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The State

In Valley, pace of change is fast

The East-West split has widened. It's a divide of income, education with political implications for the rest of L.A.

December 20, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

New numbers from the U.S. Census recently offered a demographic profile of the San Fernando Valley, information that helps explain the Valley as it is -- slightly wealthier than the rest of the city to which it is sometimes uncomfortably attached, but with large numbers of immigrants and a medley of languages.

Still, even as those statistics frame it as a place, they fail to illuminate changes that are accelerating within the Valley itself and transforming its place within Greater Los Angeles.

As close observers of the San Fernando Valley know, today's Valley is itself divided, principally by an east-west split that runs along the 405 Freeway.

Moreover, the Valley's divide is widening as its poorer areas grow. The result: The Valley today is less distinguishable from the rest of Los Angeles, its political and cultural divisions more like those on the other side of the hills.

"The Valley is changing," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents much of the area. "There's no question about it -- politically, ethnically, economically."

Bob Hertzberg, former speaker of the state Assembly and a longtime denizen of the Valley, agrees. "All the old assumptions," he said, "are being blown out of the water."

Those changes are altering every aspect of civic life in those communities, once thought of as the quintessential suburb, now a more complex matrix of language and culture.

Armenian is now widely spoken in area schools. Many large churches are Korean or Thai. Korean grocers have replaced Jewish delis.

On one end of the Valley, gated mansions and old ranch houses still preside over well-groomed neighborhoods; on the other, some residents still don't have sewer hookups or streetlights.

The split is evident when examining the base-line questions of economic status and ethnic identity. For eons, the Valley has been considered in monolithic, sometimes overly simplistic terms -- as a predominantly white, wealthy, Republican stronghold in an overwhelmingly Democratic and increasingly Latino city.

Although never entirely true as a description of the whole Valley, that segment of its population has been powerful in the past. It was, for example, instrumental in electing Republican Richard Riordan in 1993, when he carried the Valley handily en route to his post-Los Angeles riots mayoral victory. Riordan ran that year as the candidate "tough enough to turn L.A. around."

East-West split

But census data and results of two recent city elections belie the stereotype of the Valley as a natural conservative bastion and highlight the significance of the Valley's east-west split.

As of 2000, a majority of those living in the West Valley were white, whereas in the East Valley, whites made up just a third of the population.

The differences in other areas were just as pronounced. West Valley residents, for example, earned $5,000 a year more than their counterparts in the East Valley -- the median family income in the West Valley was $51,551, compared to $46,529.

As a consequence, West Valley residents were more likely to own their homes, and East Valley residents were more often renters.

Educational achievement was similarly split on opposite sides of the 405: Nearly two-thirds of West Valley residents attended college, compared with barely half of those in the East Valley who had the benefit of higher education. Indeed, 35% of those in the East Valley did not possess a high school diploma.

It is the East Valley, however, not the west, that is growing most rapidly.

And with that growth have come political consequences: In 2002, when Los Angeles considered and rejected a proposal to allow the Valley to secede, the measure carried in the West Valley but lost in the east, as well as in the rest of Los Angeles.

Then, in 2005, when Antonio Villaraigosa campaigned to oust incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn, Villaraigosa's immense popularity in the East Valley helped him overcome Hahn's stronger support in the west.

Political effects

A Times poll conducted just before that election helps illustrate how strongly the changing demographics of the Valley have affected its politics. Hahn was not especially popular anywhere in Los Angeles, and many West Valley residents resented his opposition to secession, but Villaraigosa's support in the East Valley was staggering.

Asked which candidate would do a better job in fighting crime, improving traffic and helping schools, East Valley residents picked Villaraigosa, sometimes by overwhelming margins.

On schools, for example, 56% of those interviewed in the East Valley favored Villaraigosa's leadership, compared with just 17% who backed Hahn.

On the Los Angeles City Council, the significance of the political distinction between the East and West valleys also is readily apparent.

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