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The Talk of Small Politics

June 02, 2002|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

HERMON — Angelenos used to be proud of living in the biggest city in America's biggest state. But Valley secessionists have successfully exploited our growing tendency to fetishize smallness in matters political. Small is more manageable. Small is more responsive. Small is simply more comprehensible. The Valley's secessionist threat led to the inclusion of neighborhood councils in our new City Charter. More recently, it has prompted talk of splitting the city into boroughs. Small is the order of the day.

But small isn't as beautiful as it's cracked up to be. Small can be petty. Small can be intolerant. In fact, my recent encounter with smallness made me long for the anonymity and freedom of the big city.

Last Tuesday, in a rare fit of civic activism, I attended a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) commission meeting at Franklin High School in Highland Park. Full of noble aspirations, I lured the pastor who lives down the street from me to come along. Together, we were going to help preserve the identity and autonomy of Hermon, our roughly 5,000-strong neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles. We weren't going to stand by and allow big, old Mt. Washington to swallow us up in their proposed neighborhood council.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 09, 2002 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Small politics--In an article on community politics, published in last Sunday's Opinion section, the largest state in the union was misidentified. It is Alaska.

So eager was I to say my piece that I arrived at the meeting half an hour early. But as the night droned on, I became increasingly disillusioned with neighborhood politics. After 9 o'clock, I sent the tired pastor home to his wife. I began to pace about. A man complained about his neighborhood being slighted. Another wanted to join the council across the ridge. A middle-aged women enumerated all the communities she didn't want to be a part of. It was identity politics writ small.

Six hours had elapsed when I finally got my turn to address what was by then a board of sleepy-eyed commissioners. When I left, shortly after midnight, I had had my fill of downsized turf battles, tantrums and infighting. Small is ugly.

A leader from the proposed Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council refused to shake hands with the president of the Highland Park group. Well-organized activists from Mt. Washington made me nervous with their imperious claims that neighboring Cypress Park belonged to them. Two angry neighbors accosted me and verbally beat the pulp out of me for my impudence in addressing the commission.

My friend Don, who understands such things, tells me I'm naive; that a neighborhood meeting in the home of New England-style democracy, small New Hampshire, would have been just as nasty. "There are probably families with undying grudges over someone's grandfather sapping the other's maple trees," he said.

But I don't believe him. In small New Hampshire, kids grow up knowing the folkways of local democracy. In small New Hampshire, people don't make their neighbors' acquaintance at a neighborhood empowerment meeting.

Three hours into Tuesday's marathon--it ended at 1:30 in the morning, I later learned--a man did an Al Pacino impression to denounce the absurdity of the system, and walked out. Today, he is my hero.

It's not that I'm against neighborhood councils. I just don't think we realize how foreign small-town culture can be to hyperindividualist, anarchic L.A. Nor do I think we acknowledge to ourselves how hard it's going to be to make our city work better or to get Angelenos to participate. Leaders of the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council, the one that has imperial designs on poor, little Hermon, boasted about their heroic outreach efforts. But in their application for official certification from the city, they reported that an average of "one-half of 1%" of the area's 36,000 residents showed up at their meetings.

As the only big city in the world founded on the promise of the suburban dream, we still delude ourselves into thinking that we can magically make our urban reality disappear. Now that we have run out of open space, there's nowhere else to run. Whether reorganized by secession, a borough system or neighborhood councils, we're all stuck with each other. In search of paradise and higher property values, however, L.A. continues to seek utopia in smallness. Even in my two-square-mile neighborhood, some folks on the hill decided to give their piece of land a bit of panache by calling themselves "Mt. Hermon."

My error, I soon learned, was that I had bypassed the Mt. Hermon czarina and spoke as an individual resident of Hermon before the commission.

I asked that my neighborhood, which is identified by blue city signs and surrounded by natural borders, be excluded from the proposed Arroyo Seco council. I contended that Hermon does not share a City Council district, a police division nor common interests with tonier Mt. Washington, which lies three miles away on the other side of the Pasadena Freeway. The czarina called me a pompous liar. After all, she had lived there for 40 years, and I for merely two. What made me think that my opinion was worth anything? she implied. (For this I missed the Lakers-Kings game?)

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