LOS ANGELES -- To shut out the din of leaf blowers around her Brentwood home, actress Julie Newmar first tried playing Mozart and Handel at full volume. When that didn't work, she started wearing industrial-strength earmuffs. But they made it hard to answer the phone.
So Ms. Newmar, best known as TV's first Catwoman, has gone on the attack. "Ah, for the sound of rakes and brooms on a walk or driveway," read antiblower leaflets she has plastered around the neighborhood. She has written to the mayor of Los Angeles, threatening to move to New Zealand. And after one neighbor refused to stop his Latino gardener from using a blower, she bought a can of black paint and sprayed the word "ruido" --Spanish for noise -- in big letters on the alley outside his house.
The neighbor promptly filed a vandalism complaint. "At least I got their attention," Ms. Newmar says.
Call to Arms
Gas-powered blowers long ago replaced rakes and brooms in the well-groomed communities of Los Angeles. Over the past year, however, leaf blowers have become more than just instruments to tend lawns and tidy flower beds: They have become a call to arms, the latest symbol of the city's divisions.
Opponents and proponents of the machines have sparred for 11 years over outlawing or restricting them. Then, last December, spurred by the complaints of unnerved residents like Ms. Newmar, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance banning the use of gas-powered leaf blowers within 500 feet of residences. Before you could say begonia, gardeners were marching on City Hall. Tending the lawns of affluent Angelenos was once the domain of Japanese-Americans. But it has increasingly become an entry-level job for Latino immigrants, many of whom, it turns out, are a lot more political. Banning leaf blowers, they contend, would mean a return to backbreaking raking, which takes twice as long.
"They thought the gardeners would take this lying down," says Adrian Alvarez, a leader of the newly formed Association of Latin American Gardeners, which has organized several demonstrations. "They were wrong."
Nervous about stoking social tensions, the City Council last summer delayed enforcement of the ban by six months, until Jan. 1. With that deadline less than a month away, the council could yet rip up the ordinance. Even if it doesn't, police are openly saying that enforcement will be a low priority.
That is where Joan Graves and ZAP come in. Mrs. Graves, a sprightly grandmother who is the wife of actor Peter Graves, became an overnight activist back in 1985 when a neighbor's gardener used a blower for what seemed to her an eternity. She sits in her spacious living room in Pacific Palisades, recalling how she ran screaming out of the house to confront him. "It sent me right over the edge," she says. "Thank God I didn't have a lethal weapon in my hand."
From that encounter sprang a self-help group that started meeting once a month at nearby Mort's Deli to discuss traumatic blower experiences. Members include Ms. Newmar and actress Meredith Baxter. Calling itself ZAP, for "Zero Air Pollution," the group has set about policing the ban itself. The first step: establishing a telephone hot line to enable people to anonymously report persistent blowers.
Names and addresses go into a database the group will share with police. For the moment, offenders receive warning letters. "Dear Neighbor," they begin, "Do you know that you are committing a misdemeanor?"
It's an incendiary issue. A Catholic nun who belongs to ZAP is at loggerheads with the priest of her church because he isn't willing to enforce the ban. The weekly Palisadian Post has been publishing a debate among readers as to whether "leaf-blower tattletales" should be compared to the Nazis.
Undeterred, half a dozen ZAP stalwarts gather one Saturday morning to discuss the next step: citizen's arrests. Jack Allen, a former city attorney in Beverly Hills, is all in favor. So is Pepper Edmiston, a black-haired mother of seven, who has arrived late. "I screamed so much at the next-door neighbor's gardener that I went hoarse," she tells the group. "I haven't screamed at anyone so much since my first husband."
Mr. Allen outlines the procedure: Take a witness and a cellular phone, confront the offending blower and then call police. "They have to come if there's a citizen's
arrest," he says.
"How about calling the INS too?" shoots back Ms. Edmiston.
"Oh gosh, this is becoming so confrontational," says member Daphne Kurchak. Diane Wolfberg, who is hosting this morning's gathering, concurs. "I'll do it if someone is selling drugs on my street," she says. But over a leaf blower? "People will get upset."
The person who gets most upset by such conversations is Robin Pendergrast. An earnest man with thinning hair and steel-rimmed glasses, he is the main lobbyist for the nation's biggest manufacturer of leaf blowers, Echo Inc. of Lake Zurich, Ill., a unit of Japan's Kioritz Corp. These days, he's a busy man: More than 300 municipalities around the nation have banned or restricted leaf blowers, or are thinking of doing so. L.A. is a crucial beachhead.
In October, Echo filed suit against the City Council in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that the ban violates its constitutional rights and amounts to flagrant discrimination. Why single out gas-powered blowers, the suit demands to know. What about electric ones, hedge cutters or lawn mowers, which can be even noisier?
Echo doesn't actually like using the word noise. It prefers "sound." And, it contends, critics don't know about the new PB-46LN, aka the Quiet One. Listen to the difference on a promotional tape. After the sound of chirping birds comes a loud roar, followed by a lesser roar. The Quiet One "is 50% quieter at full throttle," says a soothing female voice, offering "the peaceful solution that communities like yours have been waiting for."
Mr. Pendergrast is also busily building a pro-blower coalition to make its concerns heard. On a recent evening in Los Angeles, he is in the wood-paneled 11th-floor conference room of Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, one of the city's top law firms, along with about 20 dealers and landscapers, who sit around in shirtsleeves. At one shoulder of the U-shaped conference table sit half a dozen gardeners, some in coats and ties.
Wary of Rhetoric
The meeting gets off to a sticky start. Before agreeing to join a coalition, the gardeners want to clear up matters such as procedure and voting rights. "We must talk about the structure and dynamics of the group," says Mr. Alvarez, his dark hair swept back in a ponytail. "To what degree are we a collective?"
Some of the other participants shift uneasily. The language sounds suspiciously radical, Marxist even. Landscape contractors, for one, "won't participate in anything that is illegal, such as civil disobedience," says one of them, Larry Rohlefs. Others nod.
Mr. Pendergrast steers the conversation back to the goal of overturning the ordinance.* Soon, an executive committee is elected, Mr. Alvarez is made president, and the coalition is born.
As the four-hour session winds down at 10 p.m., Alvaro Huerta, one of the gardeners' leaders, pauses wearily. Gardeners usually only use blowers for 15 to 20 minutes to clean the yard of an average house. Yet, he sighs, "this has become a bigger issue than homelessness, drive-by shootings or crack."
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* Note: The suit did not suceed and the ban remains in force.