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Taking the Silverware

Who lost the Valley?

Like the 1950s question about who lost China, this query may never be solved. But the Valley question will hang over Los Angeles many years, implying all its failure and woeful dithering.

In truth, of course, the Valley is not lost. Yet. A long, ugly, bitter fight remains to be waged over the creation of a new city at the Cahuenga Pass.

But the process has now been set in motion. And, as we have learned this past year in another venue, the “process” becomes very difficult to stop once it gathers steam.

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That process officially sprang to life last week, when secession organizers turned in 132,490 certified signatures--a quarter of all registered voters in the Valley--and forced a study of the breakup. Like the wife who gets a lawyer and requests a formal separation, it augurs worse to come.

“This event switched the balance of power,” says Eric Schockman, a professor of political science at USC. “When you see the mayor starting to talk stridently against secession, looking like a worried man, you get the idea that momentum has changed. The secessionists no longer look like a bunch of nuts.”

The reference to nuts jogs Schockman’s memory, and he laughs. “Paula Boland,” he says, “is starting to look like James Madison.”

Boland is the former member of the state Assembly who first championed the idea of a separate city in the Valley, and got laughed at for her trouble. In fact, most of the early organizers were greeted with laughter. No one has ever carved away a city as big as the Valley. It was unprecedented. Unthinkable.

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Until last week, when the unthinkable suddenly became eminently possible. The secession study will determine the economic consequences of a breakup and examine the viability of the new city. You can think of it as the first attempt to outline the divorce, allowing the parties to begin haggling over who gets the silverware.

So how did this conversion take place? Who lost the Valley, and how did they lose it?

As I said higher up, these questions will provoke arguments for many years, but here are some possible answers:

First, the mayor and other opponents have failed to make a compelling case against the new city. Basically, they claim Los Angeles would suffer grievously from a breakup and, on the flip side, that the whole idea amounts to white flight on the part of Valley suburbanites.

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To anyone who knows the Valley, both these arguments seem to fly in the face of common sense. The mythic Valley of yesteryear has been replaced by a new Valley and a culture almost as diverse as the city on the other side of the hill. The latest census figures show, for example, that Latinos constitute 39% of Los Angeles and 31% of the Valley.

Is that marginal difference enough to go to war over? I doubt it. The Valley may be slightly whiter and slightly more affluent, but not by much. And that’s why we now see politicians such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa making accommodating statements about the potential divorce.

It’s like this, said Yaroslavsky: “You get the vacation home. I get the camper. And we’ll let a judge decide who gets custody of the children.”

In other words, Yaroslavsky doesn’t want to fight. To a county supervisor, it’s not worth it.

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The single group of people that has a large, unmistakable interest in keeping the city unified, of course, is the City Hall crowd. They stand to lose one-third of their constituents and one-third of their campaign contributions. They will be hurt seriously, without question, and they have a huge stake in stopping the secession drive.

But their pain does not necessarily translate into general pain for the city. In fact, there is evidence that poorer, Latino neighborhoods in the Valley see little or no pain in the prospect of a new Valley city. These neighborhoods--the purported victims in City Hall parlance--supported the petition drive more enthusiastically than did white neighborhoods.

In petition figures supplied by Valley VOTE, the secession organization, voters in Pacoima, Sylmar and Sunland signed the petition drive at rates ranging from 54% to 47%.

Meanwhile, in Sherman Oaks, the level dropped to 31%. In Tarzana to 30%. And in Studio City to 27%.

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Admittedly, signing a petition for a study does not amount to supporting secession. Still, these figures strongly suggest that Latinos at least perceive a potential benefit from the split, rather than a liability. They also suggest that the prime motivation for breaking away from Los Angeles is a desire for local control rather than white flight.

Local control, in fact, gets us to the second mistake made by opponents. Namely, they have threatened and bullied the Valley in a number of ways, especially in the arena of local control.

When S. David Freeman, general manager of the Department of Water and Power, recently suggested that water rates would leap upward in the Valley if the breakup took place, he was predicting that the new city would have no control over its water supply. The DWP and its empire of water belong to Los Angeles and only Los Angeles, Freeman was claiming. The new city would have to pay whatever Los Angeles charged.

Then, last week, the mayor predicted that the new city would be strapped with runaway taxes needed to pay the “astronomical” costs for city services now provided so cheaply and efficiently by the good folks down at City Hall.

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Out of curiosity, I called the mayor of Malibu to ask if similar threats were made when that city was being carved out of the county in the early 1990s.

“Sure,” said Walt Keller. “It’s the same old crap. We were told we would go bankrupt. We were told the fire stations would close down. Well, here we are, and we have money in the bank.”

As Malibu proved in its six-year struggle to become a city, bullying doesn’t work. Usually it backfires, drawing together cityhood proponents as they fight a common enemy. That’s what’s happening today in the Valley.

Finally--and probably foremost--the opponents have failed to deal with the singularity of the Valley. Geographically it is a separate place, divided from the older city by a mountain range. It has a different style and even different weather. The Valley goes its own peculiar way and always has.

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Yet the mayor and other opponents have ignored this difference. They ask Valleyites to reject cityhood, in part, to maintain the size and stature of Los Angeles, as if the Valley shares in its Pacific Rim glory. As if it feels part and parcel of the city itself.

It does not. For 80 years the Valley has been treated as an idiot stepchild, and the Valley knows it. Steve Martin, now the mayor of West Hollywood, grew up as a Valley boy and still remembers the feeling of living in a second-tier part of the city. Even now, he says, people will ask him where he grew up and react oddly when he says “the Valley.”

“It’s like I said ‘the moon’ or something,” he says. “They look at me like I’m some sort of yokel, even if they come from Des Moines or Omaha. It’s weird, but that’s the legacy of the Valley’s relationship with the city.”

So what to do now? Richard Close, an organizer of Valley VOTE, says the only strategy that might prove successful is bribery.

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“I’m serious,” he says. “If the mayor and the City Council bribed the Valley with enough city services, enough new libraries and repaired sidewalks, they just might win us back.”

Actually, I don’t believe he is serious. I believe he is taking the position of the departing spouse trying to grab the silverware before he walks out the door. Still, it might be worth a try. Surely it would stand a better chance than bullying, patronizing and predicting the apocalypse.

And if nothing works, I say get on with the divorce. It’s just possible that, over time, both sides will agree that it worked out for the better. It wouldn’t be the first time.

*

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This will be the last of the Sunday Essays. I have much enjoyed these weekly attempts to describe our peculiar and wonderful city and, most especially, I have enjoyed the lively phone calls and letters that came back in response. But the time has come to move on to other projects.

My old friend Al Martinez will be replacing me in this spot each Sunday. Please treat him as well as you have treated me.


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