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Hollywood sign neighbors fume at tourist invasion

In this July 13, 2011 photo, tourists photograph each other on a hill with a view of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. The city’s iconic Hollywood sign may symbolize dreams of fame and fortune to many around the world, but to those who live in its shadow it means an endless stream of tourists and Times Square-style traffic jams. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
In this July 13, 2011 photo, tourists photograph each other on a hill with a view of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. The city’s iconic Hollywood sign may symbolize dreams of fame and fortune to many around the world, but to those who live in its shadow it means an endless stream of tourists and Times Square-style traffic jams. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert deVico can't help but laugh at the irony: a 1920s advertisement for his Hollywoodland neighborhood lured homebuyers by promising sylvan hills "above the traffic laden arteries, congestion, smoke and fog of the metropolis" and branded the community with a giant mountainside sign.

Today, the Hollywood sign is Los Angeles' most famous landmark and deVico's ridge-top street, which offers the best view around, boasts New York City-worthy gridlock.

"It can take me 40 minutes to get out of my driveway. What if I had an emergency with my child?" sputtered the production designer, who bought his house 12 years ago. "It's like being in Times Square."

Featuring postcard-perfect close-ups of the iconic sign, this tranquil neighborhood of winding roads dotted with hideaway homes and panoramic vistas has always drawn a smattering of sightseers angling to get a souvenir shot or seeking to climb to the sign itself.

But it wasn't a problem until two years ago, when GPS and Internet maps started giving directions to the sign, allowing tourists to easily navigate a maze of narrow streets, dead-man's curves and tiny cul-de-sacs.

Now, scores of tourists pour into the neighborhood daily in rental cars and tour vans, causing safety hazards and headaches ranging from sheared off fire hydrants to fender-benders to blocked driveways, not to mention noise, trash and car exhaust at four main picture-taking vistas.

The succinct message recently painted on a dirt patch —"tourists go away" — sums up the sentiments of many residents.

"This neighborhood just wasn't built for this," said Sarajane Schwartz, president of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Association. "We're pretty much at the end of our rope."

The builders of the 1923 sign, which today just spells out "Hollywood" in higgledy-piggledy metal letters 45 feet tall by 37 feet wide, could have hardly imagined how decades later it would symbolize the world over not only a city, but also the pursuit of larger-than-life dreams of fame and fortune.

The sign was erected by the Hollywoodland Real Estate Group as an epic billboard for its upscale housing development — the original sign spelled out the entire name. In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce restored the rusting monument, but dropped the last syllable.

The sign, which has appeared in countless TV shows and movies, draws sightseers from Iowa to Iceland. Many are disappointed they cannot walk to the letters, which are protected from vandals and the curious with a 24-hour surveillance camera and fence

If they try to climb the hill, a guard yells at them through a megaphone, another annoyance for local residents, along with low-flying helicopter tours and microphone-narrating tour guides.

Star City Tours guide Tim Eggers, who brings his tour van to deVico's ridge-top road, said he often gets hassled by neighbors, but noted DeRonda Drive is a public street.

"This is an international landmark. They should have thought of that before they bought their houses," he said. "My job is to get tourists the best shot, and this is it."

Tourists remain largely oblivious to the havoc, saying they figured residents were used to it. Most said they were just planning to stay long enough to snap a photo and didn't want to bother anyone.

Akila Berjaoui, a vacationing Australian photographer, said with a shrug that tourism comes with the territory when living near attractions. "That would really irritate me, absolutely," she said. "I live near a beach in Sydney so I can relate. It's just how it is."

Exacerbating the problem is that residents can't agree on how to handle the tourism influx. In recent months, the conflict among residents' groups has led to threats of lawsuits, hacked websites, petitions, association board takeovers and disappearing scenic-view signs.

One camp wants city officials and Internet mappers to direct people out of the neighborhood entirely, to nearby Griffith Park, which has hilltop overlooks that can accommodate cars and visitors.

Others say that since it's impossible to stop tourists from coming into the community, they should be directed to a bird's-eye view with the least impact — an apron of open ground overlooking Lake Hollywood that has ample room for cars.

The issue boiled over recently about road signs directing sightseers to Lake Hollywood.

Hollywoodland Homeowners Association installed the signs to help residents on some streets, but that increased traffic elsewhere. Lawsuits were threatened and residents voted in a new association board at the next election. The signs disappeared, and the HHA had its website hacked and disparaging emails sent out.

Another group, the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Association, which helped pay for the signs, demanded its money and signs back. Members now sometimes stand on street corners handing out maps to Lake Hollywood, further inflaming opposing residents.

Yet another group, Neighbors of the Hollywood Sign, collected more than 400 signatures on a petition requesting that city leaders promote viewing spots away from the neighborhood.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge said it's a delicate balancing act. "We're doing our best to be sensitive to the neighborhood, but this is our Eiffel Tower," he said.

He likes the lake site, but is also studying proposals to steer visitors to Griffith Park.

About the only thing the groups agree on is that the situation is a tragedy waiting to happen with tourist traffic clogging roads and drivers unfamiliar with treacherous curves. Some of the roads are so narrow that the only way to deal with oncoming traffic is to back down the street.

Noting the cigarette butts strewn on the ground by tourists, residents and officials alike also worry about the danger of fire on the dry, scrubby hillside.

"If you needed to get a fire truck up there, or an ambulance, what would happen? It worries me. It can just be a zoo up there," said Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, the nonprofit that has maintained the sign since 1973. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce manages the sign's image and licensing.

While his neighbors fume and feud, deVico's become resigned to the tourist onslaught.

He's directed traffic, allowed bladder-bursting visitors to use his bathroom, and even dunked a woman and baby overcome with heat in his pool. His two young daughters set up a lemonade stand on busy weekends.

"I deal with it," he said. "But my kids have almost got killed by people turning in my driveway."