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Hernandez’s Ill-Advised Push for Separatism

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez is a bundle of anger and frustration these days.

The emotions fill his bulky body. When he speaks he has trouble expressing himself, as if he can’t find the words to convey his feelings.

Much of Hernandez’s rage is prompted by the trouble he has encountered in trying to help a part of his district, a poor, overcrowded, gang- and drug-ridden old neighborhood within walking distance of Downtown’s glittering high-rises.

So desperate is Hernandez to relieve the overcrowding in crumbling apartments that he has embraced a radical solution. He is proposing to limit residency in a new city-subsidized, 32-unit low-income apartment development in Pico Union to those living in three ZIP codes surrounding the project.

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Because the residents of those ZIP codes are almost entirely Latino, the practical effect of the proposal would be to restrict occupancy to Latinos. This would be a dramatic departure from current city policy of opening such low-income housing to all of L.A.'s poor. And, in the view of some city officials and council members, it would be tantamount to government-approved discrimination against poor people who live in other areas, including an impoverished black population in nearby South L.A.

I asked City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is black, whether he thought the proposal amounted to government-sponsored segregation. He said that is not Hernandez’s intention but the plan could set such a precedent. A white liberal, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, said, “the minute we do things by geography is the day Balkanized Los Angeles arrives.”

But to the angry Hernandez, L.A. is already a city of Balkanized neighborhoods segregated by race and class. And the affluent ones have adopted neighborhood zoning plans that effectively ban construction of low-income housing such as Pico Union’s Crescent Court housing development.

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Tuesday morning I stopped by Crescent Court, which is just about ready for occupancy.

I could see why the neighbors were so anxious to have it for themselves. The Crescent Court development consists of two-story duplexes, with stucco and wood exteriors painted in a sharp yellow and gray. Newly planted grass was growing in the yards.

Although a fairly new condo development is across the street from Crescent Court, most of the apartment buildings in the neighborhood date back to the early part of the century. Three or four families are packed into some of the old apartment units, making this L.A.'s most densely populated area. The street looked peaceful. But the graffiti on the walls told of gang occupation, and I knew from past visits that drug dealers operated on street corners, especially near the crowded schools.

The overcrowding and the dangerous streets constitute powerful arguments for Hernandez’s plan to give the residents preference in Crescent Court. So is the history of the neighborhood.

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In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the area around the new apartment development was a solid, working-class Mexican American neighborhood. But much of it was bulldozed to make room for the huge interchange of the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways; a big Pep Boys headquarters building, and, finally, the mammoth expansion of the Convention Center. Each time, residents had to scramble for new housing.

“The Pico Union people have been moved from one place to another place to another place,” Hernandez told the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee on Monday.

But there is another chapter of history, just as important, that argues against the city sponsoring a restricted housing project.

Late in the ‘50s, when the civil rights movement was emerging, a multiracial liberal coalition proposed a law banning racial discrimination in California residential real estate sales.

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By 1963, the coalition was strong enough to take on the powerful real estate lobby in the Legislature. When the coalition’s fair housing bill got tied up in the Senate, after passing the Assembly, black and white families staged a sit-in in the Capitol rotunda. It lasted for days and the crowd’s singing of “We Shall Overcome” was an uplifting counterpoint to the Legislature’s usual cynicism. Finally, the measure passed. That wasn’t the end of the story. The voters repealed it, the courts reinstated it, and a generation of liberals have never forgotten their coalition days.

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I’d watched a lot of this history as a reporter. I remember the times the Mexican American community vainly fought for their neighborhood. I can understand Hernandez’s anger.

But separatism is a losing course. We can see that in Bosnia. The old California liberals were right when they fought segregated housing more than 30 years ago.

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