A City Divided
Along the pockmarked streets, past peeling storefronts, the welcome signs proclaiming Lynwood an All-America City provide a glimpse of its suburban past.
In 1961, when the city won the distinction, Lynwood seemed destined for a long period of stability, echoing its Chamber of Commerce’s boast that the city was “the best place to live best.”
And so it must have appeared to thousands of World War II veterans and their families who had flocked to the city after the war. Lynwood’s five square miles, 30 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles, offered blue-collar workers a slice of the postwar American dream--big-name stores, an affordable home for raising a family, a job at one of the many nearby factories.
But, with property covenants that excluded racial minorities from owning the city’s new homes, the dream was almost exclusively for whites.
“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, if you were black and were caught here after sundown, you had a problem,” said George Higgins, 78, who has lived in the city since 1939 and served as its mayor in the late 1970s.
Despite the sense of stability in the early ‘60s, all was about to change. After the riots in nearby Watts in 1965, many residents decided to leave, beginning the process of “white flight.”
Then came the construction of the Century Freeway--Interstate 105--that now carries motorists between Norwalk and Los Angeles International Airport. Homes along the freeway’s path were vacated, and many sat empty for a decade while various battles raged in court. The freeway’s route ran along the borders of other cities. But in Lynwood, it ripped through the heart of the city. When bulldozers finally hit town, they sliced the city in two, leaving a scene of physical and economic devastation.
About 1,000 Lynwood homes were demolished as part of the nation’s costliest freeway project. Property values slumped. Businesses fled.
The freeway transformed the community from a prosperous blue-collar city into a poor one. It was a classic example of a public works project that seemed to symbolize progress but brought hardship to a community in its path.
Lynwood was never the same.
Shift in Population and Power Base
The freeway wasn’t the only change that occurred in Lynwood. The demographics of the city, once known among neighboring minority communities as “Lily White Lynwood,” shifted radically. Whites moved out. Blacks, then Latinos, moved in.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the complexion of the City Council also changed, albeit slowly. By 1986, a majority of the council was African American. Eleven years later--14 months ago--Latino candidates won a majority of seats.
A quarter-century after freeway construction began, Lynwood today is a community of minority residents--nearly 80% of them Latino--facing significant problems of unemployment, poverty and crime.
Despite those issues confronting the city, two themes have remained constant in its politics for at least a decade: division on the council, and criticism from some residents that council members are more interested in taking care of themselves than dealing with the city’s problems.
Over the years, recall attempts have been initiated against all but one of the current council members. In the last 10 years, angry residents have complained about their leaders on issues ranging from excessive travel to financial scandals to a street construction project that added property to a councilman’s home.
More recently, the city has faced a financial crisis, forcing officials last year to find ways to cut the municipal budget. But, despite the financial hardship, council members have not trimmed their own budgets. Indeed, they have added to them.
Many residents were outraged to learn that their part-time council members last month voted at a morning meeting to boost their pay 100%, to $41,500. In contrast, in this city of 66,000, the median household income is $27,339, far below the $40,344 countywide.
“It seems the only time [council members] have unity is when it benefits them,” said resident Lawrence Marques. “It’s about the only time there are smiles up there. It looks as if they want to jump up and down and give themselves high fives.”
Some residents have also criticized the city-hopping, and sometimes country-hopping, habits of Lynwood’s council members. Councilman Louis Byrd was once assailed for traveling to Gabon, in Central Africa, at a cost to the city of $3,957. Others were angry last year when three councilmen attended a conference in Puerto Rico.
According to city budget figures, Lynwood’s legislative body outspends the Long Beach council by nearly 3 to 1 on travel and meetings, even though Long Beach is six times larger and far wealthier.
Other targets of criticism include the council members’ use of city credit cards and per diem expenses. Although the credit cards are meant to help pay for necessary expenses quickly, council members are not required to produce receipts for purchases, and the only limit is the $5,000-a-month cap imposed by the credit card company.
Under what is called per diem in Lynwood, elected officials receive a payment of $100 for every out-of-town meeting they attend to cover possible out-of-pocket expenses.
Over one weekend last March, Ricardo Sanchez, who has since been appointed mayor, received $200 for attending the Los Angeles Marathon and a Cesar Chavez parade, documents show. In one four-month-period, the city paid him nearly $4,000 in per diem expenses.
Even when city finances are not the issue, council meetings are often raucous, divided affairs. In the last few months, opponents and supporters of Sanchez, now the target of a recall effort, have traded insults.
Racial tensions on the council have also been high, reaching a peak in the summer. Black and Latino members accused each other of “race-baiting.” Black contractors filed an $800-million civil rights lawsuit against the city and its three Latino councilmen, alleging that the three cut their city contracts for “racist” reasons.
Amid the turmoil, even explanations for the city’s political divisions prove divisive. One camp blames racial agendas for the problems. But others say the fault lies in council members looking after their own interests before those of their constituents.
Protests at one council meeting illustrated the split. Inside the council chamber, residents and council members argued over a local newspaper article that quoted Byrd, an African American, as predicting an imminent race war--a statement that Byrd later denied making. Outside, a handful of residents stood waving placards that read: “It’s not about race, Mr. Byrd. It’s about corruption.”
Latino Majority on the Council
The latest chapter in Lynwood’s political turmoil began in November 1997, when voters swept three Latino candidates--one an incumbent--onto the five-member City Council, defeating one black member and filling a vacancy left by a white member, who had died while in office.
Members of the old council contended that the trio--Sanchez, incumbent Armando Rea and Arturo Reyes--violated election laws. Meanwhile, at least one of the Latino councilmen-elect pledged to “clean up” city government of alleged abuses. But two weeks before new council members were to be sworn in, the lame duck council met one last time.
At the meeting, the old council approved extensions and new service agreements for three city contractors. In doing so, they rejected the advice of city staff and accepted terms drawn up by the contractors and handed to council members just moments before the meeting, according to court papers filed by the city in April.
Despite vocal opposition from most residents who spoke at the meeting, the old council approved the agreements 3 to 1.
“If you are going to do that, why have an open meeting?” one man said during the public comment period. “We may as well call this a dictatorship.”
On the old council, only Rea dissented, accusing Councilman Paul H. Richards II of “rewarding your allies.”
Richards replied that he was trying to protect the livelihood of people in the community. “This is not about chalking up points or paying people back,” he said.
Court papers quote one administrator as believing that the contracts were “dubious and the terms were clearly unfavorable to the city.”
Three weeks later, with the council’s two black members absent, the three Latino councilmen terminated the newly approved contracts.
“It was not a racial thing,” Reyes said, adding that approving last-minute contracts that were never on the public meeting’s agenda was a violation of California’s open government law.
In August, the contractors sued, alleging racial discrimination, and cited a long list of other instances of alleged racial policies, including the defunding of black-run organizations.
One defunded group was the Lynwood Business Institute, once a part of a controversial entrepreneur academy created in the early 1990s. Started with about $2 million in city funding, the academy was designed to educate budding entrepreneurs and nurture their fledgling businesses.
But almost from the start, the organization ran into controversy over its finances. One of the academy’s original participants was imprisoned after pleading no contest to charges that he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the institution.
The program was then restructured and its fiscal controls tightened. But controversy continued to dog the academy. Richards’ sister, Adriana, served for years as director of the institute.
“I thought it was totally improper,” said Rea, who was a councilman at the time.
Richards said he had nothing to do with his sister’s hiring. “Her employment is none of my business,” he said.
Charges and Countercharges
Within months of taking office, the Latino councilmen were themselves coming under scrutiny.
A band of regular council meeting attendees who say they once supported Sanchez handed in recall petition signatures against him this week. They allege that Sanchez abused his position on the council, a claim he strongly denies.
“You know we’re talking about corruption, stealing. I wouldn’t do that to my community,” he said. “It’s not fair that an honest person who is doing something good for the community is getting screwed.”
Of all the allegations, it is one involving a new driveway that has galvanized recall supporters, not least because it echoes an earlier scandal involving Richards.
In 1989, Richards voted with four other council members to declare the city’s intent to close off Hulme Avenue at Imperial Highway right in front of his two-bedroom house.
When construction was completed two years later, early plans to build a simple cul-de-sac had radically changed. Instead, the city’s contractor closed off Hulme Avenue and added significant portions of land to nearby properties. Of all the homes that gained land, Richards’ property gained the most, assessment maps show.
Richards said he voted only once on the project.
“I was sort of confused on that,” he said. “Thereafter, I was completely removed from every action,” he said, adding that cleaning up after the project left him with out-of-pocket expenses.
Records show that Richards abstained from subsequent votes on the project. But in August 1992, the state Fair Political Practices Commission admonished him for violating conflict-of-interest laws.
“You should have disqualified yourself from this [first] vote,” a commission investigator wrote. “By not doing so, you violated the [Political Reform] Act.”
With that, the FPPC dropped the case, but some locals never forgot. When Rea, Reyes and Sanchez took their seats, they revived the issue. Last January, they voted as a bloc to have the city attorney investigate whether the closure of the intersection violated any laws. They also approved a traffic study to explore the feasibility of reopening the intersection.
“When Sanchez was running [for council], that was the first thing we were going to do,” said recall advocate Maria Santillan. “That was No. 1 on his list.” And then a couple of weeks after his election, she contended, Sanchez had his own driveway improved.
A few weeks before the vote to investigate the Hulme Avenue closure, an independent city contractor finished laying and smoothing concrete at Sanchez’s home, city records and interviews show.
Why the work was undertaken is unclear. Reyes and other recall proponents contend that Sanchez directed city officials to have workers lay a concrete driveway, stretching from the street to behind his house.
Sanchez denied ordering a new driveway for himself, saying the city did sidewalk repairs in front of his home as part of a street improvement project approved long before he joined the council.
“It’s like any other project in our community,” he said.
A Quarter-Century of Problems
High above the city’s tidy homes and taquerias, thousands of Century Freeway commuters rush through the heart of Lynwood every day without giving the city a thought. Below them, residents and local politicians are still grappling with the problems the freeway brought with it.
Council members say they are working hard for the city. Richards said the council has helped build new youth and community centers, revitalize a community park and negotiate to keep St. Francis Medical Center from moving. Now, he said, it is lobbying the state Legislature to provide the city with a tax break to attract redevelopment.
But few people doubt that Lynwood has far to go before it is restored to the prosperity it enjoyed in the early 1960s. Residents complain of high utility taxes and streets that need repair. Unemployment estimates stand at 10.4% for the city, compared to 6.7% countywide. And some residents blame council members for the slow pace of progress.
“For 12 to 15 years, the community has remained stagnant regarding progress, compared to the neighboring communities,” said Adolfo Lopez, one of the recall organizers.
It is a sentiment echoed even by the target of Lopez’s recall.
“We’ve got a lot of streets that need to be fixed. We have a lot of projects that need to be done,” Sanchez said at one council meeting while urging unity among residents. “And they’re not getting done because we can’t get our act together.”
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Focusing on Lynwood
Construction of the Century Freeway, which cut across the hear of Lynwood and destroyed about 1,000 homes and businesses, helped set into motion vast changes in the city.
Lynwood, which was incorporated in 1921, occupies 4.9 square miles in southeastern Los Angeles County. Here are the city’s demographic figures and a comparison with Los Angeles County overall:
Lynwood L.A. County Population 66,343 9,236,000 Latino 79.3% 44.5% White 0.2% 33.5% Black 19.9% 9.6% Asian 0.4% 11.9% Other 0.1% 0.5% Median age 24.7 33.2 Avg. household size 4.35 2.96 Median household income $27,339 $40,344 Median home price $125,000 $190,500
Sources: Home prices from Acxion/Data Quick, 1998; other figures are 1998 estimates provided by Claritas Inc.