A Little Bit of History

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In the early 1970s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started letting some of their people – primarily Jews - leave. Some went to Israel. Others went to Europe, where some were offered the option of immigrating to various places in the United States. Many who chose to come to Los Angeles became affiliated with the Jewish Family Services, the organization that was assisting Jewish immigrants at that time with the most available and affordable housing in the areas near to its location, which happened to be the West Hollywood area. By the time West Hollywood achieved cityhood in 1984, it had become the hub of the Russian-speaking community in the Los Angeles area, with more than 300,000 members residing in the region as a whole.

The City of West Hollywood’s community includes a colorful mix of seniors, gays and lesbians, artists of all categories, homeowners, renters and diverse business people. In the U.S.S.R, homosexuality was against the law until 1993 and was not even to be spoken of out loud, so the gay subject was a matter of great sensitivity for West Hollywood’s growing Russian-speaking community. That, added to the language barrier, surviving in a puzzling, new environment, and learning basic things about freedom was so daunting that many chose to live within the insularity of their own community as much and for as long as possible. Further, they had a reflexive resistance to government, a deep distrust of law enforcement, and were uninterested in anything that involved public safety, emergency preparedness, or interaction with the City’s Sheriff’s Department.

The City of West Hollywood holds itself accountable to the members of its community and is committed to actively seeking public participation. That certainly included the Russian-speakers, who comprise roughly 20% of its population of 35,716. After a number of informal efforts to reach out that were primarily unsuccessful, the City created the position of a Russian Outreach Coordinator in the Public Safety and Community Services Department. That Coordinator provided the first important bridge to the City’s Russian-speakers by offering them understanding about and access to City services. Over time, other Russian-speaking staff have been added, as well as Russian-speaking Deputies in the Sheriff’s Department.

Determined to break through the barrier between City Hall and these immigrants, the City started a program called the Conversation Café at Plummer Park, which is in the heart of the Russian residential area, The Café became and remains a unique and hugely-successful opportunity for Russian-speaking immigrants to practice their English language communication skills while providing a place where people with different backgrounds can meet, discover shared interests, and join into the larger community.

It became increasingly clear, however, that the City needed to provide greater support and understanding of the mentality, internal culture and special needs of the Russian enclave and, in 2000, the Mayor’s office came up with the concept of a Russian Advisory Board (RAB) that could focus on those issues while attempting to integrate more of that community into the City's decision-making process.