"A sort of Frankenstein creation--it was everybody's spare parts."
That is the description of the newly created 1st Los Angeles City Council District by one City Hall aide who watched the council carve out the district last summer.
The scorpion-shaped jurisdiction was born in response to a federal government lawsuit charging, in effect, that the council had gerrymandered the political boundaries of council districts in such a way as to dilute the voting power of Latinos.
While the 15-member council struggled to realign those boundaries, one of its members died. The sudden absence from the council of Howard Finn left an open seat and permitted the council to create its new, heavily Latino district--and at the same time preserve a district for each of the remaining 14 council members.
Out of those two unrelated events--the lawsuit and Finn's death--sprang the district that meanders from northeast to central to South-Central Los Angeles. In accordance with the lawsuit's concerns, the district has a 69% Latino population.
Now the district is up for grabs in a special election Feb. 3 among four candidates--two Latinos and two Asians. They are, respectively, Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles), school board member Larry Gonzalez, businessman Paul D.Y. Moore and former anti-gang organizer Leland Wong. Most recent figures show Molina with a more than 3 to 1 edge in fund raising over nearest challenger Gonzalez.
As the candidates travel from the hillsides of Mt. Washington to the largely depressed Pico Union area, they find that the council gave them a Rubik's Cube of a district that is a microcosm of Los Angeles' political challenges as the city enters the 21st Century: a district that is heavily Latino but whose voters are 60% non-Latino; a district that attracts thousands of Central American immigrants; a district full of distinctive neighborhoods close to major downtown development and which fear being swallowed up by it.
"We're the leftover areas nobody wanted," said Sue Nelson, president of the Elysian Heights Residents Assn. "But the one thing we have in common is we're all in that corridor of urban expansion. We have not gotten much political attention on this side of town. The freeways have served as dividers and there's a lack of common knowledge in the district about each other. One thing we do know: We are people, many of whom have lived here for 40 years in one house, who hung in there when everyone moved to the suburbs. That takes a special breed of cat."
Many neighborhoods of the 1st District--Highland Park, Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, Temple-Beaudry, Pico Union--served as the first suburbs of a burgeoning turn-of-the-century Los Angeles. They were bedroom communities that sprang up for those drawn here as a result of various mining, oil, railroad, agricultural and real estate booms.
As their fates were linked to the prosperity of downtown, so were they linked to the general decline suffered by the central city in the 1960s and its business redevelopment, begun in the 1970s. Today each community in the district is struggling in its own way to combat the effects of decline and redevelopment. Those in the blighted areas reach out in hope of moving the redevelopment their way; those in the more affluent areas fight to keep office and condominium developments out.
The northernmost section of the district, Highland Park, has been plagued by a series of shootings this year, a result of rival gangs trying to establish and hold onto turf. While some residents can trace gang activity back about 40 years, the recent frequency of night shootings has unnerved many.
"I love Highland Park, but sometimes I'm afraid for it," said longtime resident Diane Alexander, president of Residents and Others for Highland Park. "It isn't just gangs. We want to see neighborhood preservation. But the way this area has been cut up and mis-zoned just funnels too much of the wrong type of development here--gas stations next to apartments next to old Craftsman homes."
However, she said, she is "excited" about a major segment of Highland Park being included in the district "because at least we're with some other communities who are like us, fighting development."
Southward in Montecito Heights, more affluent residents enjoy a panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles. On a clear day, residents boast, you can see Santa Catalina Island. They enjoy the view--and so do many others who come there to park.
The "flattop" of Montecito Heights, via a dirt hill, has become "a lovers' lane for some of the kids," said Garnett Ruiz, president of the Montecito Heights Improvement Assn. "It has become a traffic problem, as well as litter with whiskey bottles and the like." Crime is a major concern in the area that fights a steady battle with graffiti, Ruiz said.
Across the Pasadena Freeway, one of four freeways that cut across the new 1st District, is Mt. Washington. It is, as one candidate and others have described it, the "Bel-Air" of the area.