Zev Yaroslavsky discusses his book, Zev’s Los Angeles, From Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power. A Political Memoir, at a recent book-signing event at Tom Safran’s residence in Brentwood.
I just finished Zev Yaroslavsky’s memoir, Zev’s Los Angeles, from Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power. In an age of short attention spans, let me apologize in advance for the length of this book review. But Zev Yaroslavsky led a long and highly productive political career that deserves proper ink. His history is our history.
I highly recommend Zev’s Los Angeles to anyone who cares about the future of Los Angeles, especially those considering getting into politics or public service. I always liked Zev. He was simply Zev, always there, plain-spoken and practical. He never came across as your careful politician, picking his words oh-so-carefully so as not to offend. If he thought something, he said it.
Nor did Zev ever come across as a schemer seeking personal glory or gain. His mission was to figure out how to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people – a classic definition of what democracy is supposed to be all about. For 30-plus years, we were blessed to have great public servants like Tom Bradley, Marvin Braude, Cindy Miscikowski, Bill Rosendahl, Mike Feuer, Richard Riordan, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Zev Yaroslavsky. Theirs was a golden era in Los Angeles in many respects.
Zev’s book gives the reader an insider’s look at all Zev helped get done while in office. It’s a rather remarkable list, really. While reading this book, you will feel like you are right there in the meetings with him as he dashed about, pulling every lever of power he could in pursuit of a good cause.
Thirty Plus Years of Progress
What follows is a partial list of much Zev impacted, in no particular order, while serving as a city councilman and county supervisor. LA hosted the highly successful 1984 Olympics. LACMA became a world-class art destination. The Hollywood Bowl got a much-needed renovation. The Music Center and the LA Opera received the support they needed to thrive.
Disney Hall opened. So did The Broad Museum downtown and the BroadStage in Santa Monica. Huge swaths of open land in the Santa Monica Mountains got saved, parcel by parcel, for perpetuity. We bounced back quickly from the Northridge Earthquake. Needed police reform was pushed through. Limits were placed on development. Oil drilling off the Palisades got stopped.
The West LA VA, which was being proposed as commercial development – the equivalent of two Century Cities – got saved for the originally intended purpose of providing services to veterans. Measures M and R brought about massive improvements in public transportation, with over two-thirds of voters approving sales tax increases each time. Zev was always a champion for fiscal responsibility. He helped save the county and its healthcare system from bankruptcy.
During all these episodes and achievements, Zev was a central player, working the phones, driving across town to meet with other key players, meeting with the public, and taking the lead
Brentwood residents Dr. Milton Krisiloff and Flora Gil Krisiloff, seen at Zev’s recent book signing in Brentwood. Flora worked for Zev Yaroslavsky for several years, heading up homeless initiatives.
During this same time period, The Getty Center and The Skirball Center opened, further enhancing LA’s reputation as a world-class destination. Zev is quick to not take credit for either of these accomplishments: Those were Marvin Braude’s and Cindy Miscikowski’s projects, said Zev.
The Early Years
Politics was very personal for Zev. His family upbringing had a lot to do with that. His parents came to LA from Ukraine in the 1920s with nothing, seeking to escape the growing anK SemiKsm in Eastern Europe. Later they both became teachers.
The Yaroslavsky family settled in Boyle Heights, where Zev grew up loving baseball and the Dodgers. He thought one day he might succeed Vin Scully as the Dodgers’ play-by-play radio announcer. His parents imbued him with a love for music; Zev took oboe lessons at Bancroh Junior High School (he later graduated from Fairfax High School).
As a student at UCLA in the late sixties and early seventies, Zev became a leading student activist protesting Russia’s treatment of Jews. Many Jews wanted to leave Russia at the Kme, but they weren’t allowed to. In an early move that illustrates Zev Yaroslavsky’s boldness, in 1971, a long-haired Zev piloted a small boat up to the side of a Russian cargo ship that was anchored in the Port of Los Angeles. He used toilet plungers stuck to the much larger vessel to hold his own tiny boat steady.
Zev wanted to paint “Save Soviet Jews” on the side of the Russian freighter, but Russian sailors above started pouring water on Yaroslavsky below. Knowing he had little time to complete his task, Zev had to settle for “Let Jews Go” and a Star of David. Before he departed the scene, Zev snapped a photo of his “penmanship” and gave a copy of the photo to the LA Times, which ran it.
Zev is an opportunist, and I mean that only as a compliment. During his political career, whenever he saw an opportunity to do something he thought was right, he simply went for it when generating desired publicity for the causes he backed – or negative publicity for the causes he opposed.
Many politicians are very cautious. Not Zev.
In his first run for City Council in LA’s 5th District in 1975, nobody gave him much of a chance. He was considered too young, and he was going up against two City Hall insiders. A mix of persistence and luck got him across the finish line – at age 26 – and he was handily elected (or reelected) every election after that.
The “Zev Treatment”
Then, when others decided a cause was hopeless, Zev jumped in and got things moving, then with a successful result. I got a personal taste of the “Zev Treatment” one time. It was September of 2008, and there was an election coming that November. Measure R was on the ballot.
Measure R called for a half-cent sales tax that would fund several transportation upgrades, including finishing the Expo Line, which would connect downtown to Santa Monica, and building the Purple Line, which will soon connect UCLA and the West Los Angeles VA with the rest of Greater Los Angeles. Measure R required a two-thirds vote in order to be approved.
In late September of 2008, I got a call from Flora Gil Krisiloff, who was (and still is) well-known in Brentwood. She had headed up the Brentwood Community Council and was now working for Zev, spearheading county homelessness initiatives. “Zev wants you to interview him on the need to pass Measure R,” is how I recall the conversation starting. I’m, of course, paraphrasing here; it has been a while. “And he wants you to put this on the front page of the next Brentwood News,” continued Flora.
Over the years, people when asked if they could appear on the front page of the Brentwood News, but these requests usually came with a statement like, “We’d really appreciate it.”
This time it was different; Flora’s request for front-page treatment sounded like a direct order, not a request. This wasn’t the Flora I knew; I could tell she was delivering a message from Zev. I told Flora we were just days away from going to press and that we already had another subject picked out for October’s front page. Flora was insistent: Move that story to November.
“This is going to be a very close election,” persisted Flora. “Zev needs you to do this NOW. Can you come in tomorrow and interview him?” Wow. I couldn’t say no. I got off the phone, walked down the short hallway of our small and crowded office, and informed our editorial team we were going to change the front page.
The team freaked out, naturally; a last-minute change on deadline adds significant stress to an already tense situation. Plus, we had to explain to someone else he or she just got bumped. The next day I reported to Zev’s office, as instructed, and we talked about Measure R. A few days later, the article came out. When it did, Flora called to tell me how relieved Zev was. “Relieved?” That seemed like an odd thing to say.
Flora said I made Zev nervous because I took very few notes during the interview, and he wasn’t sure I was going to do a good job with the article if I didn’t capture all the detail and nuance. But Zev said I did a really good job, according to Flora.
October of 2008: Stop the presses!
Now I was the one who was relieved. Almost nothing is more awful than being told by a source you got something wrong after a story gets published. Conversely, it’s very satisfying when someone calls to say you really got it right.
As it so happened, I bumped into Zev at an event at the BroadStage in Santa Monica some Kme in November, maybe six weeks after the article appeared. I think it might have been the grand opening of The BroadStage. By now, the Measure R victory was in hand – by a margin of just a few hundred votes. But a win is a win, and Zev was obviously very happy.
We chatted a bit, and Zev said something I’ve never forgotten. He said it was possible, given how close the vote was, that the article in the Brentwood News is what put Measure R over the top. There’s no way to know if that’s true or not, but his saying it surely made me feel like the Brentwood News had contributed something important to the outcome.
Zev also said he liked the way I referred to him in the article as “an old war horse.” He told me his staff was worried that he would find that phrase offensive, but he said liked it. “I am an old war horse,” he told me.
Host Tom Safran fields questions for Zev at a recent book signing.
The Great Recession
Almost immediately after the Measure R victory, the economic collapse of 2008-2009 – the Great Recession – began to set in. The Brentwood News was suddenly losing advertisers left and right, and people I owed money to were suddenly telling me that, from now on, I had to pay cash on the barrelhead and make meaningful monthly payments on past due amounts.
Things just kept getting worse and worse. We cut our publishing frequency, laid off staff, and tried to collect money that was owed us from advertisers who simply vanished. In 2009, we shut down. Zev’s book includes a chapter on the collapse of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in 2007. Despite huge efforts, the hospital shutdown couldn’t be avoided, according to Zev.
Zev wrote that he faced much anger among members of the WaJs and Willowbrook communities at the Kme the hospital closed. He felt he and the rest of the Board of Supervisors had let that part of town down. He is still haunted by this debacle; it’s clear.
I understand the feeling completely; I felt like I had really let the Brentwood community down when we stopped publishing in 2009. We crawled back to life – barely – in 2010, in a much lesser form. After a few more years of struggle, I sold what remained of the Brentwood News to Mirror Media Group, which basically took over my remaining printing debts.
Even to this day, when I try to make sense of all the years and money I had put into my publishing company, I sometimes take solace in the notion that at least we helped get Measure R passed. I know we helped many other good causes, too, but when Zev tells you something is real, it seems more real. So thank you for that, Zev. Happy to be of service.
Two old war horses: Zev Yaroslavsky and Brentwood News founder Jeff Hall.
Homelessness in LA
Toward the end of the book, Zev offers some poignant words about the frustrating and unfinished business of dealing with LA’s homelessness situation. His thoughts on the matter were, as always, blunt and of the common-sense variety.
Declaring a state of emergency was the right thing for Mayor Bass to do, wrote Zev. Buying up old hotels and motels just makes sense, he added. But we obviously must do far more to build affordable housing and provide needed services to the homeless population, Zev stated. What we don’t need is more luxury housing for the wealthy, he made clear; it’s the lack of affordable housing that’s the problem.
Many of LA’s elected officials lost their way in the last decade, it seems. For too many, it became all about power, personal glory – or the money, even. Ideology got in the way of clear thinking. A strange denial overtook the system. Important issues went unsolved – especially homelessness.
Maybe now, with a new mayor and new members of the city council, we can see a return to better times. Let’s hope so. It’s time to get serious about homelessness. This one issue alone could overwhelm and make irrelevant almost all the progress Zev and his generation of civic leaders accomplished. Think about it: What good is a great public transportation system if everyday citizens don’t want to ride it for fear of being accosted by a homeless individual with serious mental health issues?
Current and future civic leaders who read Zev’s book will stand a much greater chance of staying on the straight and narrow path, I believe. Plus, they will be inspired by Zev’s example to simply go for it. That’s what’s needed now. It’s time to go for it.
It was suggested by many Angelenos over the years that Zev would have made a great Mayor of Los Angeles. Hell, Zev would have made a great congressman, senator, governor, ambassador – or president, even. It’s clear from reading Zev’s Los Angeles that Zev is proud of his accomplishments – as he should be. Zev gives much credit to his parents, grandparents – and his late wife, Barbara.
Zev’s Los Angeles – a Compelling Read
Before I close, I’d like to put in a good word for a fellow newspaper person (and fellow alumnus of the Los Angeles Times), Josh Getlin. Zev asked Josh to be his writing partner on Zev’s Los Angeles.
I’m guessing Zev is a terrific writer in his own right, and his book is highly readable. I was a bit sad when I came to the end of it; I wanted to keep hearing more stories. I have to believe Josh Getlin, former New York City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, made huge contributions to an outstanding final product. Public policy can be dry, boring, and wonky. This book is anything but.
A book signing event was recently held at Tom Safran’s home in Brentwood. The crowd was very appreciative of Zev’s many contributions, it was clear. You can find Zev’s Los Angeles on Amazon. Get it and be inspired.