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Election 2002: LA secession question

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Oct. 21, 2002 at 6:23 PM
(Part of UPI's Special Report on Election 2002)

LOS ANGELES (UPI) -- Although corporations frequently split themselves in two in pursuit of the appropriate size and intensity of focus, it was almost unheard of for American cities to seriously consider breaking themselves apart until advocates of independence for the suburban San Fernando Valley managed to get secession from Los Angeles on the November ballot.

Although "the Valley" is nearly ringed by mountains, 222 square miles and 1.35 million residents in the Valley are within the city limits of Los Angeles. Because so much of the movie and television industry is centered in the Valley, it long has played a large role in America's image here and abroad.

Most observers now expect that secession advocates will be unable to convince enough voters in the rest of Los Angeles to let the slightly wealthier San Fernando Valley go. The well-funded campaign against secession, led by Los Angeles mayor James Hahn, is expected to outspend the secession-backers by a ratio of ten to one. In a recent Los Angeles Times Poll, the rest of Los Angeles favored hanging on to the Valley by a 62 percent to 18 percent margin.

The question has become whether secession will garner a majority within the San Fernando Valley itself, which might keep the issue of downsizing cities alive both locally and on the national stage. This remained close, with secession trailing in the Valley 47 percent to 42 percent, with a 5 percentage point margin of error.

Although the San Fernando Valley is widely assumed to have no history, Kevin Roderick recently assumed the mantle of the Valley's leading historian with his popular book "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb." Further, with his "Secession Watch" blog at AmericasSuburb.com, the veteran local journalist and Valley native has also established himself as a leading chronicler of the controversy.

Roderick took time out to answer UPI's questions about the Valley:


UPI: Will secession pass?

Roderick: Not according to the polls. No respectable poll has ever shown secession passing in Los Angeles, and it must pass in the Valley and in all of L.A. to win. The question now is, will it even pass in the Valley? Polls have found it getting a majority of yes votes within the Valley, and there is even some anecdotal evidence that some people may cast a protest "yes" vote since they feel confident it won't pass. But the level of voter turnout could shift the outcome in the Valley, and the "no" campaign is only now beginning to hit with its TV and mail campaign against the measure. It will be interesting to see who finally wins the Valley -- I think it's a toss-up.

Q: Why do you call it "America's Suburb?"

A: The San Fernando Valley became famous in the 1930s and 40s as a colony of Hollywood movie stars, from James Cagney and Barbara Stanywck to Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. It's where Clark Gable, the most famous male star of his time, wooed Carole Lombard -- they lived on an estate in Encino that he bought from director Raoul Walsh (incidentally, it's the house where financier Michael Milken lives now).

Everybody knew of the Valley then as a Hollywood hangout the way Malibu is today, an image that grew when Bing Crosby sang the hit song "San Fernando Valley" in 1944 and made gags on his radio shows about his life there near all his pals.

In the suburban boom after World War II, the Valley became the fastest growing place in the U.S., and its proximity to Hollywood writers and producers helped its image as the quintessential suburb. "The Real McCoys" TV show in the 1950s and 60s was set in the Valley suburbs, Johnny Carson made jokes about the Valley, the "Valley Girls" phenomenon of the 1980s put a new twist on the image. The Valley was, and is, America's most famous suburbia.

Q: Is the secession movement making the Valley a trendsetter again?

A: That is difficult to answer. If other sections of the country, especially other suburban enclaves that are connected to large cities, try to break off, then yes I'd have to say the Valley began the trend.

But the Valley's situation is really unique, at least in the United States. It is geographically distinct from its "mother" city, separated by mountain ranges and climate from the rest of Los Angeles. Unlike most suburbs, which tended to appear out of nowhere in the postwar era, the Valley has a history that goes back more than 200 years, and its history is not the same as L.A.'s history.

It has been legally part of Los Angeles since 1915, but, culturally, its residents still feel not fully connected to L.A. People in the Valley, for instance, do not live at "Los Angeles" addresses, but in communities such as Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys and Canoga Park.

Q: It's almost unheard of for American cities to consider downsizing. Why is secession a real issue in the Valley?

A: It's an outgrowth, I believe, of the separateness that many residents of the Valley feel at some level. The campaign for secession is being fought largely on the grounds of poor city services from L.A., but the more visceral appeal for many in the Valley is that Los Angeles is "over the hill," somewhere else vaguely foreign. They already consider the Valley their home, and for some, having a separate, and smaller, potentially more efficient city, makes sense.

Q: Why are there so many jokes about the Valley?

A: The suburbs have always been seen by many people as ripe for parody. And the Valley is, for better or worse, the ultimate suburb. It also has been looked down upon by many in Los Angeles as less cultured and less interesting.

Q: Many in posh West LA say that the Valley doesn't have the civic amenities to be its own city. Does the Valley have what it takes to be a separate city?

A: To be honest, it doesn't take much to be a city. Los Angeles County is made up of 88 legal incorporated cities, including one (Hidden Hills, which is in the Valley) that has fewer than 2,000 residents and a gate in front of it. The public is not allowed in. A couple of other cities in Los Angeles County have almost no inhabitants and are essentially legal tax schemes.

The San Fernando Valley would be the 6th most populous city in the country, the second largest in California, with more people than 87 other cities in L.A. county alone. The Valley even has more people than twelve states! So, yes, I'd say it meets the minimum requirements. To succeed as a city is something else entirely, and on that, it's hard to predict. That depends a lot on leadership and vision, on the policies that are set, and on luck.

Q: Is the lack of civic amenities one reason for the secession movement?

A: For some people, probably. But it's a mixed bag. The Valley suburbs were created since 1945, so for the most part, they already have the newest schools, libraries, sewers, parks, fire and police stations, and streets in Los Angeles. The Valley is nowhere close to being the most rundown section of L.A., and even its poor areas tend to be better looking than the poorest sections of "over the hill" Los Angeles. People move out of Watts and South-Central L.A. into the Valley, not the other way. But, the Valley has had to fight to get its share of the pie, and it has lacked clout in City Hall.

Q: Is secession an attempt by whites to get away from minorities?

A: It's not that simple, since the Valley today looks more like the rest of Los Angeles than it ever has before. The Valley's population is half Latino, and a large share of the residents who fit into the Census Bureau category of "non-Hispanic whites" are immigrants from Armenia, Iran and elsewhere. But the Valley's gradual change from an enclave of white suburbia -- in 1950 the population was more than 95 percent white -- has embittered some residents. And they, more than others, appear to see positive signs in the secession movement.

Q: Should secession pass?

A: I'm one of the Los Angeles residents -- and there are many of us -- who don't care strongly one way or another. Secession would, I suspect, mean less to the every day life of a Valleyite or Angeleno than the proponents or the opponents claim. Also, despite all the studies and promises and threats, there's no way to know whether taxes would go up or down, whether services would get better or worse, or whether political leaders would be more or less beholden to special interests. That all depends on what happens after secession, on whom the Valley elects to lead the way -- and in my view, its record on that in the past has been mixed at best. Some people don't care, they will cast their vote purely on gut feeling, and that's fine.

From the personal benefit side, my book -- "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb" -- has to be rewritten either way (the second printing will be out in the winter). Secession would no doubt spark even greater interest in the Valley, which would help sales and drive traffic to the Valley history Web site, AmericasSuburb.com. Break-up is also a much better story for a journalist to cover -- no city of 1.3 million people has ever just appeared on the scene before.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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