Michael Woo, Dean Emeritus, The College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona & 1994 Young Leader

March 17, 2021

Michael Woo, 1994 Class of Young Leaders

Q1/ For ten years, you served as the Dean of the College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, one of the largest and best regarded environmental design programs in the United States. How did the program evolve during your tenure? Can you tell us about any programs or initiatives that you are particularly proud of?

I had the bittersweet experience of becoming a university dean at the low point of an economic downturn. The California Legislature had sharply cut the budget of the California State University (the largest public university system in the U.S.), so we were facing staff furloughs, downsizing of academic programs, and increases in tuition at a time when everyone was feeling economically squeezed. On top of the budget pressures, the university administration had considered (but later relented on) breaking up our College of Environmental Design and scattering the architecture, art, landscape architecture, and urban planning departments to exile in colleges that were not dedicated to design.

This would have undermined our college’s interdisciplinary approach to design at a time when employers in the real world increasingly wanted to encourage designers to collaborate across professional boundaries. Our recovery from the economic downturn was built upon the strengths of our faculty and students, including solid ties to alumni and employers who wanted to hire our graduates, the unrivalled diversity of our student body, and our relevance to the ongoing concerns about sustainability and social equity that define the world in which we work.

Ten years in a job is a long period for reminiscing about new initiatives.  To start changing perceptions of the design professions, we launched initiatives that would enable us to tell our stories, including a new college magazine, an overhauled college website, and stepping into the world of social media and virtual teaching.

One of the advantages of working in a college of environmental design is the chance to be surrounded by bright, creative people. To mention just one example of a creative spark, I was invited to join a blue-ribbon commission to suggest new directions for California’s state parks system (the largest state parks system in the U.S.). At one point, the co-chair of the commission asked me: Could your students and faculty come up with ideas for revitalizing the old cabins that are offered to the public for camping in state parks? One of our professors rose to the occasion and engaged her graduate students to come up with a dozen fresh designs for new cabins – one of which was embraced by the state and will be the prototype for new cabins that will be installed in the state parks for the enjoyment of future generations of Californians.

Q2/ Earlier in your career, you were a member of the Los Angeles City Council—the first Asian-American and the first trained urban planner to be elected. Among other issues, you served at a time when racial tensions were high and fought to oust the police chief in the wake of the Rodney King protests. Looking back, what were some of the most challenging aspects of leading during these times? Do you think the US has made any progress since the ‘90s on this front, or are we largely still grappling with the same forces?

When I served as a City Councilman, race relations in Los Angeles reached a boiling point due to the combination of economic pressures and racial antagonisms, exploding into the L.A. riots of 1992.

For decades, the Los Angeles Police Department evolved into a socially divisive role, cheered by some as the indispensable defender of order, and decried by others for excessive use of force to suppress minorities, especially African Americans. As the only Councilmember of Asian extraction, I was in a unique position. I was elected to represent a highly diverse, multi-ethnic section of the city in which race relations and use of force by police were not the foremost issues. I gradually realized that because I am neither white nor black, I could speak out on the police-community issues without being perceived as an automatic, predictable ally of either side. That was part of the reasoning that led me, following the notorious beating of Rodney King, an unarmed black motorist, at the hands of LAPD officers, to become the first L.A. official to call for the resignation of the chief of police after he made public remarks that condoned the beating of King. I continue to believe that in diverse cities such as Los Angeles, our ability to transcend ethnic boundaries and demonstrate empathy beyond one’s immediate racial identity will test us again in the future.

Since the 1990s, the LAPD has made strides to improve its standing with minority communities. But the economic gap between haves and have-nots, aggravated by racial disparities, continues to be enormous in Los Angeles and other American cities. And the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many other African Americans killed by police officers in cities around the U.S. shine a light on the unfinished business that lies ahead. There is calm on the surface.  But racial violence could be only a matchstick away, a chokehold away, or a bullet away.

Q3/ After serving on the City Council for several years, you ran for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1993. In a closely observed election, you gained 46% of the votes, narrowly losing to Richard Riordan.  What lessons did you learn from this race?

Young boys are known for going through phases in which they imagine themselves as truckdrivers, soldiers, doctors, architects, or in other future vocations. I had my own youthful phases of daydreaming. But by the time I became a college student, I was admiring Mayor John Lindsay of New York City who had stood out as a local leader who could earn the confidence of his city’s dispossessed.  My own big-city mayor, Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, also had blazed an historic trail as a black man elected to lead a majority-white city.  These early observations planted seeds in my mind.

About 20 years later, after two terms as the youngest member of the Los Angeles City Council, I found myself in the unexpected position of contemplating my own campaign to become Mayor of Los Angeles. The 1993 election marked a turning point because it was the first open race for Mayor of L.A. in 20 years. Mayor Bradley had held the seat for an unprecedent five terms before announcing his retirement. Coming after the Rodney King case and the tumultuous L.A. riots of 1992, this volatile situation attracted an initial field of 24 candidates. I was fortunate to amass broad enough support to become one of the top two candidates vying to lead the city. But at a time when race relations in the city were highly polarized, it was very difficult for me to win over a large enough share of the white voters who had been willing to join Mayor Bradley’s coalition.

I think that it is possible for an Asian American to rise to the highest level of leadership in a multi-ethnic metropolis like Los Angeles.  But 1993 was not the right year for me to be the one to do it.

Q4/ Are there ways that Los Angeles has evolved over the past few decades that you’ve found to be unexpected? If you could wave a magic wand, what advancements would you like to see for the city?

The unexpected changes include:

· Downtown L.A. has attracted a large enough residential population to comprise a critical mass to support the vibrant life typical of a great city.

· The regional network of public transportation systems built since the 1990s offers a real alternative for people to commute to and from work without driving or owning a car.

·  Mobile computing and Wi-Fi are threats to the natural human tendency to gather in groups in physical locations.

·  The rapid obsolescence of retail shopping centers (threatened by Amazon) and commercial office buildings (threatened by remote virtual work systems).

·  Men have stopped wearing suits and ties.

·  A cup of coffee at Philippe’s The Original (one of two historic L.A. restaurants that claim to have invented the French Dip sandwich) costs $1.30. Until 1977, the price of a cup of coffee at Philippe’s was 5 cents.

·  A one-way ticket on the re-opened Angels Flight Railway (the historic funicular system on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles, once advertised as “the shortest railway in the world”) now costs $1.00. The original one-way fare was one cent when the funicular opened in 1901 and eventually went up to 5 cents until the system closed in 1969.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would like to see:

· 1 out of 10 existing billboards (including digital signs) in Los Angeles turned over to local artists hired to exhibit their artwork to the public.

· Immediate shelter to enable all of the estimated 66,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County to sleep with a roof over their heads at night, and 500,000 new housing units in the county that is estimated to be the number needed to prevent the number of homeless from increasing.

· Planting 400 mature trees to replace the trees that were chopped down (mostly in low-income neighborhoods) in 2012 to make room for the space shuttle Endeavour to be moved on surface streets from Los Angeles International Airport to its permanent resting place at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

· Proliferation of Chinese and other Asian restaurants, ranging from formal banquet halls to adventurous culinary entrepreneurs, in walkable districts that concentrate opportunities for creative competition.

· Gas stations converted to EV charging and hydrogen fueling stations to serve the surging demand from electric and hydrogen cars and other non-fossil fuel vehicles.

· Permanent rain clouds over specified outdoor areas to irrigate fantastic public gardens.

· Tenants facing an unlawful detainer (eviction) complaint given access to free legal counsel so that they would have a chance when their case comes up in court.

·  Abolition of tuition for students at public colleges and universities.

· The one-year equivalent of a MacArthur Fellowship to be awarded to a select set of artists and creative thinkers to come to Los Angeles for one year each to think, study, dream, propagate, and create new work for edification and enlightenment of the public.  Each year there would be a different set of artists and creative thinkers invited to participate.

· Establishment of a “Museum of the Noodle” – educating the public about the origin and use of noodles in culinary traditions around the world, methods of manufacturing and cooking noodles, portrayals of cooking and eating noodles in movies, etc. – to be located within walking distance of a popular Italian or Chinese restaurant.

· Publication of a cookbook based upon the Hollywood Farmers Market (of which I was a co-founder in 1991), the largest certified farmers market in the City of Los Angeles, with recipes contributed by farmers and the diverse urban customers including celebrities, local foodies, and immigrants.

· Endowment of a jazz center in Los Angeles that could become the focal point for performances and education comparable to Jazz at Lincoln Center or SF Jazz Center.


Q5/ You were named a Young Leader in 1994, traveling with your class to Avignon. What are some of your memories of the trip, and how did the Young Leaders program influence your professional development?

It’s always a good thing for Americans to get beyond our insular reality, especially interacting with the French who have a long history of welcoming transnational encounters.

Everyone in the Avignon group, French and American, was fascinating to talk to, on the bus, during a meal, or just trying to digest the pathways that led us to our shared moment. Being in a group of strangers with scintillating backgrounds, in a foreign country, for a predetermined period of time, was a delightfully broadening, off-balance experience.

I distinctly recall the elegant reception in Paris hosted by Ambassador Harriman at her official residence in the Hotel de Pontalba. I remember noticing a lovely boiserie paneled wall painted in a typically French blue-green hue and thinking that it would be very difficult to imagine a U.S. government building in the U.S. that exuded such opulence and sophistication. Yet the U.S. Ambassador’s residence on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré fit perfectly with the French ethos that recognizes the glories of its past by repurposing old palaces and mansions into government buildings. It’s not just a matter of France having a longer history than the U.S., but also France placing a higher value on integrating and reconciling (at least symbolically) its present and its future with its past.

Color photo credit: Tom Zasadzinski/Cal Poly Pomona.

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