April 17, 2008
Anti-Semitism charge colors liquor license fight in City of San Fernando
Real estate developer Sev Aszkenazy recently settled a lawsuit with the city of San Fernando over a liquor permit he was denied for a planned steak house. He said the denial was due, in part, to anti-Semitic bias. |
City Administrator Jose Pulido confirmed as much, testifying that City Councilman Jose Hernandez, who led the majority that denied the permit, had once said about Aszkenazy: "He's being greedy. He's Jewish, you know."
The city -- a 90 percent Latino municipality in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley -- agreed to pay the builder $750,000, based on lost revenue and court costs.
It could appear to be a clear-cut instance of a Latino city official displaying bias against a Jewish builder. But almost nothing about this case is what it seems. For one thing, Aszkenazy, 47, grew up Catholic in Pacoima. For another, Hernandez has been a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue with Jews.
Hernandez (photo) is a 77-year-old retired political science professor, a courtly gentleman, frail in handshake and demeanor, his voice breaking at times. He told The Journal that he's been hurt by the allegation. "I want the Jewish community to understand my feelings," he said. "I never made the comments attributed to me."
He pointed out that he co-founded VOICE, Valley Organized in Community Efforts, "a group which brings together... Christians and Jews" to address issues of "common concern."
Hernandez admitted that one aspect of the statement is true.
"I said 'Sev is greedy,'" Hernandez said. "But I said nothing about his being Jewish. Sev Aszkenazy is trying to get rid of me so he can put his own people in the City Council."
Aszkenazy said that in the last few years, three opponents of his projects on the City Council -- Hernandez, Nury Martinez and Mayor Julie Ruelas -- have had an "anything-but-Aszkenazy program," and that this attitude is frustrating his plans for the city's development. It's an argument that The San Fernando Valley Sun, a weekly paper, makes over and over, in a strident, one-sided way.
Not coincidentally, Aszkenazy -- besides being a successful San Fernando real estate developer -- is also owner/publisher of The Sun. In its articles, as well as its editorials, The Sun regularly condemns the three council members who oppose Aszkenazy. A recent issue ran an editorial calling them "despicable," "self-serving" and "hypocritical."
The editorial cartoon on the same page featured the three City Council members bent over and kissing each other's rear ends.
But there was a time when Aszkenazy and Hernandez were allies. Throughout the 1990s and until 2003, the City Council, led by Hernandez, regularly approved Aszkenazy's proposals.
During those years, Aszkenazy proposed and built project after project. He "collected millions of dollars in tax subsidies ... with the support of a City Council gung-ho about revitalizing the city," the Los Angeles Daily News reported.
One of those projects is Library Plaza. Inspired by colonial-era San Fernando Mission, Library Plaza has a public library, restaurant, coffee shop and other businesses. The center's inner courtyard is open, airy and always buzzing with activity.
According to Aszkenazy, the break in his relationship with Hernandez occurred five years ago because of a muckraking series that appeared in The Sun.
Interviewed at his office in San Fernando -- in the same building that houses the offices of the newspaper he owns -- Aszkenazy said that in 2003, The Sun exposed a troubling financial situation at the Latin America Civic Association (LACA), an organization that managed Head Start programs and whose director is Hernandez's friend.
Aszkenazy said that when The Sun exposed LACA's irregularities, Hernandez came to Aszkenazy's office with another city official who threatened Aszkenazy: Stop the articles or Aszkenazy's development business will suffer. Aszkenazy recounted telling them he had no control over The Sun's content and held his ground.
Hernandez denies having threatened Aszkenazy or that this event influenced his later decisions about Aszkenazy's projects.
Eventually, LACA lost its federal funding -- nearly $11 million -- and in the eyes of those who followed these events, The Sun's articles were held partly responsible.
Aszkenazy -- with his olive skin, fluency in Spanish and Pacoima background -- had always been thought of by those in San Fernando as a fellow Chicano. Aszkenazy said that after The Sun ran its articles about LACA, he was treated differently. He recalled that a friend spoke with Hernandez, who reportedly called Aszkenazy "an outsider."
Another factor in the change toward him, according to Aszkenazy, was that competing development companies -- recognizing that he bore a similar name as a well-known Beverly Hills real estate developer and hotelier -- "outed" him as having Jewish roots.
In 1960, Aszkenazy's Mexican American mother became pregnant as a result of an affair with Severyn Ashkenazy, then a UCLA graduate student who had recently arrived from Europe. She named her son after his biological father, who disappeared from her life months before the baby was born and later changed the spelling of his last name.
"My name was my mom's choice," Aszkenazy said. "She put it on the birth certificate. She was very proud of my Jewish father, and I think she wanted me to be proud of who I was. And I'm both, so she didn't want me to be ashamed of either community...."
Aszkenazy was baptized at a church on Olvera Street and was brought up by his single mother in a nonreligious Catholic home in Pacoima. After dropping out of college, he went to work as a firefighter for the city of Los Angeles and married his high school sweetheart, Martha Diaz. He never had contact with his biological father, his namesake, but he'd see the name in the papers: Severyn Ashkenazy was responsible for a series of posh Westside hotels: Le Mondrian, L'Ermitage and others.
"I was a very happy L.A. fireman," Aszkenazy said. "And I was also interested in connecting with my dad. I'd be at the fire station, and in the early 1980s, my dad was in the papers quite a bit.... If he had called with a problem, I would have been the one that showed up.... That would have been interesting. But it didn't happen [that way]." When the younger man was in his 20s, his wife, Martha, called his father to tell him who her husband was. "We met at the Mondrian Hotel," Aszkenazy said. "I was a grown man, and he was a grown man. It was interesting, looking across the table."
"I took one look at him and fell in love," the senior Severyn Ashkenazy said. "I didn't ask for any blood test. I didn't have to ... [Eventually], both he and Martha came to work for me."
After six years of apprenticeship working for the man he calls "Dad," Aszkenazy struck out on his own. He established his own companies in San Fernando: Pueblo Contracting and Aszkenazy Development, two names that embody his mixed heritage. For the first few years, there were small jobs, then the companies evolved in scope, steadily expanding.
His business grew so much that some people were upset. In 2005, the Daily News quoted several residents who were concerned that Aszkenazy wielded too much power in San Fernando -- as developer and publisher. Apparently, what had once been considered admirable ambition by a local Chicano, was now seen by some -- including Hernandez -- as greed.
During those years, Aszkenazy was involved in a project called San Fernando Station, the second phase of which planned to include a high-end steakhouse as the anchor location. For such a restaurant to be economically viable, it would have to serve liquor.
The issue of alcohol abuse is an important one for Hernandez. Over the years, he's seen San Fernando become a family-friendly town: fewer people weaving drunkenly through the streets, no bodies huddled in doorways. He and his allies accomplished this by setting up regulations that limit the proliferation of places serving liquor.
At the same time, they didn't want to stifle downtown development, so the San Fernando City Council mapped out a special district where liquor-serving restaurants could flourish.
Unfortunately, Aszkenazy's San Fernando Station fell outside this district. In March 2005, the San Fernando Planning Commission -- which understood that a high-end restaurant is not the kind of place targeted by liquor restrictions -- recommended that the liquor permit be issued anyway. But the City Council, by a vote of 3 to 2 led by Hernandez, overturned the decision and denied the permit. The stated reason was that the location was clearly outside the special district.
Aszkenazy didn't accept that there was a rational basis to deny him a liquor permit at that location. While it was outside the liquor boundary, he felt it wasn't as if he had proposed a sleazy bar or a strip joint. He wanted to build a high-end restaurant, the kind of place that he's certain San Fernando needs -- along with hotels, theaters and other attractions -- if it wants to attract upwardly mobile residents and continue on a path of gentrification.
Aszkenazy said that he had people investigate the denial of the permit. That's when he learned that Hernandez had allegedly made a comment about Aszkenazy to Pulido, putting "greedy" and "Jew" or "Jewish" together in the same thought.
Hernandez denies having said that. He said that he's never even thought of Aszkenazy as Jewish.
Maybe, but Aszkenazy said that in recent years, he's begun to think of himself that way.
"I think that my [Jewish] identity is because of my name," Aszkenazy said, "and my connection with my dad, and his connection with religion and culture. It's something that has drawn me in, something I wasn't drawn to while growing up.... I have a feeling that if people came looking for Jews, they'd come looking for me first because of my name."
Still, Hernandez insists he never made the remark. He has a stack of letters that support him and that attack Aszkenazy's motives.
In one letter, a Jewish colleague and professor wrote: "To those who use prejudice as a weapon to gain their personal objectives, I ... remind them that this sword cuts two ways."
A letter from another Jewish professor expressed "outrage [because] when such charges ... are used to increase personal wealth or power ... it denigrates all those who legitimately fight anti-Semitism."
However, Pulido had no reason to lie. He's a friend of Hernandez's and testified reluctantly.
Whether he said it or not, Hernandez, a public official, has been publicly branded an anti-Semite in media coverage from Los Angeles to New York. A man committed to improving San Fernando's quality of life now has to fend off attempts to recall him.
Aszkenazy said he has no regrets about the lawsuit. After all, Phase 2 of the San Fernando Station project hinged on the outcome. Maybe even the future of San Fernando depended on it.
Aszkenazy said that a lot of people, most of them Mexican Americans, have congratulated him because "you can't let people do certain things or say certain things.... People have said to me, 'Good for you! You stood up for something you believe in.' But what's really sad is that the decision makers haven't really learned anything. Time will tell if they have or not."