Beyond the Valley: Demography, Failed Secession and Urban Politics in San Fernando Valley

a Memorial Day Parade float sponsored by Valley VOTE, who led the campaign for the San Fernando Valley to secede from Los Angeles | Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
A Memorial Day Parade float sponsored by Valley VOTE, who led the campaign for the San Fernando Valley to secede from Los Angeles | Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

When one thinks of San Fernando Valley, visions of ranch home subdivisions, shopping malls, and valley girls bound about the mind. In the second episode of season three of Entourage, “A Day in the Valley”, Vince and his idiot chorus get trapped in SFV during a debilitating heat wave that threatens to undermine the success of his big action feature “Aquaman.” The tone of despair present in the crew’s intonation of “the Valley” says it all. More recently, the Comedy Central series “Workaholics” depicted the travails of three white stoners devoid of ambition, but not bong hits. Does anyone even remember the dizzy, faux documentary stylings of the 1990s Showtime series “Sherman Oaks”? In general, the sense one gets from popular culture is the Valley as a bastion of suburban whiteness and a certain level of malaise.

However the current reality of San Fernando Valley, like its Orange County cousin, differs from such stereotypes. In 2002, Latinos made up roughly 43 percent of the Valley. These numbers have remained similar: as of 2012 approximately 42 percent identified as Latino, while Asians made up another 12, and African Americans almost 5 percent. As is true in much of urban America, SFV’s rising Latino population promises to greatly alter the suburb’s politics, adding further complexity and dynamism to the Valley’s circumstances. Few events reveal the impact of shifting SFV demographics like the unsuccessful 2002 secession referendum which, even though it ended in failure, revealed startlingly new political currents in the Valley.

“The Valley was a metropolitan paradox: an archetypical postwar suburb located within the limits of the nation’s second largest city,” notes historian Michan Andrew Connor in a recent article for the Journal of Urban History. Connor and Yale’s Laura Barraclough have pointed out that the Valley’s identity lay in a “culturally imagined rural past” that stood at odds with its perception of an expanding Los Angeles.1

To be fair, San Fernando Valley has ridden the secession hobby horse for over three decades. In 1977, a failed attempt to secede from Los Angeles proper resulted in L.A.’s delegates to the state legislature closing the loopholes that had allowed for the effort in the first place. Valley residents drew sharp distinctions and complained that their taxes went disproportionately to public services that SFV residents did not use. Many SFV leaders believed that downtown interests unfairly outweighed them politically in municipal debates. When the pro-secession group Committee Investigating Valley Independent City Council (CIVICC) formed in 1977, business leaders stood at the heart of its effort to break away from the city, but they failed to bridge the divide with homeowners who worried about industrialization, pollution, and other practices that threatened property values and public health. Needless to say, the secession movement never achieved its goal, but it did set in motion the machinery for future efforts.

Twenty years later conservative stalwart Tom McClintock and Assembly member Spencer Hertzberg managed to ferry a bill through the state legislature that opened the door for new dreams of secession; mobilization followed. The Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment (VOTE) formed to take up the mantle of an independent Valley. VOTE fundraised, lobbied elected officials, petitioned, and carried on a consistent public relations beat advocating for independence. By 1998, polls reported that 60 percent of Valley residents supported secession, compared with only 47 percent citywide. Four years later VOTE mounted a new campaign for Valley independence when Prop F appeared on the 2002 election ballot.

Map of proposed San Fernando Valley Secession | Image: LA Almanac/Valley VOTE
Map of proposed San Fernando Valley Secession | Image: LA Almanac/Valley VOTE

Yet by then, many things about the Valley had changed. Economic fortunes turned a bit gloomy when the Van Nuys General Motors factory closed shop in the 1990s and the aerospace industry shed 60,000 jobs in Southern California. Poverty rates in the Valley shot up, even outpacing the city. The dominant image of white middle class San Fernando Valley made appealing for help an exercise in public disbelief.

However slowly, the Valley had been changing for decades, though admittedly many of these developments seemed almost imperceptible in the face of pop culture images that sketched its communities in monolithic terms. In the 1950s, Los Angeles’ Jewish population first cracked the Valley’s Christian all white facade, followed by greater numbers of Asians, Latinos, and to a lesser extent, African Americans. Resistance to integration in the Valley never reached the levels of violence that unfolded in places like Leimert Park, or the then working class white communities bordering South Central, though between 1950 and 1959 seventeen percent of “housing incidents” as reported by the County Commission on Human Rights occurred in the Valley, mostly in working class Canoga Park. During the same period Los Angeles County recorded six bombings and four cases of arson elsewhere; Valley residents closed ranks, but the level of physical violence never reached that of other communities in the county.2

None of this is to exonerate many Valley residents of the day. The aeronautics and defense industry workers that populated large swaths of SFV defended their communities from integration, but benefited from the remote location of these workplaces. The regional director of the President’s Committee on Government Contracts told officials that companies could achieve a segregated workplace without “intentional discrimination,” since government contractors often lived in areas where blacks could not secure housing. This enabled companies to simply claim that they failed to hire African American workers because none lived in proximity to firms. Lockheed Martin research engineer Preston Morris embodied this discrepancy. Despite a Masters degree in physics from Howard University, Morris found his efforts to purchase a Valley home for himself and his wife continually blunted. Rolling Greens Vista Estates, an early planned Valley community, Northridge, and Sherman Oaks all deployed means to prevent Morris from becoming a homeowner. “Most of my encounters in the Valley,” he told federal officials in 1960, “have not been [met] with success. We are still looking and have yet to find accommodations.”3

Predictably, many white SFV residents openly questioned integration. “Do they want to live next to colored people? Do they want to pay high taxes as we are paying in the Valley to keep a higher class of people …” asked Marguerite Herrick of North Hollywood. “[W]ill they reduce the value of our property when they let the colored people come in? No I dare say that not one of them would care to live next to a colored person … We don’t have any grievances to the colored people, but let’s just keep them out of the Valley.”4

Often resistance emerged in blue collar communities, where residents lacked the income to move elsewhere, unlike other whites who moved further west. Conflict flared in previously integrated neighborhoods where whites felt particularly threatened due to changing demographics. Pacoima, due to the Valley’s economic history as an agricultural region and the arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s, had a long history as an integrated community particularly because of Japanese and Mexican workers. By the 1950s, this included over 7,000 black residents. Yet, when government contract worker Mr. Emory Holmes and his family purchased a new home in Pacoima’s white section, residents responded with harassment. They crank called pool installers, Los Angeles Times carriers, insurance salesmen, car repair services, and a host of others in the Holmes’ names. Worse, after an evening out, the family returned to broken windows, tacks in the driveway, and graffiti that announced, “Black cancer here. Don’t let it spread!” 5 Even the white man who sold his home to the Holmes found himself persecuted as he was fired from his aerospace engineering job and faced pickets and protesters when he took residence in his new Northridge home.

In contrast, Mexican Americans had begun to move into Pacoima’s white areas with more success and less controversy. 6 In the ensuing decades the process accelerated. By 2002, the Latino population had risen to 43 percent, and whites found themselves a minority in the East Valley. Northridge and Sylmar eventually became open to black residents by the 1970s. 7 Between 1980 and 1990, the white population in the Valley overall declined by 42,000. 8

Photo: Patch
Photo: Patch

Many white residents responded to the changes with open regret. “[T]he vast majority of the people who have been here from 10, 15, 20 years would move out if they could [because of] overdevelopment, overcrowding, too many apartments and far too many undocumented illegal aliens,” said Donald Schultz, President of the Van Nuys Homeowners Association, and later a founding member of VOTE, to the Los Angeles Times in 1991. 9 The newspaper’s poll of residents turned up evidence of fear and economic resentment. Gangs and crimes worried residents, and many believed that the city spent public coin in the wrong districts.

As VOTE built its case for secession in the late 1990s, Latino and African American groups pushed them for an explanation as to why minority communities should back a secession movement that had clear ties to homeowner associations that had historically worked to exclude non-white property owners. At a 1998 public forum, Latino American Civic Association member Irene Tovar asked VOTE leaders to tell minority communities just “how we would be better off as a city?” Challenges came again at a January 1999 NAACP meeting and VOTE leaders still had not answered the question. The reality, VOTE leaders slowly realized, was that they needed a supermajority to win secession to overcome citywide opposition. That made one thing clear: “You lose the Latino vote and you lost the vote you need to make secession happen.” 10

With the help of Ellen Michiel, a West Valley Laguna Valley CDC leader, and local academics like Cal State Northridge economist Shirley Svorny, VOTE began crafting an appeal that distanced themselves from HA’s and attempted to draw in Latino voters with a “rising tide raises all boats” pitch. Supporters like Michiel cautioned VOTE leaders to consider their message and its broader appeal to working class and non-white residents. “When this community, and its non-profits, look at the leadership of the secession movement … they see people who have opposed low income housing in their communities, supported Prop 184,” and had achieved or attempted very little in regard making adequate “provision[s]” for the Valley’s poorer residents. 11

To bridge this divide, Michiel, Svorny and others used race neutral ways of taking about community agency. VOTE promoted local control, reduced government, “and community empowerment as means by which all valley residents might demand and receive greater recognition and service from local government in a new city.” 12 Svorny also convinced leaders to downplay the argument that Los Angeles pilfered tax money from SFV by disproportionately providing services to other parts of the city. According to her analysis, the Valley paid for 31.5 percent of city taxes and consumed nearly 30 percent of its services which, when weighed with administrative costs, hardly looked like exploitation. 13 In sum, she and VOTE leaders argued, the disadvantaged had the most to gain.

As Connor points out, color blind discourse proved critical in appealing to the Valley’s Latino electorate, even if race and ethnicity issues bubbled beneath the surface. The 2002 Prop F secession movement built an unprecedented coalition that bonded homeowners and business interests, and capitalized on disappointment with the state of city affairs. The 1992 riots and the botched attempts at recovery had left many Valley residents distrustful of municipal government. VOTE’s ability to offer a message emphasizing “universal principles of procedural justice,” namely greater control over municipal services and adequate political representation, “rather than promising particular outcomes,” never saying who would necessarily control this new machinery, attracted a diverse crowd, certainly not the lily white images that usually defined the Valley.

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn leads an L.A. United demonstration against Valley secession at Lake Balboa, 2002 | Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn leads an L.A. United demonstration against Valley secession at Lake Balboa, 2002 | Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The Valley’s growing Latino community, its most potent voting block outside of the white electorate, stepped gingerly toward the debate, understandably skeptical of motives and outcomes. “We are very wary of seceding when we see who is leading the march,” MAPA leader Xavier Flores remarked. 14 Latino leaders remembered 1994’s controversial Prop 187 that imposed harsh measures on undocumented residents. Two of the initiatives’ strongest supporters were Valley districts: L.A.’s Third and Twelfth. Eventually repealed, the measure stung Southern California’s Latino American community, and the Valley’s full throated support did not sit well with such observers. Remarks like those by founding member Donald Schultz, quoted earlier, served as evidence of the kind of mistrust that some Latino American leaders felt toward secession, and the need for VOTE to craft a “colorblind” appeal to the Valley’s increasingly diverse electorate.

Still, no community is monolithic. While Flores and others refused to trust VOTE and Prop F, other Valley Latinos viewed secession not as a power grab by a diminishing white population, but an opportunity to simultaneously service their careers and communities. Numerous young Latino American politicians threw their support behind the movement. Getting on the ground floor of a new municipality with a large Latino population promised the chance at the proverbial political brass ring and the opportunity to lead an oft ignored community into the brand new doors of city hall. MAPA’s national office supported secession even if Flores and the local Valley chapter refused too. Briefly, supporters of the national organization threatened to form a splinter chapter that supported Prop F. 15

In the end, the secession vote failed. Citywide, voters rejected the proposal by nearly 67 percent, and even in the Valley the initiative won a slim majority, 50.7 percent, but not because SFV Latino voters failed to support it. In fact, Valley Latinos supported the secession movement two times more than their ethnic peers across the metropolis, and proportionately equal to Valley Anglos. Rather a push by Mayor James Hahn and various unions organized “One L.A.” to fight the referendum. A pre-election mailer, featuring comments by L.A. Fire Department Chief and Valley homeowner, William Bamattre, argued that secessionists could not guarantee that the new city would be able to deliver the same level and quality of services. Combined with post-9/ll sentiment regarding firefighters, worries about taxation, public safety, and quality services undercut secession proponents.

Unfortunately some secessionists returned to old habits. The Valley Independence Committee (VIC), a spin off of VOTE, reverted to coded racial appeals in the last moments of the campaign. An eleventh hour mailer effort played on past Valley opposition to busing and concerns about access to quality public schools, which framed the problem in terms of white political advantage and school privilege, rather than concern about the Valley’s most disadvantaged or vulnerable students, notably its Latino adolescents. 16

In the end, the failure of the 2002 Valley secession vote hardly negates its importance. If anything, VOTE and referendum F demonstrates how complex urban politics in Los Angeles, and eventually across the U.S., have become. The intersection of race, class, and ethnicity, outside of simply white – black binaries, greatly complicates debates. As the old adage goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but the 2002 secession movement tells us something different. One group’s treasure can also be another’s, but perhaps what that treasure is and what it means for individuals and their communities is not.


1 Laura R. Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011); Michan Andrew Connor, “‘These Communities Have the Most to Gain from Valley Cityhood'”: Color Blind Rhetoric of Urban Secession in Los Angeles, 1996-2002,” Journal of Urban History 40 No. 1 (January 2014): 48 – 64
2 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 103-104
3 Ibid, 86-87.
4 Sides, L.A. City Limits, 101-104.
5 Ibid, 104-105.
6 Ibid, 104.
7 Sides, L.A. City Limits, 193.
8 Michan Andrew Connor, “‘These Communities Have the Most to Gain from Valley Cityhood'”: Color Blind Rhetoric of Urban Secession in Los Angeles, 1996-2002,” Journal of Urban History 40 No. 1 (January 2014): 54.
9 Ibid, 54.
10 Ibid, 57.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid, 58.
14 Ibid, 56.
15 Ibid, 59.
16 Ibid, 59 – 60.