For Helen Coleman, Los Angeles is not a sprawling metropolis of interstates connecting the blue Pacific to the San Gabriel Mountains. It is not a place of gleaming skyscrapers, sidewalk coffee shops and movie stars.
To Coleman, daily life in Los Angeles is a seemingly endless line of rundown 24-hour motels, halfway houses and liquor stores.
Like many other residents here, Coleman believes her Southwest Los Angeles neighborhood of Hyde Park has become a dumping ground for the things the city doesn't want--the things it wants to hide.
"The liquor stores, the sober living houses, the drug selling on the street," Coleman said. "We get it all here."
Coleman hopes a new approach--neighborhood councils--will change that, giving her disconnected neighborhood a voice in the city's decision making.
The neighborhood council concept, approved by voters in June 1999 as part of a citywide charter reform, is supposed to begin in June.
A newly created agency, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, is developing a plan for a system of advisory neighborhood councils. The councils will be notified about proposed projects in their neighborhoods and given a chance to tell the mayor and City Council what they think.
The councils will be advisory, without the power to approve or kill projects. But advocates say they will still be political powers in City Hall.
But as the start date for the program gets closer, a troubling trend is emerging.
The proposed neighborhood council in Hyde Park, a mainly African American working class community, is a rarity.
Many predominantly minority neighborhoods in Los Angeles, especially the poor ones that need representation most, are being left behind.
"There are clusters of neighborhood councils popping up all over the place with a lot of excitement, but most are in the more affluent neighborhoods," said Terry L. Cooper, a professor in the School of Public Planning at USC. "I am becoming more and more concerned with areas that are not organizing, especially immigrant neighborhoods where English is not the primary language."
Large pockets of Los Angeles, particularly South-Central and Central Los Angeles, have made no effort to organize, said Cooper, who is studying the implementation of the neighborhood councils. He has been meeting with community leaders to try to figure out how they might get more neighborhoods involved.
Greg Nelson, chief deputy in Councilman Joel Wachs' office, said he believes neighborhoods that aren't involved will become active after they see what the councils can do.
He said it will be especially helpful if the city provides resources, particularly for those in struggling communities where buying something as simple as a fax machine can be a hardship.
"If the plan starts providing resources, like full-time staff, money for newsletters, computers, e-mail, it won't be too long until the adjacent neighborhoods, which may not be organized, will look and say, 'I want that too,' " Nelson said.
But Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said he thinks some neighborhoods aren't eager to join the program because they fear it won't work.
Ridley-Thomas' district already has an active neighborhood group called the Eighth District Empowerment Congress. The district is made up of mostly working class Latinos and African Americans.
Citizens in the Eighth District are elected to the Empowerment Congress, an advisory group, for two-year terms. One-third of Ridley-Thomas' budget goes to finance the organization.
Proponents of the neighborhood council concept point to the Ridley-Thomas organization as an example of how they can work, especially if given resources. But while supporters of the councils are enthusiastic about Ridley-Thomas' approach, he's not so hopeful about theirs.
"We are doing what we need to do to get our business taken care of," Ridley-Thomas said. "If the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment's plan, which is yet to be done and proven effective, has favorable results, I suspect it to be integrated [into his organization]. If it doesn't, it won't."
But Coleman said the reason why many poorer areas aren't involved is that "in many of these neighborhoods, people are working two and three jobs just to survive; going to a community meeting is the last thing on their mind."
A Time of Increased Hostility to the City
Voters approved the neighborhood council concept as part of sweeping charter reform, which also gave the mayor's office more power.
The vote came at a time when there was growing hostility toward the city of Los Angeles. There have been calls to break up Los Angeles, with new cities proposed in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and the Harbor area.
Residents have complained that they are ignored when controversial projects are suggested for their neighborhoods.