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Comment and Analysis | LOS ANGELES

The Other Face of Secession

June 30, 2002|DAVID DeVOSS | David DeVoss is a senior correspondent for the East-West News Service.

SHERMAN OAKS — The battle for San Fernando Valley independence ostensibly pits the downtown power structure against Valley business leaders and homeowner-activists. But the front line in the secession struggle cuts right through the northeast Valley, where most of the Valley's African Americans and hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants live. There, theoretical arguments about taxes paid and city services received aren't the talk of the town. Instead, it's City Hall's inattention to their daily lives.

Some anti-secessionists have tried to racialize the battle. For example, USC constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky recently wrote that "part of the impetus for secession comes from some whites in the [Valley] who would prefer to be in a new city in which whites are a majority."

In truth, the San Fernando Valley is anything but a white enclave. More than 158,000 Asians live here, nearly one-third of them Filipino. In the areas hoping to secede, the Anglo and Latino populations are roughly equal. About one-third of the Valley's 1.7 million people are immigrants, many of whom fled war-ravaged Central America in the 1980s when the City Council declared Los Angeles a refuge.

City Hall hopes they will reject the uncertainty that comes with creating a new city. But immigrants are people who have experience with dysfunctional government and the hard work required to build a better life. After studying the U.S. political system to obtain citizenship, they more than most know the meaning of representative government.

"All you have to do is walk around here to see that [City Hall doesn't listen]," says John Hunter, a black retired Army sergeant. He's standing beside Glenoaks Boulevard, along with a handful of disenchanted Pacoima residents, nearly all of whom plan to vote for Valley cityhood. He points to a traffic island just south of the Ronald Reagan Freeway that has become a barren swatch of dirt for lack of irrigation. For more than a year, residents had requested the median be landscaped and a sign put up welcoming motorists to their community. Finally, last May, Betty Cooper took matters in her own hands: She camped out on the island amid hand-lettered signs chastising the city for its empty promises.

''After five days, one of Councilman Alex Padilla's deputies came and said the city would fix the sprinklers if I went home," says Cooper, who is grateful for the sprouting grass but wonders if the landscaping and welcome sign ever will arrive.

"It's tragic that you have to fight just to get broken sprinklers repaired," she says with a sigh. "If this median had been properly maintained, it would have been a great morale builder. We care about our community, but Padilla never visits, and his aides are always in meetings when we call."

Ask an Encino resident why he supports Valley independence and you'll hear a theoretical discussion about the imbalance between taxes paid and services received. But for residents of the northeast Valley, Los Angeles' indifference to neighborhood concerns is a source of daily frustration.

"Just look at these streets," Sylmar's Oscar Mendoza exclaims as we bounce along roads evocative of rural Mississippi. "This is a nice community, with homes worth over $500,000, but we can't get the city to pave the streets."

Mendoza, 28, is a project manager for a roofing company. He's also president of San Fernando Valley Residents for Independence. How does Mendoza recruit secessionists? By driving up Glenoaks, which floods every time it rains, traversing the rutted track called Olden Street, then returning down San Fernando Road, passing vacant lots that serve as flea markets for drugs and cheap sex.

"Now look at what the Valley could become if it were independent," he says as we enter the City of San Fernando. Immediately, the ruts and potholes disappear, sidewalks become clean and traffic medians blossom with profusions of flowers. "Both San Fernando and Sylmar are Latino communities, but only one of them functions properly. Latinos in Sylmar pay their taxes, and they'd like to live in a decent community too."

No large U.S. city has all the money it needs. But residents of the northeast Valley wonder why City Hall pleads poverty when they ask for civic improvements, yet continues to subsidize downtown developers and reward political contributors with sweetheart contracts to study municipal projects that seldom are completed.

Vickie and Alejandro Aguilar's potluck Neighborhood Watch meetings are famous in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Held each month in a different Sun Valley home, the meetings are conducted in Spanish. But the scene is pure Norman Rockwell. While children play soccer in the backyard and parents nibble on tamales, politicians and community leaders stand and deliver five-minute orations. Then they listen to what the neighbors have to say. But during this month's meeting, the frustration is palpable when a representative of Mayor James K. Hahn rises to speak.

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