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.
Having been handed secession by a process that asked very little of Angelenos except to be unhappy, they would do well to ask of secessionism what it is and what it will give the cities it splinters from Los Angeles.
Secessionism in the San Fernando Valley is the politics of race in a city where race doesn’t mean much anymore, except to those who callously use it or gullibly believe in it. The anti-busing crusades of the 1970s in the Valley and the founding in 1975 of CIVICC (the Committee Investigating Valley Independent CityCounty) gave secession its first reasons, and these were clearly racial and exclusivist in motivation. The threats of African-American leaders to support secession are equally racial and exclusivist now. But the purpose behind these threats and appeals is gone. Los Angeles is becoming maximally mixed, as new Census data show, except in those pockets of the northwest Valley where it is still barely possible to imagine a diminished city that is white, and in large tracts of South-Central where poverty undermines any idea of a city at all. But if you look at the whole, mongrel city of Los Angeles — the impure mestizo city — it‘s passing beyond race to the more troubling and pertinent question of class.
Which makes secessionism backward-looking. It’s nostalgic. It‘s politics for a city almost entirely gone, carried away by the flight of white voters and middle-class black voters and the rise of Latino majorities in many neighborhoods. That makes Valley secessionism — on its own racial and class terms — merely temporary. Secession leaders and fellow travelers will rule a new Valley city for a dozen years at most, and they will pass from the scene, because of term limits, to be inevitably replaced by a mostly Latino political establishment that will appeal to a working-class and not-quite-middle-class Latino constituency.
Secessionism’s promise of services at a lower cost to consumer-taxpayers is apt to be temporary, too. The county‘s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) reports that a new Valley city would be ”viable“ (and LAFCO is vigorously cooking the numbers to make San Pedro and Hollywood look ”viable“ too). But viability is a dangerously modest standard on which to demolish one city and make up new ones. Viable isn’t successful, as the sorry fiscal condition of too many cities in Los Angeles County makes clear. And LAFCO‘s reports, by law, forecast just the first three years of a new city’s economic future.
Secessionists are uninformed about trends in municipal financing and land-use policy (or unwilling to share the bad news with voters) that undercut the premises of secessionism. New cities made from Los Angeles will have some part of their revenue that passes through state hands diverted to plug California‘s $24 billion deficit. The new cities will be under state pressure to increase the number and density of housing units in single-family neighborhoods and to adopt zoning ordinances that conform to land-use standards mandated by the state and regional agencies. The Valley will have to deal with current proposals for state-mandated sales-tax sharing, which would send part of its revenue to less mall-rich communities in Los Angeles County. On the horizon is even broader state intervention in the setting of municipal priorities (driven by a decadelong shift of municipal-financing authority from cities to the state government) undercutting local control and quality-of-life protection as key arguments for secession.
Secession is the wrong blunt instrument for managing essentially neighborhood issues. Former Assemblyman Richard Katz, a Valley VOTE leader, believes secession is really about what all residents everywhere want: ”safer neighborhoods, good schools, their streets paved, their trees trimmed and the garbage picked up on time.“ Secessionism fails to make the connection between meeting these desires and breaking up Los Angeles — other systems of service delivery might be even more efficient and cheaper without secession, if these ”consumer values“ are the real criteria for making a city. If the desire is ”better schools,“ secessionism is aiming at the wrong target.
Secessionism doesn’t deliver the right degree of change. It‘s too big at the scale of neighborhoods and too small at the scale of the region. Secession can’t make the Los Angeles Unified School District, the county Board of Supervisors, or any other countywide political unit smaller, more responsive and more representative, because they are all independent of the city. Secessionism can only break up Los Angeles.
Secessionism has unintended consequences. A fractured city of Los Angeles, its parts squabbling in the courts over the terms of the breakup, and fierce rivals for state aid and every form of advantage, will accelerate the imposition of regional government in Southern California. Regionalization will remove many neighborhood quality-of-life issues from local control and pass them to another, and even more remote, level of government that will be primarily responsive to state, not local, interests. Many on the left regard state-imposed regionalization as a good thing, since messy local interests are hard to reconcile with the need for big plans, and some on the left, including former state Senator Tom Hayden, aided secessionism by supporting the legislation (AB 62 in 1997) that made secession possible.
Secessionism is cowardly. Demographically and culturally, Los Angeles today is nearly a re-founded city, and like the experience of recently re-founded a31 nations, Los Angeles can acquiesce to its useless stories about itself or benefit from a shared process of ”truth and reconciliation.“ Angelenos have something profound to learn from one another and a lot to forgive. Something genuine could come from remaking the city‘s moral order — a re-figured narrative, still flawed but hopeful and even utopian in its working-class solidarity. Secessionism doesn’t have the stomach for the hard, heart-wrenching work of explanation, remembrance and forgiveness. It hasn‘t the courage.
Secessionism makes cowards, too. Secessionism persisted in the San Fernando Valley because no serious candidate could, it was said, become mayor without secession-minded voters and no one could be elected to the City Council, the state Legislature or Congress from the Valley without secessionist support. That threat was never tested, least of all in the recent mayoral election, where every candidate glided over the implications of breaking up the city. The current success of secessionism required silence and their complicity.
Secessionism is vulgar. It corrupts speech to make decomposition of the city palatable. Breaking up Los Angeles is called ”reorganization,“ as if the disruption of 150 years of civic life were a matter for bureaucrats and not the intimate concern of citizens. Breaking up the city is presented as a ”divorce“ that will be made equitable by the paying of ”alimony,“ as if our communal relationships were as easy and faultless to rescript into a property relationship as we imagine our private lives are.
Secessionism shrinks the boundaries of the moral imagination more than it shrinks municipal borders. It reduces ”citizenship“ to cocooning and turns ”city“ into enclave. Secessionism is ignorant of the moral purpose of great cities, which is the creation of a maximal number and diversity of public settings in which citizens might acquire the ability to sympathize with the condition of others and act on redressing those conditions. In place of the sympathy from which justice comes, secessionism proffers resentment.
Secessionism isn’t immoral, however. Perversely, former Mayor Richard Riordan‘s argument that secession should be condemned because of its disdain for the condition of the city’s poorest residents is a confirmation of the most seductive inducement for secession in the Valley: that the rational self-interest of the Valley‘s ”good people“ requires them to put down the burden of the city’s poor. Secessionism may be contemptuous of poverty, but, as a council of the city‘s religious elders determined in April, it’s morally neutral. Secessionism must meet a higher standard than that, of course. To justify breaking up the city, secessionists must show that the result will materially benefit those who have least benefited from current political conditions — and not just in the new cities but in the remnant of Los Angeles as well. The conclusion of the members of the Council of Religious Leaders of Greater Los Angeles is that secession fails to meet this most basic test of fairness.
Secessionism promises some form of a newer New Jerusalem — even if that is only a shorter drive to a city hall — when, in fact, secessionism is more of the familiar L.A. sales pitch about endless self-invention in the sunshine. It‘s nothing new-made — no new or better form of political organization, no new answers for shaping our lives together, and no solutions for the social and economic conditions that drive us apart. Secessionism repackages the same commodified dissatisfaction that underlies the marketing of all of Los Angeles. Secession falsely answers Angelenos’ doubts about their ability to make use of their shared history by substituting the same old sales pitch.
As a result, secessionism has no end. It makes large claims to justification by the principles of democracy and self-determination, but it does not offer to balance the principle of democratic discontent with other, moderating values. The smallest self-governed unit in Los Angeles County is Hawaiian Gardens, a city of 15,000 mostly Latino residents packed into less than a square mile, where city government is sustained by periodic handouts from a casino operator. By secession‘s standard of righteous self-determination, future voters — for whatever disaffection — should expect to carve more than 225 municipalities like this from the body of their new Valley city.
Secessionism is insufficiently cynical. L.A. Times columnist John Balzar makes the argument that all cities are corrupt, and with more cities you’ll have more corruption. Secessionism, in this view, is too trusting of human nature.
But secessionism is cynical enough. It takes 50 percent of those voting (plus one vote) in the Valley and 50 percent of those voting (plus one vote) in the city as a whole, including the Valley and other secession areas, to break Los Angeles up. A vote for secession anywhere in the city on November 5 increases the odds of getting the necessary citywide majority that a new Valley city requires. Cynically boosting secession in the harbor and Hollywood, where it‘s unclear how broadly secessionist feelings really extend, is a necessary part of the Valley VOTE strategy.
Finally, secession will allow New Yorkers to gloat.
The best that can be said for proposals to unravel Los Angeles is that the city’s decomposition advances the preferred, dystopian storyline for this unlikely place. Momentum without restraint made Los Angeles, a city that doubled in population between 1900 and 1910, nearly doubled again by 1920, nearly tripled in size by 1930, doubled again by 1960, and hovers now at some permanently uncountable number above 3,700,000. That city worked mainly because it grew, every new tract on the ragged fringe of arroyos and floodplain another invitation for the disaffected — no matter what the cause — to move on to the next paradise of the ordinary. The city that defined itself by its sales pitch almost never looked back, in its haste to sell another house lot, at what it mostly was: a superb expression of working-class longing for the dignity that comes with a house, a yard and the company of neighbors. When secessionists look back, now that the ”option to exit“ to the city‘s edges is foreclosed, they lie about what they see — a majority of amnesiacs unprepared for the city that Los Angeles has become.
The main arguments for secession — a better return on tax dollars, greater service efficiency, and the vague feeling that middle-class residents aren’t getting a fair share of the services they pay for — are consumer complaints, not the cause for the rending of one city and the founding of others.
In reply, Mayor Hahn and other anti-secessionists have been talking of dreams when they talk about keeping Los Angeles together. If the city is merely a place of dreams — their commodification being the core of L.A.‘s worn-out sales pitch — then it’s not likely to stay a whole city long enough to show Angelenos how to be its citizens. To be a citizen of Los Angeles means, in this hour, not to dream but to pick up the burden and gift of bearing witness to this place. There are many reasons to reject secession, but only one reason moves me, an outsider. In an era disfigured by so many deniers, to accept secession is to deny the city‘s history.
In that history is a great yearning for hope, perhaps more intensely felt here than in other places because the desires of Angelenos are so naked, whereas almost everything else about their lives together is wrapped in a shroud of false memories and forgetfulness. Angelenos hope for a community of solidarity where their diverse interests might be reconciled in ways that satisfy them intimately and, in reconciling them, assure the common good.
If neighborhood councils under the new charter were given some budgetary authority for the improvement of neighborhood services, if the function of the new regional planning commissions were more transparent and the commissioners elected by neighborhood residents, if city government could further reform itself (perhaps under a borough system similar to the structure of city government in London and New York), and if elementary and middle schools could be governed as neighborhood institutions, the hope of Angelenos for a city at a human scale and with a human face might be realized.
Secessionists object that nothing in their civic institutions cares for Angelenos or their longings. Where Angelenos ask for hope, secessionism despairs.
Truthfully, the city of Los Angeles was never really needed, except as the container for an enormously successful lifestyle product, until now. Built out, transforming itself into the northernmost capital of the tropics, maximally diverse, more urban and more grown-up, Los Angeles requires courage to extend one’s moral imagination across its whole, flawed, tragic, sacred, human and humanizing body. Because it finally asks this courage of its unwilling citizens, Los Angeles is finally the necessary city.
D.J. Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir and Real City: Downtown Los Angeles InsideOut. He lives in Lakewood.
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