Honey Climbs The Stairs Of Darkness
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)
The term “the Commoners” derived from the ancient rights English peasants had in large areas of land called Commons to graze their animals, gather fire wood, and gather hay, and these rights are related to the common law right of all people to walk across privately owned land.
Between 1760 and 1820, village after village lost its common law rights. Marxists called these losses a case of class robbery. Henry VIII obtained laws that required any landless peasant to be put to work, and the consequent acts were the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and Capitalism.
Americans in Los Angeles did not like commonly owned land and disposed of its Mexican legacy of municipal lands by giving it away if no one would buy it.
One of the results of this way of thinking is we lack sufficient parks. We also do not overly care for environmental regulations, because of the dominant ideology of private ownership. The freeways are our commons, each of us enclosed in metal-housed private space as we travel along them.
COVE STAIRS–Photo by Tammy Williams
In the 1920s, real estate developments in Silver Lake and in Echo Park – as in other areas in Los Angeles – needed access to the electric railway lines. Before the triumph of the automobile, the steep hills here made development unattractive without a way for residents to reach the Sunset Line and the line that ran along Allesandro (before it was a street), so they could get downtown, which was then the business center and source of jobs.
The developers deeded land for municipal stairways — which once again have become important civic assets because we must reduce our dependence on the automobile and increase access public transportation — to the City. The public also has common law rights to use those stairways.
Beginning in the 1980s, the City passed laws withdrawing alleys, streets, and stairways on the ground they were nuisances. The City Council decided, without legal findings based on evidence, that it was in the public interest to close those commonly owned rights-of-way.
In a 2009 videotaped interview with Tom La Bonge (This can be seen on the link on Boryanabooks “Silver Lake Stairs.”) Councilman La Bonge said the stairs were closed “for health and safety reasons.” Mr. La Bonge also said in that interview that residents don’t like people passing by their houses.
If I don’t like anyone passing my house, I can’t close off my street. I can’t stop anyone from parking in front of my house. My house is on a public street. Although my husband the baron resents our neighbor’s tenants parking in front of our house, there’s nothing he can do about it. We don’t own the street. He takes my car out of our driveway and parks it in front of our house to keep our neighbor’s tenants from parking there. Because someone repeatedly removed parts of my car when he began parking in front of our house, I gave that neighbor a copy of the key to my car so she could move it if she felt like it. After that, no one removed my car mirror or my license plate or pulled off pieces of chrome.
The state Vehicle Code allows the City to withdraw streets upon a factual finding they are dangerous. Under a Government Code provision, the State allows cities to withdraw from public use areas of public land, but then, no one may use that land. Everyone is a trespasser.
In the Whitley Terrace case in 1994, a Court of Appeal held that the City could not withdraw streets and stairways (because stairways are “streets”) from public use while allowing some people to use those streets.
Under the City’s Vacation ordinances, it may vacate streets that no one uses as a street, after public hearing, and after payment of a substantial amount of money, and after a planning commission finding that the vacation is consistent with the general plan.
Councilman Tom La Bonge’s office located the motion, presented by former Councilman Mike Woo, closing the Parkman stairs. These are the stairs that lead from Parkman to Westerly Terrace.
In 1990, the City Council passed a motion – not a resolution, and not an ordinance – withdrawing the Parkman stairs from public use. They allowed those who resided near the stairs to use them, but not the rest of us. In effect, the Council gave public property to adjacent property owners. Gifts of publicly owned property are illegal.
Those wishing to reach that part of Westerly Terrace above Parkman from Sunset now have to walk about a mile out of their way to do so, unless they live in one of the buildings on Parkman.
The Council decided that this withdrawal was “like a minor vacation.” There is nothing in the City’s ordinances called “a minor vacation.” The Council made this term up.
If there had been a vacation, then none of the residents on the stairs could use the right-of-way. The residents use the stairs. They also store property on it and put a couch and table on the stairs. No one paid the City’s fee for a vacation. Saying the withdrawal was “like a minor vacation” is tantamount to saying a woman is “like a little bit pregnant” but not pregnant.
The Council passed this motion prevent illegal drug trading without evidence anyone traded drugs on the stairs, to prevent people from sleeping on the stairs (Ouch. Very uncomfortable.) without evidence anyone slept on the stairs, and to prevent litter.
A few yards away, homeless people sleep under the Sunset Viaduct, where there’s shelter. The motion did nothing to stop homelessness. The area in and around the Viaduct is filthy, smells of urine, and is full of debris. The motion did nothing to stop littering. If anyone traded drugs on the Parkman stairs – and there is no evidence anyone did – that trade could easily take place anywhere else. We still have illegal drug trading in Los Angeles.
On the Eastside of Silver Lake, the Fargo stairs are similarly gated. The Department of Engineering told Dan Koeppel (http://www.bananabook.org/) that one of the adjacent property owners gated those stairs and put barbed wire on top of them without City permission.
A neighbor across the street from the Fargo stairs on Rockford said he had heard the City closed the stairs because there were break-ins in the neighborhood. It boggles the mind that burglars would chose to run up the stairs carrying television sets instead of parking on Rockford and loading up their cars. Besides, the burglars, possibly fictional burglars, could run up Baxter carrying television sets if they wanted to run up anything carrying heavy possessions.
For a period of years, the Fargo stairs were filled with stuff accumulated by one of the adjacent property owner. He also used to have his yard filled with stuff, and his car is parked on Rockford, and it is crammed with stuff.
The stairs are now clear, and they are lovely City-owned stairs passing beneath conifer trees, but only one person uses them.
A member of City Councilman Garcetti’s staff wrote me that they have no records pertaining to the Fargo stairs closure, after I sent a California Public Records Act request. I have so far located no motion on the City’s website to close those stairs. Garcetti’s office is still researching this question.
Dan Koeppel’s group has put together a list of twenty publicly owned stairways closed by the City Council and/or by property owners on each side of the stairways, which they call the Stairs of Darkness. (http://bigparadela.com/wordpress/archives/tag/big-parade-stairways)
We have in this City de facto Enclosure Acts, much like the Enclosure Acts in England that closed the Commons for private use during the Middle Ages in England. These enclosure acts are disguised as motions to reduce public nuisances, although there was not then and is not now any evidence of public nuisances.
England’s Enclosure Acts transformed its countryside and resulted in loss not only of the peasantry’s economic base, but which also resulted in the deep connections of mutual responsibility people once had with each other. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which a Jim Carey film now available on DVD, illuminates, shows us the heartlessness the commodification of property meant.
The closure of public stairs is not going to give rise to a new revolution. It is only a gift of public land by the City Council to constituents of councilmembers looking for votes.