The Valley isn't just the birthplace of such colloquial exclamations as “like, totally!”—it's also the birthplace of urban planner, Kate Mayerson. Now, calling Los Angeles her home, Kate shapes the lives of thousands of Angelenos everyday working for the City of West Hollywood.
You were born and raised in The Valley. What was that like?
It’s very suburban and so different from the life I live now but I love where I grew up.
What are some of the characteristics of someone who was born and raised in LA or The Valley?
The Valley has a very different reputation to the rest of LA. People like to use The Valley as their punching bag. The New York equivalent, I guess, is New Jersey. We’re the bridge and tunnel people. We have a reputation for saying “like” a lot. That part of speech came from The Valley.
It actually originated in The Valley?
Yeah. The up-speak and the sort of “poor” LA linguistics all get blamed on The Valley. So we have a reputation for that but really it’s just suburbia.
Then you went to UCLA?
I went there for my undergraduate degree. I initially studied history when I entered but then I discovered geography and I fell in love with it.
I lived in Westwood for four years, which is a really big bubble of student life in the middle of Bel Air and the Pacific Palisades. There wasn’t much to do beyond Westwood. I didn’t really explore the city much then.
Did you have any goals for when you finished school?
I didn’t, in fact I got a Phi Beta Kappa, which is an academic honors thing. At the graduation you had to go up and say what your plans were after college, because these people were supposedly the “over-achievers”. Everyone was like; I’m going to law school or medical school. I had no plans, so I just went up there and said I was going to learn how to barbecue for the summer. [Laughs] My dad was very proud of that.
Were you freaking out though?
No, I had this weird pre-recession 21-year-old unemployed confidence. I was like, “I’m going to move to San Francisco with my friends and we’re all going to get jobs and we’ll make it work.”
We lived in San Francisco for three years and all got jobs within a few months of moving there, and we could afford a big beautiful apartment.
Those days are gone ... What was your job?
I worked at the low-income investment fund, which is a non-profit organization running an energy efficiency retrofit program for childcare centers.
That sounds really specific.
It was the most specific job I could think of but I wanted to work in a non-profit and I was open to travelling which was required. I liked it. I progressed through the bottom ranks of the organization and it was really rewarding. It was fulfilling saving money for childcare centers and doing something green.
Energy efficiency was super on trend in 2008. Everybody was talking about it and I felt like I was doing something great for the world.
Was that the beginning for where you are today in terms of your career?
I knew I didn’t want to do that forever and right around the two-year mark I started to get really restless. I loved San Francisco but I knew I didn’t want to stay there.
I started looking at what all the people who I interacted with regularly were doing, people who I would see at conferences or meetings who I admired. I looked up their biographies to see what they were doing and a lot of them were urban planners.
I started reading and learning about urban planning. A lot of what I was doing and wanted to do in the future, making bigger impacts on communities, that all lead me to urban planning. I applied for a Masters.
I got into all the schools I applied for in California and New York but even with financial aid and a scholarship it was still more expensive to go to school in New York than it was to come to UCLA. So I went back to LA to do my Masters in urban planning.
I think I have an idea of what urban planning is but probably not … what are some of the things you’re dealing with on a daily basis?
I’m in a tangential urban planning field right now. A traditional urban planner would be working on new development that’s coming in, working on the design of it and with developers and architects. Some people are working on writing code and code reinforcement. Some people are working on long-range planning, how neighborhoods want to see themselves change.
I was doing something more on the implementation side up until recently. I was working for a non-profit after I finished school that implemented community improvement projects. We’d build parks and transit plazas. I also did some community long range planning, how they wanted streetscapes to change.
Everything I did was in the public realm and public right of way, how people interact with their streets and how they get around their neighborhoods.
After two and a half years of that I was thinking; I love what I’m doing, it’s super rewarding and it’s fun because you get to be on construction sites and I got to work all over LA but I started realizing that so much of what urban planning was incorporating technology and apps. Things like Uber, Lyft and AirBnB ... how does that play into transportation planning?
Before Uber there were only taxis, which have really strict regulations. Uber just let anybody go on any street and pick up anybody anywhere. People who used to take public transportation might now take an Uber. But maybe you can encourage more people to take public transportation if you get them to take an Uber to the subway because maybe that’s more affordable.
So are you saying that Uber has an impact on planning neighborhoods?
Absolutely! It should. I’m now working for the City of West Hollywood, which has a civic innovation division. West Hollywood is a very forward-thinking city. LA also has an innovation team, but they’re working on more specific problems.
We’re looking at the way West Hollywood functions as a city. How can it work with companies like Uber and Lyft? How do we regulate or not regulate shared housing? How do we look at beacon and sensor technology?
We’re working on a project right now to change out all of our street furniture to make it 21st-century furniture. So bus stop shelters will have wifi and digital advertising, as well as digital information about when the bus is coming. We’ll be putting in information kiosks around the city where you can charge your phone, get wifi, and city information.
We’ll have everything in within a couple of years.
Who’s paying for it?
We have great advertising revenue. West Hollywood is really small. It’s less than two square miles. There are only 35,00 residents in comparison to the city of LA, which is 4-million.
LA county is made up of 88 cities.
Yeah! There are some places like Malibu, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City, West Hollywood, Pasadena … those are all independent cities. A lot of people think of them as neighborhoods of the city of LA but really they’re just other cities in the county.
I’m only responsible for these two-square miles, which is great because it allows us to test things really quickly. It’s a really progressive, smart, interesting community. People are really active and take pride that their streets are really taken care of. The quality of life working for a small city is really amazing.
Having grown up in The Valley and, now, acquiring this new knowledge of being an urban planner, can you think of anything particular that’s developed over the years that’s had a massively positive impact on the city?
Absolutely. Our transportation system has gotten a lot better. When I was in college, or even high school, there weren’t ways for people to get around safely. You were tied to your car.
If you wanted to get to the west side you had to drive and you knew you were going to be stuck in traffic for an hour. Now there’s a light rail option and you can take the subway to Los Feliz or Hollywood or Koreatown. That sort of mobility tied with the rise of ride sharing companies means that people don’t feel so tethered to their cars, and they are able to explore more of the city than just their bubble.
When I was working at Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative I took the subway to work everyday and I decided to live in this neighborhood because I could walk to the Red Line. I don’t think I would have made that choice ten years ago.
So I think people are starting to see Los Angeles as less of a place where you need to stay in your bubble and more of a big wide open city.
The rise and reawakening of downtown has really changed. Los Angeles is so big that there are many different versions of it. Somebody in Venice might not be that interested in downtown but they might be interested in rise of Marina del Rey and what impact that’s going to have on the west side.
What do you think about living in Los Feliz?
I think it’s the best neighborhood in Los Angeles. [Laughs] Not for everybody. When I moved here I was a single woman and I wanted a neighborhood that was safe, that I could walk around in, that I felt comfortable in at night and had things I wanted to do but wasn’t extraordinarily expensive.
This is that neighborhood. It’s close to bars and restaurants, the subway. It’s close to Silverlake.
Do you have any favorite bars in the area?
This neighborhood is known for its dive bar. Drawing Room is just two blocks away. It’s got strong drinks and a “I don’t care about you vibe”. It’s a nice place where you can go and play darts, do karaoke and watch football games.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
My dad always told me to be persistent. That if you want something or you believe you can do something then just be persistent. That doesn’t mean do the same thing over and over again. It means pushing yourself to figure out how you can achieve what you want to achieve. Remember that persistence has to be paired with patience, because if you’re persisting at something it generally means it’s taking a long time. I come back to that a lot.
I like that idea of persistence going with patience.
It has to. People are really impatient and give up on things too easily. I wanted a new job at the start of 2015 and it was hard to find something so it forced me to try new things, talk to new people, go to new events and volunteer.
I really do think that I’m at a place professionally that I’m really happy with because I pushed myself to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have normally done.
Where is your favorite place to take people that are visiting from out of town?
I love to take people to Griffith Park if they’ve brought shoes for hiking. Getting up high in Los Angeles, seeing the sprawl and maybe watch the sunset or sunrise … there’s nothing like getting to see that version of the city.
Sometimes I’ll take people up to the observatory at night and you can see the city twinkle. It’s the same vibe you get when you’re on a rooftop in Brooklyn and you see the Manhattan skyline.
What does LA mean to you?
LA is the place where I can be whoever I want to be. You can do whatever you want to do and it doesn’t force itself on you. Rather it forces you to find yourself in it.
I’ve discovered a lot about myself just from trying to understand the city and get around. The stages of emotions you go through just trying to cross Los Angeles at various times of the day can be really challenging but you can also learn a lot about yourself.
People think you can’t do anything here but it’s because it’s really hard to go and figure it out. You sort of have to wake up and say; Well, what do I want today to be?
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©