Hollywood heads for hills in LA divorce

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The Independent US

For years it was treated as a kind of joke, Los Angeles's very own parody, in comic-opera white suburban mode, of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

For years it was treated as a kind of joke, Los Angeles's very own parody, in comic-opera white suburban mode, of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Here was a group of middle-class home-owners in the San Fernando Valley, the suburban sprawl north of the Hollywood Hills that has been much maligned ever since its founding in 1915, clamouring for secession, of all things, on the grounds that city hall corruption and inner-city decay was corrupting their perfect poolside lifestyle and denting their property values.

It never looked like much of a winner. No major world city has chosen to split itself up before, at least not without a war first. To do so in the hope of organising more efficient garbage collection seemed the height of political pettiness.

Suddenly, though, everyone is being forced to take it deadly seriously. A city committee set up to study the feasibility of secession reported last week that the Valley could raise enough tax revenue to survive as a separate entity, and gave its approval to putting the issue to a popular vote in November.

And it's not just the Valley that might be breaking away. Hollywood – the district, that is, not the film industry – is also proposing to go it alone, and so is the area around the Los Angeles city port in San Pedro.

Popular support for a break-up is booming. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that half the city's voters like the idea of seeing their town dismembered. In the Valley itself, support is at about 60 per cent.

One could write whole screeds on the reasons why, but essentially it boils down to short-sighted self-interest. White suburbanites are kidding themselves that they can insulate themselves from poverty, gangs and ethnic diversity (in fact the Valley is rapidly becoming a majority Latino area). Latinos, meanwhile, see an opportunity to further their political power in the Valley, and even black political leaders in south-central LA are beginning to welcome the prospect of a downsized Los Angeles in which they represent 20 per cent of the population rather than the current 10.

Is this good news for America's second-largest city, now in danger of becoming, respectively, its third- and sixth-largest cities? Not if you believe the academics, the political and economic analysts who see little gain in the break-up and plenty of dangers – not least the creation of whole extra layers of expensive city bureaucracy.

"A great city waits to be butchered in November," the LA historian and writer D J Waldie lamented this week. LA's ineffectual mayor, Jim Hahn, has called the prospect "a disaster of biblical proportions" – an assessment that is almost certainly an exaggeration except in one respect, his future career.

It may be crazy, but it also has a precedent. In 1978, a similar middle-class revolt across California led to the passage of a state ballot initiative known as Proposition 13, which imposed strict limits on property taxes for home-owners. The upshot was a collapse in funding for education and social services, and California schools plummeted from first among US states to around 40th.

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