An upcoming dedication of an intersection in Tujunga-Sunland to an Armenian American author has sparked controversy between local residents who have claimed the initiative will overshadow the corner’s existing historical significance and those who believe the opposition is grounded in ethnic discrimination.
On Oct. 9, one day after L.A. City Council voted to designate William Saroyan Square with a plaque at the crossing of Commerce Avenue and Valmont Street, the local neighborhood council shot back with an impact statement stating that the placement was inappropriate.
The designated area is adjacent to Bolton Hall, a historic stone building built 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,” she added.
It also happens to be an intersection that has hosted several Armenian cultural events, according to L.A. City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who spearheaded the initiative.
A dedication ceremony for the square to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is scheduled for Oct. 19, to coincide with the annual Sunland-Tujunga Armenian Cultural Festival, which is held along Commerce Avenue.
“It’s unfortunate that more people aren’t taking this opportunity to embrace the diversity of our community,” said Rodriguez, who represents the Tujunga area, along with neighborhoods including La Tuna Canyon, Sylmar, Pacoima and North Hills.
One longtime local resident, Robin Jodi, said she also opposed the dedication because Saroyan, who was born and died in Fresno, does not have a local connection to the area.
It was a sentiment echoed by others in their written public comments.
Bolton Hall was named after an Ireland-born author and activist who also had no connection to the immediate area, Rodriguez said.
“[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,” he added.
“It’s a welcoming community. It’s a diverse community,” Jodi said in a phone interview, “but [Saroyan] never visited here. He has nothing to do with here.”
A similar debate unfolded in Glendale last year, when the local City Council voted in June to change a two-block portion of Maryland Avenue in the city’s downtown area to Artsakh Street, after the Republic of Artsakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Some opponents of the name change said the republic had nothing to do with Glendale’s history. Several business owners argued that the renaming could hurt them economically.
Supporters, including then-Councilman Ara Najarian and current mayor, argued that it was long overdue for Glendale to have a street named to honor the city’s large Armenian American community.
In October of last year, a ceremony was held to unveil the new street sign.
However, the controversy hasn’t stopped: a cartoon published on Oct. 4 by the Glendale News-Press that juxtaposed the Artsakh Street sign with a character lamenting, “I miss the old Maryland Avenue,” drew backlash from some readers who viewed it as implicitly or explicitly xenophobic.
Others viewed the cartoon as nostalgic, hearkening back to a time when there were different businesses along the street. Reminiscence, not ethnic discrimination, was the intent, according to the cartoon’s creator Bert Ring.
Sanchez and Jodi both said they felt community input about the William Saroyan Square dedication was limited.
An Oct. 8 Facebook post by Sanchez on a community group stating that the motion had passed and the “public was not allowed to comment” drew more than 374 comments.
“We weren’t given a voice,” Sanchez said.
Members of the public were given the opportunity 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 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.