The dedication Saturday of an intersection in Tujunga to Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan, who wrote extensively about the Armenian immigrant experience in California, sparked controversy between some in the community who claimed it would overshadow the corner’s existing historical significance and others who believed the opposition was grounded in discrimination.
After the Los Angeles City Council voted earlier this month to designate William Saroyan Square with a plaque at the crossing of Commerce Avenue and Valmont Street, the local neighborhood council shot back with a statement calling the placement inappropriate. The dedication took place at 4 p.m. Saturday and drew a large crowd.
The designated area is adjacent to Bolton Hall, a historic stone building erected in 1913 that was originally used as a community center for a local utopian community. It has since been used as an American Legion hall, a public library, Tujunga City Hall and a jail and is now a local history museum.
“It’s the location, that is what people are opposed to,” said Liliana Sanchez, president of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council. “It’s the historical significance of that intersection. No signage should be placed there.”
It is also an intersection that has hosted several Armenian cultural events, according to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who spearheaded the initiative.
Saturday’s dedication ceremony was scheduled to coincide with the annual Sunland-Tujunga Armenian Cultural Festival, which is held along Commerce Avenue.
Born in Fresno in 1908, the Armenian American novelist, playwright and short story writer won the Pulitzer in 1940 for his play “The Time of Your Life,” and in 1944 won an Academy Award for the film adaption of his novel “The Human Comedy.”
“I consider myself an Armenian writer,” Saroyan once said. “The words I use are in English, the surroundings I write about are American, but the soul, which makes me write, is Armenian.”
Southern California is home to the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia. More than 200,000 people of Armenian descent live in Los Angeles County, with the largest concentration in the Glendale, Burbank, Sunland and Tujunga areas, according to U.S. census data.
Rodriguez, who represents the Tujunga area along with neighborhoods including La Tuna Canyon, Sylmar, Pacoima and North Hills, said she was disappointed by the opposition to the Saroyan dedication.
“It’s unfortunate that more people aren’t taking this opportunity to embrace the diversity of our community,” she said.
One longtime resident, Robin Jodi, said she opposed the dedication because Saroyan does not have a connection to the area. It was a sentiment echoed by others in their written public comments.
But Rodriguez and others noted that Bolton Hall was named after an Ireland-born author and activist who also had no connection to the immediate area.
“[Saroyan] is a true Californian, the son of immigrants and an inspiration to us all,” Vic Aghakhanian, another longtime resident, wrote in a public comment. “I believe it is time for our community to embrace multiculturalism and appreciation of our diversity.”
Jodi defended her stance.
“It’s a welcoming community. It’s a diverse community,” she said, but Saroyan “never visited here. He has nothing to do with here.”
A similar debate unfolded in Glendale last year, when the City Council voted to change the name of a two-block portion of Maryland Avenue downtown to Artsakh Street, after the Republic of Artsakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Some opponents of the name change said the contested area had nothing to do with Glendale’s history. Several business owners argued that the renaming could hurt them economically.
Supporters argued that it was long overdue for Glendale to have a street named to honor the city’s large Armenian American community.
Sanchez and Jodi both said they felt community input about the Saroyan dedication was limited.
“We weren’t given a voice,” Sanchez said.
Members of the public were invited to submit written comments after the motion was introduced on Sept. 11, Rodriguez said. Residents were also allowed to speak when the item was considered during a public works meeting on Sept. 18.
It’s the same procedure Rodriguez said she has followed for the three other dedications she’s initiated within her district. Sanchez said she took issue with the fact that additional oral comments were not permitted during the regular L.A. City Council meeting when the dedication was approved unanimously.
By the time the motion was voted on, about 240 public comments had been submitted — more than for any other issue the council has worked on during Rodriguez’s two-year tenure, as far as she can remember.
The majority were in support of the dedication, she said. “Among all the issues that I’m working on, homelessness and everything else, [additional community meetings] would be excessive,” Rodriguez said.
Seidman writes for Times Community News