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Living under a landmark, and uneasy in the limelight

GPS has opened up the labyrinth of narrow roads in the Hollywood hills to tourists seeking photos of a showbiz icon. GPS has opened up the labyrinth of narrow roads in the Hollywood hills to tourists seeking photos of a showbiz icon. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)
By Adam Nagourney
New York Times / September 25, 2011

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HOLLYWOOD - Tom LaBonge, a jolly and energetic Los Angeles councilman, steered his city car along the perilously narrow roads curving through the Hollywood Hills, turned a corner and hit the brakes. A couple were standing obliviously in the road, cameras aimed at the Hollywood sign looming overhead in all its cinematic glory.

“Where are you from?’’ LaBonge called out. “Indiana,’’ they responded. “Have a good time,’’ he said before rolling on.

Another 100 feet up, he pulled over to make room for two cars, bursting with tourists. A little farther, a white stretch limousine slid slowly to a halt, swallowing up the narrow street as six people rolled out. “Sydney, Australia!’’ one told LaBonge.

This secluded maze of roads and trails in the hills above Hollywood has become the setting of something of a war, as residents - who move here to enjoy mountain views, high-hedge privacy, and coyote sightings - face an influx of tourists in search of a photo of The Sign.

An invasion, really: driving, climbing, biking, motorcycling, tour-busing, clawing, and hiking in an attempt to get close to a landmark that on some days seems as much tourist catnip as the Grand Canyon.

The culprit has a three-letter name that has become a four-letter word for residents here: GPS.

The Global Positioning System has become a guide for out-of-towners through the harrowing turns and complicated curlicues leading to close-ups of the sign, an adventure that, in the past, would have required either a savvy local or a paid guide.

Rico Carrillo, 30, a sound engineer who lives just under the sign, said his address is so obscure that navigation systems cannot find it. “So I tell people coming to visit just to type ‘Hollywood sign’ into their GPS,’’ he said.

All of this has prompted an awesome feud between two community groups and has turned neighbor against neighbor, homeowners against tourists, and constituents against city officials who embrace tourism. Yet for all the agony and angst, it also illustrates the continued and intense draw of a sign that was built in 1923 to promote sales in a housing development called Hollywoodland.

One neighborhood association, arguing that this is a problem that must be managed rather than denied, posted a sign directing tourists to a cleared viewing site, perfect to park and gawk. Those signs disappeared overnight, LaBonge said, snatched by a rival group that wants to discourage people from coming up the hill.

A recent emergency town hall meeting attracted hundreds of people complaining about clogged streets, litter and - most of all - smoking, a decided danger in Southern California.

It is not that people who live in these parts do not like the tourists. And they certainly cannot claim to be surprised that out-of-towners might want to see an icon of American show business; house listings here frequently boast a Hollywood sign view as a selling point.

“We love the people - it’s not that we don’t,’’ said Frederique Schafer, who lives on a dead end where cars were recently backed up down the narrow street and a taxi waited by a gate, its meter clicking while its passengers clambered up a hill. “But it can be impossible. There are times we can’t drive in our own driveway.’’ top stories on Twitter

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