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East Los Angeles takes major step on road to cityhood

Backers gather enough signatures to formally begin the incorporation process for the neighborhood seen as a cradle of Mexican American life. A comprehensive economic study is now needed.

January 10, 2009|Hector Becerra

East Los Angeles is proudly known as the community that sparked a Mexican American civil rights movement, gave birth to Los Lobos and jump-started low-rider car culture.

But for all its notoriety and close-knit feel, East L.A. has never been a city. Rather, it's an unincorporated area governed by the county Board of Supervisors.

But on Friday, the community took a major step toward gaining independence. County officials announced that backers had gathered enough signatures for the cityhood process to formally begin.

Boosters hope residents will cast ballots on the question in 2010.

First, a major study has to confirm what a much smaller, earlier study asserted: that the neighborhood of 140,000 can sustain itself economically as what would be L.A. County's 10th-largest city.

On Friday, supporters who were gathered along Whittier Boulevard said they were confident of victory, even as they prepared to go door to door to raise $100,000 to pay for the study.

"We the people of East L.A. have not only stood up, but we have delivered," said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), referring to the movie "Stand and Deliver," which was set at East L.A.'s Garfield High School. "What a vibrant community, what a vibrant city East L.A. can be."

Calling the neighborhood an internationally known "icon" of Latino culture, Romero said that with the Gold Line rail extension coming soon, the time is now for East L.A. to become a city and control its own destiny.

There have been three major attempts since 1961 to incorporate the community, but all have failed. The last time an in-depth analysis of the neighborhood's economic strength was done was in 1974.

East L.A. has always had significant symbolic value as a kind of cradle of Mexican American life.

When actor Cheech Marin starred in a 1987 comedy about a Spanish-challenged Mexican American mistakenly deported to Mexico, it seemed a pop culture no-brainer that it had to be set in the neighborhood. The movie was "Born in East L.A."

Covering less than eight square miles, the community is nearly 97% Latino, with most of its residents of Mexican descent. Like adjacent Boyle Heights in the city of Los Angeles, East L.A. has been heavily shaped by successive waves of Mexican immigrants.

But it is also a neighborhood of second-, third-, and fourth-generation Mexican Americans, where many residents live on suburban-looking streets. It has both embraced its immigrant roots and ached for the typical accessories of suburban life, from Starbucks to Trader Joe's.

The quest for cityhood seems to have gained wide support. A number of Southern California politicians, including Rep. Lucille Roybal-Ballard (D-East Los Angeles), former Assemblywoman Judy Chu and state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) have expressed support.

One notable exception is Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents East L.A. and has officially remained neutral on the issue.

Romero said, "I'm hopeful she'll come on board."

In an interview Friday, Molina said the decision had to be up to East L.A. residents, and she voiced support for a comprehensive study of whether the neighborhood could survive as a city.

Molina was recently appointed to the Local Agency Formation Commission, which on Wednesday informed cityhood supporters that they had gathered enough signatures. The agency would mostly ensure that the process that could lead to an election next year was conducted fairly and accurately -- and would commission whoever does the economic study.

As a college activist in the early 1970s, Molina was involved in an early effort to incorporate East L.A. The supervisor said she had her doubts about whether it was possible now, citing the economic downturn, which has many cities facing large deficits.

"This is not a good time for cities. East L.A. doesn't have a huge sales tax base. It doesn't have a Costco or car lots or things like that," Molina said. "Every city is working hard to build a tax base, and they're still struggling. East L.A. is mostly residential."

The community has long commercial corridors along Whittier Boulevard and 1st Street, but many of the businesses are mom-and-pop shops, some struggling to stay afloat.

The large mainstream retailers in the vicinity lie outside the neighborhood, and sizable swaths of East L.A. are old cemeteries.

Still, supporters said an initial study suggested that a new city would have revenues of $51 million versus expenditures of $45 million.

Molina said she understood the gut-level desire for incorporation, adding that although she has heard concerns that it isn't economically realistic, she has not heard much outright opposition.

"East L.A. is very symbolic, and it is for most Latinos. East L.A. is the place," she said.

Miguel Haro, a 24-year-old Southern California Edison employee and East L.A. Community College student, said he is passionate about seeing the neighborhood he grew up in become a city. He said that he knocked on as many as 100 homes to collect signatures and that everyone he spoke to was enthusiastic.

"I went out gathering signatures in my own neighborhood, and I realized I never really got to know my own neighbors. East L.A. is full of good, hard-working people," Haro said. "I think becoming a city will bring us closer as a community."

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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