Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed
May 13, 2002

When people ask me about San Fernando Valley secession, as they do a lot, they often have an incredulous tone: Do I truly believe that the Valley really has what it takes to be a city?

Usually, I just laugh. The question shows the pervasive cultural distance that separates city folks and Valley folks. For every Silver Lake or Leimert Park boho who cringes at the very thought of the Valley, there's a counterpart in Reseda or Chatsworth who loathes driving over the hill.

There are reasons to be skeptical of secession as well as some intriguing arguments for it, but the Valley's dearth of civic accouterments shouldn't make anyone's list. Sure, the Valley city would lack an obvious downtown, at least at first. There's no opera or major art museums, though there are scads of acting companies and a community symphony.

But so what? No one's offended by Santa Clarita or Calabasas or Diamond Bar, yet none of those relatively recent cities have a classic downtown or a preeminent institution.

Let's face it. Of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County, the Valley is larger and more populous -- and more "qualified" for cityhood, in terms of business and industry and potential -- than all but one: Los Angeles. Even Long Beach (population 461,522) is a baby compared with the Valley (population 1.35 million).

History? As I found when researching my book on the San Fernando Valley, history shows up in noteworthy ways -- in the annals of California's Mexican era and water wars, the rise of aviation and movie studios and, of course, in the emergence of suburbs as a way of life.

So the secession controversy isn't really about qualifications. The Local Agency Formation Commission, which will decide later this month whether the issue goes on the Nov. 5 ballot, already has found that the Valley is so strong financially that it would have to help Los Angeles with an annual payment in the tens of millions of dollars.

That leaves voters -- in the Valley and citywide -- a choice based on emotion and details. Myself, I'll wait on the latter. The more I absorb about local history, the less I accept the argument that secession would violate the soul of Los Angeles, a city that was compiled rather than nurtured, its growth often at the behest of the powerful and against the wishes of the inhabitants.

Even 87 years after it took the best deal and agreed to be annexed to Los Angeles in order to share in aqueduct water from the Sierra Nevada, the Valley has yet to be fully acculturated. Maybe it's time to try another way.

I said maybe. That's where the details I hope to hear during the coming campaign will matter. Creating the sixth-largest city in the country could be a rare opportunity or a colossal mess. I'm waiting for someone to excite me with what is possible.

©Kevin Roderick 2002

Not for publication without permission