On November 5, residents of Los Angeles, California will decide whether the large, northern part of the city, the San Fernando Valley, should secede from the rest of Los Angeles and form its own, independent city. If the referendum on Valley secession and a similar one for the city's Hollywood community pass, Los Angeles would lose more than 40 percent of its residents and become America's third-largest city, placing it behind New York and Chicago.
In turn, the San Fernando Valley, with 1.3 million residents, would become the sixth largest city in the United States, larger than Boston, Massachusetts and Detroit, Michigan. Los Angeles could also lose about half its land size, since the San Fernando Valley measures about 575 square kilometers. One Los Angeles official quipped, "The only secession near this size that's ever been done in this country was called the Civil War."
Proponents of the secession effort say that the sprawling city of Los Angeles is unwieldy, with a mayor and city government that doesn't care about the San Fernando Valley. The relatively wealthy Valley residents say they want to keep their tax revenue within their community and not "waste" it on the urban ills of Los Angeles. The secession movement has also brought up the usual debates over the quality of schools in the areas, political support for Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, and the shifting of ethnic majorities. The Valley now has about an equal number of Hispanic and Caucasian residents, whereas the current city of Los Angeles has a substantial plurality of Hispanics.
The growth of the San Fernando Valley as part of the city of Los Angeles got its start in 1913 with a bold move by city water engineer, William Mulholland. He brought water from central California's Owens Valley to the Valley, making the huge area livable. Historians believe that, were it not for Mulholland's water-engineering feat, Los Angeles would never have become an international-scale city. Indeed, some have described William Mulholland as the "father" of modern Los Angeles. For many in Los Angeles, Mulholland is best known as the name of the road which forms something of a dividing line between the San Fernando Valley and the rest of the city of Los Angeles.
Perhaps no one in Los Angeles is watching the secession effort with as much interest as Catherine Mulholland. At 79, Catherine Mulholland still recalls her legendary grandfather talk about the colorful history of early Los Angeles. She lives on the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley, but says that she still retains a strong bond to the city that William Mulholland helped create.
Mulholland: "You ask me about secession; I'm terribly opposed to it. It's ironic because my mother's people are third-generation Valley people. My great-grandparents at the time after the Civil War, were early homesteaders in this part of the country. They were delighted and eager to annex to the city of Los Angeles almost 100 years ago for water. Simply for water. When it's dry here in the Valley and this is something the secessionists haven't come to terms with, because the Pueblo rights still exist in L.A., L.A. spent years in the courts establishing its paramount Pueblo rights to the water. All the underground and the surface waters. That's a large bone of contention.
"As a child of the San Fernando Valley, and having grown up on a large ranch when this Valley was still agricultural before World War II, I always felt connected to the downtown. That's where you had to go for your goods and services. Oh, you could get some things out here, but if you wanted a really nice dress for the senior prom, you went to Hollywood or into L.A. Doctors, specialists, good hospitals. So, I never felt divided. I'm aware there are people in the San Fernando Valley today, who live in suburbs who rarely ever go to downtown. They don't feel connected. Having lived in New York City, I was astounded to meet people in Greenwich Village who had never been to the Bronx. People get hunkered in their own neighborhoods and don't travel very far.
"These are issues that I realize I view as an old-timer. But I think it would be a dreadful mistake to break up a large unit. I can't see any virtue coming from it. I love the quote a woman made after the 1967 Watts riots, she said, 'Don't move. Improve.' I feel that, if the Valley is so discontented or has such problems, alright, we'll come to grips with those and improve them. But, I frankly, find some of the arguments rather ephemeral and nebulous. I don't understand how we have been dealt out in any important way."
Kuo: "From a few people I've spoken to about this issue, some dislike Mayor Hahn, some talk about the schools, and others are worried if the Valley secedes, then Hollywood will be the next in line. Where does it end?"
Mulholland: "The point is well taken. Where does it end? If you just keep breaking up the city smaller and smaller, you end up with a lot of petty kingdoms that would replicate a lot of the problems they're already complaining about. Just breaking off from a large school system isn't going to automatically produce better schools. I don't think the root problems are dealt with.
"It's a little like the teenager who wants to leave home and get away from the constraints of his parents and be free. But he wants mom and dad to send the allowance, the monthly check, to see him through! I feel we haven't faced the reality of what it means to break out and exist as entity. There are many complex issues that will confront any Valley city, whatever that would consist of."
Kuo: "As a member of a prominent family in Los Angeles, is your voice being heard?"
Mulholland: "I don't think my voice is being heard. I have written letters to the editor and none of them have been published. I can tell you that! The Los Angele Times has been a little derelict in dealing with this issue. And the Daily News has been biased in favor of secession that, I don't think they would print a letter that I would write. I have talked with some of the city council members to express my opposition. But I don't think I've become a poster child or a poster senior for it! But I certainly would voice my opposition if given the opportunity."
Kuo: "I think they should listen to you."
Mulholland: "Thank you."