False Flags, Bad Data and Untrustworthy Authorities: The Oncoming Harm Facing Runyon Canyon
The Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) is an all-volunteer advisory board with lots of strong feelings and almost zero political power. At regularly scheduled meetings held at the Durant library, the HHWNC fields the concerns of local residents and stakeholders, many of whom are vexed about preposterous and harmful developments being allowed in the area, like shopping malls built next door to an elementary school, and a basketball court built in the middle of the Runyon Canyon wilderness area. After copious discussion, not-quite-rational debate, and much impassioned hand-wringing, the Board conducts a public vote and passes along their official recommendation to someone who can actually get things done, someone who has actual power: Council District 4 representative David Ryu.
According to the rules of this charade, he’s supposed to follow the Board’s guidance.
For reasons that Councilmember Ryu has never explained, when the HHWNC passed a near-unanimous resolution advising Ryu to discontinue allowing the Orwellian-named “Friends of Runyon Canyon” (FORC) to have any official role in park fund-raising or administration, David Ryu ignored the advice. Although the community spoke clearly and forcefully — “FORC lied and cheated. We don’t want FORC in our park!” — Ryu rewrote and then renewed their Memo of Understanding and continues to have a chummy, politically beneficial relationship with one of the most reviled organization on the local scene.
That FORC’s former President, John Gile, is a collector of political bribes — sorry, donations — for Los Angeles Democrats, including the Mayor and several Councilmembers instrumental in building luxury skyscrapers instead of low-income housing, might have had something to do with Ryu’s inscrutable decision-making. Since he’s never consented to an interview on the subject, his puzzled constituents can only conjecture.
His refusal to heed the wishes of those he represents gives David Ryu the appearance of being bought-and-paid-for, and he seems comfortable with that perception, confident that the establishment machine will get him re-elected despite his dereliction of leadership. (The strategy has certainly worked for his bumbling buddy Mayor Eric “I Will End Homelessness” Garcetti.) It was recently revealed that Ryu has been using a private email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) to conduct City business, including sending alerts to his fellow Councilmember, Mitch “Private Meetings With Developers” O’Farrell when a big deal is looming. We anticipate Ryu soon returning to the private sector, where his background is in that most crucial political skill: fund-raising.
Ryu’s failure to heed the HHWNC isn’t merely insulting to the people who live and work here. It’s starting to have dire consequences that could impact residents for generations to come.
FORC is back in the park. Although they’ve removed the self-congratulatory 14-foot-high vinyl banner memorializing their reign, members of the group, including their disgraced vice-president, Don Andres, whose name and signature is all over various official documents relating to the notorious basketball court FORC tried to build without proper approvals, was last spotted in the Canyon standing beneath an official City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks marquee, intercepting visitors entering the hiking trails. Mr. Andres, whose relationship with the truth seems inspired by Donald Trump, likes to tell unwitting listeners FORC had nothing to do with building the basketball court, despite reams of documentary evidence to the contrary. For the record, Don Andres is now president of FORC.
Why does any of this matter? Because FORC — and, it seems, Ryu — desperately wants to build inside Runyon Canyon. Since the sponsored basketball court didn’t work out, triggering lawsuits and costing local taxpayers hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to clean up FORC’s mess, their new goal is to construct other stuff — a ranger station, an “information kiosk,” a cell-phone tower, a latrine — all of which cost money “we just don’t have in the budget” and, therefore, require funds to be procured from the private sector. Hooray! That’s FORC’s specialty: gathering money for special projects, finding advertisers — sorry, sponsors — to pay for improvements the City can’t afford. See? FORC isn’t just just useful, they’re necessary. Without them, how would we pay for all these “urgent upgrades”?
It’s a neat little con job that recalls America’s standard playbook for selling foreign wars to a gullible public: Convince uncritical thinkers that there’s A Big Problem Threatening Us — and then send in the troops and bombers to “fix” it. The scheme worked in Vietnam and Iraq, and it’s currently being tested on Venezuela and Iran: Raise a “false flag,” take extraordinary measures, and, eventually, declare “victory” over an “enemy” that was never for a moment an actual threat, merely a compelling story.
These are some of the false flags currently being raised in Runyon Canyon as an excuse for FORC to raise money:
+ The park is overrun with litter and dog shit. Patently untrue. As one of the merry volunteers who, since 2012, makes it a daily practice to pick up litter and dog shit left behind by inconsiderate visitors, someone who actually puts his (baggie-covered) hands on the stuff more than the one-day-a-year they give out t-shirts and selfies, I can reliably report that the park is better than ever. Not perfect — I still collect about half of a plastic shopping bag of droppings on my hikes — but not remotely close to being the feces-and-granola-bar-wrapper apocalypse the doomsayers would have you believe. I invite anyone who thinks otherwise to join me for an hour of cleaning, with the understanding that there might not be much for you to do but enjoy the walk. In this way we will collect real data, not just compelling stories.
+ The park suffers from lawlessness requiring the presence of badge-wearing Park Rangers on the trails. Patently untrue. Again, let’s look at the data, not the hearsay. How many incidents in the park require authorities to be summoned, versus How many incidents in the park, like lighting up a cigarette, require nothing but a firm reminder from conscientious park visitors? Go check the official records. Answer: extremely few. The emergency vehicle sirens you hear racing toward Runyon aren’t for fires, robberies or assaults. They’re mostly medical incidents, ranging from coronary events to twisted ankles and scraped knees.
+ Because of an absence of bathrooms, the park is being defiled by human excrement. Patently untrue — and comically absurd. Almost no one but the mentally ill or strangely fetishistic enjoys relieving himself in the presence of an audience. Most people, including the overwhelming majority of Runyon Canyon visitors, prefer to move their bowels in private, far from inquiring eyes. For this reason alone, anyone searching for human feces in the park generally won’t find it on or near the hiking trails. (Question for the Poo Hounds: How do you tell the difference between human feces and that of a large dog? How do you know which anus it emerged from? And why is one more troublesome than the other?) Sure, there are “places to poop” in Runyon, and copious spots to pee, and you can find them listed on the Internet. But anyone concerned that our beloved park is becoming a massive toilet would need to bushwack into seldom-visited areas to find the human shit that’s allegedly befouling the Runyon experience. Maybe there are rare exceptions to the rule. But this is a classic case of a non-“problem” that has little or no impact on anyone until they’re told (repeatedly) that it’s a health/safety/welfare issue.
Without these false flags, building a ranger station/public bathroom/sponsored cafe, doesn’t seem at all necessary, more like just another way to spoil one of the last unspoiled places in Los Angeles.
This is why it’s imperative for FORC and Councilmember Ryu to create a powerful fiction for an unscrupulous public. No dire problem = no savior required.
To this end, those who wish to add infrastructure to the park have recruited — duped? — two well-meaning patsies to promulgate the false narrative that Runyon Canyon is being “loved to death” and needs more building and pipes and towers to save it. One is Jeffery Masino, the Chair of the HHWNC Parks and Open Space Committee. Mr. Masino, now serving his second volunteer term, has always struck us as sincere, honest, and genuinely caring. We’re grateful to have someone decent overseeing the constant shenanigans surrounding our local treasure. Unfortunately, although Chairman Masino’s committee voted unanimously to eject FORC from Runyon, he maintains a cordial and cooperative relationship with FORC, treating them as though they have legitimacy, which, according to the HHWNC’s official position, they do not. In his quest to be fair and even-handed with all, even those whose untrustworthy behavior is on the record, Jeff Masino unwittingly validates FORC’s long-term schemes and helps them move through the political process. Today, it’s a security-monitored toilet; a few years from now, it will be a Starbucks.
The other most valuable tool to sell the public on the dire need to build-construct-improve on what is essentially a wilderness area, is Ms. Julie Dixon, whose firm, Dixon Associates, was commissioned by Ryu’s office to compile a Runyon Canyon Comprehensive Strategies Report. Backed by thousands of pieces of “data,” the Councilmember now has something concrete he can point to whenever someone asks him why he wants to bring in the bulldozers (and solicit donations for construction). The problem is, while Ms. Dixon is well-meaning, professionally organized, and seemingly open to any and all ideas, her team collected very little authentic data and a whole bunch of personal opinions, desires and stories. Those are valuable things. But they’re not data.
Data is reporting the average number of daily visitors on a weekday (3,552, based on one sample, taken on October 18, 2018). Data is reporting certain streets around Runyon Canyon use only 5% of the available parking spaces thanks to preferential parking permits, while those without the regulations are nearer to 90% capacity. Data is measuring the amount of human feces found along the hiking trails, not merely collating anecdotes about it.
What Dixon Associates did is less like serious science and more like phone polling. Indeed, the bulk of their “data” consists of interviews with a scandalously small sample size of park visitors, so small the actual number is omitted from the final report. They also collected the thoughts of a small number of online respondents; actual number again unreported in the RCCSR. (A separate document reveals it was only 250 people). Then, using this tiny pool of narrative responses, Dixon and her team, none of them experts in anything but data collection, crafted 26 Strategies that will allegedly “improve” Runyon Canyon.
In any serious setting — say, academia — the RCCSR would be dismissed as procedurally flawed nonsense and sent back for a do-over. In a political setting, many will read it as convenient gospel.
By “read,” of course we mean “read about,” since few Runyon Canyon visitors will bother to actually review all 44 pages. As a public service, we did, slogging through the tortured doublespeak and creative logic. Here’s a brief summary of the Dixon recommendations, which, we emphasize again, were based on unreliable small-sample polling, nothing else.
- Determine Feasibility of Developing a Turnaround Space [for Cars] at the Fuller Entrance. Any strategy that encourages motor vehicles to visit Runyon Canyon instead of public transportation or walking is looking to the past instead of the future.
- Consider offering Shuttle Route Access to the Park. While this idea is mildly better than bringing more individual cars to the entrance, the question remains: Why can’t people walk from nearby drop-off spots and get their hike in the Canyon started 10 minutes before they arrive at the Canyon? Why must they be chauffeured to their exercise?
- Convert Hillside Avenue to One-Way Traffic. Perhaps this strategy benefits traffic flow in the area, perhaps it doesn’t. How it directly benefits parkgoers is difficult to understand.
- Establish Transportation Network Company Loading Zones. Great idea if you wish to bring more vehicles to the Canyon. Not so great if you wish to discourage the use of private cars.
- Collaborate with Transportation Network Companies to Provide Incentives. See above.
- Install Signage for Pedestrians at Nearby Locations to Encourage Walking. YES! The big majority of Canyon visitors are there to hike, walk, be outside in their beautiful body. Letting them know they’re “10 Minute Walk to Runyon” from the subway station and “5 Minute Walk to Runyon” from the bus stop on Hollywood is an excellent affirmation that the outdoors experience has already begun.
- Consider Shared Parking Agreements. Increase the parking supply (more cars) while leaving untouched the unused parking supply on preferential permit streets. Sounds about right for those in the business-as-usual game.
- Implement Paid Parking Around the Park. Paying for something that can often be found for free is a kind of disincentive to driving. In our (highly unpopular) opinion, all parking on public streets ought to be paid.
- Address Upper Lot One-Way Traffic Flow. This doesn’t seem like one of those big, outside-the-box ideas Dixon promised to hunt for. But maybe it will help someone, somewhere, somehow.
- Install Cameras at the Upper Parking Lot. You come for the perceived safety, you stay for the valuable data collection.
- Address Street Parking Along Mulholland Drive. Enforcement of a blanket “no parking” along Mulholland would do the trick. But traffic officers, apparently, are preoccupied protecting the (mostly empty) preferential parking spaces on nearby streets.
- Develop a Park Ranger Station and Designate Park Ranger Staff. Runyon Canyon is not unsafe. Runyon Canyon is not being vandalized by lawless hooligans (only pink dolphins). Runyon Canyon is not being burnt to the ground by heedless smokers. Given the enormous number of visitors — around 1 million a year, extrapolated from the unreliable Dixon study — Runyon Canyon is remarkably safe, surprisingly clean and virtually fire and crime free. Where is the data that proves otherwise? Yet folks always fall for the “if only we had more uniformed officers around everything would be even better” ruse. More police or police-like figures don’t make societies better, they make them more like police states. The park doesn’t need more authority figures, it needs more love. See below.. .
- Establish a Park Ambassador Volunteer Program. Great idea. So great it’s already being done. By many of us. We don’t have uniforms, a hut sponsored by a corporate donor, or photos with the Councilmember to prove it. But we’re out there every day doing with pleasure every single task listed on the Dixon study — including picking up after naughty dog owners.
- Install Public Restrooms Within the Park. A terrible idea. Runyon Canyon is a wilderness area without amenities. We’ve been told for years (by FORC) it’s allegedly being “loved to death” by too many visitors. Wrecking more of Nature to install facilities that make visiting Runyon easier, even more delightful than it already is, flies in the face of the underlying logic used to justify FORC’s existence in the first place. Ye of small bladders, heed this warning: Bathrooms built in Runyon Canyon will be the foot-in-the-door, the wedge needed by the venal-minded to further “develop” Runyon Canyon. Next will be cafes and other sponsored “amenities.” Eventually, the land will be developed for even more lucrative purposes, like the most exclusive sub-division in Los Angeles. And it will have all started because folks were convinced that more infrastructure and industry would solve an imaginary problem. Much better would be to build public toilets on skid row.
- Improve Trail Steps. This seems to be the kind of obvious, basic responsibility of a competent Department of Recreation and Parks. Alas, this is the same RAP that rubber-stamped (and then, facing lawsuits, revoked) permission to build a branded basketball court in the middle of the Canyon — without so much as a sound study, not to mention a full Environmental Impact Review.
- Increase Citation Amounts in High-Impact Tourist Areas. Because, see, it’s the tourists whose malfeasance is wrecking Runyon. The logic here — bigger fines results in better compliance — is hilarious. Texting while driving, anyone?
- Improve Cellular Communications Within the Park. Another imaginary “problem” that invites invasive industry into the park. Based on the number of overheard phone conversations one is privy to on an average loop around the trails, there seems to be more than enough service in the Canyon. This isn’t the Himalayas or the Australian Outback; no one is perishing because she couldn’t summon help. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Dixon cohort that one of the main reasons harried Los Angelenos come to Runyon Canyon is to disconnect. Maybe the little bit of wilderness we have left in our city doesn’t really need to be a Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Encourage Respect for the Environment and Wilderness. And what better way to demonstrate your mad respect than to put up more buildings and permanent structures on the Wilderness? The RCCSR calls for “an educational exhibit space” to be constructed beside the unneeded Ranger Station. The highest respect for the Environment and Wilderness is to leave it alone.
- Install Additional Garbage Cans and Dog Waste Disposal Stations. See #15 above. This is basic park maintenance that any competent RAP manager should figure out after one Runyon visit.
- Install Dedicated Pet Relief Areas. As though acres of Wilderness ought to be treated like the Southwest Airlines terminal at LAX. We suspect whomever conceived this preposterous idea doesn’t own a dog.
- Install Additional Benches. See #15 above.
- Develop a Formalized Strategy for Collecting Visitation Data. Because there clearly wasn’t one in place for the Dixon Study. FORC and CD4 have in the past bandied about visitation figures as high as 3.5 million annually; Dixon’s numbers, collected on a single weekday and a single weekend, indicate more like 1 million. Ask any statistician: With variances this wide and samples so small, the numbers given are completely unreliable, possibly worthless.
- Support a Dedicated Runyon Canyon Website. What a marvelous opportunity for FORC, CD4 and the Department of Recreation and Parks to control their messaging. Prediction: In the interest of expediency, the wise elders will decide to simply convert FORC’s Website into the official Runyon Canyon Website.
- Install a Barrier Between the Upper Lot and Residential Homes. “Build that wall” has an ominous ring these days. But a floral hedge? A row of ficus trees?
- Add Holiday Parking Restriction Provision to Posted Signage. The data shows that 95% of available space goes unused on Permit streets. This provision would make it more like 98%, and isn’t that better for the people who matter most, the landed gentry?
- Increase Parking Enforcement in Impacted Areas. We all win. Except people parked illegally.
There’s scant evidence in Ryu’s record to suggest he understand’s his role as a representative of the electorate. Like most establishment politicians, he knows it’s important to keep up the appearance of public service while actually serving first and foremost your financial patrons. Witness Ryu’s flip-flopping, campaign pledge-breaking vote to approve the noxious 8150 Sunset development (now tied up in litigation, like so many other City-approved mistakes); his approval of a shopping mall/grocery store to be built directly next door to the Gardner Street Middle School; and, of course, turning his back on the hundreds of locals who stopped FORC from desecrating Runyon Canyon.
But if you’d like to “make your voice heard” anyway, you can leave comments here.
Consider this 3,000 word report our comment on the matter. For the busy and distracted, here’s the ultra-condensed version: What we need are genuine FRIENDS of Runyon Canyon. We need more volunteer litter collectors, more volunteer poop collectors, more genuine lovers of Nature, not more amenities, cell towers, authority figures or parking spaces.