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MAN BITES TOWN

And Away They Tow : When It Comes to Illegal Parking, Cops, Too, Can Get Carried Away

July 22, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

WHILE BACK, friends of mine came up from New Orleans for a visit. As you may have heard, their home town's economy is even more dependent on tourism than Disneyland's, since everything else New Orleanians could do to make money has either closed down or collapsed. Hence, the Crescent City knows how to treat its guests. Admittedly, it's not easy to park in the French Quarter, but that's not due to any lack of hospitality. It merely means the demand for spaces within two blocks' walk of all-night bars featuring warmed-over Dixieland far exceeds the supply.

So I took my friends to one of West Hollywood's least-sleazy night spots, where a band from New Orleans was making a stop on its nationwide tour. An evening of listening and dancing to highly agreeable music was topped off for my visitors when they discovered that their car, parked innocently enough on a nearby street, had been towed away into the night. As it says below the picture of Tom Bradley at the airport, Welcome to Los Angeles.

I approach this subject as something of an absolutist. A wrongful act when performed by a government against its citizens becomes no less wrongful. Forget about capital punishment for now; we can argue about that later. Concentrate on the principle: The towing-away of illegally parked vehicles is, to me, car theft by cops.

It's sad enough that these youthful lawmen are wasting their time phoning in for tow trucks when any reasonable television-watcher knows they should be going undercover in high schools to collar crack dealers. But somewhere in the civics class that rests mummified deep within my mind, the notion that an agent of government should, on the basis of such flimsy evidence as a car allegedly sitting beneath a certain sign, be empowered to act as prosecutor, judge and jury seems like the very thing we were guaranteed protection against back when they first tossed the tea.

Towing, though, is just the business end of a goofy new social trend: Permit Parking Chic. In beach cities, where tiny homesteads without garages meant that residents needed to park on the streets, homeowners sought protection from the natural tendency of transient beach-goers to avoid paying the state extortionate fees to park in its lots. The fad has since spread into every Westside neighborhood that harbors dreams of toniness.

So travel, if you will, through the streets of West Hollywood, a city of--to be kind--restaurants, bars and night clubs, a city that draws lots of visitors every night. Night is exactly when Draconian restrictions go into effect, rendering the streets almost entirely off-limits to the visitors who are trying to park so that they can spend their money, thereby filling the sales-tax coffers of--important musical sting, please--"the creative city." What do you see as you drive down those restricted streets? No parked cars. The residents, no fools they, have stashed their wheels safely in the roomy garages and spacious driveways of their lovely homes. Having experienced the hefty increases in property values as their neighborhoods became Someplace to Go, they now pressure their representatives to ban parking as a way to insulate themselves from the hustle and bustle of a Place to Be.

The alternative to street parking, of course, is handing your car over to a recent arrival on our shores who'll change the push buttons on the radio and enjoy an uninsured drive to God knows where.

But nothing--not even the exorbitant fees they can charge now that they know you have no choice--ensures that parking lots and structures will be open when you need them. My friends were faced with unparkable streets and closed parking garages. Legally, their only way out was to dematerialize their vehicle for the length of the show.

Don't blame the politicians who so cravenly cave in to the incessant pressure to enrich the towing industry. When it comes time to validate their incumbency, only one side of this argument can put the screws to them. The hapless visitors who dump their money in the vicinity keep going back to where they came from, taking their votes with them.

Maybe it all started in Century City. There, for the first time in the history of Los Angeles, on some of the widest stretches of asphalt this side of the runways at LAX, parking was prohibited all day, every day. Sure, such a policy forces you to park in dark garages and breathe concentrated exhaust fumes as you wait in line to ransom yourself back into the light. But there must be a down side to the deal.

One day, so far into the future that people will wax nostalgic about malathion spraying, we'll have rapid transit to attractive clusters of nightspots such as Melrose and West Hollywood. Then those communities can be as stern as they like about keeping their curbsides clear for cockroaches. Right now, if you're not friendly to my car, I'm not sure you're being all that nice to me. Someplace in this town, a man can park on the street without worrying about the car thieves with winches and badges. Next time my friends come up from down yonder, we'll go party in Eagle Rock.

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