Recently, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 711 making available a $45,000 loan to proponents, the East Los Angeles Residents Association (ELARA) for use in the current effort to make East Los Angeles (ELA) a city. A fact unknown to most, ELA is actually an “unincorporated” area of Los Angeles County. Despite several past failures back to 1961 that Latino dream of city hood doesn’t seem to want to die. Or does it?

In many ways it is a “tale of two non-cities” for the community as debates rage on between those who see city hood as a viable and deserved bridge to the future and those who seek to preserve the cultural meaningfulness that ELA represents.

For example, at a recent sparsely attended “community meeting” over the conversion of the long-abandoned Golden Gate Theater in ELA into a CVS pharmacy with alcohol sales, that tug-of-war was evident when the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA), a non-profit environmental justice organization in East LA, argued against the CVS pharmacy because it deems it a poor cultural use of this historical complex, while ELARA argued for it, not surprisingly, because it would mean critical revenue for any future city of East Los Angeles.

No doubt, our past guides and empowers us. Yet, when we myopically cling too hard to the past, we risk becoming a “closed system,” an entity that allows very little beneficial exchange with its environment and, thus, becomes stale only to suffocate itself. Perhaps our internal crisis of direction is best viewed in the context of the many issues that truly plague ELA and which, ostensibly, are a call for serious changes.

Why change? If we have any real desire to prosper as a community, we must change. Yes, some would like things to continue as they have for decades, to go on with a “wild, wild east” mentality where rules are few and anything goes. In reality, we are in deep trouble. Our problems are many and few solutions reach fruition because of that great divide that pits us against each other and thins our collective power.

If “place matters” in the overall success, health, and well being of an individual from birth to death, then consider what the following statistics tell us about life in East LA as compared to another local but more fortunate community …

Public records show that one square mile of unincorporated ELA has on the average when compared to one square mile of the city of Malibu about 28 times the number of registered sex offenders, 7 times the number of murders, and 27 times the number of dog bites since 2007. In addition, ELA drinking water has been tainted with manganese, a potential neurotoxin, for years at levels exceeding the standards while Malibu has not. Further, ELA is a very densely populated area in desperate need of new housing. Unfortunately, the county does not even routinely track the number of single-family dwelling units being built, probably because construction is stagnant and not a priority. In Malibu, new homes are being built.

ELARA has succeeded at raising funds to push through a formal “comprehensive fiscal analysis” (CFA) to be done by a consultant as a formal, county-required, economic audit of ELA to determine if it would be viable as a city.

However, what it may show is that there remain serious concerns and uncertainties about the feasibility of our community to make it as a city as things stand now given the extreme pressures on most cities because of the protracted, poor economy. The timing may be bad for incorporation. In fact, the League of California Cities has stated that estimates are “grim for property and sales tax,” both key city revenues. The City of Bell’s recent announcement that it is becoming a “100% contracted” city to cut costs further illustrates the challenges nowadays to being a city.

Consider that in the short four-mile strip of Whittier Boulevard, a major thoroughfare running through ELA between Indiana Street and Garfield Avenue, there are approximately 40 hair salons/barber shops, 16 auto insurance stores, 12 mobile phone retailers, 10 bakeries, and 6 “botanicas”!

Can such a “mix” of businesses adequately sustain profitability to serve those businesses or the municipal revenues that a future city would rely on? These days in ELA that is debatable. Then again, C.K. Prahalad, a business guru, once said that “poverty is not stupidity; poverty is lack of opportunity.”

So we in ELA ought best ask ourselves relevant questions in order to forge the right “opportunities”… like do we really need another taco venue or another used car dealership in East LA?

If city hood can get us to that “better place” we seek, perhaps it’s a debate we must not take lightly. No doubt, economics will be critical in determining if ELA can make it as a city. So it behooves us to keep an open but balanced perspective when evaluating the issues.

— C.J. Salgado, MBA

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