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On Secession Issue, the Real Potholes Are Leaders' Failures

June 09, 2002|Steve Lopez

While tooling along last week with the radio going, I heard a Hollywood secessionist work herself into a lather over the pothole at the end of her street. For a moment, I thought I was on the East Coast, where the weather carves craters big enough to decide elections.

I never expected to find pothole politics in Southern California. Then came secession, and now I keep hearing that the pothole is a symbol of broken-down government in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

I'm not sure what roads these folks are traveling, because I cover a lot of ground by automobile and have not encountered any impasses. What's a few chuckholes, anyway? Half the drivers out there are in SUVs the size of German panzers. They could cruise Bryce Canyon without testing the springs.

That's not to say city services are fine and dandy. They could stand some improvement, same as with every other city I've known. In Los Angeles, which was stretched into distant frontiers by barons and thieves, it's fair to wonder if we're just too big to function cleanly.

So no, secession isn't a completely nutty notion, although the borough proposals are smarter by a mile. Either way, it's refreshing that people are talking about something other than a Laker three-peat.

The problem with these fiddlers, unfortunately, is that Nero is their muse.

On one side we've got L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn, whose plan for more left-turn lanes is perhaps his most ambitious work to date. At the occasional rally to save L.A., Hahn can't seem to draw more than 50 people, and I'm beginning to wonder if some of them are cardboard props.

Then you've got the titans from Valley VOTE.

"Smaller is Better," reads a proclamation on the secessionists' official Web site. The new Valley city is likened to San Diego, Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix, and then we get this little gem of an observation: "When you enter these cities the blight, the poverty, the crime, the gangs and the graffiti virtually disappear."

We're lucky these guys aren't travel agents. I once spent three weeks in Phoenix, chasing a story about how the ambush murder of a white cop by Latino drug dealers nearly touched off a race war in a gang-ravaged part of town.

Valley VOTE is peddling a safe and happy place where you can have every little thing your heart desires, even after you vote for Prop. 13 and every other tax-cutting measure. The only problem is that no such place exists.

Cities are gloriously imperfect, evolving places, forever in conflict with their own histories, and that is their appeal. They stumble and strive, they falter and thrive. You want a spoonful of sugar, go somewhere else.

Los Angeles is spectacular in a thousand ways and flawed in just as many, but the fixes for education and dirty air and the daily nightmare of getting from here to there aren't even on the table in all the talk of secession.

Fine, redraw the boundaries if you must, change the rules, whatever.

But building a newer and better Los Angeles, one in which the quality of life is significantly improved for everyone, has nothing to do with whether it's carved into smaller pieces. It begins with a complete re-imagining of how we get places, and Mayor Hahn's left-turn lanes are not the inspiration I'm talking about.

The rail line that moves the most people in Southern California is at Disneyland. We've got a transit authority that spent a fortune in court to avoid buying more buses, and we've got a mayor who lacked the spine to support a perfectly sensible new busway in the Valley, simply because a few neighbors objected.

As motorists, we're champs. Some people in the world are eating grass soup while others look skyward for falling nukes, and here in sunny Southern California we've got a pothole posse worried about throwing out their front-end alignment.

Guess what, folks. It was America's insatiable thirst for oil that led directly to the national security threat we all fear today. Saudi Arabia grew the bulk of the terrorists who came after us on our own soil, and still, the U.S. looks the other way.


So we can keep buying their oil.

So we can avoid a single personal sacrifice.

So we can keep inching along in tank-size cars on ever-busier stretches of the Hollywood, Harbor and Ventura freeways.

It's almost like sending checks to the terrorists.

Where are L.A.'s screaming populists on these counts?

The city can and should re-imagine itself in ways that suit our needs and those of a changed world. But where are the politicians willing to connect the dots, scold us, challenge us, lead us?

Stuck in traffic, maybe, if not swallowed whole by these potholes I keep hearing about.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at

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