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Valley Man Appreciates Waking Up in L.A.


In a sense, Dick Healy has become a prisoner of his fellow Angelenos, who, though famously restless and migratory, thirst for a warm, familiar place.

When Healy left the corporate banking business 15 years ago and opened his custom coffee roasting business, he did not intend it to become a coffeehouse where regulars drop in for a few sips of neighborliness while anonymous traffic whizzes past on Ventura Boulevard.

For one thing, his narrow store, the Coffee Roaster, in Sherman Oaks measures scarcely 500 square feet from the front door to the sign on the back wall that reads, "We Wake Up the Valley." Bulky, fibrous sacks of raw coffee beans and an ever-churning roaster occupy the front of the place. Shelves of coffee-making paraphernalia and bins of newly cooked beans line the walls. Room remains for only two counter stools and one little table with a pair of chairs. Two more tables are on the sidewalk in front.

For another thing, serving coffee drinks, especially at prices 30% to 40% lower than those at the Starbucks just down the street, is a money loser. "It's just marketing," Healy says. "I didn't try to foster it. I got forced into it. My business is selling pounds of coffee."

Each day, approximately 300 visitors sidle through the Coffee Roaster. What they seek, beyond organically grown coffee from Sumatra and La Minita hacienda in Costa Rica, is "community, that sense of identity," the very same thing that has driven many residents of the San Fernando Valley to conclude they must secede from Los Angeles and form their own, more sociable city.

Healy, however, is among those Valleyites who often go unmentioned in all the easy talk from both pro- and anti-secessionists about how Valley residents rarely venture "over the hill" to mainland Los Angeles, and mainlanders seldom find reason or desire to travel in the opposite direction. He loves living in the Valley, his home for 25 of his 64 years, but also relishes other parts of Los Angeles and the feeling of being part of a big, variegated city.

A father of three and grandfather of four, he is an L.A. Chamber Orchestra season ticket-holder, and drives downtown to work out at the L.A. Athletic Club three times a week. He dines weekly in the Larchmont area and East L.A. He volunteers at the soup kitchen run by St. James Episcopal Church in the Mid-Wilshire district.

Unlike those who bewail the incoherence of Los Angeles, he finds in the very amorphousness, vastness and near-chaotic diversity of the city a specific civic character.

"The point is, L.A. has it all," he says. "In New York, you just sit on your stoop and the world comes to you. In L.A. you have to define yourself, figure out what you want and then go find it--but it's here. I love L.A. I love the city. I love the concept."

The idea that the Valley is a separate social entity yearning for political affirmation as a new city does not ring true for many Valleyites, Healy maintains, particularly those who live in the southern Valley within easy reach of the Santa Monica Mountains. There, a person can almost feel the thrum of the Los Angeles Basin on the other side.

"The vast majority of my customers do not favor secession," he says. "It's probably a socioeconomic thing. They tend to be professionals or in the entertainment industry, people who are connected with what's over the hill. Lots of people move to this part of the Valley because they can't afford to live the same way on the other side of the hill.

"I don't even know how to get to Chatsworth, and I'm not being facetious. I know it's over there somewhere. In terms of identity, I'm closer to the Civic Center than I am to Northridge, and this"--he sweeps his hand over the broad vista of Ventura Boulevard prosperity outside his shop--"certainly doesn't look like the northeast Valley."

None of which is to say Healy doesn't sympathize with many of the secessionists' beefs, particularly those that relate to City Hall's unresponsiveness to neighborhood needs.

Council districts, for example, are so immense and have been so gerrymandered over the years that no council member can adequately represent them, he says.

From Healy's perspective, though, the problem is not that city government is too large, as some secessionists have maintained, but that it's too small. More council members are needed, he says, and smaller districts with more natural constituencies.

He would also like to see a borough system installed to further tighten city government's focus on neighborhood well-being while not endangering "a city infrastructure that's been in the making for a hundred years."

The secessionist movement, Healy says, is really a search for more socially connected self-hood, a magnified version of what is enacted every day in his shop.

"People in L.A., and not just in the Valley, are trying to find a closer identity. I'm not sure a new city of the size being proposed achieves the kind of efficiencies that the pro-secession people say it will. But even if the Valley secedes and becomes its own city, I'll still go down the Hollywood Freeway to L.A.. And it will still be only 13 miles from here."

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