Yes, King Richard has finally abdicated. Now all of 13 people have filed as running for his seat. Most of them seem like pretty serious contenders, too. For something has happened to Los Angeles’ most easterly council district that few seem ever to have expected. The population of the 14th District, which runs from immigrant destination Boyle Heights in the south to bosky Eagle Rock in the north, has finally come of age. Many of the inhabitants no longer think of themselves as passing through on the way to classier areas, as did the previous waves of Jewish and Italian immigrants. While the 14th’s Boyle Heights south end continues to be one of the city’s major catchments for non-English-speaking immigrants, a more stable Latino population, either locally born or long resident, has developed in its central-north areas, from El Sereno to Highland Park. It’s a community that thinks of itself as established — as there for keeps.
And it thinks of itself, finally, as not so much having to be taken care of as being able to take care of itself. One candidate, Luis Cetina, describes this population as "pockets of pride," people who value their neighborhood as a home, in many cases, to their extended family. They want to be able to stay there while their careers, income and education levels continue to rise. They want to continue their upward social mobility without having to move out. They just want their neighborhoods to be able to move up with them.
This is quite an aspirational change: Since 1967, the 14th has been run pretty much as a fiefdom — first, by "Gringo Godfather" Arthur K. Snyder, then, less well, by the Padrino Latino, Richard Alatorre. Before ’67, the Latino community was chronically underserved — lacking even such amenities as streetlights and paving, patrolled by an LAPD that often saw itself as an occupying army.
Then came the generation of godfather government. If you supported the councilman, good things happened; if not, bad things. Snyder distributed shiny amenities, while Alatorre at least kept most of the streets paved. Compared to other districts, however, the 14th’s population had a passive role in what happened there.
But at the first of this year’s council-candidate nights last week, you saw how much has changed over the past generation, and why Padrinoism could finally disappear from the district. As John Steinbeck once put it, "Strong men don’t need strong leaders." The 14th is becoming a strong district, built on increased economic and educational status, as well as uniquely strong family ties.
The 10 of the 13 candidates who gathered in the backroom of a Highland Park restaurant last Wednesday actually had a lot in common: They’d mostly completed college, they’d mostly worked in the public sector, and most of them had also been involved heavily in neighborhood nonprofit organizations. This is the sort of thing that’s been going on in this district over the past 30 years, since youthful ’60s protesters changed an unspoken L.A. school district policy that discouraged the Eastside’s children from attending college and shunted them instead into careers in manual labor. Cathy T. Molina spoke for most of the candidates (possibly excepting Victor Griego, whose residence has been called into question) when she said, "We are the people who stayed here and never left."
The candidates had their differences, too. Juan Jimenez said he was a former street kid with a gang past, while Nick Pacheco, a deputy district attorney, claimed that he "stayed out of trouble." Yet if the group of candidates agreed on anything, it was that one of their primary goals was to help the kids and young adults of the district, particularly "people who are lost," as Jimenez put it — particularly the increasing number of non-Mexican Latino youth in the area. The talk was of jobs, the emphasis on local jobs, so that families can stay closer.
On the Westside, this would be called a lifestyle. Obviously, this is a neighborhood a lot of people live in by choice and preference. And are loyal to. As much as its newfound political muscle and its aura of confidence, this sense of community loyalty is part of the 14th’s new core of strength.
So we’re looking at a short but tumultuous primary race. Even Alatorre seemed to sense this: "After 28 years in office," he said, "I’m glad to be taking this in as an observer."
To which candidate Parra, who had strongly challenged the incumbent in 1995, responded, "I never dreamed I’d ask this, Councilman, but would you consider voting for me?"
One of the great involuntary pastimes of life in El Sereno is train spotting. That’s because one of the Eastside region’s busiest intersections — eastern Eastern Avenue and Valley Boulevard — is bisected by a quartet of busy train tracks.