While Angelenos bicker over small matters of locational pride like who's westside (read: supersnob) and who's eastside (read: street), the unincorporated patch of L.A. County known as East L.A. — boxed in by cities on all sides — still goes identity-less and proper-less in the 21st century, 38 years after residents first pushed to form their own city.
“A community of this size deserves local government,” says Benjamin Cardenas, president of the East L.A. Residents Association. He explains that the approximately 126,000 people who reside in that little unincorporated blob on L.A. city's easternmost border (about 98 percent of them Latino) could benefit from local representation and streamlined finances.
But a brand-new feasibility report on a “City of East L.A.,” commissioned over a year ago by the neighborhood association, is less rose-colored:
The General Fund shortfall initially is approximately $11 million (before considering the impact of SB 89, as noted below), then grows as Vehicle License Fee (VLF) revenues from the State decline. The ongoing shortfall is approximately $7.6 million beginning in Year 7 after repayments to the County for initial Transition Year services are complete. General Fund shortfalls during early years could be covered by reserves generated during the initial Transition; however, these reserves would be exhausted by the fourth year.
However, Cardenas insists that the report is a “historic” step in getting an incorporation measure on the June 2012 county ballot.
Over the next few months, officials from L.A. County's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) will work with residents — 33 percent, or over 16,000, of whom signed a petition of support in 2007 — on possibilities for overcoming the shortfall.
(The county itself has taken no official position on losing East L.A., but state politicians like Gavin Newsom and Controller John Chiang have lent their blessing.)
“This is just a starting point,” says Cardenas.
And it's been a long time coming. The group of volunteers who form the East L.A. Residents Association first started passing around petitions four years ago, and have since raised thousands of dollars for all the studies necessary to become a city. This has meant car washes, menudos (breakfasts) and even a bus tour of all the murals in East L.A.
“There's no organized opposition [to the incorporation movement],” says Cardenas. “But there's been a lot of confusion. A lot of people thought we were a city already.”
Becoming a city has its pros and cons: As Bell (and even West Hollywood, to a lesser degree) have taught us all too well, small-town governments can become cesspools of nepotistic corruption — whereas big-city and county governments exist under greater public scrutiny. But, almost contradictorily, it can be easier to keep an eye on local officials, and appeal to them, as they often live right across the street.
East L.A. residents would have to be ready to hold a local government accountable. And Cardenas believes that they are.
He calls them “one of the most mature, civically engaged communities” in the county. Taking that sentiment over the moon, the Residents Association website reads:
Considered by many as the cultural, social, and political focal point of the Mexican-American community in the United States, the 140,000 residents of unincorporated East Los Angeles are ready for Cityhood.
A little overconfident, maybe. But “East Angelenos” have done relatively well for themselves: From what we've observed, though the area is on the poorer, working-class end of the spectrum, many residents have become property owners, and crime rates are low. It's certainly no Skid Row.
“Most cities incorporated 50 years ago,” says Cardenas. “We're a little island.”
Indeed. In yellow:
We've contacted LAFCO for comment. But what do you think? Is East L.A. ready for its own City Hall, and all the civic engagement that would require?