LOS ANGELES - Since the 1920s, the white, block letter Hollywood sign perched high in the hills above Hollywood Boulevard has served as a landmark for the movie industry, but recently it has become a pawn in a political battle that could tear this town apart.
From one end of this sprawling 466-square-mile city to the other, secessionist fever is raging. Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and the San Pedro harbor area want to break away and form independent municipalities.
The state's Local Agency Formation Commission is analyzing the three secession plans and will decide whether they should appear on the November ballot. To gain independence, each proposal would need to win a majority of votes within that secession area and citywide.
The stakes are high for Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, and possibly for the country as well. Los Angeles would lose nearly half its population of 3.7 million to the breakaway cities. An independent San Fernando Valley would have 1.35 million residents, stretched over 222 square miles - nearly three times the area of Baltimore - and rank as the nation's sixth-largest city.
Tom Hogen-Esch, who teaches political science at California State University, Northridge, says secession fever is likely to become a national epidemic if Los Angeles breaks apart. People in affluent areas will use secession as an "empowerment strategy" to break away from their neighbors in poorer areas, he predicts.
Meanwhile, the secessionists in Hollywood and the Valley got a boost when the Local Agency Formation Commission recently reported that both of the proposed new cities would be financially viable. The harbor area's plan is still under review.
An independent Hollywood would have about 200,000 residents, a five-member city council and an anticipated budget of $176 million. But even if Los Angeles loses at the ballot box, it's not likely to give up one of the world's most famous landmarks without a fight.
The Hollywood sign, which sits on city-owned land in Griffith Park, stands 50 feet tall, 450 feet across and is visible for miles. It hasn't attracted this much contention in years. Not since 1932, when a distraught actress plunged to her death from the H. And not since 1976 when pranksters fooled with the sign to make it read HOLLYWEED.
Secessionists redrew the boundaries to include the sign in the new independent city of Hollywood. But Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge says he'll wage a legal battle to keep the sign if Hollywood secedes.
Secessionists want to take the "best" of Los Angeles and "throw away the rest," he says.
Gene LaPietra, president of the Hollywood Vote secession group, says the flap over the sign shows that Los Angeles elected officials are out of touch with political reality. The sign's location is the only claim they have to it. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce holds the sign's trademark rights and collects the licensing revenue it generates. "When we leave, we're taking the sign with us," LaPietra says.
All three secession campaigns carry the same message - Los Angeles is too big to be effectively governed by the mayor and the 15-member City Council. Consequently, neighborhood complaints about crime, grime, taxes and the delivery of other city services go unheeded.
"The issue is big government and neglect; we've had years of neglect, and we're not taking it anymore," says LaPietra, adding that thousands of tourists visit Hollywood each year, and many leave disappointed.
The days when movie stars roamed Hollywood's streets are long gone. Paramount Pictures is the only big studio remaining in Hollywood, and tourists who venture into some of its seediest neighborhoods are likely to encounter rundown apartment buildings, streetwalkers and folks who look like refugees from film noir.
LaPietra says smaller government is the remedy for Hollywood's problems and could help restore its old luster.
But Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn maintains that breaking up the city would create "more bureaucracy, more politicians, fewer resources and diminished services."
$5 million fight
Hahn spokesman Kam Kuwata says about $2 million has been raised to launch a TV ad campaign against secession in the fall. Hahn says the campaign intends to raise $5 million for the fight, but Kuwata doesn't rule out the possibility that more will be needed, "We'll raise what we need to win," he says.
Last summer, Hahn won a bitter race for mayor over a Latino opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, by drawing 60 percent of the white vote and 80 percent of the black vote. But his political base appears to be disintegrating as he moves into the secession fight.
Rep. Maxine Waters supported Hahn's mayoral bid but felt betrayed in February when he opposed the reappointment of black police Chief Bernard Parks. Waters says Hahn's credibility is shot in the black community and that he'll have to do more than run TV ads to win black votes in the secession fight.
Black community leaders are taking a serious look at secession. The Rev. Frederick O. Murph of Brookings AME Church has set up a committee to examine whether African-Americans would benefit from a smaller city.
"Jim Hahn has done us a favor. He's caused us to arise from our sleep," Murph says, noting that about 200 people turned out recently for the committee's first town hall meeting.
Meanwhile, Hahn has drawn the ire of valley secessionists, who supported his mayoral bid because they thought that he wouldn't campaign against secession.
"Hahn has a credibility problem," says Jeff Brain, the president of Valley Vote, the organization spearheading the valley's secession drive. "He said he wouldn't interfere with the process, he'd make Los Angeles so good, nobody would want to leave. He didn't say he'd spend $5 million to squash us."
Brain also says Hahn is playing hardball with water and power rates. A recent Local Agency Formation Commission report recommended that Los Angeles be forbidden from raising utility rates for a new valley city. But Los Angeles officials refuse to promise that they won't increase rates. "I think it's going to backfire," Brain says.
The valley is separated from downtown Los Angeles by the Santa Monica Mountains. It is separated from the rest of the world by a cultural chasm exemplified by the Valley Girl stereotype.
Hogen-Esch said the valley and Los Angeles were brought together in a "shotgun marriage" that's never worked very well.
In 1915, farmers in the valley joined the city to gain access to water in a city aqueduct that ran through the drought-stricken area. Los Angeles refused to give water to the farmers unless they came aboard.
The valley's first secession movement surfaced in 1920. Others arose over the years, sparked by anger over the city's failure to increase political representation and to address complaints over zoning, parking, traffic and other services. In the 1970s, valley homeowners played a key role in the battle to push back property taxes through Proposition 13 and to stop busing to integrate public schools.
In 1996, the secessionist group Valley Vote emerged.
"A lot of people in the valley woke up one day and said, 'Gee, what happened to our Leave It to Beaver community?'" Hogen-Esch says. "Some of these homeowners worried about their property values as they watched apartment buildings for low-income renters go up in their neighborhoods. And they imagined their neighborhoods turning into something resembling the inner city."
The disgruntled homeowners blamed the city for allowing the low-income housing to be built. And they looked to Los Angeles suburbs such as Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale, where exclusionary zoning has been used to keep out people who are considered undesirable, he says.
Jewish and Latino voters are likely to play a crucial role in the secession battle, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. The valley used to be known as an area for white conservatives who tended to vote Republican, but that's no longer true. Minorities, mainly Latinos, are in the majority, and there are many Jewish and Latino Democrats.
"It's likely that Jewish voters in the city would tend to vote against secession," Sonenshein says. "The unknown is Jewish voters in the valley who are less liberal than Jews who live on the west side of Los Angeles."
Sonenshein says secession would cut the Latino community in half just as it is picking up political power. "I'm not sure this will be perceived by Latinos as a good time to break up the city, just when they're coming into their own," he says.
Antonio Gonzalez, the president of the William Velasquez Institute of Public Policy, says secession is a double-edged sword for Latinos.
"With the valley gone, Latinos would account for 40 percent of the vote in Los Angeles, and that's critical mass to either elect a Latino mayor or to choose the mayor," he says. "But with that much of the tax base gone, the question becomes: 'Would you rather serve in heaven or rule in hell?'"
Joe Vitti, a member of Valley Vote's board, says secession is drawing considerable support from Latinos in the valley, especially those who live in "disadvantaged" neighborhoods that have been neglected by the city.
State Sen. Richard Alarcon, a Latino, has already expressed interest in running for mayor of the proposed valley city.
Battle in harbor area
The idea that smaller government is better government also is the driving force for the secession battle in the harbor area, which includes San Pedro, Wilmington and Harbor City.
San Pedro and Wilmington joined the city more than 90 years ago, lured by the promise that Los Angeles would develop a port and create a borough system, which would grant them semiautonomy. The borough system never materialized, and harbor area residents say they've been ignored since day one.
Andrew Rafkin, a member of the Harbor Study Foundation, which is pushing secession, points out that 26 miles separate San Pedro and City Hall. But the gulf between the city government and harbor area residents is much wider. He says the city has done little to protect homeowners' property values.
"This is the only area where as you get closer to the water, property values go down," he says.
Hahn and his sister, City Council member Janice Hahn, live in San Pedro. But Rafkin says their presence has done little to improve the quality of life for the area's 140,000 residents.
"Absolutely nothing has changed," Rafkin says. "They were supposed to be the white knights, but all they've done is a lot of talking and no action."