Michael Woo is the dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona. An urban planner, he served on the Los Angeles City Council for eight years and ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993. Before participating in a panel on the future of L.A.’s newspapers, he explained why it’s never a good idea to talk in an elevator and offered a tale of the perils of ordering egg whites in Portland in the Zócalo green room.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
A biography of [Frederick Law] Olmsted, the famous landscape architect, and a book by William Zinsser, about his career as a writer.
Where would we find you at 9:00 on a typical Friday night?
You probably would find me either finishing dinner in a restaurant or sitting in my couch in my living room decompressing after a week of work.
What’s the best-planned city in America?
That’s a hard question. I might say New York City.
What’s your hidden talent?
I would be a good jazz disc jockey.
How are you different from who you were 10 years ago?
Ten years ago I was 52 years old, I didn’t really have a steady job, I wasn’t sure—I think I had less certainty—about what I was going to do for the next few years. Ten years ago was before I started getting interested in climate change. I think my attitude toward automobiles hadn’t changed as much as it’s changed now. So I think in some ways, my opinions have changed a lot in 10 years.
How do you like your eggs?
Egg whites, because I’m trying to minimize my cholesterol. Generally scrambled if I am going to have eggs. I ran into a problem on a trip to Portland. I went to a famous breakfast place and tried to do what I would do in L.A., which was to order egg whites for breakfast, and I was told by the waitress, “I’m sorry, the chef here believes in the whole egg philosophy, and we can’t give you egg whites.”
What would it take to get you back into electoral politics?
It would take a combination of somebody showing me a clear path—and also it would require some reignition of my younger, idealistic self.
What keeps you up at night?
I stay up late at night to watch reruns of 30 Rock because it puts me in a good mood.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
One of my mentors, a man named Richard Boone, who was one of the architects of the war on poverty in the 1960s, once came to visit me when I was a young man working in the state Capitol. We were riding in an elevator in the Capitol, and he asked me what was going on, and I took his question literally and started telling him what was going on. He poked me and said, “Never talk in an elevator because you never know who’s listening to you.”
What’s the biggest difference between L.A. city council members and the faculty of Cal Poly Pomona?
The council members are more overt about their desire for power and influence.