Remembering James M. Wood
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In Los Angeles, there are some important streets named for some important people. Beaudry, Wilcox, Van Nuys, Lankershim, Wilshire, Micheltorena, and hundreds of others named for leaders, developers, owners, and others. But, in Los Angeles, there are streets that have been changed in honor of an individual. Santa Barbara Avenue in South Los Angeles was changed to honor civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1982 and Brooklyn Avenue & Macy Street were changed in 1993 to honor civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. Tom Bradley had a section of First Street named concurrently in his honor in 2001. These are the most recent street name changes of major lengths. (Yes, Chick Hearn Court was also changed from Eleventh Street, and Johnnie Cochran Vista was named just last year from Seventeenth Street; but neither are of major street length). There is one other street, though, that needs mention here: James M. Wood Boulevard.
Unlike Chavez or King, Wood doesn't benefit from nationwide name recognition. In fact, most people confuse this street with the actor of the same name (though different middle initial). Just this February, local blogger Shannon from Sha in LA walked James M. Wood, but she wasn't able to find out much about the man in advance of her adventure for whom the former Ninth Street was named in 1999.
So, who was this man and why does he share a distinction of having a major length of street changed in his name with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King? How does this man have a more prominent length of street named for him even than the great Mayor Bradley?
Basic searches of "James M. Wood" reveal short blurbs about a union leader, but there had to be more to warrant such a name change. The text of the 1997 motion requesting the name change was simple: "James M. Wood was a labor leader who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of working men and women in the City and in the region. He continued with stubborn resolve to work toward that goal until his untimely death. It is appropriate that the City recognize his efforts by renaming a portion of 9th Street from Figueroa to Western Avenue, as James M. Wood Boulevard." What work was done by this man for our City to deserve this honor?
Sue Laris, Publisher of the Los Angeles Downtown News, wrote in favor of the Ninth Street name change in 1999:
"He deserves it, and the name Wood Blvd. would serve as an omnipresent reminder of community dedication, commitment to ideals, vision, willingness to overcome obstacles, the symbiotic relationship that ought to exist between business and labor, bridges that can be built between forces that think they are at odds and any manner of other good qualities we want ourselves and our children to be reminded of on a regular basis."
With all these accolades and extolling of virtues, this man must have been something special for Los Angeles. Who would know why?
With a little more research to LA Times archives, we found that he was on the board and Chair of the Community Redevelopment Agency from in the 1970s and 1980s for 14 years and ushered in the new Downtown. He was the 3rd member of a 3-member panel on the Los Angeles State Building Authority that actually got the State Building built in downtown after years of stalls. He was an advocate for the renters of downtown, fighting the first wave of condo conversions in the late 1970s. He fought to make sure that new housing built in downtown was affordable. He also was able to negotiate good wages as bunker hill developed for the workers in the new skyline of Los Angeles. Moreover, he created the SRO Housing Corporation to address housing needs for the poorest in the City as the City began to redevelop Bunker Hill (from slums to today's corporate castles). But, honestly, who was Jim Wood? And was this street name change an appropriate one?
To find out, we went to the closest thing to the source there is: Mrs. James M. Wood, his wife Janice Wood. What she revealed about the man she married and their relationship illuminates the man he truly was.
Janice met Jim met through their union (Communications Workers of America). "It was far from love at first sight," she said about their first meeting a party for a mutual friend. "But our mutual friend, my union rep, kept insisting we should get together and we finally gave in to the pressure and went on a date. It was probably the most interesting date I had ever been on." They dated for years and were finally married in 1978. "A mutual friend once commented on how lucky I was because in marrying Jim, I got the prince and the cowboy. And I did."
Once called the "king of the one-liners," Jim had one of the world's greatest senses of humor, according to Janice. "He was a joyful person and really fun to be around. He was very kind, good natured, [and] easy to get along with. He was generous and honorable and smart and very handsome." She indicated that he shared in the household chores and learned how to fix almost anything around the house. "He was extremely tidy. I am not. He once accused me of being like "Carrie" from the movie," she recalled. "'Every time you come into a room, all the drawers fly open and objects move all over the place.'"
Wood was known for wearing cowboy boots to the point that the Times in 1986 described Wood as one who "favors cowboy boots and gung-ho, build-or-bust rhetoric" in a profile of the community leader. So what about that cowboy boot reputation? "Although he wore cowboy boots everyday, he only had 2 pairs, and neither of them were fancied up with snakeskin or lizard. He had one brown pair, and one black pair that when polished to a gleam were worn with his tuxedo."
Though he averaged 11 to 12 hour work days and spent most meals meeting with someone regarding business, Wood liked to read science fiction novels, watch animated films, and roller skate at the beach. Because of a bad back, he began taking yoga classes that eventually led him to teach yoga to people with physical limitations. Janice says that though he didn't have to do for fun, "he made everything he did fun."
Over the years, Wood turned down better paying -- some might say more prestigious - - jobs because he wanted to do the work of the Federation of Labor more than anything else. For 30 years, he worked in various political programs (like Associate Director for Political Education), and he truly earned the job of becoming head of the LA County Federation of Labor. It was his endless fascination with politics that brought him into the Labor Movement, according to his wife, from his college days. "There is no doubt that his true passion was politics." After his death, Mayor Bradley noted that, "Jim had a mission to help people, but he understood that everything we wanted to do was going to require a partnership of business, labor and community leaders." Clearly, Jim Wood understood what politics meant to serving the community.
As the woman who stood by the man credited by many as the reason we established a real downtown for Los Angeles, Janice indicated that it was Jim's "unique ability to "forge agreements between developers, public officials and labor unions. It was those agreements that made the building of our current downtown possible. Without Jim's leadership and constant efforts, some believe we could not have reached the level of revitalization we see in downtown today." But Wood went farther than just redevelopment. He was concerned about the people. "He got developers to make agreements with the union that represented janitors so that buildings created with public funds or specially granted privileges would create decent jobs for the lowest paid workers." SRO Housing, which Wood founded, began buying skid row buildings that needed seismic and other improvements to be upgraded to clean, safe, affordable housing for people displaced by downtown development. Those buildings are now a major source of affordable housing for the those most in need in our City. "Jim strongly opposed the idea of letting development simply run people off and insisted it was the City's duty to create somewhere for them to go," Janice recalled. "As enormous as the problems on Skid Row are today, I believe they would be much worse if not for Jim's intervention." To honor his efforts, SRO Housing built a community center at 5th and San Julian, the James M. Wood Center.
It wasn't uncommon for Mrs. Wood to come home to find someone sleeping on a sleeping bag on their living room floor because they needed a place to stay, and he'd often use his own money to help someone who was down on their luck. "He helped pretty much anyone who asked him for help, if he could. And he helped people not because he had to or even because he should, but just because he could," she said. "He helped people find jobs and housing, and he had a kind ear for someone who needed to tell their troubles to a caring listener."
Upon his death, now County Fed leader and then head of Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Maria Elena Durazo said, "He was always willing to use his political and corporate relationships for our benefit." Very few leaders have both connections the way that James M. Wood did.
His widow illuminated that note even further:
"Angelenos should know that everyone can do some of what Jim did. Jim came from a very poor family. He was raised by a single mother and began working while he was still in high school, but he always wanted to do something about the state of the world." Janice relayed. "And he never threw up his hands and declared that any problem was too big or too difficult, he just worked away at it, whatever it was. Jim knew that he couldn't fix everything, but he could do something -- so he did."
Now, renaming a street is no easy feat. Trying to change the name of Crenshaw Boulevard to Tom Bradley Boulevard just a few years ago saw outgoing Councilman Nate Holden battle hard against his peers and community; and he was unsuccessful. Even the naming of MLK Boulevard in 1982 was not without controversy for then Councilman Farrell. So, when Hernandez said at a one year memorial for Jim Wood that Wood had done so much for the City that "We should name a street after him," things got rolling.
Some of Wood's friends vowed not to forget the idea of a street name, and a motion to that end was introduced in 1997. Though the process took many months, it moved steadily through the system namely the main hearing before Public Works Committee of the City Council, chaired by Rita Walters. According to Janice, one of Jim's best friends (Bill Luddy) said during the hearing that, "If you don't believe that one person can make a difference, you didn't know Jim Wood." Many spoke in favor of the name change, including Walters and other officeholders.
This process, though controversial as to the length of Ninth Street which should be renamed, was well-supported. Only one person spoke in opposition: a man concerned only concern was the inconvenience of owning property on a street that was renamed. The full council passed the motion and it became thus: James M. Wood Boulevard. With just one hiccup. Janice relayed that "after the City made the decision for the renaming, CalTrans balked because that would cause a new sign to have to be erected on the 110 Freeway downtown. Senator Gil Cedillo stepped in and solved that problem almost immediately."
When asked why she thought the street name was changed in her husband's honor, Janice replied:
"I think people cared about Jim because he so obviously cared about them. He worried about what would happen to skid row residents, he understood that concerns of political leaders who always had the next election facing them, and he listened fairly to the concerns of developers about trying to do business with the City. People just plain liked him; they like him a lot. And, I believe his accomplishments, including a downtown skyline, were too visible to be ignored. That's why the street renaming happened."
So, clearly, this man was deserving of this street name. Let's just hope that Angelenos don't forget why such an honor was bestowed upon this man who transformed the City and the dream that he made a reality in the City's core. His wife Janice sums it up best: "Jim believed in doing what he could to make the world around him better. He had few advantages but used everything he had to make our City a better place. It doesn't take a millionaire or a genius to change a City. It just takes someone who wants to and is willing to spend his or her life doing it."