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Right-Sizing L.A.
Apr 30, 2002
By Joel Kotkin
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal

LOS ANGELES -- Across Los Angeles this week, radical academics and the local left-wing media will be "celebrating" the 10th anniversary of what the politically correct around here like to call "the uprising." Yet as the radicals trot out their tired arguments that "nothing" has changed in Los Angeles over the past decade, they widely dismiss what may prove to be one of the most significant political uprisings in recent California history.

In November, Los Angeles voters are expected to vote on a ballot measure that will authorize the secession of the San Fernando Valley, the vast region of the city north of the Santa Monica Mountains, and, most likely, similar efforts both in Hollywood and the port district of San Pedro. Accounting for roughly half the city's population, this proposed redrawing of the political boundaries reflects distaste among predominately middle- and working-class Angelenos against what is largely seen as a grossly inefficient and unresponsive central government. If it passes, the proposed break-up could usher in a new era of public experimentation no less dynamic than that which has swept through the corporate world in recent decades.

Governmental Failure

The current secessionist movement holds a more than casual relationship to the Rodney King riots that rocked Los Angeles 10 years ago. To many, the riot disaster was not an isolated incident of governmental failure; it followed a generation of mishaps, including dysfunctional schools, rising crime and a business climate that chased out entrepreneurs. "The riots indicated the fact that the city doesn't work," says attorney David Fleming, one of the secession movement's intellectual architects. "We felt we had to do something, that we needed something new."

Secession advocates like Mr. Fleming saw that other, smaller cities in the region, most notably Burbank, San Fernando, Glendale and Culver City, not only largely avoided the riots, but also managed to run their schools, police and economic development efforts with far greater efficiency. These cities - the largest of which has roughly 100,000 residents - shared the same economic space and similar demographics as the city of Los Angeles, but were far smaller than the metropolis, whose land mass could encompass Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis and Milwaukee, with room to spare. The contrast suggested that smaller units of governance might prove more responsive to citizen and business needs.

Many current secessionists, at least initially, hoped that civic reforms would solve Los Angeles's governance problem. The election of Republican Richard Riordan - largely on the basis of votes from the middle-class areas of the San Fernando Valley - gave hope to these malcontents. Mr. Riordan ran on a strong law and order platform and also promised significant privatizations and charter reform.

Yet ultimately Mr. Riordan proved incapable of making lasting changes against the entrenched forces of public employee unions, developers and the local liberal establishment. Largely through his ties to corporate leaders, the former venture capitalist helped nurse the city back to life economically, but despite this, Los Angeles remains, by most accounts, more expensive and heavily regulated than all but a handful of California cities.

Last year's mayoral election provided the final spark for the secessionists. The victory of current Mayor James Hahn rested largely on an unstable coalition of Valley voters - who represent nearly half the electorate - and African-Americans, who clung to Mr. Hahn largely out of loyalty to his late father, a legendary local politician. Once elected, Mr. Hahn turned on his erstwhile constituency and began to attack the secessionist movement. Yet, as some secession leaders who backed him slyly predicted, he has proven a rather weak and inarticulate opponent.

Secession also has gotten impetus from the finding of the state's Local Agency Formation Commission that the San Fernando Valley, which has some 1.4 million people and a highly diversified economy, possessed the tax base to stand on its own as a city.

Although gaining momentum, the secession movement still faces long odds. The institutional forces arrayed against this largely grassroots, middle-class movement are powerful, including civic grandees, such as Mr. Riordan and his billionaire friend, financier Eli Broad; organized labor; the Democratic Party; and virtually the city's entire media and academic establishment. A reported $5 million dollar war chest, much of it financed by public employee unions, is being raised to defeat secession. This is likely to represent at least two to three times as much as the secessionists - who have little in the way of corporate or institutional backing - are likely to have at their disposal.

The anti-secessionists are making incendiary arguments. At the behest of Cardinal Roger Mahoney and others, the Council of Religious Leaders recently issued a strident pronunciamento claiming secession could harm the interests of "the poor, the weak and the marginalized." In a similar vein, scholars working at UCLA's School of Planning issued a report claiming that secession represents a "class-based, strongly racialized movement of social separation."

This approach recalls the polarizing rhetoric stirred by the riots a decade ago. Yet it also misses the point. The Valley is hardly an exclusive, white, middle-class enclave. The region is now roughly half Latino and Asian. True, it has fewer poor people than the city on the other side of the hill, but also fewer rich people.

Black Community

And, ironically, Valley secessionists may find allies in the city's African-American community, centered around South-Central Los Angeles. Until recently, it was widely felt that the area - which has recovered surprisingly well from the 1992 riots - would follow Mr. Hahn in opposing secession. But the mayor's recent decision to fire tough-minded Police Chief Bernard Parks, who is popular among African-American voters, has led some South-Central leaders to wonder openly whether they, too, would benefit from a smaller, more responsive city. "A lot of people in South-Central are telling us that a smaller city would be more sensitive to the black community's needs," says Mr. Fleming.

This issue - the right-sizing of local governance - could well turn this largely middle-class uprising into a successful revolution. Although up against enormous odds, the Valley's secession could represent the beginnings of a sustained citizen assault against the failed structures of urban governance that could make tragic outbursts like the one that occurred here a decade ago a figment of the past.

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Mr. Kotkin is the author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape" (Random House, 2000). He is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and at the Milken Institute.