In L.A., it's back to the future

January 04, 1998|By George F. Will

LOS ANGELES -- One secessionist says succinctly, name another city that has a mountain range running through it. And geography is but one reason why the two-fifths of this city that sprawls north of the Santa Monica Mountains may try to do what 11 states attempted in the 1860s and 13 colonies did in 1776: declare independence.

Tom McClintock, a state assemblyman, is to the San Fernando Valley's secession what John Calhoun was to the South's -- the most trenchant theorist: ''The ultimate check on an abusive or dysfunctional government is the ability of people to walk away from it.'' When Mr. McClintock was a high school student in White Plains, N.Y., he came home one day to find his mother in tears over her taxes. Thus was made a young conservative and a California family: ''The ability to walk away from a dysfunctional government is what brought [my family] out here.''

Affluent valley

Now he is 41 and determined to midwife the birth of what would be the nation's sixth largest city. (Los Angeles would drop to third, behind New York and Chicago, and ahead of Houston and Philadelphia.) Sliced off of Los Angeles, the valley would be the nation's second most affluent city of more than one million. Today its per-capita income is $19,021, second only to San Francisco's $19,695. In the rest of Los Angeles the figure is $14,668. The valley is 4 percent African-American, 8 percent Asian-American and has a large Latino population. Spanish is spoken in a quarter of all homes and 38 percent of adults are foreign born.

Los Angeles is a city of 467 square miles, large enough to hold St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Boston and Pittsburgh, with room remaining for Manhattan. Another result, says Mr. McClintock, is a city where ''local government is not local.''

Even 50 years ago, when today's Los Angeles was barely imaginable, the mayor proposed dividing the city into five largely autonomous boroughs. Yet today the city's extraordinary scale is offered as an argument against secession. The argument is that great size guarantees greatness. Mr. McClintock demurs:

''If greatness is population, Calcutta is a great city. If greatness is history, you must put Baghdad at the top of the list. If size is what matters, Alaska is the greatest state.''

Secessionist fires might be dampened if the valley could extract itself from the widely disliked Los Angeles Unified School District, which covers 708 square miles. However, that extraction might intensify secessionism by demonstrating its practicality. And secessionism gained steam in October, when Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law the bill (co-authored by Mr. McClintock) stripping city councils of veto power over secession initiatives.

The secession process is protracted, beginning with a petition of 25 percent of registered voters, then a study to determine that both the new city and the remainder of the old would be viable, then a vote requiring majorities in both the seceding entity and the larger city.

Twenty years ago, secessionist sentiment was a byproduct of anti-busing and anti-tax revolts. Valley residents believe they pay more in city taxes than they receive in services, which is difficult to demonstrate. They want lower taxes and more of something expensive -- police.

Secessionists concede the accuracy of the familiar description of Los Angeles as a centrifugal city -- ''60 suburbs in search of a city.'' However, people in the valley have stopped searching. They have found a city in their own back yard -- or, more exactly, in their back yards. Harold Meyerson, writing in L.A. Weekly, says the valley would be the city with ''the most backyard pools and the fewest public parks.'' That is, a city with an attenuated sense of public life.

Fred Siegel, in ''The Future Once Happened Here,'' his book on the fate of America's cities, says the valley would be the anti-city idealized by the transplanted Midwesterners who fueled Los Angeles' growth before foreign immigration did. If so, the future may be happening here again, and it may look a lot like the past.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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