Los Angeles City Councilmember David E. Ryu can’t sing Toluca Lake’s praises loudly or often enough.
“I love Toluca Lake. It’s one of the best neighborhoods…. Toluca Lake was always that mystical area,” he says, almost reverently. “When I think of Toluca Lake, I think of the swan.”
Ryu never saw the lake, wondered where it was and thought it might have been “some holdover from some old days.” But after his 2015 election to Los Angeles City Council District 4, he received a tour of the lake and came away awed. “That’s what I think of when I think of this little magical community; it’s like a little village,” he says.
Ryu — whose expansive district includes Toluca Lake, Sherman Oaks, Miracle Mile, Los Feliz and Hollywood — recently sat down with us to share the reasons why he calls Toluca Lake “a model for other communities,” what he’s working on and what he hopes to achieve in the area.
“Tolucans are so engaged and so collaborative. It’s always great working with Toluca Lake,” the councilmember says. Ryu — who highlights his collaborations with the Toluca Lake Homeowners Association, the Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council, the Toluca Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Toluca Lake Garden Club — frequently appears at local events.
Toluca’s neighborhood watch system also earns Ryu’s plaudits: “All the residents are so neighborly and work together.” With so many groups so vested in the community, their speaking with a unified voice makes his job easier, he notes.
One thing “we’re trying to figure out [is] how to properly expand the Toluca Lake holiday party because it’s growing bigger every year,” he says.
“What Can We Do About Homelessness?”
But residents’ concerns go beyond festivities. “Toluca Lake asked, ‘What can we do about homelessness? How can we help?’” Ryu said. He suggested that the city start with a homeless count, to establish “an actual, real, factual basis” with which to work and not just hypotheticals.
“The count last year was super successful. Twenty to 30 people came out. Organizers were expecting 50 or 60, and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s a great turnout!’” Ryu marvels.
The number of people sleeping in their cars and recreational vehicles or out in the open has grown in Toluca Lake, as in most communities. “There is an encampment that has formed in Toluca Lake near the edges,” Ryu says. “We’re going to clean it up. [But] Tolucans understand that it’s not just about cleaning up the encampment. We can clean it up today but [the homeless] can shift over right across the street. So that doesn’t solve anything.”
The councilmember offers a three-pronged solution: First, provide housing. To receive public services, people need to have an address. “Once we have housing, the second is [providing] counseling, treatment and medication. The third prong is a job,” which will give people a sense of worth, he says. “Right now, we’re still stuck on the first prong. We have a housing shortage, not just for the homeless, but for everyone.”
“The communities know me as a protector of communities and neighborhoods,” he continues. “At the same time, I’ve made it clear that we do have a housing shortage and we do need to build. It’s about putting things into perspective. We can’t say no to everything.” For example, a four- to eight-unit property, if zoned properly, “is something we should not be opposed to. To come out of a housing shortage, we need to build more homes, whether it’s permanent supportive, affordable, workforce or market housing.”
“A Resource for All”
Another of Ryu’s goals is to preserve open or green space and increase park access. “It’s a resource for all,” he says. He’d like to expand Runyon Canyon and increase accessibility to parks while reducing traffic, particularly near Griffith Park and the Greek Theatre.
This means expanding buses, rails and subways, giving people in Toluca Lake an option to not drive all the way to the park, just to focal points from where they can catch public transportation. In addition, “We’re expanding the bikeway on the L.A. River. We’ll have multiple bridges for equestrians, hikers and bikers,” he says.
Another potential resource is local shuttles. “I’m working closely with Universal Studios, who’s partnered up with all the studios in the area — Warner Bros., Disney — to create an employee shuttle system,” Ryu says. “It’s going to connect the Metro station at Universal Studios, at Lankershim, and connect all the way across to ABC, Warner Bros., to the 134.” The studios envision it for employees only, but they’re open to making it available to nonemployees, he explains. “If that shuttle exists, Tolucans can technically just come to the Metro stop and take the shuttle, DASH or some sort of transportation system to Griffith Park.”
The studios are encouraging employees not to drive, suggesting that they take an Uber or Lyft to the station, which the studios will pay for, the councilmember says. If studio employees don’t drive to work, “that only helps Tolucans,” says Ryu, bringing the conversation back to the city.
Asked to describe Toluca Lake in three words, Ryu pauses and ponders. Two answers come easily: “Beautiful. Peaceful.”
And the third word? He thinks even longer. Twelve seconds elapse before he concludes: “Community.”
Of course, it’s a “magical community.”
Why does Councilmember Ryu want every first-grader in the Los Angeles Unified School District to have $50?
“I want every first-grader in LAUSD to get a $50 college savings account, which they would be able to withdraw upon their graduation day,” he says.
The money, which the child will receive upon graduation from high school, isn’t meant to fund a college education. “Fifty dollars?! What’s $50 going to do, right?” Ryu asks. “It’s not the money. It’s the concept. It creates the discussion where the child goes, “Oh, I can go to college?”
Families in which the parents didn’t go to college typically don’t discuss with their children the possibility of their attending college. They may not expect their kids to go to college, he points out.
Eighty percent of students enrolled in LAUSD live below the poverty line, he notes. The $50 is meant to serve as a conversation starter. “If they start talking about it at the dinner table, and the parents are like, ‘What are you talking about, going to college? I can’t afford to send you to college.’ [Then, slowly,] the parents start to understand, ‘Wait a minute. You can get scholarships. You could get grants.’ They understand there are other avenues, other opportunities,” he says.
This concept has been found to increase “high school graduation [rates] by fourfold and college acceptance rates by threefold,” the councilman says. “The mere expectation of college makes the child goes to college. It’s a simple, powerful concept.”