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Looking for Peace : Culture: Clashing lifestyles between Russian immigrants and longtime residents, including gays and lesbians, have city officials scrambling for a solution.

August 20, 1992|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WEST HOLLYWOOD — A culture clash in West Hollywood between some of the city's new Russian immigrants and longtime residents has sent city officials scrambling for ways to promote peaceful coexistence.

Longtime residents and city officials say the most troubling problem is an intolerant attitude of some of the Russians toward the city's large gay and lesbian community. Established residents, meanwhile, frequently complain that the immigrants, many of whom live crowded together in small apartments, are loud and inconsiderate of their neighbors.

The West Hollywood sheriff's station has received more than 40 complaints in the past year from residents about Russians verbally bashing gays and lesbians, Russian youths double parking and blocking driveways with cars, and groups of Russians talking loudly and congregating in front of apartment complexes.

When one incident nearly escalated into a physical fight, the city called for a dispute resolution meeting, which was held Aug. 5.

Tensions appear to be worst in the neighborhood surrounding Plummer Park, in West Hollywood's eastern section, where most of the estimated more than 3,000 Russian immigrants in the city are concentrated.

Helen Levin, director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center, said: "There are problems with young (Russian) adults coming home at 1 or 2 a.m., double-parking in the streets and honking and talking. It is mostly a problem on the narrow streets like Harper and Hampton. And for Russians, (the gay lifestyle) is very new. In Russia, it was forbidden. It was seven years in prison (for homosexuality).

"It will take time and patience," Levin said of the effort to change attitudes and behavior. "We are trying to tell newcomers that this is a place with new regulations and rules and that they shouldn't make a revolution."

Cyndy Crogan, a member of the gay and lesbian activist group ACT UP, said that she and other members have been verbally attacked numerous times in Plummer Park, where the group holds its meetings.

"It's a serious problem to us," Crogan said. "One incident occurred when about five of us were walking to our car and seven or eight Russian teen-agers surrounded us and yelled out homophobic slurs. To go into that park and know that someone hates my guts because of my sexual orientation is real disturbing."

The city began to tackle the problem four months ago by distributing a set of "Understanding Our Neighbors" flyers, written in Russian and English.

The Russian-language version explains that West Hollywood has long been a haven of tolerance for gays and lesbians, and summarizes the city's policies for protecting homosexuals with anti-discrimination laws regarding housing, employment and pursuit of happiness. The pamphlet does not mention laws about noise and double-parking.

The English-language counterpart, titled "Understanding Our Russian Neighbors," explains that homosexuality was considered a crime against the state in the former Soviet Union, that years of food scarcity there has made immigrants "aggressive" shoppers, and that gathering in front of apartment complexes to talk is the equivalent of the Russian tradition of gathering in courtyards to talk in their native land.

The Aug. 5 dispute resolution meeting drew a disappointing turnout among residents--just five, Russian and non-Russian--but organizers and city officials who also attended said it nonetheless generated some plans and ideas that may lead to reduced tensions. The meeting was conducted by Dispute Resolution Services, a project of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.

Lauren Burton, executive director of Dispute Resolution Services, said all who attended agreed that the city should compile a list of coexistence guidelines for distribution in the Russian community. The guidelines, she said, should cover common courtesies about noise and parking as well as educational information about gay and lesbian lifestyles.

In addition, sheriff's Deputy David Do and city neighborhood service specialist Susan Duenas are planning to organize some sports activities for Russian youths, many of whom spend a lot of idle time in Plummer Park, and who are regarded as responsible for much of the anti-gay harassment.

Duenas, who attended the meeting, said: "The culture clash is a major issue and I don't know of any problems Russians are having except that they have no idea their behavior is a problem. They have no idea that they have irritated residents so much that it almost gets physical. They have no idea being loud is a problem. When people complain, they just say, 'It's a free country.' "

Resident Ben Cable-McCarthy, who said he has been the target of Russian youths' homophobic epithets, said he found the mediation meeting constructive.

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