The Phantom Cities of L.A. County

Inside The Bunker
Inside The Bunker | Photo: djwhalen/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The salamander-shaped City of Industry reclines along the 60 Freeway between El Monte and Diamond Bar, much more a place of business than a community. Industry has only 88 registered voters and less than 225 residents.

Like Vernon, Industry is a phantom municipality, created by lax state laws and with the thinnest veneer of civic legitimacy. As Ben Baeder reported in a recent San Gabriel Valley Tribune investigative series (here and here), the last time Industry conducted a city council election was in 1998. In the 30 years between 1962 and 1994, just one election was held. One council member's place on the city council was previously occupied by his father and his grandfather before him.

Baeder also found that four city council members and the city manager live in houses administered by a city-controlled housing authority. Other city employees are similarly housed and pay suspiciously low rents.

The inbred Industry city council controls a budget of nearly $250 million and a growing amount of developable land outside the city's boundaries, a situation that troubles officials in the cities where Industry has recently planted its flag. Industry also has a cozy relationship with Ed Roski's Majestic Realty, which leases city owned land on suspiciously easy terms.

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But as a spokesman for the District Attorney's Public Integrity Division noted, it's not a crime to make bad business decisions. When the District Attorney investigated Industry three years ago, there was no sign of the bribe taking that brought down Cudahy council members or the questionable salary arrangements that are forcing a measure of reform in Vernon.

No indictments followed the investigation, but "(t)here were a lot of strange things" Baeder was told.

There are many strange things about the county's phantom cities, which include some (like Vernon, Industry, and Commerce) that shelter slaughterhouses and metal fabricating shops from the zoning regulations and business taxes of a big city like Los Angeles. But there are residential phantoms, too, designed to shut out the disagreeable masses of Los Angeles. Rolling Hills, with a population of less than 2,000, has no commercial infrastructure at all behind its guarded gates. Hidden Hills has less than 2,000 residents and is fully gated, too. The mostly gated city of Bradbury, where the average home costs $4.2 million, has hardly 1,000 residents.

For decades, state law required a threshold of just 500 residents before they could seek cityhood. The current threshold is 500 registered voters, a standard implying about 1,000 residents (a standard that would prevent most of the county's phantom cities from incorporating today). But state law is silent on what should happen if the number of registered voters falls below 500. An effort to disincorporate nearly voter-free Vernon failed in the state legislature in 2011.

Equally strange in its own way has been the fate of East Los Angeles, an unincorporated community beyond Boyle Heights with about 130,000 mostly Latino residents. East Los Angeles isn't a city because county officials question the ability of its working-class residents to pay for municipal services like law enforcement, trash collection, and street sweeping. Cities, it seems, make fine shelters for industrialists and their cronies and a few of the worried wealthy but blue-collar Angeleños can be denied for decades.

Bradbury, Hidden Hills, and Rolling Hills are antiques, stranded in the past. Cityhood (with its risk of political change) has been replaced by the stringencies of homeowner associations and their development restrictions. There's no need anymore to incorporate a residential enclave to shut the gates on the city outside.

Industry and Vernon, however, have no business still being cities. The state Legislature should complete the process of disincorporating Vernon along with the other industrial bunkers, convert each of them into an enterprise zone overseen by the Board of Supervisors, and end the rule of petty oligarchs in the county's phantom cities.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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