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Deconstructing Los Angeles : The San Fernando Valley thinks it's independent enough to secede from the city. But instead of dwelling in self-pity, the region should become the engine of L.A. reform.

May 26, 1996|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "Endangered Dreams, The Great Depression in California" (Oxford University Press)

SACRAMENTO — Is Los Angeles truly a city, knowing itself in time and history as an example of mankind's most complex of social institutions? Or has Los Angeles just been pretending to be a city these past 215 years, especially these past 83 years since the arrival of water in the Valley of San Fernando?

Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland (R-Granada Hills) has boldly challenged Los Angeles to answer these questions. In sponsoring a bill, passed by the Assembly and now in the state Senate, that would nullify any City Council veto of a secessionist vote by the San Fernando Valley, Boland has brought to consciousness a lingering question of identity that constitutes the unfinished civic and psychological business of Los Angeles. No matter how it fares in the Senate, the Boland bill has already served one purpose. Its fundamental power, after all, is not its practicality, even its plausibility. Its power is the power of idea and imaginative symbol. Can we envision Los Angeles deconstructing itself? If we can, what does that tell us about the nature of our city and ourselves?

From the perspective of history, Los Angeles is a prime candidate for deconstruction. Onion-like, layer upon layer of identity can be peeled away until the onion itself loses its identity. The current behemoth is the heroic creation of civic will and water in the first two decades of this century. Hollywood, Wilimington-San Pedro, Watts, Venice--one by one, townships came into the fold, at once lured and coerced by the prospects of the Owens Valley water. Annexed in 1915, the San Fernando Valley represents the Louisiana Purchase of Los Angeles history. It doubled the size of the city and raised Los Angeles to the level of a city-state possessed of its own agricultural region. This was an era of bold imperialism at home and abroad; and the oligarchy pushing the hyper-expansion of the city had profits in mind equal to anything envisioned by Cecil Rhodes.

What had Los Angeles annexed? A city? Hardly. The San Fernando Valley's entities most closely approximating townships en route to urbanism--San Fernando, Glendale, Burbank--kept their independence. Los Angeles acquired, rather, an agricultural region, farmed since 1797 with the founding of Mission San Fernando Rey, dotted with wheat fields, orange groves, fruit orchards, grazing cattle, far-flung ranch houses and dusty hamlets with gnome names like Tujunga, Pacoima, Sylmar and Zelzah (which, not surprisingly, later changed its name to Northridge). Here was no case of Brooklyn, a chartered city, of its own free will joining the equally autonomous Manhattan, as happened in the 1890s. In urban terms, Los Angeles willed San Fernando Valley into being, acquiring it as a deliberate act of expansion, envisioning it decades ahead of its settlement (if we subdivide, they'll come!) as a residential annex to what was yet a downtown-entered city.

This sense of itself as an annex, a bourg outside the walls, not fully connected to the central identity or symbol stem of Los Angeles, has been surfacing and re-surfacing these past 20 years with growing intensity. The Valley, of course, is not hallucinating, nor even being peevishly self-indulgent, when it says that it has its problems. As the most representatively mid-American portion of the city, it is suffering, with special intensity, that sense of active and present danger, of annihilation even, increasingly seizing the middle classes in the United States.

"I'm going to make the San Fernando Valley my home," sung the Andrew Sisters after World War II, and very soon a million people followed their example. What they created was a bold and wonderful thing: mid-America suburbanized in the sunshine, a lawn out front, a car in every garage. Then, beginning in the late 1960s, as its population diversified and increased itself by half, the Valley began to realize, at first subliminally, then with increasing bitterness, that it was being asked to face the angst and challenges of the city--crime, ethnic tensions, enforced busing, a burgeoning but growingly indifferent bureaucracy, the public-sector shortfalls, then graffiti, gangs and nightly (even daylight) drive-bys--without the full resources of a major U.S. city at its command. No City Hall annex at Van Nuys, however lavish (one of the largest city halls in the county, in fact) could dispel the Valley's sense of repudiation and neglect.

Cause for resentment became ever more compelling when Valley Los Angelenos recognized that they, more than any other sector of the city, were successfully practicing what everyone was citing--ethnic diversity--as the special destiny of the City of Angels. Thoroughly mid-American, for the most part, in its style and instincts, the Valley had mid-Americanized three successive waves of immigration with a degree of success that will leave future historians marveling.

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