This sign blocks the Second Street entrance to City Hall. A similar sign… (Robert Greene / Los Angeles…)
For Sunday’s mayoral inaugural, city workers removed (thank goodness) the big sign at the top of City Hall’s grand Spring Street ceremonial granite steps. Perhaps you know the sign. It says, “CITY EMPLOYEE ENTRANCE ONLY. PUBLIC ENTRANCE LOCATED ON MAIN STREET.” On Monday, so far, that sign remains refreshingly absent.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, please, don’t put it back.
As surely as City Hall is a symbol of Los Angeles municipal government, so is that sign, and the one just like it at the similarly grand Second Street entrance. The message symbolizes the unnecessary separation that government has inserted between itself and the people it serves.
The two big, important entrances are for film crews, ceremonies and city employees. Important people, in other words. Mere “visitors” have to walk around to Main Street, the most stripped-down of the four doors to the 1928 building, made even less grand by the shadow of a 1970s bridge to the annex across the street. It's like one of those warehouses under a freeway overpass. Unlike the First Street steps, which open to a beautiful public park, and unlike the Spring Street courtyard, which visually connects with the mall of grass and fountains that stretches past courthouses and county buildings, the Main Street entrance is next to the parking garage. And the loading dock.
It’s essentially the service entrance. How is that not a message about what City Hall really thinks of the public?
The member of the public goes in, gets scanned, is compelled to produce identification and has to wear a silly sticker that says “VISITOR.” The reason is ostensibly security. Since 9/11 -- or, more to the point, since death threats were made against two former members of the City Council -- they can’t have the public just walking in and out of three different entrances as if they owned the place.
Of course, they do own the place. Besides, a few blocks away, the Central Library -- a building of much the same shape as City Hall, constructed in the same era but with the added history of actual security problems, including at least two arson fires -- three entrances are open to the public. When an expansion was planned and built in the 1980s and ’90s, library officials acknowledged that all those different ways to go in and out created a security problem. But that was outweighed, they said, by the importance of making clear to the public in all directions that this was their building and was open to them.
And City Hall? Is that not a public building, a temple of democracy, in addition to being a workplace for elected officials and public employees?
The new mayor spoke at his inaugural about making it clear that City Hall is open for business, and that’s great. He meant it figuratively, of course, stressing the role that municipal regulations and procedures have in making it easy or difficult to set up shop here with products or services that people want, and with payrolls that feed city coffers and pay for needed services. And one of the things most desperately needed to push Los Angeles government from, as the new mayor put it, the rotary phone era into the smartphone era is a virtual City Hall in which not just businesses but residents can get their permits, speak their minds, challenge their fines and settle disputes without physically entering the building.
But that kind of access starts with the real thing: Being able to walk into one’s own seat of government without being tagged as a “visitor.” It’s insulting. It’s kind of like being a deer that gets a red label stapled to its ear so the wildlife officials can track its movements. Metal detectors? Sure. They’re part of the era in which we live. But you don’t have to show your identification at the courthouse or the county Hall of Administration, and you don’t have to sport a tag.
Security is important. But the mayor is a smart guy, and he has smart people working for him. They can figure out how to keep people safe and still send them the message that the building is a public place.
So Garcetti says City Hall is open for business. Good. Let’s hope it’s open for people too -- the people who elect the officials, pay the taxes and should be the first thought of everyone who walks in that building with one of those other ID tags (the ones with the city seal on them) hanging around their necks.
Make the grand entrances the public entrances, not the employees-only entrances.
Or at least, for heaven's sake, if there is to be a sign that sends the riffraff to Main Street, can there be a map and an arrow, for people who don't come downtown every day, showing them where Main Street is?
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