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Little Chance Here of a Voting Bloc Party

Election for a Wilshire citizens panel again strains relations between Hancock Park factions.

June 27, 2005|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Residents of Hancock Park and surrounding Los Angeles neighborhoods voted recently. And voted and voted and voted.

Some cast 15 or more separate ballots for the new Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, a citizens panel that will advise City Hall on matters such as zoning, traffic congestion and police patrols.

The multiple votes appear to have fit within the arcane rules of the contest, which gave extra ballots to members of community organizations. But the election has once again inflamed relations between factions in Hancock Park.

The two groups -- leaders of a growing population of Orthodox Jews and a loose coalition of homeowner associations and architectural preservationists -- have fought on and off for years.

Their conflict mirrors others throughout the city, where shifting demographics have fueled tensions among neighbors of different ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. Flare-ups often occur between newcomers to a neighborhood -- typically immigrants -- and more-established residents who see their way of life threatened by the influx, experts say.

A key goal of the 6-year-old neighborhood council system is to help unite those communities to give them a clearer voice in city government. That doesn't always happen, however. And the election for the Greater Wilshire council seems a low point.

"This might be one of those areas where the neighborhood council process isn't going to work," said Greg Nelson, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, overseer of the councils.

"It's deteriorated into two sides that not only want to dominate each other, but want to stomp on each other's graves."

Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor who was executive director of the commission that shaped the neighborhood councils, said they can't be expected to resolve clashes of the sort afflicting Greater Wilshire.

"They're probably too big for neighborhood councils to handle," he said. "It's asking the councils to deal with problems that the city itself has trouble dealing with."

At a firehouse that served as the Greater Wilshire polling station, election workers say, voters presented membership cards for homeowner, business and library associations, historical preservation societies, a neighborhood watch group and various synagogues.

Each card scored them an additional ballot. The homeowner associations and preservationists proved best at the game; the candidates they backed captured 27 of the council's 31 seats.

"It created almost a mania," Vince Cox, a founder of the Larchmont Village Neighborhood Assn., said of the June 15 election.

The copyright lawyer said nonprofits were formed just to qualify voters for the maximum number of ballots. "There was a sense on my side of it that we better do it because the other side is doing it," he said. "The other side was probably thinking the same thing."

The two camps have fought over the conversion of a Hancock Park home into an Orthodox synagogue, a dispute full of allegations of religious and cultural intolerance, all heatedly denied.

The feud has spilled over into campaigns to assign historical preservation status to Hancock Park and Windsor Square, which could put many homes off limits to future conversions and extensive remodelings.

Some Orthodox residents say preservation restrictions would prevent them from adding onto homes to accommodate their larger families. But promoters of the rules insist they are needed to protect architectural treasures -- stately houses built during the Roaring '20s.

In places less affluent than the Greater Wilshire district, battles between new arrivals and the older guard also center on zoning debates and the way people use their homes, say two Pomona College professors who study Los Angeles County's ethnic and political patterns.

Gilda Ochoa, a professor of sociology and Chicano studies who wrote a 2004 book on Mexican American and Mexican immigrant relations in La Puente, said rancor between the groups sometimes focused on the immigrants' habit of drying laundry on fences and keeping roosters in their yards.

Mexican Americans whose families have been here for generations believed those practices fostered a negative image of the old country, Ochoa said.

"They felt that people who are not Mexican or not Latino may not distinguish between the generations," she said.

Ochoa said most Mexican Americans in La Puente have learned to live alongside the immigrants, but others have uprooted for more distant suburbs.

Boris Ricks, a political science professor, noted that many blacks in South Los Angeles have similarly "voted with their feet," by moving out as Latino immigrants become a dominant presence, just as whites had left as African Americans streamed in decades earlier.

"People like to live around people who look like them," he said.

In South L.A., Ricks said, some African Americans become irritated when Latino immigrants park cars on lawns or have loud weekend parties.

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