Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian is the first Armenian-American to hold a council seat in Los Angeles. He assumed office on January 10, 2010 and helms District 2, which includes North Hollywood, Studio City, Sun Valley, Valley Glen, Valley Village and Van Nuys.
Previously, he was a member of the California State Assembly, where he represented the 43rd District. Krekorian sat down with The Tolucan Times at his NoHo office for this exclusive interview.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and your family?
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My mom did not graduate from high school. My dad had a high school diploma and he had a business that he took over from his father, selling concrete fountains and statuaries for the garden. They did not have tremendous opportunities but they were able to provide a tremendous life for our family. I went to great public schools. We lived in neighborhoods that were safe, where people knew each other, where families cared each other and about the Valley. It really was the ideal suburban upbringing.
Do you see being the first Armenian-American elected to the council as a burden or do you revel in it?
When you walk into the lobby of my office in City Hall I have a picture of Jackie Robinson stealing home. It reminds me of the responsibility of being the first of anything, in any position. He happens to be my favorite Dodger and his experience always inspires me. I don’t mean to equate the two, what any leader in the civil rights movement went through doesn’t compare to my situation but whenever something hasn’t happened before, the first person through the door has an obligation to, one, ensure that they set a good example and make a good impression and, two, they keep that door open for others to follow. And I’ve tried to do both of those things.
How does being on the city council differ from being on the state legislature?
As member of the state legislature I had the privilege of working on complex and significant issues like public education, health care, transportation, economic development, the environment—we did groundbreaking work on the environment when I was there—so those were big issues. And almost all of those, other than education, are issues that I still have an opportunity to work on here with the city but in a different way. My constituents are less concerned about long-term slow change, as happens in Sacramento, as they are in more immediate action to impact their lives right now. So it’s very different in that respect.
I have much more executive authority here, overseeing the actual departments, and what they do in service to my constituents, than was the case there. And of course land use is an issue that we deal with in the council that we didn’t deal with at all in the state legislature. The other thing that surprised me is people know a lot more about their councilmember than they do their state legislator. I guess it’s because we live here in the neighborhood; they see me at the market…
I saw you at the Smoke House once.
Well there you go (laughs). The visibility of this position and people’s awareness about what we do on a day-to-day basis is far greater than it was in Sacramento. And I think that is good because it allows people to be more directly engaged in the democratic process.
As development increases in the local area, how would you say the Valley distinguishes itself against the backdrop of urban L.A.? Is the Valley just being swallowed up?
The Valley used to be, when I was kid, the quintessential bedroom community. It was the place where people on the other side of the hill would look at, disparagingly, as a place that has no culture, just a place of suburban lawns and single family homes. The Valley has evolved tremendously since those days. And with that evolution has come a lot of growing pains.
In many neighborhoods this feeling of being overdeveloped is very real. But the other side of that equation is that the Valley is now a place that has job centers, cultural destinations, transportation hubs; it’s a place that has restaurants that are known throughout the country. It really has changed considerably from the sleepy bedroom community that it used to be. In many ways that’s good. But our challenge in government is to ensure that we make those changes, and as people invest in the Valley, and as we add housing and business development, that we maintain the high quality of life in neighborhoods—that have been traditional single family neighborhoods—that we retain that feel, that character, of those neighborhoods that have always set the Valley apart. Obviously Toluca Lake is a tremendous example of that. And there are many neighborhoods throughout my district, from Studio City to Sun Valley, where people are working on preserving the character of their neighborhoods.
It’s also a cultural shift.
If you look around to where my office is here in the NoHo Arts District, this neighborhood is a tremendous example of that change. My mom used to go the El Portal Theatre when she was 12-years-old.
Hanging out with Debbie Reynolds.
Exactly! And Debbie Reynolds Studio is another example: we have so many of these iconic places here that, in some respects, have gotten swallowed up. On the other hand when you look around NoHo, you see this tremendously successful area, a very attractive neighborhood that people are coming to from all around, particularly younger people. We have a walkable, rideable neighborhood.
At one time there was a Valley seceding movement. Why didn’t that gain any traction?
It gained a great deal of traction. In fact, it passed in the Valley. So if the Valley got to make that decision by itself, the Valley would have seceded. But the charter required that a majority in the area approve it, and a majority citywide approve it. So the only reason that the Valley did not secede is because, by a fairly narrow margin, the city as a whole voted it down.
Did you have a stance on that?
I did not support secession because I thought that Los Angeles should not be broken up. But I did think that the Valley needed to gain respect, clout and attention from downtown that we did not have. And the secession movement woke people up. And what came out of it was, among other things, the neighborhood councils, charter reform and redistricting of the council to where we now have considerable representation here in the Valley.
What would you say to the next person who holds your council seat?
I would tell them that the way you will be successful is by getting out and listening to the people that you represent. Because I think that I’m a pretty smart guy but I’m also smart enough to know that I do not have all the answers. And the more that you listen to what people have to say, the more that they propose ideas that maybe the City Hall bureaucracy has never really thought of, the better I am able to do my job in representing those folks.
And the other thing I would suggest is, we’re all involved in a relay race, and there’s been batons that have been passed to us over the course of 150-or-so years of history of this city that we’re going to carry, then pass on to somebody else, and hopefully not drop it. And the work that we do didn’t begin the first day I got elected and it’s not going to end the day that I leave this office. But every one of us that gets the chance to carry that baton has to do our best to advance it forward and make sure that we continue to make forward progress in this city.
Learn more about Paul Krekorian and his Council activities at PaulKrekorian.org.
Sal Rodriguez is a lifelong Los Angeles resident and Supervising Editor of The Tolucan Times.