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LAist Interview: Daniel Olivas

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Daniel Olivas is a writer and Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles. He was the lead counsel representing the California Coastal Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy in litigation regarding coastal access to the beach in front of David Geffen's property in Malibu.

Dan is also the author of a novella, two short-story collections and a children's picture book. He also writes book reviews for several Los Angeles publications and blogs.
Age and Occupation:

Forty-six. I’m a Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and a writer.

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How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?:

I was born in Temple Hospital, on Hoover St., Los Angeles. I don’t know if it’s still there. I lived near the Pico-Union and Koreatown neighborhoods (near the intersections of Pico and Western) from birth to the beginning of law school at UCLA. While in law school, I lived in Santa Monica. I met my wife, Sue Formaker, in law school. We continued to live in Santa Monica after graduation until 1989 when we moved to the San Fernando Valley (West Hills) and bought our first house. Sue got pregnant during escrow resulting in our son, Benjamin, who is 15.

Why do you choose to live in Los Angeles?

I love L.A.! It’s home and most of our family lives here. It has great open spaces (beaches, parks, mountains and hills), remarkable weather, all kinds of people of every description not to mention the museums, bookstores, etc.

You were the lawyer on the case involving public access to the beach outside David Geffen’s house in Malibu. How long did it take to gain access?

I’m lead counsel representing the California Coastal Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy in the litigation. Mr. Geffen filed suit on July 3, 2002, challenging the access conditions of his three coastal development permits. We litigated until April 2005 when, after we succeeded in knocking out most of his claims, he turned over the key to our co-defendant, Access for All, the non-profit that is now running the access way from PCH to the sand at Carbon Beach, Malibu. Mr. Geffen formally dismissed his suit in July though we’re still trying to hammer out a formal settlement agreement.

When did you take a celebratory swim on that section of the beach? What did you wear?

I attended a very small and respectful ribbon cutting where I wore jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. It was overcast and I was a bit under the weather (no pun intended) so swimming was definitely out of the question.

You also write books. How do you have time for practicing law and writing?

I don’t golf.

What is the Los Angeles Bar [community of lawyers who practice in Los Angeles] like?

We wear fancy ties.

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What judges do you enjoy appearing before?

All of them.

What do you think LA will look like in 20 years?


Do you think the area should be split up into mini-cities? Why or why not?

No comment.

If you were Mayor Villaraigosa's chief advisor, what is the first thing you'd advise him to act on as mayor of LA?

I think that his focus on the racial tensions in our public schools is much needed and he has the moral integrity to get in there and do something. The new Mayor is charismatic and has a great deal of energy, two things he's going to need a lot of to deal with this issue. Though not responsive to your question, I want to add that as a Chicano, I have a particular pride in his election.

Is there any issue in Los Angeles politics that you'd like the press to pay more attention to?

I think that the emergence of blogs has helped improve the coverage of Los Angeles politics. Ask me that question in another two or three years.

How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?

I grew up riding the bus. When I was sixteen, I had to take three buses and ride for about two hours to visit my girlfriend who lived in Pacific Palisades. Now, I'm a typical commuter in my Honda Accord which has about 145,000 miles on it. My next car will be a hybrid. I commute Monday through Thursday from West Hills to downtown and then I telecommute on most Fridays.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?

"Chinatown" is still the best L.A. movie as far as I'm concerned. So shoot me.

Best LA-themed book(s)?

Instead of listing books, here are some Los Angeles writers who have written wonderful books that take place in this city (or in communities nearby): Luis Rodriguez, T.C. Boyle, John Shannon, Aimee Bender, Michael Jaime-Becerra, John Fante, Susan Straight, Merrill Joan Gerber, Walter Mosley, Lisa Glatt, Bernard Cooper, Yxta Maya Murray, Sandra Tsing Loh, to name but a few. I'm currently editing an anthology of Los Angeles short fiction by Latino and Latina writers so I hope to add to that L.A. list next year.

Share your best celebrity sighting experience.

To help pay my tuition at Loyola High School, I worked the switchboard at the priest's residence on campus in the afternoon until about 9:30 at night. One afternoon, Gene Kelly called. His son attended the school and Mr. Kelly wanted to make certain that his home phone number was not in the school directory. So I transferred him to a secretary who could help him. He was very polite.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?

It all sucks. I guess that's one of the other issues that I want the Mayor to deal with: traffic. I wish we had lightrail along the 101.

What's the best place to walk in LA?

I still have a special place in my heart for Griffith Park because that's where my parents often took us when we were young. There are so many little trails that you can take; my son I did that recently and had a blast getting a bit lost. Also, downtown L.A. is a crazy, fun place to wander. I work in the Ronald Reagan Building on Spring and Third. The area has been revitalized with the old buildings being converted into lofts. So, the neighborhood is getting some new blood (many hip, young people with tattoos walking their dogs). I like eating at Pete's on Main near my office. Also, Grand Central Market is a bustling, wonderful place to wander about and buy lunch or pan dulce or coffee.

It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?

I'm home, my son is taking a shower and will soon get to bed, my wife is relaxing watching a little TV or reading, and I'm about to do about an hour or two of writing fiction or poetry or a book review or an essay.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

Though I'd love to visit L.A. circa 1927 (the time that my first book takes place), I wouldn't want to live in any time but today because Chicanos and other people of color did not enjoy the kind of rights that we do today.

What's your beach of choice?

Growing up, Venice was the beach of choice because the bus could take us there without too much hassle. Now I'm a bit partial to Carbon Beach, Malibu, for obvious reasons. I need to get out there more.

What is the "center" of LA to you?

L.A. has many centers which is why it's an amazing and maddening city.

If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.

My parents have their little retirement house in Ventura so don't be dissin' that beautiful community. Also, the Coastal Commission has an office there on California Street. My sister and her family live in Orange County. Despite its rap for being conservative, it's pretty diverse based on my visits these last ten years. So, I guess the O.C.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?

The stereotype is false. If you work in an office, you'll make friends. If you belong to a house of worship, you'll make friends. If you go to Starbucks each morning, you'll make friends. There are museums, book readings, beaches, hiking trails, etc., where you will make friends if you try just a little. Also, blogs such as LAist, The Elegant Variation, La Bloga (where I post each Monday), LatinoLA, L.A. Brain Terrain and others make certain that we know what's happening in the city.

What is the city's greatest secret?

Tía Chucha's in Sylmar. It's a Latino bookstore-café which was co-founded by the great writer, Luis Rodriguez. Web page: They have author readings/signings, music, open mic poetry night, a film series, etc. The people who run it are wonderful.

Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?

I don't drink so there ain't no issue with me.

Describe your best LA dining experience.

There was a place called Yesterdays in Westwood where my wife and I had our first date on December 29, 1981. It's no longer there.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?

I'm too busy to worry about what other people think of Los Angeles.

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?

After living through pretty horrible damage to our last home in the Northridge quake (the rebuilding was not pleasant), I'm not certain.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

In bed with my wife.