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Fever for Secession in Harbor Area Cools

Breakup: Having lost their bid for cityhood, many on the waterfront are uninterested in the Valley and Hollywood campaigns.

September 15, 2002|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Los Angeles' harbor neighborhoods, faces used to brighten and voices rise at the mere mention of secession.

Now, people shrug and sigh.

Many San Pedro and Wilmington residents said they don't give much thought to secession these days. Their hopes of carving their own city out of Los Angeles diminished in May, when a state commission placed San Fernando Valley and Hollywood breakaway initiatives on the Nov. 5 ballot, but rejected a similar proposal for the harbor area.

"The feeling is, 'Well, we're not seceding. Ho hum, life goes on,' " said Noel Park, a secessionist and president of the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition, which represents 13 homeowner groups.

"We have too many other things to worry about," said Maria Hernandez, as she lugged grocery bags along a littered, weed-strewn street near her Wilmington home. "Just let it be."

Secession leaders in the Valley and Hollywood said the harbor area--which has a population of 145,000--remains one of their strongholds. To win, the ballot measures must carry a majority of votes in the secession area as well as a majority citywide.

"We're going to do real well in the mayor's neighborhood," said Gene La Pietra, founder of the Hollywood secession movement. Mayor James K. Hahn and his sister, City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, live in San Pedro.

If a municipal divorce occurs in the Valley or Hollywood, secessionists in those regions said, it could revive the harbor independence drive.

"The harbor understands the importance" of voting for a split, said Richard Close, a Valley cityhood leader. "In a few years, [it] will want to go through the same process."

But even the harbor secession leader, Andrew Mardesich, said he isn't so sure.

"I'm not as enthusiastic as before," said Mardesich, a San Pedro resident. "People here aren't enthusiastic either. We're stuck with L.A."

Mardesich said he will vote for the Valley and Hollywood measures and lend his support at campaign events. But he is less enthusiastic about harbor cityhood and is considering moving out of the area.

The Local Agency Formation Commission halted the harbor area's three-year breakaway crusade after finding that the proposed city would suffer financially if it broke from Los Angeles.

Until then, the prospect of independence had drawn excited crowds to community meetings, and Valley and Hollywood secessionists had counted on the harbor area to be a third front in the election battle.

Breakup advocates said the harbor area should still deliver plenty of votes for the Valley and Hollywood bids because the problems that fueled secession sentiments linger: The storage containers and rusty cranes that blight the waterfront. The factories and refineries that belch pollution. The potholes that crater alleys. The struggling businesses.

During lunch time at an outdoor fish market and eatery in San Pedro, the only diners on a recent day were fat seagulls picking at discarded crab shells. In the nearby downtown district, a host hummed and danced in front of another empty restaurant. At Walker's Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall at Point Fermin Park, a palm-lined area on San Pedro's bluffs, business was better, but the mood toward Los Angeles wasn't.

"We've never gotten our fair share," said Robert Torres, 38, a longshoreman who was born at the harbor. He was having a beer with friends at Walker's. They swapped jokes about being the stepchild of Los Angeles, but said they doubt they will vote for the Valley and Hollywood proposals.

"Why should I?" asked Reggie Perez, a 39-year-old longshoreman and San Pedro native. "What does the Valley matter to me?"

Making a root beer float was Carol Tedrow, a waitress who fled the Valley years ago for the harbor's breezy climate and seaside vistas. "At least if the Valley [secedes] and screws up, it's the guinea pig," she said.

Councilwoman Hahn said she understands the ongoing frustrations with City Hall. But secession fever has cooled in her district, she said, because of the city's redevelopment plans for the area.

"There's no longer a driving force for secession in the harbor," the councilwoman said.

Not necessarily, said die-hard secession supporter Anne Gusha, who, with her son, owns Williams' Book Store, a musty, independent shop established in 1909.

The 83-year-old has lived in San Pedro for most of her life. She has watched charming bungalows crumble and breathtaking harbor views disappear behind industrial buildings. She has seen gang graffiti deface parks, schools and entire neighborhoods.

"I would love to leave L.A.," she said.

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