East L.A., Latino heartland, revives its dream of cityhood
More than 30 years after the last attempt, the chances of success seem higher.
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"Latinos are finding they need to rethink city and regional government because they finally have a seat at the table and have realized the table only has three legs," says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, an L.A.-based Latino policy think tank, and of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. "California is the test tube of America at the leading edge of demographic change. It's like a teaching college for the rest of the country."Skip to next paragraph
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Three previous efforts to create a city of East L.A. have failed. These go back to 1960 when proponents argued that cityhood would provide much needed representation for Mexican-Americans long marginalized from politics.
This time, there are several reasons to believe the timing may be right, says Tom Hogen-Esch, an associate professor of political science at California State University, Northridge. For one, California's Proposition 13 – which drastically cut property taxes in 1978 – means that business owners and homeowners know their property taxes cannot be raised in a new city without their consent.
Homeowner fears of higher taxes were cited as reasons for the idea's defeat in 1961, 1963, and again in 1974, when there was a growing Chicano Civil Rights Movement. At that time, there were no Latinos on either the L.A. County Board of Supervisors or the L.A. City Council. Now there are four on the City Council and one on the Board of Supervisors. The mayor is also Latino.
The latest effort, unlike previous ones, also has strong business, union, and political backing. A key subway extension to the area is expected to generate more commercial development and additional tax revenue. The neighborhoods also have begun to erase their reputation as gang-infested crime centers – perpetuated by popular films such as "Born in East L.A."
The downside of the timing, says Mr. Hogen-Esch, is that the unstable US economy that may make residents more averse to risk. A 1992 change in state law – requiring cities to pay counties any revenues lost by incorporation – has also slowed the number of communities incorporating statewide. Thirty-four cities were incorporated between 1980 and 1990, compared with just 11 in the following 18 years.
"If East L.A. decides to go ahead and incorporate, it would be a great model for many historically underserved communities," says Phoebe Seaton, program director of the Community Equity Initiative of California Rural Legal Assistance, a project examining infrastructure inequality among 220 unincorporated Latino communities in the state's Central Valley.
"More than 33 years after the last attempt, the political path for East Los Angeles cityhood appears to be more favorable," says Hogen-Esch. "It may be that this time around, widespread community and political support will finally trump economic fears. If so, look out Harlem – here comes East L.A."