Vernon has long thrived as an anomaly, Los Angeles County's most industrial city with a daytime population of 51,000 and a nighttime population of 152.
But like other industrial cities throughout the United States, Vernon is trying to adapt to a rapidly changing economy--and its proposed solutions are generating legal action and talk of private deals for big business and the mayor.
City officials are pushing a massive redevelopment plan that would pump $500 million in property taxes into public improvements. But Los Angeles County, in a lawsuit filed to block the plan, contends that businesses that would benefit ought to pay the costs. Other critics note that Mayor Leonis Malburg owns 19 parcels within the redevelopment area and could benefit from soaring land values if the project is approved.
"This would be an outrageous example of using redevelopment law for private gain," said Mike Davis, who teaches urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and is the author of "City of Quartz," a modern history of Los Angeles. "A small group of individuals and a handful of companies, including some very wealthy ones, would be making a big profit from public funding."
This kind of controversy has been a recurring theme in Vernon, a tiny industrial enclave four miles southeast of downtown, where the handful of residents have little clout and politicians and business leaders call the shots.
But conditions have changed dramatically in recent years. About 15,000 blue-collar jobs have disappeared in Vernon during the past decade, city officials estimate, and in just the last 18 months more than 60 companies have moved out. "For sale" and "for lease" signs are now nailed to almost 10% of the city's commercial buildings.
Factories have folded because of foreign competition or as a result of leveraged buyouts. Some moved to other states or out of the country in search of cheap labor; others relocated to avoid California's strict environmental regulations. Even some garment manufacturers--once seen as the saviors of Vernon's industrial decline--have begun to abandon the area.
Vernon is a city unlike any other in the county. On a recent morning, a line of slatted livestock rail cars filled with squealing pigs rumbled across the tracks as Los Angeles' skyline shimmered in the distance.
In a city dominated by rusting smokestacks and bustling factories, Vernon's best-known landmark is a mural that encircles a meat-packing company, depicting meadows, meandering streams and 200 pigs.
Otherwise, there are few patches of greenery, lawns or trees. This is a bleak urban sprawl, five square miles of denuded landscape filled with boxy-looking buildings where workers construct furniture, slaughter steers, recycle grease, make hot dogs and manufacture products from cans to carburetors to cardboard boxes.
Vernon officials have declared a large section of the city "blighted," a requirement for it to receive redevelopment tax breaks. Under California law, redevelopment agencies can keep all property taxes generated by new construction within a renewal area.
But the county counsel and the California Community Colleges, which also joined the suit against Vernon, say this is an illegal tax grab. California redevelopment law was enacted to help aging cities rebuild slum areas. While there are some abandoned and aging buildings in the area, "it's certainly not blighted by any means," said county counsel Manuel Valenzuela.
The county has sued other cities for trying to use redevelopment funds where blight was in question. But this is the first time in recent years, Valenzuela said, that a city has tried to obtain redevelopment money for an exclusively industrial area.
Residents in neighboring cities have mixed feelings about Vernon's redevelopment plans. Most are eager for new jobs, but they also are wary about the kind of companies that Vernon might attract.
Several years ago, a consumer group ranked Vernon as the county's worst polluter among cities that release airborne hazardous chemicals. Other proposed projects that would have released even more toxic chemicals have created tremendous opposition in neighboring cities.
Plans to build a hazardous waste treatment plant in Vernon, within 1,000 feet of a high school in Huntington Park, were abandoned late last month after years of protest by neighbors and local legislators. And a proposal to build the state's first toxic-waste incinerator in Vernon also has stalled after community opposition.
"Vernon has a bad track record and doesn't seem to care much about the health of its neighbors," said Ric Loya, a city councilman in Huntington Park, a community adjacent to Vernon. "I wouldn't be surprised if one day they tried to spring a nuclear power plant on us."
But Gerald Forde, who heads Vernon's redevelopment project, contends that rebuilding sections of the city with redevelopment funds will only help neighboring communities by creating jobs.