Divorce, L.A. Style

The San Fernando Valley was long America's iconic suburb. Starting with GIs who flocked to new tract homes after the second world war, the vast stretch of Los Angeles north of the Hollywood Hills was both a part of the city and an affordable, roomier mecca away from it. Cheap housing and good schools brought the new residents. But in the last 20 years, the Valley was besieged by crime, gangs, traffic and declining schools. Neighborhood activists blamed an unresponsive city government unwilling to restore suburban bliss. Some fled; others hid out in gated communities. The problems persisted. Now, frustrated Valley leaders have turned to a splashy, oh-so-L.A. solution: divorce.

The Valley wants out, and leaders there have petitioned an obscure government agency with a comedy-club acronym to call an election for November so Angelenos can decide whether this marriage can be saved. Taking the Valley's lead, two other sections--Hollywood and the harbor area--are petitioning LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) for elections that would split them from the city, too. If secession succeeds, a metropolis of 3.7 million could be sliced in half overnight. L.A. Mayor James Hahn, who calls the idea "harebrained," is scrambling to block the "recipe for disaster"--pledging to raise $5 million for an anti-secession media blitz. While secession movements have a history of falling short, observers think that if it works in the Valley, civic divorces might sweep the country like past California political fads. "This could be the Prop. 13 of secession movements," says Howard Husock of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

For decades feisty Valley homeowners have complained that city officials shortchanged their services to pay for the poorer parts of town. Shrink the city, and it can provide better service more cheaply, supporters say. "It's a local-control issue," says Jeff Brain, president of the grass-roots group Valley VOTE. Mayor Hahn says new cities would raise costs, leaving "fewer resources and fewer services" for everyone. Besides, his advisers say, voters lose interest once they learn the new cities won't gain control of the dysfunctional schools. "The more information people get, the less they like it," says Hahn consultant Bill Carrick.

A yes vote would vastly alter L.A. If the Valley left (which would require majority approval both in the area contemplating secession and citywide), what remained of Los Angeles would be knocked to third place in the nation, making Chicago the Second City once again. The Valley, with 1.35 million people, would become the nation's sixth largest city. Valley voters would also choose a new name. Among the selections: prosaic Valley City, exotic Rancho San Fernando or the improbable Camelot.

Early polls show pro-secession forces ahead, but the battles are just beginning. Advocates have reached out to L.A.'s black leaders, hoping to exploit tensions with Mayor Hahn to enlist support for the breakaway. But polling by secession's foes shows the real fight will be over white Democrats and Latinos--whose emerging majority in the city proper would become dominant overnight. Meanwhile the mayor's enemies are busy savoring a delicious possibility: if the harbor area voted to secede, Hahn would be forced to pack his bags just to remain in the city he governs.