By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A great city waits to be butchered in November. Roughly half of all Angelenos who can vote, according to a recent L.A. Times poll, want their city dismembered. In the San Fernando Valley, nearly 60 percent of voters, according to a new KABC-TV poll, intend to break the city up and hope to enlist majorities in San Pedro and Hollywood to make its dissolution complete. Worse, nearly 75 percent of Latino voters in the Valley now accept the unchallenged argument that a fragmented Los Angeles will not harm their interests, perhaps because those interests spill over so many fractured borders that a few more lines across the map of Southern California seem insignificant. In the absence of alternatives, the momentum for a breakup is growing. Secession was the choice of 36 percent of Los Angeles voters in 2001; it‘s more than 46 percent now, and daily adding more sympathizers. Some black leaders are ready to pull their city apart, ostensibly for the sake of fired Police Chief Bernard Parks but more in fear of increasing political marginalization in an increasingly Latino city. Conservative whites in the western San Fernando Valley -- the other half of the improbable coalition with working-class blacks that elected James Hahn -- have already voted him off their island. Everyone with a grievance wants to make shrinking Mayor Hahn the chief executive of a former Los Angeles -- the mayor of no one and no place.
To the list of the many real and imagined cities that overlap here -- colonial city, captured city, city of fragments, city of utopias -- these voters seem poised to add a final title: unnecessary city. Their indifference feeds on 100 years of unresolved fears about race and class in Los Angeles, 80 years of technically ”good“ government based on professional expertise and public disinterest, 30 years of timidity by L.A.’s representatives in the state Legislature, its mayors and council members (who countenanced secession to get secessionist votes), and a generation of Proposition 13--inspired ”taxpayer revolts“ against the idea of a common good that cruelly remade the citizens of Los Angeles into mere consumers of municipal services.
Pity them. And pity the city they think is unnecessary because they‘ve always thought a better one was just around the corner. As long as Los Angeles grew, it seemed ready to make good on the extravagant sales pitch that you were really buying a piece of somewhere else -- Italy, Spain, the tropics, your own private Idaho, the perfect city -- and you were only lightly and briefly a sojourner in the stucco house on the rectangle of disappointing alluvial soil where you actually lived, defined by tract, block and lot number in the county tax rolls. Since the ”growth machine“ that once turned the city’s dirt and sunshine into subdivisions of the American Dream stalled in the mid-1970s with nowhere else to go but the ”suburbs“ of Coeur d‘Alene, Scottsdale and Las Vegas, that promise has drained out of the sales pitch. The city has turned on itself as a trapped animal will, with its hind leg firmly caught, ready to gnaw at the joint where the trap’s jaws have bitten until the animal finally worries through its own sinew and bone. Until it‘s free, crippled and unfit.
Los Angeles is cracking up because it doesn’t know how to describe itself as a ”post“ city. It‘s post-sprawl, where ”sprawl“ is the cliched label for the city’s final, multicentered, suburban form. It‘s post-diversity, where ”diversity“ is both a sign of anxiety about the new people living next door and a word of self-congratulation about not being too anxious. It’s post--”middle-class“ as well, having become by 2000 a city of poor and working-class aspirants below and a flimsy crust of wealth above and not much in between. The question is what sort of ”post“ city Los Angeles will be -- what will become of a place that has defined itself as ”suburban“ and ”middle-class“ for 120 years, and ”diverse“ for the past 30, when those categories no longer adequately describe the city, but no other rhetoric is available to take the measure of Los Angeles? Despite a durable and still usable tradition of historical narrative that goes back at least to Cary McWilliams in the 1940s, the inadequate stories that we tell each other about Los Angeles -- the brief, disconnected stories of catastrophe and regret that typically end in contempt -- are unable to resist the city‘s malign tradition of forgetfulness. Willful amnesia about the history of Los Angeles is one of the preconditions for the past 40 years of failed public policy toward immigrants, commuters, ethnic communities, small-business operators, the homeless and working poor, a26 homeowners, and taxpayers -- failures that make secession feel like a solution.
A commitment to the shared history of all these Angelenos -- a commitment the city has always lacked -- is a prerequisite for loyalty to this place (and this is never the same as a commitment to property values, as if the single, defining conversation we can have about Los Angeles is the negotiation between seller and buyer). Lacking an adequate narrative and burdened by regret, the leadership of Los Angeles has largely abandoned its role of promoting the common good and substituted a loose federation of unrelated interest groups, each seeking its own sovereign identity, for the idea of a city for everyone. Their leaders have failed to give the city’s residents what they critically need -- and it‘s really not better government or affordable housing and jobs, although those are necessary, too -- but reasons to be loyal to one another that go beyond race, class, religion, ethnicity and shared grievance. The city is coming apart because its leaders offer so little that stands against the easy conviction that no shared loyalties to Los Angeles are possible at all.