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From the Field

Too big to last?
MEGACITY NIGHTMARES: The San Fernando Valley, home to 40 per cent of Los Angeles's population, has long complained about municipal neglect. This Tuesday, they vote on whether to separate from sprawling L.A. As JANE ARMSTRONG reports, the rally in the Valley may foreshadow fights to come in many supersized Canadian cities, including Toronto and Montreal. How large can a city get and still survive?
Saturday, November 2, 2002

Every morning on her way to church, Lupe Anguiano walks past a heap of trash. In less than a week, it has doubled in size. It sprouted when a family across the street deposited an old couch on the curb. City crews in this working-class area of the San Fernando Valley never picked it up. Soon, people were tossing mattresses and junked appliances onto the pile.

"I've been calling every day," says Ms. Anguiano, scowling at the debris from across the road.

Walking through her Van Nuys neighbourhood, a Latino and Asian enclave in the centre of Los Angeles's sprawling San Fernando Valley, the 73-year-old speaks for many residents, who complain that they have been alternately ignored and derided for decades by an indifferent city government.

At the end of Ms. Anguiano's street, in the searing California heat, a dumpster behind a fast-food mini-mall overflows with garbage bags. Even commercial trash pickup is sporadic. Complaints to city hall have gone unheeded. Ms. Anguiano worries that the open garbage will attract rats.

"This is what 40 years of neglect looks like," she says.

It's also what a region in revolt looks like. On Tuesday, a city-wide ballot will ask Los Angeles voters to decide if America's second-largest city should break up, with the Valley separating from L.A. and forming a city of its own. Secessionists have even provided a list of names -- Camelot, for one.

The area is home to nearly 40 per cent of L.A.'s 3.7 million people, but disgruntled citizens say services are substandard. The latest insult? L.A.'s vaunted $5-billion subway has just two stops in the Valley, which will gain its freedom if a majority of its own voters and of those across Los Angeles say yes on Tuesday. Polls indicate that most Valley dwellers are on-side, but not the rest of the city.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood area has its own, less convincing secession campaign on the ballot. And the harbour towns of Wilmington and San Pedro aren't there only because the state ruled they couldn't prove they would be fiscally viable as separate cities.

If you ask Joel Kotkin, Los Angeles has reached its breaking point. "No one can govern an area this big," says the senior fellow at Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute for Public Policy. "What you see is a system that is completely dysfunctional."

If successful, the Valley's bid could mark the first reversal of the recent trend toward merging suburbs and rural areas into major centres, creating amalgamated "megacities" in the name of cost savings and efficiency. In the past decade, many large Canadian cities were hitched with neighbouring municipalities, including Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, Quebec City, Hamilton, Kingston, Sudbury and Ottawa.

In California, Valley secessionists say their movement was spawned by a grassroots desire for a more hands-on municipal government. Those complaints resonate in Toronto. Five years after a bitterly fought battle over forced amalgamation, many residents of the Ontario capital say they have never felt so cut off or estranged from local government.

Some wonder if L.A.'s discontents might signal an end to the convention that a bigger city is a better city. Wendell Cox is a urban consultant based in St. Louis who advised Ontario against Toronto's expansion. He says he's not surprised at the uprising in the Valley. There's been a sea change in opinion about whether megacities are really the ne plus ultra in efficiency that their proponents make them out to be.

"Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 is about the optimal size for a city in terms of cost-effectiveness of services," Mr. Cox says. "I think the evidence is very clear that there are some very real problems with larger municipal government."

The San Fernando Valley was never Los Angeles's flashiest neighbourhood. Separated from the glamour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills by the Santa Monica Mountains to the south, it evolved into one of America's most recognized -- and derided -- suburbs, mocked for its cultural vacuity and white-bread racial homogeneity.

Actor Robert Redford, who grew up in Van Nuys, once described his hometown as "just this furnace that could destroy any creative thought that managed to creep into your mind."

Most of the city's big-ticket items -- the stadiums, concert halls and museums -- went to "the other side of the hill," as Valley residents call the rest of L.A. Still, the region's large, treed lots and affordable ranch-style bungalows attracted middle-class families, who settled in large numbers after the Second World War.

The lure of a bedroom community with a small-town feel next door to an iconic international city was as intoxicating as the scent of the Valley's orange groves.

But today, the Valley is built out, its cityscape a grid of long, straight boulevards lined by mini-malls, drive-thrus and ethnic diners. Many parts, especially Ms. Anguiano's neighbourhood, look tattered, even decrepit.

The Valley is more dense, and also more diverse than 40 years ago; its crime rates are higher and, along Van Nuys's streets, there there are as many potholes as palm trees. In office complexes, porn providers vie for space with tech startups.

In the L.A. press, the quest for cityhood is depicted as a services-and-governance issue. Nationally, it's described as a classic urban-suburban debate, with the Valley cast as the underdog battling a behemoth city. At other times, it seems journalists jump on the story as an opportunity to take cheap shots at the Valley: A tongue-in-cheek New York Times story argued in favour of cityhood by saying the region has a distinct culture -- the unique dialect spoken by Valley girls.

In fact, though, it takes only a few minutes on L.A.'s famed freeways to see why the city is tough to run. Spread across 465 square miles -- nearly twice the size of Toronto -- its millions of people are scattered across dozens of communities, from fogbound Venice Beach on the Pacific Ocean to the the semi-rural foothills of Angeles National Forest in the northeast.

No longer just a beacon for fame seekers, L.A. is among the most diverse cities in the world. At Hollywood High School, students chatter in dozens of languages, from Farsi to Mandarin.

And with all the city's meandering character, what does a single-family homeowner in suburban San Fernando Valley have in common with the mansion dwellers of Beverly Hills? Nothing, says Joel Kotkin, who frames the secession debate as an attempt to improve the quality of life in a large, diverse metropolis.

Valley secessionists say L.A. was never a "natural" city to start with, not in the classical sense of a central core surrounded by less-dense bedroom communities. Instead, spread across hundreds of square miles and situated in a semi-arid, Mediterranean-like climate, the city is a chain of disparate towns, connected by ribbons of freeways, that banded together in the early 20th century to secure reliable water.

By 1914, the city of Los Angeles had purchased all the surface water rights for the region, and later built the mighty Owens Valley aqueduct, which brought water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains 300 miles to the east. The San Fernando Valley, inhabited by a few hundred dry-land wheat farmers, had to join L.A. if it wanted access to the water. And so, after a referendum in 1915, it did.

"It was a shotgun marriage to begin with," says Richard Katz, a former state assemblyman who co-chairs the San Fernando Valley Independence Committee. So today's drive for independence isn't about unpaved potholes and substandard transit.

"This is about the democratization of municipal government," Mr. Katz says in an interview at his Ventura Boulevard office building. "We want to take back the power from 'over the hill.' "

The problem with L.A. today, the secessionists say, is simple. It's too big. Nothing about it is neighbourhood-driven or accessible. Even council meetings are conducted during business hours on weekdays, when most people are at work. Each of its 15 councillors represents more than 252,000 people, the size of a medium-sized city.

Mr. Katz, a graphic artist before he entered politics, said an independent Valley could better tend to local problems, such as fixing and policing its streets, building libraries and parks and improving public transit.

If the point of the secession threat was to make city leaders sit up and take notice, it has succeeded. Those who once dismissed the campaign as hot air are now alarmed at the prospect of losing their middle-class tax base. Mayor James Hahn has called the independence drive a "one-way ticket to financial disaster," warning that a divided L.A. will be weakened economically and politically. Nationally, it will drop to third-largest city, behind Chicago, and will lose clout and influence in Washington.

The mayor has enlisted big names such as retired basketball star Magic Johnson to sing the praises of a united L.A., in TV ads airing since late September. And across the city, there is hand-wringing and anger similar in tone to the anxiety among English Canadians before the 1995 Quebec referendum. As the ballot draws closer, the prospect of a broken city has spurred a notoriously indifferent citizenry into action.

"This is unbelievable," says Hollywood resident Walter Blackman, a retired high-school teacher who is opposed to both secession bids. "No major international city has ever experienced this kind of breakup. It's crazy."

The anti-secessionist strategy is two-pronged. First, be contrite about previous wrongs: Yes, L.A. may have ignored the Valley over the years -- it could have done a better job paving roads, providing transit and answering constituent complaints. But it vows to improve.

Then, on a more aggressive level, stake out a higher moral ground: City leaders accuse secessionists of being whiny and insular, uninterested in L.A.'s greater good. And they claim proponents are misleading voters about the true cost of separation.

"How is a new city supposed to start its own police department, its own fire department and do all the things it says L.A. isn't -- without reducing services?" asks Alex Padilla, president of L.A. city council.

Mr. Padilla represents the northeast Valley, a Latino neighbourhood that is also the poorest in the region. The secessionists "don't have a long-term plan," he complains. In his view, the Valley's low-income earners are better off in L.A. Only a city-wide government has the political will to redistribute wealth; initiatives such as rent controls and living-wage guarantees, Mr. Padilla warns, won't be available to residents of a new Valley city.

What's more, he says, a divorce would be messy, perhaps crippling. The Valley would face 20 years of alimony payments, calculated at $128-million (U.S.) in the first year, with the tab decreasing by only 5 per cent each subsequent year.

But those threats don't hold water with Ms. Anguiano. Van Nuys is still salvageable, she says, but it's sinking fast.

Developers are buying bungalows in the residential neighbourhood, demolishing them and erecting three-storey apartment blocks. Most are one- and two-bedroom units, designed for couples, but rented instead to large families. Within months, the apartments are in disrepair, their plumbing broken. Many are Latino families eager to get a toehold in the Valley, but still shut out of homeownership.

Ms. Anguiano says the apartment buildings should be condemned and programs set up to help struggling families buy homes, and only an independent Valley government will do it.

As for the city leaders: "When you get down to it, it's impossible to work with them," she says.

"This" -- and she points again to the junk pile across the street -- "is not their priority."

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, now a local columnist, can't help but give an "I-told-you-so" snort when he hears of turmoil in the land of supersized municipal government. Years after he left City Hall, Mr. Sewell was the populist leader of the campaign against Toronto's amalgamation.

Now, four years into the experiment, the so-called megacity has failed to produce the streamlined, cost-efficient services promised by proponents. Life in the overlooked San Fernando Valley, he says, sounds like life in post-merger Toronto: "There is nothing good about it."

Unlike state or provincial or federal governments, Mr. Sewell argues, city governments work best when its politicians and city staff are consulting non-stop with constituents. The previous system of Toronto government, with six separate municipalities combined with a regional Metro government to deal with transit and social services, was a model for the world.

"The two-tier system was really, really smart," he says. "It worked."

Veteran Toronto Councillor Jack Layton agrees, saying the Metro system nurtured Canada's largest city into an efficient metropolis, with robust neighbourhoods that each had a strong say in what happened on its streets.

The smaller cities, he says, were more democratic than the current megacity. "People used to say there were too many boards and committees and commissions in the old days," says Mr. Layton, who is now running for the federal NDP leadership. "Well, you can't have too many. The more times the citizenry is working directly with elected representatives, with members of the public service, the more information is transferred.

"What we do when we create these megacities is we strip off all the fine roots systems, the fine capillaries if you like, and we're left with this notion of efficiency that is just big pipes and the big structures. And the citizens have far less interaction with their government."

Critics like Mr. Sewell and Mr. Layton claim that large city governments are more likely to listen to lobbyists than residents, and are more prone to corruption because city contracts are so much more valuable.

A case in point is the current scandal in Toronto, in which a Mississauga lease-financing company was awarded a three-year, $45-million contract to upgrade the city's computers. Without council approval, the contract with MFP Financial Services became a five-year, $85-million contract. Police are now investigating.

The shock is fresher in Montreal. On Jan. 1 of this year, the Parti Québécois merged the 28 municipalities on Montreal Island, despite loud protests from the communities. Eleven months later, it is beset with scandals over the handling of new contracts. There are complaints that the administration is top-heavy with bureaucrats, and that residents can't get through to councillors.

But not everyone thinks cities need small governments to properly tend to their residents. Larry Bourne, a University of Toronto professor of geography and urban planning, says large cities by their very nature need big bodies of government, to fairly redistribute wealth and ensure that community centres, pools and schools get built in poor neighbourhoods.

"You can't do it with a whole bunch of little municipalities," Mr. Bourne says. "It would be chaos. The equity contrasts would be too great. Can you imagine? Some would have average incomes of millions. Some would have average incomes of zero."

Mr. Bourne says that since thriving cities, such as L.A., Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, are always growing, it is only natural the bodies that govern them grow as well. In a big, bustling city, it's unrealistic to pine for a system where you can meet face-to-face with a councillor any time and have an intimate discussion of civics.

"If you want to do that, it strikes me then you should be living in a small town," Mr. Bourne says. "You cannot run a metropolitan area the size of the big three Canadian ones . . . in which everyone has access to their local politicians. You simply can't do it."

It's early evening on trendy Franklin Avenue in downtown Hollywood. Inside a narrow, storefront gallery, some men and women nibble cheese squares and sip herbal tea as the afternoon sun sinks in the hazy, orange sky. They're busy professionals who live and work in Hollywood, and they hate the idea of Los Angeles breaking apart.

Like many L.A. residents, none of them was too interested in city politics until they learned last spring that secessionist questions had garnered enough signatures to make it onto Tuesday's ballot. But now that their city is in danger of busting apart, they're coming out of the woodwork to help save it.

These are people who like L.A.'s sprawl, in which neighbourhoods shift and transform almost overnight, depending on immigration waves or the whim of fashion. Those characteristics helped make it the trendsetting capital of the world. They don't trust secessionists -- in the Valley or Hollywood, which they see as mostly well-off communities trying shirk the responsibilities of sharing urban costs.

"I moved here in 1976 because I wanted to live in an international city," says the gallery's owner, Susan Polifronio, who was a nurse in her former life in suburban San Francisco. "L.A. isn't just Hollywood. The whole package -- the beach, the mountains, the Valley -- that's what I came here for."

The gallery group does credit the secessionists with forcing L.A. to confront the disaffection in the Valley. Russell Brown, a medical-equipment salesman, said city leaders have to attend to neighbourhood problems before they become divisive crises. "You don't just walk away when you have problems." And that's just what Mayor Hahn has promised to do.

Still, recent polls show the cityhood option gaining ground in the Valley, where 57 per cent said they would vote for it. In the rest of Los Angeles, 69 per cent say they're in favour of a united L.A. That should be good news for city leaders, but they're hoping to knock out the secessionist drive in the Valley by ballot day. Anything less means the issue will resurface again.

Meanwhile, Joel Kotkin says the time for talk has passed. After the ballot, the Davenport Institute fellow says, L.A. will go back to its old ways -- city leaders won't ever respond to Valley needs, because they don't have to. As a compromise, he is advocating a borough-styled system similar to New York's.

Others say the debate only amounts to growing pains. Writer D.J. Waldie notes that Los Angeles is fully built out now, and there's no land left to escape to. The California dream of a big house with a yard of lemon trees no longer comes guaranteed, says the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.

In this new context, Mr. Waldie says, the secessionist movement is a conservative, rear-guard action aimed at preserving a 1950s mode of life that bears little resemblance to the current L.A. In the future, the city will make more demands on its citizens, piling on density and requiring them to be weaned off their cars.

"It will be operated by different rules," Mr. Waldie says. "But it won't work better if it's broken into parts."

Like the Franklin Avenue gallery crowd, he wants the whole city to recognize that its size gives it power and influence, providing a hub for economic and creative refugees from around the globe.

By contrast, he says,Valley secessionism reduces citizenship to crass consumerism. "As citizens, we're called to take on the burden of the history of the place in which we live," Mr. Waldie says. "This is difficult for the people of L.A. to accept. Citizenship implies a sharing of a common history, not a consumer demographic. . . . And I can't opt out of the history and burdens of citizenship simply because I would prefer a different service provider."

As a philosophy, Mr. Waldie adds, secessionism is a dead end. "If it's merely identity, this sense of selfhood, there there's no end . . . until there are cities of one. It's me against the world."
Jane Armstrong, who is now a member of The Globe and Mail's British Columbia bureau, covered the Toronto megacity debate for The Globe.

The San Fernando Valley's image has crested and crashed over the past century. The Valley cityhood movement is its attempt at a comeback.

In the early 1900s, it was a rural haven for farmers and fruit growers, but by the Second World War, it was a refuge for movie stars, such as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz lived on Devonshire Street, not far from the ranches of Barbara Stanwyck and Zeppo Marx, James Cagney and William Holden.

By the 1960s, most stars had moved to Malibu and Beverly Hills, and the Valley became perhaps the defining American suburb, characterized by mini-malls and tract housing. It was mocked for its heat, smog -- and, of course, the grating dialect of its teenage girls. Its 818 area code is the least fashionable one in L.A., a place where area codes really mean something.

"L.A. is surrounded by valleys, but there's only one Valley. And to everybody who lives on the other side of the hill from it, it's a standing joke," novelist Peter Israel wrote in Hush Money.

But nowhere is the snickering louder than in the Valley itself. When the L.A. Times' Valley edition asked readers to suggest ideas for a new name in the event the Valley ever became a city, nominations included: Minimallia, McValley, Beige-Air, Valle de Nada and Ranchos de los Ranchos.

Some other assessments of Valley culture:
"Cleveland with palm trees." Bob Hope defines "San Fernando Valley."
"Endless scorched boulevards." Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby: "If there is a river within 1,000 miles of Riverside Drive, I never saw it. It's like everything else out here: Endless scorched boulevards, lined with one-storey stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, tacos drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids."
"Don't get 818 on me." Actress Sarah Polley to a whining girlfriend in the film Go.
"Pornadelphia." "Off-Ramp Acres, Asphalt-By-The-Sea, Smogadena, Newer Jersey Unknown Actorville, Hellholia": Jay Leno's names for a Valley city.
"Dormitory suburb." Historian Kevin Starr in the L.A. Times, 1998: "Detached from Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley would not become a great city, but a dormitory suburb pretending to have achieved urban status: a community whose signature cultural contribution, at least in terms of gross revenues, would be pornography."
Home sweet movie star. Carole Lombard, wife of Clark Gable, 1942: "Clark and I have fallen in love with the Valley. This is our home, and we're here to stay."
"Scurvy." Vic Daniel, the private detective in a series of books by David M. Pierce, is based in "that scurvy part of California known as the San Fernando Valley" where the smog settles in "like cheap hairspray on a home permanent."
Lee Marvin country. "I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the Valley." -- Lee Marvin, accepting Oscar for Cat Ballou in 1966.
David Lynch territory. Sandra Tsing Loh in her 1997 novel If You Lived Here, You'd be Home by Now: "No. 23511 Colton Place was more David Lynch than Frank Zappa. It was the sort of place where a querulous old woman with an eye patch would live with her inbred adult son, Hank, clad in a big old diaper. It was the kind of place you saw featured on A Current Affair."
Uninspiring ethnic food. Sandra Tsing Loh, again: "What inspires some folks to relocate halfway around the world to the San Fernando Valley in order to feed bad food on paper plates to their own people?"

Source: The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb, by Kevin Roderick.

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