Disney not the Happiest Place on Earth
08-10-2012, 10:28 PM
Disney not the Happiest Place on Earth
Fury Reveals Deep Rifts Near ‘Happiest Place on Earth’
By JENNIFER MEDINA
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Visitors to Disneyland pull off the freeway here and drive along dense rows of palm trees on pristine streets, past dozens of hotels beckoning them to stay. It is, the park’s marketing material says, “the Happiest Place on Earth.”
A few blocks away, though, a deep fury has boiled over. There have been days of protests, at times violent, with the police responding in combat gear and placing sharpshooters to guard their headquarters. The mayor says he has never seen such mistrust and anger in two decades in the city.
The latest frustrations began last month when the police killed an unarmed man and then another man a day later. An Anaheim neighborhood, just five miles north of Disneyland, quickly erupted. Protests continued. A community meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday. It is expected to draw about 1,000 residents.
There have always been divides in this city south of Los Angeles, where Disneyland and professional hockey and baseball teams bring in millions of visitors each year. The money generated by the resort area makes up roughly a third of the city’s annual income. But few visitors ever see the poor neighborhoods just beyond Disneyland Drive. As the protests exploded last week, the park’s nightly fireworks continued just a few miles away.
While most of the city’s population of nearly 350,000 lives on the west side of the bowtie-shaped city, in recent decades a wealthy enclave known as Anaheim Hills has flourished to the east. The hills are about 15 miles away from downtown, more like a separate town than a part of this mostly working-class and largely Latino city. There, household income is roughly twice as much as in the flatlands, as the rest of the city is known.
Like most of the City Council, Mayor Tom Tait lives in Anaheim Hills. Last week, he asked federal investigators to look into the Police Department’s practices. This week, trying to grapple with how the city could move on, he called a meeting with executives from Disney, as well as the Los Angeles Angels and the Anaheim Ducks, asking them to help come up with programs to help the most struggling neighborhoods in the city.
In those neighborhoods, the mostly Latino residents have grappled with unemployment, poverty, crime and gangs for years. Now, suddenly, those longstanding problems are being thrust into wider view.
“The problem is in that in some of these neighborhoods, there’s really a lack of hope from people, and they turn to gangs and crime,” said Mr. Tait, who has lived in the city since 1988. “We need people to go into the areas that lack hope and find ways to help.”
Spokesmen for Disney and the sports teams declined to comment about the meeting.
Across much of the flatlands, for now at least, there is a widespread suspicion of the city’s elite. Young men complain about being unfairly singled out by the police. Mothers worry that their children are not getting enough support in schools to stay out of trouble. Activists charge that city officials have focused on development around Disneyland and in Anaheim Hills at the expense of the rest of the city.
For more than a generation, Disney has been the power center of the city. The park draws millions of visitors each year and is the city’s largest property tax payer and employer.
In 2007, when a developer proposed a high-rise building with affordable housing, Disney spent more than $2 million to back a group called Save Our Anaheim Resort Area, which opposed the plan and successfully persuaded the city to abandon the idea. Since then, the group changed the verb in its name from “save” to “support” and has created a political action committee that funneled thousands of dollars to candidates, largely money collected from Disney and businesses near the resort, while Disney has continued to donate millions directly to candidates. Disney officials point out that they donate millions of dollars to local nonprofit groups every year.
“Our political action committee is focused on electing resort-district-friendly officials, not just at City Hall but also county supervisors and state senators, anyone voting on matters that would affect the district,” said Jill Kanzler, the executive director of the group.
Earlier this year, tensions flared when the City Council approved a tax incentive to a developer for a $283 million project to build two luxury hotels across from Disneyland. Typically, the city collects a 15 percent tax for every stay in the city. The incentive plan will allow the developers to keep the money from the tax for the next 15 years, an amount estimated to be $158 million.
“Throughout the city people are facing real problems with working poverty and struggling to get the resources and attention that others parts of town get routinely,” said Eric Altman, the executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, an advocacy group that has been critical of city government. “There is the basic question of why is it in a city with those kind of resources can we have such extreme poverty?”
Mr. Altman said the most recent tax deal is “essentially the city printing money” for investors in the resort area.
Harry Sidhu, the mayor pro tem, who has been on the Council for eight years, said that without such subsidies, developers would choose to build in other cities, costing Anaheim jobs and tax dollars. But he dismisses charges that other parts of Anaheim have suffered and that the current election system, which elects members citywide rather than from geographic districts, is unfair. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on the process, saying it underrepresents Latinos.
“If they don’t elect their own people, you can’t say we are at fault,” Mr. Sidhu said. “We look at the city as one place, we all get the same police services and community services.”
Mr. Sidhu and other city officials frequently say that Anaheim is one of the safest cities of its size in the country. Yet last year, as crime dropped nationally, the city had one of the biggest spikes in violent crime in the state. Few of those episodes were in Anaheim Hills.
Like much of northern Orange County, Anaheim has changed drastically in the years since Disneyland opened in 1955. It grew rapidly through the 1990s, and as the Latino population nearly doubled, it became one of the largest cities in the state. Today, the city is more than half Latino.
Many residents are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, some raised on the history of the city’s complicated relationship with Latinos. An explosive conflict between the police and residents in 1978 led to several changes in the department. A once gang-infested neighborhood just across from Disneyland was knocked down and renamed. At one point, a city official tried to stop a Mexican supermarket from opening. In the late 1990s, a chief of police ordered background reports on Latino activists who accused the department of misconduct.
Sgt. Juan Reveles has been with the department’s gang unit for nearly a decade. The unit has grown to 11 officers, more than double the size it was two years ago. Now, the city has roughly 30 active gangs and all but one are Latino, he said, with about half made up of relatively recent immigrants.
During a community meeting after a police shooting earlier this year, Sergeant Reveles called the gangs “a failure of the Hispanic community.”
“You would have thought I threw a grenade in the crowd,” he said in an interview. “But I am going to call it what it is, not pretend it’s different.”
“The anti-police attitude now is at a level I have never seen before,” he said. But, he continued, “If officers start to say there’s just too much of a headache and we’re not going in there, it’s the residents who suffer. You can’t measure the quality-of-life differences when people are too scared to go downstairs to their own laundry room because gang bangers are kicking back there.”
Ian Lovett contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 7, 2012
An article on Friday about racial and class tensions in Anaheim, Calif., misstated the amount of money that the political action committee of the Disney-backed group Support Our Anaheim Resort area has distributed to candidates. It is thousands of dollars, not millions.
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