America is awash in experts. If you doubt it, glance through the yellow pages, or tune in to any all-news TV channel and watch as the parade of pundits tell us what’s really happening, or, better yet, spend an hour or two watching Congress and/or the Bush crew on C-SPAN.
All experts, all the time. Everywhere.
Political “experts” ran the Vietnam war, and are running the Iraq war, and have racked up record federal deficits, and taken California schools from the top of the national academic heap to the bottom.
Retail “experts” pay themselves millions annually, but neglect to tell store clerks where the merchandise is. Transportation “experts” have fixed airline schedules so that it now takes 11 hours to fly from L.A. to Providence, Rhode Island, including, of course, a three-hour layover in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For a number of years, “experts” have dominated the municipal arena in Santa Monica, and the results of all this “expertise” have been profoundly discouraging.
There are currently about 2,000 people on the City payroll – considerably more than most cities of this size employ. Many of them are very well-paid, and have generous benefit and pension programs, presumably because they are talented and knowledgeable. For example, the former Director of Planning and Community Development Suzanne Frick reputedly made $120,000 annually – or about $550 per day.
Still, the City finds it necessary to employ an extraordinary number of consultants – some of whom were once on the City payroll, and they are generally paid much more money than City employees because they are, after all, “experts.”
But, as we are learning the hard way, in the same way that big guns are capable of doing more damage than small guns, the “experts” are capable of doing more damage than City staff.
“Experts” developed the misbegot Civic Center Specific Plan and the original Macerich redevelopment plan that included three 21-story condo towers. “Experts” designed both the new public safety building and the new library, two of the ugliest buildings in the city. The City’s traffic “experts” have been on the job for several years, and, on their watch, traffic has gone from wretched to worse. “Experts” invented and installed the Transit Mall and we still don’t know where it is, or what it does. Etcetera.
Try as we have, we cannot think of one instance in which the addition of an “expert” to a municipal undertaking has made life better, happier or easier.
Still, they continue to rule, doing studies, making policy, devising programs, designing projects.
Why? Are bureaucracies too complex now to be run by ordinary bureaucrats? Does virtually every task beyond basic clerical work require a specialist? Does the presence of an expert make a project more legitimate and thus more likely to win Council approval? Or are the “experts” really just scapegoats for City staff and Council?
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Library defines an “expert” as “person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject.”
The thing is, there are no tests, no standards, as there are for, say, doctors and lawyers, for so called experts in most fields, so anyone can call himself or herself an expert in almost any area, and, given America’s gullibility level, can probably get away with it and build an impressive resume – especially since the one thing that most self-described “experts” have in common is gall.
Further muddying the local waters is the fact that City staff only hires consultants/experts who will ratify its priorities and/or goals, whatever they are, and do its bidding obediently. Thus, the City’s hired guns are less notable for their talent or knowledge than for their flexibility – to put the politest possible spin on it.
All of this came to mind last Tuesday as we watched an unusually disturbing City Council hearing.
The subject of the hearing was an appeal of a Landmarks Commission designation of a courtyard apartment complex, Christie Court, at 125 Pacific, as a landmark.
The future of the complex has been in question for a while. When the owner announced plans to raze it and replace it, some of its tenants nominated it as a landmark. As Commission chair Roger Genser said at the hearing, he, and some other Commissioners, initially had serious doubts about the court’s eligibility. City staff and its “expert” consultants had recommended that it be denied landmark designation. But, in the course of their examination, a majority of the Commissioners became convinced that Christie Court should become a landmark.
As anyone who has followed the Commission’s work closely knows, it is an exemplary board — serious, conscientious, meticulous, honorable. It never acts hastily, and adheres absolutely to the landmarks ordinance and the landmark criteria. Two commissioners are architectural historians with impressive credentials, a third is a Santa Monica historian, a fourth is an architect, a fifth is a designer, and two are in real estate. They know Santa Monica, the field and their mission. In sum, they are the real thing, authentic experts “with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject, ” and, in these ways, they outclass and thus should outrank both staff and its experts.
At the hearing, the staff advised the Council to uphold the appeal. Two City consultants reiterated their opinions that the property did not qualify as a landmark. The owner’s consultant, David Moss, naturally enough, cited both the staff recommendation and the City’s “expert” consultants’ opinions in making his case.
Commission chair Genser and Commissioner John Berley, one of the board’s two architectural historians, both made strong cases for the Court’s designation as a landmark, and asked the Council to deny the appeal.
The most compelling presentation of the evening was made by a group of residents of Christie Court. It amounted to a kind of history of the courtyard and its residents – past and present – and their places in the stories of both Ocean Park and Santa Monica. It was not simply a rationale for saving 125 Pacific from the wrecking ball, it was an eloquent expression of our collective need for historic preservation, in all its colors, nuances and guises.
City staff and its “experts” focused exclusively on what they saw as the building’s architectural shortcomings. It was not grand enough, or pure enough, they charged. It was imperfect. Some of its original parts had been replaced. It was not designed by a renowned architect or inhabited by famous people, therefore it was unworthy. And, in these ways, they missed the point.
The purpose of the City’s landmarks ordinance is not to create an architectural museum comprised of beautiful buildings, but to preserve the whole history of Santa Monica, the whole hurly burly panoply of rich and poor, movie stars and artists and blue collar workers, and their stories as made manifest in buildings, that are historically, culturally and socially as well as architecturally significant. Christie Court is all that, as the Landmarks Commission found and the residents’ presentation confirmed. It is a kind of crucible in which a rich mix of lives have been and are being made.
Listening to the residents’ presentation, we could not believe that anyone hearing it could uphold the appeal. But the moment the Council began to discuss the question, it was clear that of the five members present (Ken Genser recused himself because he is employed by the owner’s consultant, Moss, and Kevin McKeown was absent), only Bobby Shriver had actually listened to the speakers.
The Council is primarily a legislative body, but when it hears an appeal, it assumes a quasi-judicial role, hearing evidence and ruling on it.
But rather than evaluating the cases for and against landmarking and making a ruling, Shriver’s colleagues chose to make their own cases.
Mayor Pam O’Connor, a historic preservation “expert,” rattled on endlessly about the “integrity” or lack thereof, of Christie Court. Council member Herb Katz, an architect, said he had inspected the building and found it unworthy. Council member Bob Holbrook waxed nostalgic. He was born and grew up in Ocean Park. His parents were working class. He remembered it well and fondly, but said he had to agree with the “experts” (not the actual experts on the Commission, but the hired guns). Council member Richard Bloom paid syrupy tribute to the residents, but, then proved he hadn’t heard a word they’d said, by announcing that he was going to vote to uphold the appeal.
And so it went: O’Connor, Katz, Holbrook and Bloom voted to uphold the appeal, and Shriver voted to deny it.
Chalk up another win for City Hall and its “exports,” and another loss for Santa Monica and its residents.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” He was not an expert, of course, he was just a great American novelist, who once won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he would be appalled by the effort of City Hall to manicure Santa Monica’s past, excising the livelier and less chic parts because they apparently have no place on the current agenda.
Santa Monica’s past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, but clearly it’s in jeopardy.We are running the presentation made by the residents of Christie Court in this issue (see page 1) because it’s a wonderful Santa Monica story that is as fascinating as it is informative, and it deserves a wider and more attentive audience than it had in Council chambers last week.