A few people can change a lot in a community

21 Jan

The radical community organizer Saul Alinsky, whose insights are used today as much by those on the right as on the left, once wrote:

“If people don’t think they have the power to solve their problems, they won’t even think about how to solve them.”

At a time when apathy and defeatism seem so rampant, when the antics of Kim Kardashian, the staged dramas of unreality TV and the tarnishing of our heroes are the center of public attention, what has happened in West Pasadena in the last year shows what can happen when a few people change their minds and think they do have the power to solve problems.

It started with the closure of the lone fire station in the affluent San Rafael neighborhood, tucked in the southwest corner of town adjacent to Northeast Los Angeles, when some residents of Glen Summer Road decided to fight back.

Instead of just grumbling, they went to work organizing their neighborhood. Like town criers of yore, they sounded the alarm in person and on the Internet and created enough of an uproar that the city stationed an ambulance on their street and agreed to build a new earthquake-safe fire station.

Then, last spring, there was the announcement that their local elementary school would be closed because it sits atop a seismic fault and more people starting thinking they could do something about it and got involved.

A month later, the community learned authorities wanted to extend the Long Beach (710) Freeway with a tunnel under their homes or maybe right down the middle of the street that runs through the Arroyo Seco, so they linked up with neighborhood groups from Garvanza, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, South Pasadena and north to La Canada-Flintridge.

Now it’s the Rose Bowl going professional with the city looking to lease the historic stadium to the National Football League if a team moves to the L.A. region, more than doubling the number of dates that massive crowds and traffic would descend on the area.

“It all starts when you see numerous times of injustice and you finally just have to speak up,” says Dr. Ron Paler, a founder of the San Rafael Neighborhood Assn. and a moving force in bringing together communities that cut across city boundaries as well as economic and cultural differences. “You suddenly find that the people in your neighborhood, in Pasadena, even outside of there, people are connecting, people who would normally be sitting at home and stewing, maybe firing off a letter but not knowing who and how to organize,” he said. “What we’ve seen is people on your street and the three streets away and miles away, they’re talking to each other and connecting to each other by social media and the Internet and especially by email to get involved and fight a cause.”

These efforts have forced officials to work hard to find an acceptable solution to the school closure and stymied plans to extend the 710. Now the fight is the Rose Bowl which the Pasadena City Council voted recently to move forward with planning to provide the venue for an NFL football team at least for the five years it will take to build a new stadium in downtown L.A. or the City of Industry.

Demonstrating repeatedly over the last six months that they can get hundreds of people to public meetings and rallies, these new activists have now turned to the courts to challenge governmental action, suing on environmental grounds to block leasing the Rose Bowl to the NFL.

The Linda Vista-Annandale Assn. joined with the San Rafael Neighborhood Assn. with financial support as well from the West Pasadena Residents Assn. to form a united front to oppose going from 12 events a year to as many as 25.

And then Michael Vogler, a West Pasadena attorney with no record of community activism, was inspired to add a new wrinkle to the campaign by organizing nearly three dozen others to join him in filing papers to recall Councilman Steve Madison – who represents the area – from office. “When he voted yes, I thought it was the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen in Pasadena,” Vogler says, noting more than 80% in Madison’s district voted against a 2006 ballot measure on the NFL. “It didn’t pass the smell test. People are angry and feel betrayed. It was what triggered my involvement.”

Vogler accuses Madison of having a conflict of interest in voting for the NFL deal because his national law firm, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, represents or has represented the league, several of its teams and other sports-related businesses for years. ” He should have recused himself at the least on an issue (that) I think is the most impotant in West Pasadena in generations and for generations to come,” Vogler said.

“The NFL operating at the Rose Bowl will fundamentally change the neighborhood and the recreational uses of the Arroyo Seco for a very long time,” Vogler said. “It’s the people of Pasadena vs. an oligarchy of billionaires. Who does our councilman work for – his constituents or the NFL? That’s the issue that it distills down to.”

Make no mistake, there likely would not be a recall, a lawsuit over the Rose Bowl, transportation officials going back to the drawing boards or local officials seeking solutions to the people’s problems if a few people had not gotten to work for change and gotten so many others thinking they had the power to fight for better solutions.

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