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HEARTS OF THE CITY | BOB BAKER

Secession: An Idea Whose Time Has Come--and Gone

May 15, 1996|BOB BAKER

I played in the orange groves

Till they bulldozed all the trees.

--Songwriter Dave Alvin, on his Southern California boyhood

*

I played in those orange groves, too. Mine were in a community that doesn't exist now. It was called Sepulveda, in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. My folks bought a $12,000 home there in 1951, moving over the hill from the Westside's Pico-Robertson district. There were no schools yet, just tract houses and orange groves. When the L.A. school district finally built my local elementary school three years later, they left the orange trees standing in the back half of the school property, right where the playground asphalt ended.

The reason Sepulveda doesn't exist anymore is that five years ago a real estate agent persuaded homeowners in the nicer, western half of Sepulveda to change the name to something that sounded more suburban, more pastoral.

They chose "North Hills," which was silly because there are no real hills. (The only one I remember is one dirt block of Woodley Avenue that we used to rumble down on our bikes before they paved it.) Soon after, the less attractive, eastern half of Sepulveda followed suit. But God has a wicked sense of humor: Gang crime and drugs have skyrocketed in the eastern half of North Hills, so that the name is far more synonymous with crime today than "Sepulveda" ever was.

I share this history with you to explain why the notion that the San Fernando Valley might break away from Los Angeles and form a separate city is a joke.

*

Thirty-five years ago, perhaps, in the days of the orange groves, we could have had a conversation about this.

In that era, the Valley was truly isolated, truly deserving of a chance to shape its own identity. But in the early 1960s, a momentous event occurred: The state extended the San Diego Freeway north, all the way through the Valley (a block west of my backyard). Finally, we were linked to the other side of the hill--to "town," as my mother, still a Valley resident, still refers to the amorphous chunk of metropolis south of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Eighteen years ago, perhaps, long after the orange groves had been cut down, we could have still had this conversation.

In that era, the Valley was outraged as a court-ordered busing plan began to correct decades of L.A. school segregation. The geographical divide that the San Diego Freeway had eased was replaced by a stark racial divide: Valley parents, mostly white, were convinced their way of life was under attack.

But today. . . . Well, it's a different world.

*

One reason it's so different is that a few months before that busing uproar exploded in the fall of 1978, folks in the Valley--like folks all over California--mortgaged quality of civilization for a quick, heroin-like jolt of tax relief. They passed Proposition 13, which drastically limited local government's ability to tax.

Of course, that felt good. The practical effects, which slap you in the face every time you read about criminals doing three days for a robbery because there's no more space in the jails, were another matter. Because when you effectively eliminate local government's ability to control its tax revenue, you virtually eliminate its relevance. Power instead flows to the state, which for a while bailed out local government but now has abandoned it.

The Valley (one of the greatest sources of support for Proposition 13 back in '78) might create its own city, but it would be powerless to independently change the rules of municipal financing that have given us fewer libraries, fewer parks, fewer violence-prevention programs and fewer optimistic notions about our future.

That's not the only thing that's different now. The national stagnation of wages, combined with the huge number of unskilled immigrants who have moved into the eastern half of the Valley, have eaten away at the middle-class sensibility that was so much a part of the Valley's identity. Like the rest of America, the Valley has a lot more well-to-do's and a lot more poor people. Which is why some canny folks in Canoga Park sliced off the wealthier part of that community and called it West Hills in the late '80s. And which inspired the elimination of my hometown a couple years hence.

So I'll make two bets with you: A buck says the Valley will never secede from L.A. And another buck says that if it does, within five years the rich half of the Valley will be trying to secede from the poor half.

Maybe once upon a time this could have worked. But we're all in the same boat these days, and we'd better get together and fix the leaks. Secession is the same kind of cheap fix as Proposition 13 . . . or, for that matter, the same kind of cheap fix as changing your neighborhood's name to put hills where none exist.

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