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AROUND THE FOOTHILLS BY DOUG SMITH

35,000 Local Armenians Disappeared in the Blink of a Census

March 14, 1991|DOUG SMITH

By now it has become evident that the U.S. Census Bureau is not about to open a cornucopia of useful information about Glendale anytime soon.

The 1990 Census figures released so far merely confirm the rapid population growth that was obvious so long ago that the city has completed two years of difficult work to slow it down.

The census set the city's population at 180,000, an increase of 29% in 10 years, but still 17,000 less than the city's own calculations forecast.

You would have to favor the city's statistics on that, judging by the Census Bureau's inability to count the homeless people of Glendale. If you recall, the government sent an army of part-time workers into the streets one night last spring to catch all the nation's outdoor dwellers at once so they couldn't squirm around to inflate the count.

It was a noble idea, though hardly inspired. So overtaxed by the volume of the problem were the counters that they never got to Brand Boulevard, surely one of the easiest places to get a tally.

In the most recent release of census information, it appeared that an oversight of far greater consequence had been made.

To no one's surprise, the ethnic/racial breakdown released a few days ago showed large percentage increases of Asians, Hispanics and blacks, with a corresponding percentage decrease in the category called non-Hispanic Anglo. But proportionally, the Anglos remained much the largest group, at 64% of the population.

For anyone who's been around at all, those statistics had a ring of unreality. The one ethnic question that everyone is waiting to have answered--whether for constructive or sniveling motives--is how many Armenians there are in Glendale. According to the most conservative guess, there are 35,000, or roughly a fourth of the population. But the recent racial and ethnic figures indicated that there are none.

There is an explanation, if not a very satisfying one.

It's that the word Armenian did not appear anywhere on the Census Long Form from which the data was taken. In an odd contrast, the form broke down some ethnic groups to such fine distinction that it could compare the number of Cubans to Argentines in a census tract or pinpoint that mighty minority group, the Guamanians.

Lest we too easily seize on this as an example of befuddled bureaucratic thought, it must be conceded that census takers, like detectives, sometimes ask questions they don't want answered. Some ethnic groups, such as Caribbeans or Pacific Islanders, don't recognize the government's term for them, said Jorge del Pinal, chief of the Census Bureau's Ethnic and Hispanic Statistics Branch in Washington. So the government puts in some cues, such as the names Puerto Rican and Guamanian.

The closest the Long Form came to cuing Armenians was Question 13: "What is the person's ancestry or ethnic origin?" followed by a list of examples including Lebanese and Slovak, but not Armenian.

That question, Del Pinal said, generates fine-tuned information desired by interests as disparate as telemarketers and the city of Philadelphia, which provides special recreational services to its residents of Russian descent.

Seeing early on that the form didn't give Armenians a specific box to check, leaders of the Armenian community put on a prodigious volunteer effort last year to see that every Armenian--many non-English-speaking--answered Question 13 "Armenian," rather than Lebanese, Iranian, Iraqi or Soviet, referring to the nation of their birth.

The interest in an accurate count takes many forms. Cities want high numbers to boost their federal patronage and representation in Washington, both apportioned by the person.

Ethnic groups have different concerns. An editorial in Asbarez, the newspaper of the Armenian National Committee, notes that the numbers would substantiate demands for the employment of more Armenians in municipal jobs such as police and fire.

Arick Gevorkian, a Glendale printer who volunteered on the city's census committee, is hoping that the count will bring more respect from the schools, proving the need for more Armenian language and culture curriculum, and special holidays such as April 24, the day Armenians commemorate their bloody 1915 expulsion from Turkey.

For those without an ethnic leaning, Question 13 serves a broader purpose to "paint us a picture of the ethnic ancestry of the United States population," Del Pinal said.

There's no compelling rush for that information, apparently, and great work to be done in getting it, for workers must tabulate each of the handwritten answers in one of roughly 600 different categories. The task will not be completed until an uncertain date in 1992.

There was, on the other hand, considerable hurry to report the numbers of Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, Del Pinal said. Amendments to the Voting Rights Act designate those as protected minorities whose interests must not be harmed in redistricting.

Like tax returns, the raw numbers for redistricting have to be in before April 15.

And so, until next year, there will be no official difference between Glendale's Anglos and her Armenians.

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