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A City Divided

Who's Standing Up for L.A.?

In all the talk about neighborhood councils, charter reform and secession, who's thinking about the big picture in Los Angeles?

July 19, 1998|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 "The Dream Endures, California Enters the 1940s."

SAN FRANCISCO — It is Wednesday, the first day of July, 1998, at the Galpin Ford dealership on Roscoe Boulevard. Mayor Richard Riordan is meeting with the leaders of Valley VOTE, a grass-roots organization aiming to collect 135,000 signatures by Aug. 27, representing one-quarter of all Valley voters. If Valley VOTE succeeds, the Local Agency Formation Commission will be required by law to conduct a study to ascertain whether or not the San Fernando Valley could become an independent city without financial harm to the rest of Los Angeles.

You are setting in motion, the mayor told the activists, a process that could break up Los Angeles. Please don't do it. Sorry, the activists, replied. Valley VOTE president Jeff Brain, a real estate consultant and former president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce, said, "All we want to do is get the facts."

The mayor left the meeting disappointed. Could the secession of the Valley and the further deconstruction of the city into West Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, and Downtown/South Central Los Angeles be the enduring legacy of the Riordan years? Such a chilling thought might well have been on the mayor's mind that day, and still may be.

The entire situation was humiliating. Imagine the mayor of Paris, the lord mayor of London, the mayors of Tokyo and Seoul, or Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago or Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City in a similar situation: meeting with a group of self-appointed activists in a Ford dealership and begging them not to deconstruct a world city. Such scenarios are, of course, absurd. Paris, London, Tokyo, Seoul, Chicago, or New York are not deconstructing themselves. Of all great cities in the First World, only Los Angeles seems even to be toying with such madness.

In all world history, in fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any example of a great city voluntarily and deliberately setting in motion a process that might lead to its own dissolution. True, Carthage, to take one example, picked a fight with Rome, and Rome, after three long wars, destroyed Carthage; but Carthage began its challenge thinking it could best Rome, and, in the case of Hannibal crossing the Alps, came close to doing so.

The problem is, no one is standing up for Los Angeles, all of it, the entire city. No one is holding on to a vision of Los Angeles as a great world city that is more than the sum of its parts, more than the complaints of some of its districts, more than the ambitions of hundreds of aspiring politicians who see in secession a chance to get ahead.

No one is standing up for the total culture of Los Angeles, a culture that is also more than its component parts. Detached from Los Angeles, for example, the San Fernando Valley would become not a great city, but a dormitory suburb pretending to have achieved urban status: a community whose signature cultural contribution, at least in terms of gross revenues, would be pornography.

As part of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley has its troubles. But it has them in the context of possessing the sustaining strength and identity of being part of one of the greatest examples in the United States of what is perhaps mankind's highest collective achievement, the city: the city as engineering, as work of art, as moral community and historical identity.

Riordan has, in part, only himself to blame for being unable, vigorously and unequivocally, to stand up for this ideal of a unified city. His six-year war on the City Council, after all, has pounded away at and weakened, at least in the minds of some Valley voters, the entity whose expansion through charter reform would make Los Angeles more responsive while holding it together. Instead of talking about expanding the council to one seat per 100,000 voters, the activists, ever itchy for their own advancement, postulate the meshuga notion of governing the city through a network of locally elected soviets in a Walpurgisnacht parody of local governance. Bolstering their argument, or at least reinforcing it psychologically, is the mayor's six-year war on the council.

What prompted Riordan to embark upon such a course is anyone's guess. To war on the council, individually or collectively, is to war upon Los Angeles itself; for the council is the most direct and powerful expression of the collective identity of the city.

Forget the individual vagaries of council members. Throughout the history of the city, the council has always had more than its fair share of eccentrics. Their eccentricities, however, were the direct expression of the eccentricities of the people of the city. Tall, short; fat, thin; male or female, Jew or Gentile; models of probity or under investigation, even on the verge of indictment: The members of the council represent the true people of the city in all their strengths and weaknesses, efficiencies and inefficiencies.

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