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Secession's Seductive Undertow

For Many Who Live in the San Fernando Valley, Breaking Away From Los Angeles Isn't About Taxes and City Services. It's About Yearning for Simpler Times, Respect and Other Desires Unvoiced in the Public Debate.

July 21, 2002|NITA LELYVELD

Los Angeles may be just a few months away from being dismantled. in one November day at the polls, the nation's second-largest metropolis could lose half its territory and become, at least in the big-city big leagues, a mere shadow of its former self.

While pollsters and pundits attempt to measure the pulse of the city, it's unclear how many Angelenos care about this deeply. What is clear is that secessionists, once written off as crazies, are energized and mobilized and seem to be striking a chord. They argue that outlying parts of Los Angeles don't get their fair share of city services. They rattle off statistics--the San Fernando Valley has fewer police officers, some parts of Los Angeles have more libraries, the city isn't repaving their streets, trees are not being trimmed. In the coming months, Angelenos following the debate could easily drown in statistics and city budget number crunching. But dollars and cents aren't what makes secession so seductive.

The real allure is in this pitch: Los Angeles is too big. Smaller is better.

Secessionists hold that idea up against their own experiences and it seems to fit. It capitalizes on a yearning for simpler times, for a chance to be heard without shouting so hard, for respite from the big-city problems lapping right up to suburban front doors. People want to catch their breath in a place where change can seem relentless. They want to feel more in control.

Countering that powerful emotional draw is difficult. The city's sheer size--about 470 square miles--is overwhelming. Its City Council members each represent nearly a quarter million people. Its mountains and freeways cut parts of the city off from each other. Making a sprawling, multicentered city feel united is no easy task.

This is a city, after all, whose very history may argue against deep communal bonds.

Los Angeles grew from a small, sleepy town to a big city not because of its natural assets. It didn't have many. Unlike San Francisco or Seattle or New York, it didn't abut a big natural harbor or rivers that made it a perfect center for manufacturing.

Los Angeles grew because its boosterish leaders willed its growth. They fought hard to make the railways land at their doorstep. They brought in water to turn a desert into something more lush and inviting.

Cities whose growth was driven by their rivers and harbors quickly developed strong downtown centers, dense with people whose livelihoods depended on location. When the downtown areas filled with people, buildings grew taller to accommodate them. Even today in New York, Boston and other cities, residents rub shoulders in crowded subway cars, on busy downtown sidewalks, in elevators. Lives in densely built, more traditional cities are full of close encounters and shared experience.

In Los Angeles, skyscrapers and huge apartment buildings are more the exception than the rule. People don't have to do so much sharing. They can more easily exist in their own bubbles, seeing their fellow citizens from behind car windshields, rarely encountering crowds except at ballgames or concerts.

They can do so because Los Angeles grew out rather than up. Downtown Los Angeles was still a pretty new place when a vast network of electric railways made living outside the center easy. There was open land all around, and the city's leaders, many of whom were also land speculators, encouraged people to settle on the outlying lots they were promoting. Streetcar owners were developers, too, and they made it easy to commute from new subdivisions to downtown jobs.

Then the automobile caught on, and by 1920, the city's still young downtown was jammed with cars. Streetcars whose rails shared the crowded streets began moving more slowly in traffic. Rather than battle the congestion and the higher downtown property costs, industries and businesses moved to residential neighborhoods. Railway lines, losing their riders, were dismantled. Before long, the old downtown was just one of a number of business districts, not a true city center.

Los Angeles' rapid growth occurred not organically but through large-scale acquisition. Without a natural harbor, the city wanted to create one, so in 1906 it obtained a shoestring of land between Los Angeles, San Pedro and Wilmington, and then wooed those communities in 1909 to join the city.

The city needed water to expand. It was imported, and doled out only to those communities willing to join it. Hollywood came aboard in 1910. The San Fernando Valley was annexed in 1915.

Dozens of other communities joined, too, out of expediency more than love. "They were over the barrel, so to speak, and the barrel contained water," says Michael Dear, director of the Southern California Studies Center at USC. "This is a place that has been patched together."

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