Unraveling L.A.

Los Angeles Magazine
January, 2003

Bob Hertzberg is just back from China and riding a Shanghai high. "That city is electric! An unbelievable amount of energy," says the former Speaker of the Assembly, sitting amid a forest of packing boxes in his Van Nuys office. Turned out by term limits, the exuberant Democrat who gives out hugs the way other politicos toss off "How ya doin'?" seems eager to get on with Act Two of his public life.

What a great city Shanghai is, he shouts, rising to his feet. He's recently been to London, Berlin, Tokyo, and Montreal, too. Each of these old urban centers, he says, has something to tell us about how to fix what's broken in L.A., the world's young city.

Count Hertzberg -- solid thinker and Westside native -- among those who believe his hometown has a case of the blues. Begin with November, when a third of voters citywide wanted to ax off the Valley. That may not seem persuasive in percentage terms, but that's a lot of dissatisfied people. Many more people feel that the cultural ties that bind Los Angeles together are strained, he says, but didn't vote or couldn't stomach crude amputation. "I am not now nor have I ever been a secessionist. That's not my thing. But there are very serious concerns about quality of life. It's in Venice, it's in San Pedro, it's everywhere."

Listen to him and you wonder what might have been if the Valley breakaway folks had this bubbly guy in glasses making their case about what ails Los Angeles. While they droned on over getting a fair share of services, he makes the issue more intimate. "It's not about having some nameless cop come sooner, it's about having a friendly cop who you know come a little bit later," he says. "It's about people feeling a sense of place, a sense of commitment. 'This is my community, I know it, I feel comfortable in it, and I like it.'" It's what has gone missing from civic life. He wants to reinstill the love.

We cut a path through a stack of files to an easel holding one of my favorite maps. I call it "Assembling Los Angeles." It records the zigzag boundaries and dates of the 284 land grabs and takeovers that created the glob of estranged communities we know today. Venice gave up its independence in 1925, Watts in '26; Tujunga held out until '32. Each joined the imperial city for its own reasons, and all lost some of their identity when they were absorbed. Gesturing at this jigsaw puzzle of local history, Hertzberg says it's time to let the parts again reign over the whole. Call it "Unraveling Los Angeles."


Rethinking the metropolis has become all the rage, especially since November. With secession off the agenda for now, everyone feels free to agree that something is awry. The day before meeting Hertzberg, I was shown the identical map across town in the City Hall office of councilman Tom LaBonge, another elected politician who fought cleaving off the Valley and Hollywood but who insists that some devolution is necessary.

"Los Angeles is a city of great neighborhoods," says LaBonge, who serves a more picturesque melange than most, from Larchmont Village and the Miracle Mile to Silver Lake (where he was raised and still lives) and Toluca Lake. His point, like Hertzberg's, is that in Los Angeles's race to cosmopolitan status, we lost touch with something valuable. Skyscrapers downtown are a fine symbol, but they never could define us. People feel first allegiance to their own neighborhood, not to some place 25 miles away where they may never go. "Somebody who lives in Canoga Park doesn't think about what's going on in Wilmington," Hertzberg says. "They just don't."

The disassembling of Los Angeles has been under way for a while. Official signs regularly announce newly blessed namings: Melrose Hill, Lake Balboa, Athens on the Hill, and Historic Filipinotown are recent additions. Also, since voters reformed the city charter in 1999, most zoning and land use decisions are made by local planning boards. Likewise, 57 sanctioned neighborhood councils have come into being, with at least that many in the birthing process.

Hoping to heal the wounds opened by the secession campaign, Mayor James Hahn got in the game a week after the election by ordering that public services such as street sweeping and graffiti cleanup be reorganized into seven regions, each with a mini city hall and hierarchy. The plan borrows from an idea proffered by LaBonge last year.

So is all this decentralization too much?

Not even close, says Hertzberg, who presents a rare profile for a local politico. He's Jewish and lives in Sherman Oaks. He met his wife, Dr. Cynthia Telles, who is prominent in the Latino community, when they both cochaired a fund-raiser for Congressman Ed Roybal. His first jobs in politics were with African Americans Mervyn Dymally and Julian Dixon, and his friends include former Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who dubbed him "Bob Hugsberg."

Hertzberg's more drastic solution to "recapture the vibrancy" of Los Angeles leaves the larger structure in place for some purposes, like law enforcement and fire fighting, but breaks it up for functions that can be more neighborhood based. In a word, boroughs. The 48-year-old lawyer, a big believer in consensus, began to push the concept as a self-appointed mediator of the secession debate and now has the time -- and, he hopes, a more receptive audience -- to sell it harder.

A black binder parked on Hertzberg's table holds the goods. He has analyzed New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo -- which all use some semblance of regional government -- and can discuss why each system has something to offer but is not exactly right for Los Angeles. "I don't know anything in the world that closely applies to L.A.," he says. Wonkish to the core, Hertzberg can address the origins and roles of 487 subunits of government in the county, from water and streetlight districts to 88 incorporated municipalities. He's studied every version of the Los Angeles charter dating to the 1880s. "I'm very interested in structures of governance," he says.

His briefing book includes the past flirtations with New York-style boroughs. They popped up in 1906 but got nowhere. The 1925 charter allowed them, but the provision was weak and never came into use. As part of a bid to increase the power of his office, Mayor Fletcher Bowron in 1948 suggested reorganizing into five regions: the Valley, East, West, Central, and Harbor. During the secession brouhaha, when officials feared breakup had a chance, council members Wendy Greuel and Janice Hahn offered a quickie boroughs scheme. Its momentum vanished after an L.A. Times poll revealed that Valley independence would lose big.

Hertzberg designed his plan to withstand more thorough deliberation. He foresees nine boroughs, each containing about the same population as Sacramento. In New York, boroughs vary greatly in size, and one, Manhattan, dominates. The regions of New Los Angeles would enjoy a lot of autonomy. One area might ban parking meters; another might ease the rules on sidewalk cafes or limit billboards. Just as crucial, Hertzberg says, each would choose a name and over time form an identity. "A sense of place," he says.

As drafted, his new map takes some getting used to. Lines are drawn to resist legal challenge and don't necessarily conform to natural notions of community. A concoction he labels "Mulholland" puts Hancock Park with the Hollywood Hills and parts of the Valley. The details of governance are what sound most alien to an Angeleno. A borough would be made up of five districts of about 85,000 residents. Each district would elect a resident to serve on the borough's board. This body would make local rules and choose one of its members to be president. The presidents would meet every other week to handle citywide affairs. The mayor's office would keep its power, but the city council would be eliminated.

Hertzberg has been walking his briefing book around town. Hahn was diplomatic but has since put forth his own plan. Former mayor Richard Riordan and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo haven't been sold on the idea. Villaraigosa, Hahn's rival in the last mayoral election, has made positive noises. Hertzberg's strongest backing so far has come from veterans of charter reform as well as urban affairs commentators Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel and historian Kevin Starr. Valley leaders and the Daily News are on board. The Times liked the concept when it was brought up as an alternative to secession and has urged that the conversation at least continue.

Most members of the city council, not surprisingly, are cool to the whole thing. Four are leaving this year -- Hal Bernson, Nate Holden, and Ruth Galanter face term limits; Mark Ridley-Thomas is going to the legislature. Hertzberg calculates that with two more members termed out in 2005, there would be a borough for every current incumbent who wants one. The new faces this spring, however, could include former police chief Bernard Parks and Villaraigosa, influential players who would have to be accommodated. If necessary, Hertzberg would bump the number of boroughs to 11. Even so, other obstacles remain.

By law, any reinvention this radical can't be submitted directly to voters. A commission must study the issue first. That risks encountering charter reform fatigue. Just a few years ago Angelenos witnessed the rivalry between elected and appointed charter commissions that led to a lackluster election. Still, Hertzberg says, "if you can get enough people who understand the fundamental problem, and you can get enough people to fund it and put it on the ballot, and get enough reform-minded people to run, then you can do it. But these are big ifs."

Boroughs, the most provocative of the ideas floating around, face competition for the hearts of the reform hungry. LaBonge, for one, insists that they would be no improvement on council districts. "I think of my district as a borough," he says.

He agrees that services should be administered closer to the people. In a place as spread out as Los Angeles, no one should have to go downtown to complain about trash or potholes. He tells the story of one highly placed bureaucrat in the Valley who did not recognize the initials of VICA, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a top lobbying arm in city hall. LaBonge says managers should know that stuff. "Just as we have community-based policing, I want community-based traffic engineers and park rangers and librarians," he says. Others urge patience with the neighborhood councils certified by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Though lacking formal powers, the councils are turning into a bold experiment in democracy with thousands of participating citizens. They have their finger on what goes on in their neighborhoods, a small pot of city funds to spend, and the standing to be a bully pulpit. The Woodland Hills council, for example, officially endorsed Valley secession.

Given the city's mood, pressure for other reforms is growing. Hahn, who owes his election to the West Valley precincts that supported secession, wants to give neighborhood councils more authority. A long shot is expanding the city council, recommended by both recent charter reform commissions. Chicago has 50 elected council members. Los Angeles has 15, each of whom serves 250,000 people. LaBonge says he favors a modest expansion, despite the conventional belief that asking voters to finance more politicians will never fly. Still, says his colleague Greuel, "the secession debate gave us an extraordinary opportunity to make change. Everything is on the table."

You can expect to see and hear more about boroughs and how L.A. is like (or not like) New York. Hertzberg, who isn't running for anything -- at least not yet -- is forming a think tank, L.A. Tomorrow, to help stoke interest. If anyone can schmooze boroughs onto the public stage, he's the one. "It's about vision," he says. "We have an underlying problem in Los Angeles, and this is the best way to fix it."

©Kevin Roderick 2003

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