SUNSET PARK — Emmalie Hodgin calls traffic “a cancer in Santa Monica,” and on busy cut-through thoroughfare 23rd Street she might just have a point.
Twenty years ago, further development projects — a mini-mall, in particular — motivated Emmalie and about 10 other neighborhood residents to form the Friends of Sunset Park.
At the time, Emmalie and her husband Charles — Chuck, she calls him — had lived in area for over 30 years.
“This was a sleepy little suburb,” she said of the neighborhood in 1956. At that time, she continued, there were no problems with traffic and the city attracted few tourists.
When they saw this paradise slipping away, residents took the fight to City Hall.
“We fought ‘em hard, but we just got no place,” Emmalie said. “They made all kinds of offers they knew we couldn’t accept.”
The issue became so controversial that meetings at City Hall were broadcast by loudspeaker onto the streets, and later moved to a Douglas hangar to accommodate all interested citizens.
Ultimately, the Friends of Sunset Park brought the mini-mall project down — along with a few city officials.
“They were going on the assumption that the little people don’t know crap,” Emmalie said, pausing for effect before describing how she learned to fight back from her father growing up in Louisiana. “He said, ‘Look what they’re doing when you’re fighting them, and think what they’d be doing if you weren’t.’”
Over the years, Emmalie said, the organization’s goals have shifted. They still fight development — trying to stop Santa Monica from becoming “Manhattan” — but now they work with City Hall instead of against them, together facing ongoing issues with SMC and the airport.
As for the everyday operations of the organization, the board holds open meetings once a month and operates on simple majority rule.
“There’s always time to hear everyone’s opinion,” Emmalie said. “But once that vote comes down, we come together with one voice.”
The original founding group has swollen to about 600 members today. The organization often collaborates with other neighborhoods and shows the ropes to individuals or new groups.
Though she remains on the board, Emmalie has been inactive in the field for 10 years. Her symbolic presence still packs a punch, however.
“There’s nobody in City Hall that doesn’t know me,” she said.
In an untraditional move, Emmalie legally separated from her first husband after just a few years of marriage.
“My family had never known a divorce until I was a grown girl,” she said.
The pair had married when Emmalie — whose unusual name comes from a combination of her grandmothers’ — graduated from Catholic high school. She said her husband just wasn’t ready to settle down, so she took her kids to California and set off to do it all on her own.
The upheaval triggered a religious transformation in Emmalie’s life. She left the Catholic Church in favor of Baptism, and today attends an independent church.
“Moses gave divorces,” she said. “I know my bible upside-down and backwards.”
Her faith in bedrock American values remains unshaken, however.
“The founding fathers gave us damn good rules,” she said. “It’s amazing that they still work.”
Emmalie and Chuck were not romantically involved at first — and she thinks that’s the way to go.
“Become best friends first,” she said. “Then you know you can spend the rest of your lives together.”
The Hodgin’s house could be called a little cluttered — brightly colored stuffed pillows sit atop numerous chairs and a couch, glass trinkets adorn a table near the front window underneath which potted plants bloom and dozens of framed pictures crowd the mantle.
On the wall next to the front door hangs a plaque for “The Emmalie” award — presented annually since 1992 by the Friends of Sunset Park to the member who has done the most important or greatest amount of work for the organization.
“I was really honored that they gave it to me,” said former president Kathy Knight, who won the award this year for helping to save the Ballona Wetlands and cut back on development in Playa Vista.
Knight recalled a favorite memory of Emmalie.
“There was a point where we were down to just a few active members — including Emmalie,” she said. “She said we’ll make it, and we hung in there. Sure enough we eventually rebuilt and it’s a very strong group now.”
“She has a wonderful combination of strength and heart,” Knight added. “She’s a major role model for me.”
Former board member Jane Dempsey agreed.
“She always managed to be the most poignant one to two minutes of a City Council meeting. She can get everything said — I’ve always been in awe.”
Emmalie revealed that many items in the house — which Chuck has expertly remodeled and repaired over the years, Emmalie explained, gesturing proudly to the tiled shower and Formica cabinets — were purchased from the Salvation Army. She’s certainly no stranger to pinching her pennies. She was brought up around her father’s store, where she learned the basics of economics in the years during and following the Great Depression.
“We never buy now and pay later,” she said proudly. “We save now and buy later. Whatever meat is on sale, that’s what we’ll have for dinner.”
Chuck and Emmalie added two kids of their own to her two sons from the previous marriage. Together, the family took many camping trips, especially enjoying Tahoe and the High Sierras.
Emmalie lost two family members — a sister and a nephew — in the last month alone, but she has faith that they’ve gone to a better place.
“I have no fear whatsoever of dying,” Emmalie said. “We’ve had a good life. We’ve never been rich, and we’ve never been poor.”