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Still No Council Voice for Pico

By Blair Clarkson

November 9 -- When it comes to addressing crime and poverty in the Pico Neighborhood -- as well as an overriding sense of neglect and isolation -- the answers will be left to seven City Council members who live outside the City's poorest neighborhood.

Once again last Tuesday, local voters passed over council hopefuls from the Pico Neighborhood, which will be left silent on the council dais for at least another two years.

The City's wide divide and the Pico voters' call for their first elected representative was demonstrated when the neighborhood was the only area in Santa Monica where a candidate bested Bobby Shriver, who swept 59 of the city's 66 precincts.

Shriver, who entered the local political fray after the City ordered him to trim the hedges around his North of Montana home, made City Hall's burdensome bureaucracy a rallying cry during his campaign.

But the theme didn't seem to reverberate in the Pico Neighborhood, where voters chose Pico activist Maria Loya in four of the area's five precincts.

"People (North of Montana) are so sheltered to what it's like in the rest of the city, especially in our neighborhood," said School Board member Oscar de la Torre, the city's only elected official from the Pico Neighborhood. "It's a world apart, and they live different lifestyles.

"This thing with the hedges is so overblown," said de la Torre, a driving force behind Loya's campaign. "While our community suffers economic neglect and our schools, like Edison (Elementary), remain the lowest performing schools in the City, people are talking about their bushes."

Council candidate Kathryn Morea, who finished ninth in the Pico Neighborhood in her unsuccessful bid Tuesday, predicts little will change in her neighborhood under the new council.

"I think it's no coincidence that that neighborhood is the neighborhood of crime and some of the poverty and things like that," Morea said. "I doubt we are going to see much improvement, since we still don't have anyone that really represents that area.

"Because we had an election where the top vote getters were mainly the incumbents, I think what we're going to see is pretty much the status quo," Morea said. "We're going to see the same thing we saw in the last four years, which isn't necessarily a horrible thing, but I think there was a real interest in making some change."

Despite accounting for almost a quarter of Santa Monica's population, the Pico neighborhood -- which has Santa Monica's lowest median income and highest incidence of youth violence -- has never seen one of its own residents elected to the City Council.

The only Pico resident to serve on the council was Hillard L. Lawson, an African American who was appointed to fill a vacant seat from 1973 to 1975.

"If we elected someone from the Pico Neighborhood, it would be historic and a first, for one thing," de la Torre said. "People from here would definitely feel more engaged."

But with the cost of winning a council seat rising -- some $1 million was likely spent during this year's race -- the chances of electing a Pico resident may be on the wane, de la Tore said.

"There was a lot of money put on the election, the threshold has been set now that will continue to have a long-term impact on how poor people are going to compete," he said. "You have to have disposable income in order to serve the City."

Pico struggles "not because poor people are poor," de la Tore said, "but because poor people lack the power to make the changes necessary in their lives."

Residents point to this lack of political clout as the reason why the Pico neighborhood is home not only to the 10 Freeway, which split the neighborhood in two 40 years ago, but the recycling plant, the City Yards and the majority of the city's homeless shelters and public housing for low-income families.

"You can put objectionable uses in places where there is a disenfranchised community that doesn't really have a political voice," said Peter Tigler, former chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association. "And in Santa Monica, that's the Pico neighborhood."

Many Pico activists share the belief that to emerge out of the shadow of neglect that years of political impotence have cast on the neighborhood, Pico must elect a champion of its cause to City Hall.

"The most important thing (for Pico) is to have council members that represent the interests of Santa Monica as a whole and who really come to know the neighborhood and get to know what the issues are," Loya said in an interview before her unsuccessful council bid.

"When people hear about the violence that occurs, there's a reactionary response to increase the (police) patrols," Loya said. "But that's not going to fix the problem.

"What is going to fix the problem," she added, "is for the council members to understand that youth violence is rooted in issues of poverty."

Electing a Pico representative would not only go a long way toward shedding the community's sense of isolation, it could give a frustrated generation of Pico youth a sense of belonging in a City that just a few blocks to the north can often feel like another world, young residents contend.

"If there ever is to be a Pico neighborhood representative," said 21-year-old Albert Ruiz, "it should be somebody who grew up here and knows the people. I wouldn't want somebody who grew up on the other side of Montana representing me. What do they know about what I'm going through?"

"It would be an empowerment for Pico," said Pico Youth and Family Center volunteer Alejandro Aldana, smiling wistfully at the thought. "It would give a voice to the voiceless."

Staff writers Olin Ericksen and Susan Reines contributed to this report
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