LA rebels plan breakaway `white city'

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The Independent Online
LOS ANGELES is the city that everyone loves to hate - including, it seems, 200,000 of its inhabitants.

That is how many people have signed a petition calling for the secession of the San Fernando Valley, the suburban slice of Los Angeles north of the Hollywood Hills, and the creation of what could become the sixth largest city in the United States.

The reasons for the rebellion will sound reassuringly familiar to LA- bashers: the desire to get away from an unwieldy city bureaucracy which sucks in tax money but does little or nothing about shoddy schools, public transport, air pollution, inner-city crime and all the other ills for which Los Angeles has become a byword.

Or at least that is the way the secessionists portray it. Their drive is also being seen as a giant manifestation of that very Californian ideology, Not In My Back Yard.

Being a predominantly white, middle-class part of town, the Valley is simply sick of shelling out for minorities and the poor in the downtown areas and would rather spend its tax money on white, middle-class things, like raising the tone of its neighbourhoods and nudging property values upwards.

"The Valley is tired of being treated like a cash cow," said Richard Close, chairman of the Valley Vote movement which is spearheading the push for secession. So far, his group has been remarkably successful. The petition, which was completed to great fanfare a few days ago, will - if two-thirds of the signatures are verified - lead to a ballot initiative proposing secession some time in the next couple of years. Independence would not arrive in time for the millennium, but could become a reality shortly thereafter.

The Los Angeles area is full of smaller independent mini-cities which believe they can manage their affairs better on their own - Beverly Hills being perhaps the most famous example. In every case, the push for cityhood is essentially a desire to keep the riff-raff out. The Valley, with its 1.6 million inhabitants, is exceptional only because of its size.

"Overtly, secession is about better civic management, but in reality it is about maintaining a white majority and protecting house prices," said Jim Newton, an experienced political reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

The Valley, with its estate agent mentality, is well-versed in the art of secession: several communities, over the years, have chosen to split or rename themselves in an effort to up the tone. When the eastern end of Canoga Park was hit by a crime wave in the mid-1980s, the smarter western end changed its name to West Hills - sparking a furious battle over where exactly the demarcation line between the two should be drawn.

A few years later, the undesirably Hispanic-sounding neighbourhood of Sepulveda became North Hills, even though the highest hills in the place were speed bumps. Two tiny fractions of North Hollywood turned into Valley Village and West Toluca Lake, because the word Hollywood evokes images of crime and dingy streets. Never mind that West Toluca Lake was nowhere near Toluca Lake.

Now the western half of Van Nuys, which is divided by a major freeway, wants to split off from the eastern half because of drugs and gang problems. "We're embarrassed to say we live here," said Steve Neuman, the estate agent behind the initiative. With that sort of community spirit, the Valley may not just become a separate city, it may become 25 separate cities.