitan rent control politics because the proportion of tenants was so high. Organizers, drawn from two generations of radical alumni in search of a cause, were able to seize leadership when the traditional community leaders in the "animal clubs" and local business responded inflexibly to the demand of renters to slow the pace of change enough so they could feel secure in their homes.

This picture is not so very different from that in Manhattan Beach, or San Clemente, where an anti-growth initiative has just been passed. True, Santa Monica's "radical" organizers borrow some of their language from the '60s. But such ideological fads are like one's 16-year-old's pink Mohawk--hard to ignore but mostly symbolic and likely to be outgrown. After all, leaders of a more "conventional" stripe go to lunches where they sing off-key, fine each other and try to make noises like animals. Life, somehow, goes on in such places. So it's not surprising that Santa Monica managed to survive four years of bean-sprout Bolshevism, and then got tired of it, at least for a while.

No doubt we shall also survive the prurient prying and poking of political would-be scientists, too. And so far, the definitive work on Santa Monica's lively politics remains to be written.

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