Urge to merge in Upland

MARK KENDALL is a freelance writer based in Ontario.

OUT IN THE suburbs east of L.A., I live a divided municipal life, and it’s all because of a silly, century-old civic schism.

My home is in Ontario, not far from the border with Upland, where I do my grocery shopping, play at the parks on weekends and barbecue at the in-laws’ pad. Truth is, I wanted to live in Upland for its bigger homes and greener lawns, but average-Joe Ontario was a better fit for my budget.

I never should have had to choose between the two. In the beginning, Ontario and Upland were one “model colony,” carefully laid out in the 1880s by industrious Canadian transplant George Chaffey. One of Southern California’s grandest thoroughfares, the eight-mile-long Euclid Avenue, united this citrus-growing paradise, with a “gravity mule car” whisking residents along the avenue’s wide center median.

But bickering soon broke out between settlements on opposite ends of the colony, and in 1906, residents of northern Ontario formed their own city -- Upland. So today I’m living east of Euclid and far from Eden, constantly crossing the invisible but powerful dividing line between Ontario and the renegade province to the north.


This civic split is repeated in the lives of so many other SoCal suburbanites who are hemmed in and subtly shaped by city borders born of long-ago fear, rivalry and snobbery as much as by intelligent planning.

Back in 1916, the rural residents of what became Monterey Park were forced to form a city to thwart a scheme by Alhambra, Pasadena and South Pasadena to dispose of their sewage on its turf. Monterey Park’s three foes put up quite a fight. “Triple Alliance Seeks to Kill the Baby City,” read one Times headline. A few years later, West Covina incorporated for the same reason: Folks there wanted to keep out Covina’s doo-doo.

Whether legitimate, imagined or whipped up by cityhood boosters, annexation anxieties were rife during SoCal’s postwar boom years. Rosemead turned to cityhood in 1959 for fear of being swallowed up by El Monte and San Gabriel. Cerritos’ city website offers a lengthy account of how dairy farmers there cleverly hatched a cityhood plan, passed in 1956, to avoid being absorbed into the menace of “greater Artesia.”

The results of all these ancient squabbles? Once you move east of the 710, the suburbs are splintered into countless -- and often pointless -- little cities, all competing for sales tax revenue and respect, all trying to lure one more big-box retailer or pull off one more spiffy redevelopment project.


This is the dark side of community pride. Everyone’s trying to do it alone, and no one’s willing to even consider throwing in the towel. Sheltered from the free-market forces that push businesses to merge and consolidate, our municipal mishmash is something akin to a shopping center where Woolworth’s, Gemco and Montgomery Ward are still grinding it out against Target, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s.

With all but the outer rings of L.A.'s suburbs pretty much built out -- and increasingly worn out -- it’s time to rethink those arbitrary old lines, shutter some city halls and gain from economies of scale. Does there really need to be a separate city of South El Monte? Must Orange County befuddle visitors with the four “Lagunas” -- Beach, Hills, Niguel and Woods? Is Chino Hills so much loftier than plain old Chino?

I see so many potential matchups. La Verne and San Dimas, both solidly conservative, attractive and well-to-do, would make a compatible pair, and besides, they already share a school district. In the opposites-attract department, I could see safe-and-sane Corona, full of soccer moms and tile-roofed tract homes, falling for the rugged cowboy ways of neighboring Norco. If the Berlin Wall can come down, can’t the two Covinas mend their fences?

But it is my own Ontario and Upland that would make the most perfect pairing, at least on a practical level. Upland is an attractive bedroom community with mansions in the north but it lacks the sort of mega-malls and auto centers that its neighbor uses to rake in sales tax. Ontario, meanwhile, has its share of rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods with older, smaller homes, but a city hall awash in cash, thanks to the many car dealers, a huge outlet mall and the businesses around the airport.


Ontario has a little more than double Upland’s population, but the city expects to take in five times the sales tax revenue for the 2006-07 budget year. Ontario recently opened a new library and a new police headquarters, and it has a community events center on the way.

So Ontario could essentially buy some of Upland’s class. We’d even be willing to throw the big wedding shindig on Upland’s turf, under the pepper trees shading Euclid’s wide, park-like median.

Of course, Ontario would have to spring for the whole thing. Pucker up, Upland!