A New Vision for the Valley
Nov 10, 2002
By Joel Kotkin and Karen Speicher
Publisher: Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

In its drive to become a city, the Valley became one. Not because the secessionists barely carried the day in the Valley, but because the attempted breakaway made the Valley -- and the rest of Los Angeles -- rethink what it is and what it might want to become.

"The secession movement has given the Valley a sense of itself it did not have," says Studio City resident Ken Bernstein, founder of the Civic Forum, a nonpartisan group that held numerous forums on secession around the city. "It was basically a movement about identity and respect."

Today, Valleyites are more aware their home has troubles that, albeit not as severe as those over the hill, are serious and distinctly urban. Its crime rate is rising, jobs are leaving and there's an increasing dissension that comes with its growing diversity.

At the same time, with the growth-release valve closing off in such attractive suburban areas as Ventura County, the Valley, with its existing infrastructure and amenities, could be an ideal site for the development of a new post-suburban structure.

This new idea of the Valley was already emerging through the Vision 2020 project, sponsored by the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, a business group. A crucial issue for the project is how to accommodate new population growth, expected to continue at approximately 1% a year, without destroying the long-established single-family neighborhoods that define the Valley's middle class.

The answer may be the construction of "urban villages" -- dense multiuse centers along major thoroughfares and intersections throughout the Valley. The viability of this kind of development, which need not be more than two or three stories high, is evident in retail-pedestrian-oriented districts like Sherman Oaks, Toluca Lake and Studio City.

These villages could accommodate the three major social groups expected to grow most rapidly in the Valley. One is the elderly, including many homeowners, who may want to stay in the area but have no need for a big home and might prefer to live within walking distance of basic services. The Valley, once primarily a place for families, is graying rapidly. In the last decade, its median age rose from 34 to 38, while the percentage of people over 65 swelled by 28%.

Another group is "nonfamily" households, singles or couples without children, many in their 30s and 40s, who are buying smaller homes in places like Van Nuys. This is one of the fastest-growing population groups in Los Angeles, as well as in other metropolitan areas. Priced out of the Westside and at a point in life when they might enjoy a village atmosphere, these households, despite the Manhattanite images on television, favor less-dense living areas over inner cities.

The third and perhaps most important group is working- and middle-class immigrants, many of whom cannot afford the Valley's steadily rising housing prices. For them, well-conceived denser development near transit stops makes excellent sense. So, too, would the development of Latino, Asian or Middle Eastern retail centers, which would add to the Valley's existing cultural amenities.

Unhappily, how to realize this vision was not a subject in the secession campaign. The pro-secession crowd never articulated a compelling vision for their proposed city. For the most part, they simply offered up the lame ideal of a more efficiently run Phoenix, a vision that didn't exactly inspire Valleyites to man the barricades.

In the wake of their defeat, perennial secessionist leaders like Richard Close and Jeff Brain need to step aside and let others create a more viable vision. The core secessionist appeal -- the Valley of yesteryear -- cannot work as long as the clock runs forward.

But this doesn't mean that the enormous vitality of grass-roots politics that Close and Brain, to their credit, helped unleash should be allowed to die out. The diversity and spunk of some 90 council candidates in the Valley was an inspiring affirmation of democracy. They could be important forces in reshaping the long-term future not only of the Valley but also of the city.

Perhaps nowhere will their role be more critical than in the northeast Valley. Supporters of the status quo will claim that a majority of residents in this largely Latino area voted against secession. True, but with a caveat.

Even after a relentless anti-secession campaign supported by paid political workers, around 40% of these voters still wanted to break away from L.A. They apparently didn't buy the notion, embraced by the LA Weekly, that secession was a right-wing, racist conspiracy.

Today, these pro-secession voters and their would-be Valley leaders, many of them small-business owners, make up the first strong grass-roots opposition to the kind of machine politics that has long disfigured L.A. Latino politics. Two of the candidates from the Valley election, Oscar Mendoza and Jose Ray Garcia, plan to form an organization to battle for the economic and civic improvement of working-class Latino areas both in and outside the Valley.

These activists are natural-born leaders of an urban-village movement. Unlike downtown's Latino politicians, who tend to be second- or third-generation Mexican Americans closely associated with the Democratic Party, they tend to be first-generation immigrants from other parts of Latin America.

"There's a real difference between this new group and the existing people," explains Mendoza, a native of Mexico's Jalisco state and a small-business owner. "We tend to be people who have their own homes and businesses. We are more entrepreneurial and don't want to rely on government services."

There is a modest precedent for this kind of political approach in the city of San Fernando, where Latino machine candidates were recently tossed out in favor of grass-roots activists. Today, San Fernando is a model for a restored, functioning and economically viable Latino-majority city, with a renewed village core.

If the urban-village ideal takes root, the sense of empowerment and vitality it creates in the Valley could be significant as well for the vast majority of Los Angeles County, which, after all, is more Valley-like -- diverse, middle class and multiethnic -- than the better-known constituencies of downtown, the Eastside barrios, South-Central or the posh parts of the Westside.

If so, the political ideals of Valley secession -- greater local control of planning, better delivery of services, improvements in the entrepreneurial climate and increased deployment of city resources for neighborhood, as opposed to grandiose downtown, development -- could become county ideals.

The Valley, once a laggard, could be the vanguard for such change. The secessionists represent roughly a third of the city's electorate. With a more diverse, enlightened leadership and a clearly defined vision, the onetime insurrectionists may yet reshape our now dysfunctional metropolis.

Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor of Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and at the Milken Institute. He is writing a book on the history of cities for Modern Library.