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New Era for Glendale Armenians

Even as the ethnic group marks the milestone of a majority on the City Council, it struggles with internal diversity and a changing community.

August 08, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Drive down Central Avenue in the heart of Glendale and the telltale signs of the city's long Armenian influence quickly become apparent.

The cursive Armenian writing advertises bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants that serve such specialties as sweet honey baklava and lamb kebabs.

Glendale has been a haven for Armenians for generations, a point of entry for immigrants from Armenia, as well as people of Armenian descent from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and the former Soviet Union. They now make up 40% of the San Fernando Valley city's 210,000 residents.

But it was not until this year that the city's Armenian community marked a major political milestone: winning a majority on the City Council.

Many Armenian Americans are proud of the election results, saying they illustrate how a community that once stood on the fringes of local government now is playing a central role. But they also are quick to say the Armenian American majority on the five-member council does not reflect a homogenous community.

Despite its size, the population is highly diverse. Wealthy second- and third-generation Armenian Americans live in tony neighborhoods in the hills above the city, while recent immigrants struggle in lower-income neighborhoods.

Bridging this divide is a task with which social service organizations and the Armenian Church struggle. Sometimes the new immigrants complain that their high expectations about life in America are difficult to achieve, especially with limited English skills.

"Some of these people can't get jobs that will pull them out of their financial situation," said Angela Savoian, regional chairwoman for the Armenian Relief Society. "They get deeper into debt because their children want what their neighbors have.... It's much more difficult to be poor in this country than where they came from."

Sometimes parents work two or three jobs to make ends meet, leaving their children unsupervised for hours. In the past, authorities have said the situation helped boost the ranks of Armenian street gangs, a problem seen five years ago when an Armenian gang member fatally stabbed a Latino student outside Hoover High School.

In recent years, police say, Armenian gang activity has declined. But both Glendale police and the FBI are becoming increasingly concerned about Armenian organized-crime rings linked to drug dealing and robberies.

"I see a lot of materialism and anger and resentment," said Father Vazken Movsesian, who runs a youth drop-in center at St. Peter Armenian Church, across the street from Hoover High. "I have to keep telling them: 'Appreciate all that America's giving you.' "

The newly elected Armenian American council members have vowed to help newcomers integrate into the community, fight youth crime and bring about changes that will ease some of the parents' problems.

Among the steps they can take, said Councilman Ara Najarian, is to encourage the Police Department to hire more Armenian American officers and work to secure more federally funded housing for low-income families. The city has 1,500 vouchers for government-funded housing and a waiting list of 9,000.

"Armenian Americans don't all think the same way or walk in lock step," Najarian said. "We're very diverse, from the poorest in the city to the richest; some are professionals and some are newly arrived with their own language and customs. It's not like we had 60,000 people who came from Armenia yesterday and settled in Glendale."

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Once a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant political power, the city is now home to about 85,000 Armenians, one of the largest populations outside Armenia itself.

In addition to Central Avenue's bustling shopping district, Glendale is home to at least half a dozen Armenian-language newspapers, and local cable TV outlets are filled with Armenian-produced talk shows and public affairs programming.

"When I first came to California to go to school in the 1950s, there were few Armenians in Glendale," said Richard Dekmejian, director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies. "Most of the Armenians were in West Adams, Boyle Heights, a few in the Valley. There were a small number of Armenians in Hollywood, but they grew very fast."

Armenian families have lived in the city since the 1920s, but immigration did not transform its social fabric until the 1970s, when Armenians who had scattered across the globe during the era of genocide in Turkey uprooted themselves in rapid succession from Lebanon, Iran and the then-Soviet Republic of Armenia. They were forced to leave these countries because of world events that prevented them from practicing their Christianity freely and to escape anti-Armenian discrimination.

Many were drawn to Glendale, as well as East Hollywood and Fresno.

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