East L.A. Unsettled

Posted on February 22, 2012 by

Moving to Los Angele more than 30 years ago, I recognized that I’d come to a very unsettled region.

Not just because of seismic activity (which I would experience first-hand the following decade when my family was forced to vacate our Northridge Earthquake-damaged apartment just north of the Santa Monica Freeway bridge collapse).

But – as I found out – Southern California was still configuring itself.  That Los Angeles County was comprised (before 1980) of 81 cities and still adding, very much contrasted with my years in the relatively static northeast: Brooklyn (more people than L.A. City and each borough its own county) and Vermont (where the entire state population of 626,000 could fit between Centinela and La Brea).

Now, I’m disappointed to report, L.A. County incorporations have ground to a halt.

After a flurry of new cities in the 80′s and early 90′s (Westlake Village, Agoura Hills, West Hollywood, Santa Clarita, Diamond Bar, Malibu and Calabasas) it’s been more than 20 years since Los Angeles County gave rise to a new municipality.

So I reacted with great anticipation when news broke a few years ago that unincorporated East L.A. was beginning its cityhood drive.

Seeking to free itself from the autocratic administration of  county supervisors, the 7.4 square mile area – bordered by L.A. City, Monterey Park, Montebello and Commerce – wanted self-rule for its mostly Latino population and businesses.

But it was not to be.

A few weeks ago, an obscure regulatory body – the Local Agency Formation Commission [LAFC] for the County of Los Angeles – crushed East L.A.’s dream.


Because the commercial centers of this zone (including Whittier and Cesar Chavez Boulevards) don’t generate sufficient tax revenue to support municipal services for the 126,000 residents in the unincorporated area.

It’s a shame because the city of East L.A. could have developed a unique brand, based on its demographics and distinctive neighborhoods.

Just as, in its own way, West Hollywood – dubbed by its promoters as the “Creative City” – makes use of its special history.

Squeezed between Beverly Hills and the Hollywood “neighborhood” in L.A., unincorporated West Hollywood had for several decades attracted as residents a large concentration of gay men eager to avoid the then highly homophobic and malicious LAPD; favoring the somewhat less aggressive gay-bashing of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

That cityhood drive got the green light from the LAFC (WeHo could boast an impressive tax base centered on upscale Santa Monica Blvd. shops) and won a big vote from gays, Soviet immigrants and elderly apartment dwellers (who now have the benefit of one of the strongest rent control ordinances in the state).

There is some slim hope that East L.A. cityhood can be kept alive though legislative action to bend LAFC requirements, but I won’t bother sorting out those politics here.

I will pose the question, though, of a “built-in” ethnic and economic bias:

Eligibility for new city charters favors areas comprised of (mostly) white and wealthy residents who do much of their shopping in nearby commercial squares.

And – as noted in the LAFC report – there just aren’t enough high-end and big box retailers in East L.A.

Comments (2)


  1. Vivian says:

    Thank you for discussing the class and race power that runs beneath the economic politics of Los Angeles. Maybe if we can reveal more of how that works, and how we can build another kind of power East LA, like other subordinated areas of the county, can organize themselves for independence.

  2. Cathy Deppe says:

    Thanks for adding clarity and important background to this L.A. newcomer! For some time now, folks have referred to East L.A., and I first thought it was a city on the map – until I couldn’t find it.

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