Hassan Haghani passed away Saturday March 10, 2018.
For over a decade Hassan was the central driving intellectual force in the Glendale Planning Department. Much of what Glendale Planning is today and the physical landscape of Glendale as it has evolved in the past fifteen years is the product of Hassan’s vision and personality. He was also, from the time I joined the City in 2005 until Hassan left Glendale for Santa Ana in 2015, my boss.
People occasionally say they love their boss, by which they usually mean they love working them. I certainly loved working for Hassan, but I also loved him. He was my friend, mentor, the big brother I didn’t have, a father figure if our lives were a male version of Gilmore Girls (a TV reference I’m sure he would appreciate), and of course, he was my urbane, sophisticated and mischievous gay uncle.
I came to Glendale as the City’s first on-staff urban designer, in a position that Hassan created and subsequently hired me for. He had a clear vision for what urban design could mean in city planning, and shortly after I started work, Hassan began talking about an “Urban Design Studio.”
In ways that only became clear to me later, Hassan carved out the space and room within the conservative bureaucracy for me to be successful as the erstwhile head (and for a time, only employee) of the Glendale Urban Design Studio. Like any proud father, Hassan relished in my success, but it was as much his accomplishment as mine. If Glendale continues to refer to an “Urban Design Studio” it’s because Hassan willed it into being out of shear rhetoric.
Rhetoric was one of Hassan’s most effective tools and he was precise in how he used words. He was full of delightful Persian phrases and sayings such as “speaking to the door while talking to the window” or “cutting your throat with cotton balls,” when he needed to dress down misbehaving applicants in the high politesse language of their native Farsai tongue.
For Hassan, who was a sheer force of will, describing something in words was almost the equivalent of making it. He was so full of ideas that it seemed he needed to get them out of his head to make room for new ones – in telling you his idea, he made it your problem to figure out, so he could move on the next thought. He might suddenly appear in your office, throw everything into turmoil, and then just as quickly vanish. Lest you think he had forgotten about whatever idea he tossed into your office, he’d return months later presuming you had finished the tasks necessary to make that idea reality.
However, Hassan didn’t merely delegate tasks to his staff. He empowered you, gave you the opportunity to take ownership of your assignment, to approach it in your own way, let you take credit for the success he made possible and then give you more opportunities to grow and expand. Once he became director, Hassan was constantly tinkering with the organization chart – he was always trying to figure out where to position people so their best talents and skills could be drawn out. It made for a higher functioning department, but also made staff happier in their work. He once told me that the only reason to take on the headaches of director was to command the organization in order to accomplish something you couldn’t do without being in charge. How to be an effective mentor to others is the most profound lesson Hassan taught me, not entirely by what he said, but in the example he set in his relationship with me.
Hassan was a passionate defender of the people who worked for him. As Planning Director, he viewed it as his job to absorb all the stone, steel or poison-tipped arrows that council members and constituents might aim at his staff. Only he knows how many scars he bore on his back on their behalf. In budget battles, he fiercely fought for every position. I know of at least two people who owe their jobs to Hassan’s back-room advocacy, and there are undoubtedly more. It would not surprise me to learn that he saved my job at least once and never told me about it. The melancholy that swept across Glendale when Hassan announced his resignation was largely because of this advocacy – the people who worked for Hassan knew he always stood up for them.
It is not surprising to learn now, after his passing, that Hassan had also started an international organization for gay Iranians, and to hear testimonies from people across the country who never met Hassan in person, yet in whom they could see a defender and advocate for their coming out.
Hassan was a leprechaun, the purveyor of playful trickery and magic. Somehow, he always knew everything about you even before you did. When I told Hassan I was dating the beautiful young woman recently hired by Economic Development, he had a knowing and happy smile. Not only had he already figured it out, when most of our colleagues were still unaware of our relationship, but in typical Hassan fashion, he imagined that Annette and I would end up together when he first met her. Of course, Annette are now married.
Many of my memories of Hassan are from celebrations – award ceremonies at planning conferences, birthday parties, Nowruz luncheons and retirement send-offs at work. Although he didn’t always insist on being the center of attention, parties were always more fun when he was there. When he helped orchestrate the annual state planning conference in Hollywood, he insisted it have an over-the-top glam theme that would leave everyone talking for the coming year. When it came time to throw him his own farewell event from Glendale, he made it clear he wanted an extravagant blow out. I suspect he has left instructions that his final going-away event should be the biggest party of the year.
Naturally the image of Hassan in my mind is this picture, wearing the crown after the annual “planku” poetry competition. He is, of course, a prince, but he is also blurry because he was never still and always in motion. And that smile, that laugh, that enthusiasm and love which infected everyone who came in contact with him.
It is hard to imagine what my professional and personal life would be like without Hassan’s gentle, compassionate and prescient influence. It is even harder to imagine the void he leaves in the lives of his family. Hopefully they can take comfort in knowing that in his all-too-short life, Hassan had an outsized impact on the places and people around him.
Good bye my friend. I love you and thank you.