Drive down Central Avenue in the heart of Glendale and the telltale signs of the city’s long Armenian influence quickly become apparent.
The cursive Armenian writing advertises bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants that serve such specialties as sweet honey baklava and lamb kebabs.
Glendale has been a haven for Armenians for generations, a point of entry for immigrants from Armenia, as well as people of Armenian descent from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and the former Soviet Union. They now make up 40% of the San Fernando Valley city’s 210,000 residents.
But it was not until this year that the city’s Armenian community marked a major political milestone: winning a majority on the City Council.
Many Armenian Americans are proud of the election results, saying they illustrate how a community that once stood on the fringes of local government now is playing a central role. But they also are quick to say the Armenian American majority on the five-member council does not reflect a homogenous community.
Despite its size, the population is highly diverse. Wealthy second- and third-generation Armenian Americans live in tony neighborhoods in the hills above the city, while recent immigrants struggle in lower-income neighborhoods.
Bridging this divide is a task with which social service organizations and the Armenian Church struggle. Sometimes the new immigrants complain that their high expectations about life in America are difficult to achieve, especially with limited English skills.
“Some of these people can’t get jobs that will pull them out of their financial situation,” said Angela Savoian, regional chairwoman for the Armenian Relief Society. “They get deeper into debt because their children want what their neighbors have.... It’s much more difficult to be poor in this country than where they came from.”
Sometimes parents work two or three jobs to make ends meet, leaving their children unsupervised for hours. In the past, authorities have said the situation helped boost the ranks of Armenian street gangs, a problem seen five years ago when an Armenian gang member fatally stabbed a Latino student outside Hoover High School.
In recent years, police say, Armenian gang activity has declined. But both Glendale police and the FBI are becoming increasingly concerned about Armenian organized-crime rings linked to drug dealing and robberies.
“I see a lot of materialism and anger and resentment,” said Father Vazken Movsesian, who runs a youth drop-in center at St. Peter Armenian Church, across the street from Hoover High. “I have to keep telling them: ‘Appreciate all that America’s giving you.’ ”
The newly elected Armenian American council members have vowed to help newcomers integrate into the community, fight youth crime and bring about changes that will ease some of the parents’ problems.
Among the steps they can take, said Councilman Ara Najarian, is to encourage the Police Department to hire more Armenian American officers and work to secure more federally funded housing for low-income families. The city has 1,500 vouchers for government-funded housing and a waiting list of 9,000.
“Armenian Americans don’t all think the same way or walk in lock step,” Najarian said. “We’re very diverse, from the poorest in the city to the richest; some are professionals and some are newly arrived with their own language and customs. It’s not like we had 60,000 people who came from Armenia yesterday and settled in Glendale.”
Once a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant political power, the city is now home to about 85,000 Armenians, one of the largest populations outside Armenia itself.
In addition to Central Avenue’s bustling shopping district, Glendale is home to at least half a dozen Armenian-language newspapers, and local cable TV outlets are filled with Armenian-produced talk shows and public affairs programming.
“When I first came to California to go to school in the 1950s, there were few Armenians in Glendale,” said Richard Dekmejian, director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies. “Most of the Armenians were in West Adams, Boyle Heights, a few in the Valley. There were a small number of Armenians in Hollywood, but they grew very fast.”
Armenian families have lived in the city since the 1920s, but immigration did not transform its social fabric until the 1970s, when Armenians who had scattered across the globe during the era of genocide in Turkey uprooted themselves in rapid succession from Lebanon, Iran and the then-Soviet Republic of Armenia. They were forced to leave these countries because of world events that prevented them from practicing their Christianity freely and to escape anti-Armenian discrimination.
Many were drawn to Glendale, as well as East Hollywood and Fresno.
In many respects, the Armenian American councilmen represent the diaspora. Bob Yousefian was born in Iran, moved to Lebanon as a teenager and later followed his family to the United States; Rafi Manoukian was born in Beirut and immigrated to the United States in 1975; and Najarian, whose parents emigrated from Armenia, is a Cleveland native whose family moved to Glendale in 1980.
The leaders consider former Gov. George Deukmejian and former Mayor Larry Zarian, the first Armenian American on the City Council, to be their role models. Zarian, who served on the council from 1983 to 1993, was invited to Armenia for an official state visit after becoming the first Armenian American mayor of a relatively large U.S. city.
“I think what the community is doing in Glendale is something it has not been able to do in many other parts of the world,” Zarian said. “Our parents, who come from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the Soviet Union and Iran, were not able to participate in the governmental political process and run for public office.
“But their children became lawyers, teachers and doctors and said: ‘We want to be able to get involved.’ ”
The growing Armenian population did not always experience a smooth transition. In 2000, when city officials lowered the American flag to mark Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day, some longtime residents complained about all the attention the event was receiving. The day recognizes the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923.
Around the same time, officials became concerned about violent clashes between Armenian and Latino students at a local high school.
More recently, the FBI’s Eurasian Crime Task Force and the Glendale Police Department have worked together to combat organized crime involving Armenians from the former Soviet Union and the United States. Authorities said the groups have taken root in the last five years, dealing primarily in white-collar crimes involving auto insurance, credit cards, identity theft and welfare fraud. But the rings have also been linked to several murders.
In March, the FBI filed charges against members of a Russian Armenian organized-crime ring accused of plotting to smuggle $2.5 million in illegal guns into the United States.
There have also been tensions within the Armenian community. Earlier this year, Manoukian and members of the Armenian Council of America accused each other of politicizing the city’s annual Armenian Genocide Commemoration activities.
Arguments broke out over who would serve on the committee that plans the events. Vasken Khodanian, chairman of the Armenian Council of America, said Manoukian excluded all but one representative from his committee and filled it with members who have ties to the Armenian National Committee.
Members of the new council majority are quick to say they do not consider themselves a voting bloc. They note that they ran for office on a broad range of mainstream issues, such as improving public safety, providing more affordable housing and overseeing the redevelopment of Brand Boulevard.
But that voters elected them, they believe, signals Armenians in Glendale want a voice in the city’s stewardship.
“To be able to say there’s three Armenians on the City Council, that’s wonderful,” said Greg Krikorian, a board member with the Glendale Unified School District. “I’m proud to see it, as long as they’re qualified and they put Glendale first.”
Manoukian, the mayor, also expressed pride over the election but said it represents a moment in time.
“There aren’t that many cities with a 40% population of Armenian descent,” he said. “Two or 10 years down the line, people of different ethnicities could move to Glendale and they’ll run for office, and that would be fine.”
Indeed, in addition to Armenians, Filipinos and Koreans make up a growing segment of the city’s population; Asians now make up nearly 17%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sixty-five languages are spoken in the Glendale Unified School District.
Voters in April also elected their first Armenian American city clerk, who ran on a platform of improving services to immigrants and increasing their participation in civic life.
“Not many people were voting in Glendale. It was frustrating for me to see so many Armenian Americans not participating in the city government,” said Ardashes Kassakhian, 28, as he sipped strong Armenian coffee in a cafe near City Hall. “That’s why I’m trying to stress voter awareness and education.”
During the campaign, he initiated a broad voter registration effort, aggressively signing up new voters via Korean and Filipino newspapers, cable television and direct mail. He proudly notes that the number of Filipinos registered to vote climbed from 700 to 5,000, or nearly half the city’s Filipino population.
Berdj Karapetian, a businessman who has lived and worked in Glendale on and off since 1982, said a big challenge for the new officials would be to serve all parts of Glendale, both rich and poor.
“There are very wealthy Armenians who live in the hills, yet there are those at low socioeconomic levels or seniors, who are dependent on Medi-Cal or pensions,” Karapetian said.
“Will the policies start reflecting changes that accommodate those who are in a less fortunate situation? Let’s look at policies that will serve the less affluent population, whether they’re Hispanic or Armenian or Asian.”