From his distant and scholarly perch at the University of Southern California, Prof. Eric Heikkila read about the turmoil and racial discord in Monterey Park and saw a missed opportunity for harmony.
For Heikkila, who teaches urban planning and real estate development, Monterey Park is similar to other communities in transition. Longtime residents irritated over physical changes naturally blame the newcomers responsible for those changes.
The problem, Heikkila says, comes when that anger is translated into racial enmity.
"The issues become confused, and someone upset over physical changes starts launching into ethnic slurs," said Heikkila, a resident of Arcadia. "When people muddy the waters, there is little chance for rational dialogue. The result is a community divided."
Only when public officials and community leaders begin separating the tangle of issues, Heikkila says, can Monterey Park become whole again. Toward that end, the USC professor has organized a panel discussion and public forum Wednesday )at 7:30 p.m. at Monterey Park City Hall.
The panel will feature Heikkila, City Councilman Chris Houseman, developer Frederic Hsieh and Planning Commission Chairman Yukio Kawaratani. The discussion will be moderated by Alan Kreditor, dean of the USC School of Urban and Regional Planning.
Heikkila said the panel will address three distinct issues growing out of the sustained influx of Asians into the community:
The rapid rate of development, which has divided the community into two camps, those who favor the status quo and those who favor change. Heikkila emphasizes that this is not necessarily a racial issue.
The debate over the fiscal impact of development. Some argue that the many small retail outlets demand more in urban services than they give back in tax revenues. Again, Heikkila says, this is an issue best addressed outside the context of race.
The sweeping social, racial and demographic changes that this bedroom community has undergone in the past decade.
In 15 years, Monterey Park has changed from a predominantly white community to a predominantly Asian one. According to 1986 census figures, 51% of the city's 61,000 residents are Asian, the highest such concentration in the nation.
"That third theme is the one that addresses ethnicity and culture," Heikkila said. "People have to learn to adjust to different social and cultural standards and signposts."
Heikkila said he got the idea for the panel discussion after reading a series of articles in The Times detailing the demographic and social changes brought on by the influx of Asians into the San Gabriel Valley.
The series found that more than 100,000 Asians had moved into the valley in the past seven years alone, altering and even transforming entire communities. For the most part, established residents resented the changes accompanying the influx, while newcomers seemed genuinely confounded by the backlash.
"I felt compelled to do something after the series," the professor said. "It was overflowing with relevant issues. It couldn't be ignored."
The panel discussion, sponsored by the university's Center for Real Estate Development, is open to the public. Admission is free.