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Urban Fission 

Why we face it and who might stop it

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
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What makes a city fly apart? It’s not yet clear: Urbanologists don‘t have many precedents. Just as it pioneered so many other lifestyle innovations -- swimming-pool-centered apartment complexes, muscle-toned surf bunnies, Kung Pao pizza, free alternative weeklies and an NFL-free major metro area -- Los Angeles is now contemplating the self-inflicted mode of urban disintegration known as secession. Our city is once again leading the nation with this latest loco concept.

Valley secession, and by extension, Hollywood and Harbor secession, is an idea tragic in its overtones, disastrous in prospect. If the voters buy secession in November, the worst-case scenario says that most any corner of L.A. could go it alone. Why not Century Cityhood? With its lawyerly, high-rise prosperity, its million-dollar condos, its discrete geography, it could be a slam-dunk in LAFCO. Venice and West L.A. residents have already proposed secession. And Echo Park and Silver Lake could become the City of East Hollywood. This scenario leaves us a nightmare Los Angeles like a West-Coast Newark, NJ -- a sorry, leftover mixture of downtown office space, ghetto-barrio low-income housing and fading, high-impact industries. All surrounded by and interlaced with affluent suburbs.

It’s easy to blame Valley Vote and LAFCO for creating this prospect. But the failings of Los Angeles‘ own government over the past 12 years -- culminating in the uncharismatic and erratic Mayor Jim Hahn and today’s unprecedentedly inexperienced City Council -- must share credit. A perfect example of just how far the city government‘s moved from keeping its constituents’ interests in mind is shown by it legislation this week to move the Westside 6th Council District into the San Fernando Valley -- in defiance of common sense, precedent and the express wishes of both the quarter-million people who live in the district‘s current Westside location and another quarter-million who live where the 6th is supposed to go. Don’t expect many of them to vote to keep the city together.

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A less accountable factor is that, sometime back there, when we weren‘t looking, belief in Los Angeles, as a place we were so proud of that we wanted to keep to ourselves, seemingly ebbed away. This city that considered itself unique so recently seems now to be flat on its back with a bad angst attack. Leaving the secessionist burglars a free shot at its assets.

One prominent Westside lawyer blames the angst on the disappearance of the downtown business stakeholders long reviled by the city’s Left: Their stakes have been pulled up; their businesses are gone. Los Angeles‘ recent status as world glamour-and-growth center put its assets in the global shop windows, and the globe bought nearly everything that was there: both of our local dailies and this weekly newspaper, our TV and radio, our banks, our drug, department and grocery stores and baseball team, even most of the film studios. Had secession gone to the voters 20 years ago, its traditional stakeholder opponents would’ve filled the Biltmore Bowl. But those whom Jim Hahn‘s got left -- Eli Broad and Dick Riordan -- might be able to share a large phone booth: The others fly in from New York, Charlotte, Chicago and Tokyo. Welcome to Colonial L.A. Why should our economy’s absentee landlords care where the city‘s limits are?

It wasn’t supposed to come to this. In 1981, L.A. promised to become the nation‘s best city. Like hundreds of thousands of other people who arrived around then, I wanted to be a part of that future. Los Angeles had just turned metropolitan, and was finally moving away from the 1941 Regional Planning Commission edict that L.A. be a planned non-city, based on the presumed virtues of Anglo-Saxon rural life over the vices of the typical, multiethnic, high-density downtown.

This radical change was sparked by our city’s first inner-city mayor, Tom Bradley. Just as New York Mayor Ed Koch was institutionalizing the racism that still defines that city‘s politics, Tom Bradley tried to open City Hall to everyone. For a while, according to Cal State Fullerton political science professor Raphe Sonenshein, who was there, he nearly did. By the Reagan era, Los Angeles was almost a progressive refuge. Its new cultural latitude, along with its freeway freedom of movement, its unexpected beauty and famous climate, helped it briefly to become the creative, even the culinary, capital of the nation. Its Land of Hope and Glory.

But that was decades of disappointments ago. Bradley’s pragmatic idealism peaked with the 1984 Olympics -- both the last occasion on which he and LAPD Chief Daryl Gates ever held a civil discourse and the last during which the city managed to function perfectly. After that, the mayor increasingly focused on his foreign travel and political ambitions, instead of the catastrophic fault line between the new L.A. liberal culture and the L.A. Police State. Which just kept widening -- right up to the Rodney King beating and the 1992 riots that closed history‘s book on Bradley. The Hurrah Years of Republican Proconsul Dick Riordan saw the city regain its fiscal stability. But the LAPD changed not and the very idea of diversity got sloganized. And then ”diversity“ fell away to the inevitable realities of emergent Latino power. Finally, whites were a minority and Latinos were voting.

And so, with Valley Vote’s ”Reorganization Proposal,“ the diverse-city paradigm reverted to the old 1941 ideal of a minimalist urban identity, this time in the form of ungated, 1.3-million-population Hidden Hills with its 68 percent Anglo voters. It‘s on the ballot with a plan to separate Hollywood as well.

With just over five months of campaigning time left, the most recent Times polling suggests the Valley secessionists are ahead -- most surprisingly, with not just a majority of Valley voters but 48 percent of non-Valley L.A. favoring secession. Obviously, the dilatory official anti-secession movement faces a very tough fight.

If the measure loses, though, a lot of credit will go to an increasingly important bunch of stakeholders who were too long out of the L.A. power game: organized labor. Divided in the 2001 mayor’s race between support for Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, labor seems fully committed to battle secession. Spearheading the effort -- not surprisingly -- is the Service Employees‘ International Union Local 337, which represents Los Angeles city employees. But the county Federation of Labor and its member unions, such as Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 300, are also weighing in on this one. Laborers spokesman Jim Hilfenhaus admitted that some of his 7,000 members have been seduced by the talk of Valley independence. ”But they trust us. They know it means fewer jobs for them. Valley Vote can go after their hearts. We go after their heads.“

Local 347 General Manager Julie Butcher sees secession as threatening the salaries and possibly the jobs of around 9,000 current city employees. Butcher said, ”If the Valley contracts with the city [for services], it will probably demand a say in union negotiations, threatening to take business elsewhere if . . . the unions don‘t comply.“

Hilfenhaus said that while prospective Valley city plans are unspecific about hiring, those for the city of Hollywood explicitly favor out-contracting. He further noted that the entertainment guilds and unions have all lined up to strongly oppose secession: ”If it passes, it could mean three different permits for shooting one movie in Los Angeles: talk about runaway filmmaking.“ And runaway jobs.

So in what was for so long a notoriously anti-labor city, what is so far the broadest force to keep the city whole is organized labor. This fact is going to remain significant even if the Valley gets the votes to secede.

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