April 17, 2008
Anti-Semitism charge colors liquor license fight in City of San Fernando
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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."
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