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Valley Emerges From '97 With a New Sense of Self

Review: A freshly confident region assesses its priorities and sees its future in 'identity politics.'

December 28, 1997|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some lament it, others celebrate it, but "identity politics" have become a fixture on the American political landscape in the millennial twilight of the 1990s.

And as it comes to a close, 1997 may go down as the year when the San Fernando Valley forcefully threw its own identity into the mix, in an assertion of confidence and will that could have far-reaching impact on its government, schools and infrastructure well into the next century.

For more than any other, this has been the year in which the Valley came back with a vengeance from the political and economic doldrums of the recent past and demanded increasing recognition as a separate--and equal--entity from the rest of Los Angeles. On its feet again after a devastating recession and an even more devastating earthquake, the Valley began insisting that it could take care of itself, a rebellious streak seen in everything from the push for secession to the idea of a Valley transit authority.

"There's very much a stronger sentiment in the Valley for Valley recognition, Valley independence. . . . It's probably gotten to a higher visibility or boiling point than it has since the '70s," said longtime City Councilman Hal Bernson, recalling the last time the Valley agitated so ardently for a municipal divorce.

Perhaps it was only fitting that 1997 should have witnessed a reinvigorated Valley identity. After all, the Valley officially turned 200 this year, marking two centuries of growth and change since Spanish priests first settled the area and erected the mission that gave the Valley its name.

In September, dignitaries, academics and residents joined for a look at the area's past, present and future, a time to "stop and take stock," as one official put it. Trying to broaden the Valley's historical perspective and acknowledge its current diversity, the gathering pulled together representatives from various communities and cultures to celebrate unity on the occasion of the Valley's birthday.

"It truly reflected the incredible diversity of the San Fernando Valley," said City Councilman Richard Alarcon, a major sponsor of the celebrations. "I hope that in some small way it exhibited how people of diverse communities working together can create wonderful things."

*

But well before September, the Valley's bicentennial year had already taken on a darker cast with tragedies and outbreaks of violence that made headlines not just in Southern California but around the nation. Suddenly, the Valley, where residents have long complained about not getting their fair share, had more than its due of high-profile crimes and gunplay, which resulted in deaths on both sides of the thin blue line.

On Feb. 25, a group of suspected robbers was trapped in a Northridge cul-de-sac after a bar holdup, chased there by two squad cars carrying members of the Police Department's controversial Special Investigations Section. When one of the pursued leaned out of the car pointing a gun, the officers opened fire, killing three of the suspects.

The fourth, Michael Rochelle Smith, escaped injury in the fusillade but now stands trial for murder--although police have identified him as an informant who helped lead them to the others.

As bloody as the incident was, it was overshadowed less than a week later by a remarkable drama that unfolded with electrifying suspense on live television and thrust the Valley into the national spotlight: the North Hollywood shootout.

The pitched battle between police and a pair of bank robbers was the city's most spectacular shootout in 20 years; the images are indelible: Two gunmen, draped in black, laden with such sophisticated automatic weaponry that police went scrambling to a local gun shop for firepower to match. Terrified customers being led out of the bank vault where they had been held captive. Staccato bursts of gunfire splitting the air as the robbers lumbered through neighborhood streets, spraying armor-piercing bullets at houses, cars and officers, 10 of whom were wounded before SWAT team members fatally shot the two, Larry Eugene Phillips and Emil Matasareanu.

Across the country, headlines screamed.

"Two bandits killed in storm of lead!" shouted the New York Daily News. "Shoot-'em-up in L.A. follows bank robbery gone bad," cried a Memphis, Tenn., newspaper.

Here in the land of Hollywood, comparisons with violent movies such as "Heat" were inevitable, as residents and pundits held forth on life--and death--imitating art.

"I know war in my country," said Orsana Rajanchyan, a native of Armenia who lives on the street where the robbers made their last stand. "But I never saw anything like this."

Before the summer was out, the Valley saw three more deadly shootings involving police. Undercover cops on a Panorama City stakeout killed a 22-year-old father of three in May after the man demanded to know why they were in his neighborhood and brandished a sawed-off shotgun.

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