LOS ANGELES - Since the 1920s, the white, block letter Hollywood sign perched high in the hills above Hollywood Boulevard has served as a landmark for the movie industry, but recently it has become a pawn in a political battle that could tear this town apart.
From one end of this sprawling 466-square-mile city to the other, secessionist fever is raging. Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and the San Pedro harbor area want to break away and form independent municipalities.
The state's Local Agency Formation Commission is analyzing the three secession plans and will decide whether they should appear on the November ballot. To gain independence, each proposal would need to win a majority of votes within that secession area and citywide.
The stakes are high for Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, and possibly for the country as well. Los Angeles would lose nearly half its population of 3.7 million to the breakaway cities. An independent San Fernando Valley would have 1.35 million residents, stretched over 222 square miles - nearly three times the area of Baltimore - and rank as the nation's sixth-largest city.
Tom Hogen-Esch, who teaches political science at California State University, Northridge, says secession fever is likely to become a national epidemic if Los Angeles breaks apart. People in affluent areas will use secession as an "empowerment strategy" to break away from their neighbors in poorer areas, he predicts.
Meanwhile, the secessionists in Hollywood and the Valley got a boost when the Local Agency Formation Commission recently reported that both of the proposed new cities would be financially viable. The harbor area's plan is still under review.
An independent Hollywood would have about 200,000 residents, a five-member city council and an anticipated budget of $176 million. But even if Los Angeles loses at the ballot box, it's not likely to give up one of the world's most famous landmarks without a fight.
The Hollywood sign, which sits on city-owned land in Griffith Park, stands 50 feet tall, 450 feet across and is visible for miles. It hasn't attracted this much contention in years. Not since 1932, when a distraught actress plunged to her death from the H. And not since 1976 when pranksters fooled with the sign to make it read HOLLYWEED.
Secessionists redrew the boundaries to include the sign in the new independent city of Hollywood. But Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge says he'll wage a legal battle to keep the sign if Hollywood secedes.
Secessionists want to take the "best" of Los Angeles and "throw away the rest," he says.
Gene LaPietra, president of the Hollywood Vote secession group, says the flap over the sign shows that Los Angeles elected officials are out of touch with political reality. The sign's location is the only claim they have to it. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce holds the sign's trademark rights and collects the licensing revenue it generates. "When we leave, we're taking the sign with us," LaPietra says.
All three secession campaigns carry the same message - Los Angeles is too big to be effectively governed by the mayor and the 15-member City Council. Consequently, neighborhood complaints about crime, grime, taxes and the delivery of other city services go unheeded.
"The issue is big government and neglect; we've had years of neglect, and we're not taking it anymore," says LaPietra, adding that thousands of tourists visit Hollywood each year, and many leave disappointed.
The days when movie stars roamed Hollywood's streets are long gone. Paramount Pictures is the only big studio remaining in Hollywood, and tourists who venture into some of its seediest neighborhoods are likely to encounter rundown apartment buildings, streetwalkers and folks who look like refugees from film noir.
LaPietra says smaller government is the remedy for Hollywood's problems and could help restore its old luster.
But Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn maintains that breaking up the city would create "more bureaucracy, more politicians, fewer resources and diminished services."
$5 million fight
Hahn spokesman Kam Kuwata says about $2 million has been raised to launch a TV ad campaign against secession in the fall. Hahn says the campaign intends to raise $5 million for the fight, but Kuwata doesn't rule out the possibility that more will be needed, "We'll raise what we need to win," he says.
Last summer, Hahn won a bitter race for mayor over a Latino opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, by drawing 60 percent of the white vote and 80 percent of the black vote. But his political base appears to be disintegrating as he moves into the secession fight.
Rep. Maxine Waters supported Hahn's mayoral bid but felt betrayed in February when he opposed the reappointment of black police Chief Bernard Parks. Waters says Hahn's credibility is shot in the black community and that he'll have to do more than run TV ads to win black votes in the secession fight.