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Barrio Logic 

Immigration will revitalize Fortress L.A.

Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

It was Mike Davis who came up with the concept of Fortress Los Angeles, in his book City of Quartz: a Southern California city-state where, as the population diversifies, exclusion replaces inclusion.

Davis’ grim reverie flew in the face of Mayor Tom Bradley’s multicultural dream and pilloried Los Angeles as a city uniquely hostile to newcomers. What now seems provincial about Davis’ L.A. perception, however, was that this exclusionary tendency was getting even worse in other parts of the U.S., as the same old real estate got redivided among the new haves and have-nots. It may be worst in the old South: The only gated community I’ve ever seen that was actually inside another gated community was in coastal South Carolina.

Which is probably why Southern California remains perhaps the major destination for Americans fed up with wherever else they happen to be. Yet you still sense that more walls are going up in Los Angeles County than are coming down. In Santa Monica, architectural public space has been caged away: the wages of homelessness, if you will. Along Rosemead Boulevard, all those commodious cheap complexes whose pool courts were once open to this world have become gated and guarded like Granada Hills condos. And even the most ostentatious house windows are barred along Beverly Hills’ residential drives, reminding you of the old saying that there is no such thing as a beautiful prison.

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All this is hard to account for, given the five-year sag in the crime rate. It also seems to run against the tradition of openness and spatiality that long characterized indigenous Los Angeles architecture, from the ranch house to the canyon stick home. So at the beginning of the last year of this century, it’s worth pondering whether this prevailing guardedness anticipates the social changes our fast-growing city and county foresee in the century to come. Particularly the sizable new population segment that’s expected to disregard Davis’ doom warnings and come here anyway. This influx could bring us another 1.3 million people in less than 20 years — about 30 percent more than the increase in the last two decades.

This immigration may be something that most of us would rather avoid thinking about. But Los Angeles and its environs are already running out of housing space for newcomers. The most conspicuous shortfall is on the Westside, but a recent Times piece makes a neat point: Rental housing is getting plenty scarce even in untrendy locales — in and out of the city — where families could always figure on finding something, in places like Huntington Park, El Sereno, Bell, Temple City, Bell Gardens and Maywood. The problem is worst on the entry level: There’s little or no new apartment construction, and as older rentals fill up, their owners are getting picky about tenants and raising rents. Meanwhile, it is worth repeating, little or no new housing is being built.

Last month this column mentioned the new-rental shortage in Los Angeles. One reason such housing is scarce is that it seems to be something that no one wants, except, of course, landlords and people who need a place to live. At the moment, a mighty internal skirmish is shaping up between the city’s regional and local planning officials as to just where such housing ought to be sited. But consider what happens if this need is not appropriately addressed in the city and county regional planning structure, particularly if the scarcity turns into a drought just as the anticipated population influx kicks in by the early 2000s.

What happens then is what you might call the trickle-down process of housing — which, simply, lets the market take care of itself. This has been going on as long as there have been cities. Some would say it’s why we have slums.

As once explained to me by none other than then-Councilman Art Snyder, it starts with the theory that in any market, there is always room at the top. In this region, that summit is literal: It includes the new construction of multimillion-dollar Extreme Housing — your Malibu crag castles and other half-acre skyline follies. Whose allure is expected to suck the flamboyantly ostentatious wealthy out of inner Brentwood and Beverly Hills. These communities in turn are expected to draw in the more mobile upper-middle classes of Santa Monica and Westwood, which then open up to the denizens of Studio City, the Marina and Woodland Hills. Which in turn get to welcome the swells of West Hills and midrise West L.A. Which regions beckon in the dregs and sweepings of Silver Lake and Echo Park. Which, in their course, become the ascending destinations of the people who started out in apartments in Sylmar, Bell, El Sereno and Huntington Park. Who then abandon their old communities to the low-income arriving outsiders.

But the sudden cascade of new population into an area unprepared to accommodate it can spell disaster for the impacted neighborhoods. The comparatively moderate regional population buildup of the past 15 years has benefited from what in retrospect seems to have been an adequate regional rental base, at least for the relatively thriving newcomer. But in declining neighborhoods with high immigrant populations, conditions have sagged as newcomers piled up six to a room. In most East L.A. blocks, cars are on the street, while garages are for families; young people hang on the streets at night because there are too many other family members left inside. The recent economic uptick may have raised Eastside apartment rents, but it hasn’t put any cars back in garages. There are still people who need that space to live in.

Accordingly, there’s no room for a new population influx in traditional residential anterooms such as Boyle Heights and Maywood. At that point, what probably happens is that, just as flooding rivers create new channels, the new immigrations will create their own new, high-density, underserviced neighborhoods, just as the Central American influx of the ’70s and ’80s reshaped Pico-Union. Since there’s no room for further influxes downtown, the new barrios could pop up all over the entire basin — from Venturaold Central Avenue to the struggling centers of Anaheim and Fullerton.

But Los Angeles will probably be the hardest hit by the low-income portion of the influx, simply because it has the most public transit and the most jobs. The December 24 Times piece noted that rents haven’t gone up in Van Nuys and North Hollywood, where such an influx has already sunk rental-property values. Where else could this happen? Possibly in the Crenshaw district, from which, as my colleague Erin Aubry has reported, the middle-class black population is already ebbing. Or elsewhere in South Los Angeles, where a similar exodus is in force. But incoming populations also might transform some areas where the residents now consider themselves quite sheltered from economic disadvantage.

For instance, how about a new barrio in Cindy Miscikowski’s 11th Council District? For more than a decade now, apartments in the lower Barrington-Bundy area near the Santa Monica boundary have been bearing population loads not unlike those in Panorama City or MacArthur Park, simply because they are near the job-rich portions of the virtually low-income-housing-free Westside. A good jab of the old population spike could turn the area into a Brentwood-adjacent Alvarado Street (perhaps even making it possible to find a decent pupusa on San Vicente Boulevard). Another potential high-density region might be the areas now abutting south Beverly Hills. Which happens to be another city with enough recently rent-controlled older apartments to itself easily become a newcomer destination. Even, given another severe economic shake, newcomers of moderate means, several to a room, could be living not very far from the above-mentioned mansions with the bars on their windows.

It’s this kind of unplanned disparity that tends to encourage more barricades. The clear alternative is to reinforce planning to minimize the disruption, but this involves far more than just authorizing more multiple-unit housing. The city in particular has to re-plan infrastructure, for new transportation, police and fire services within whatever areas are most capable of accommodating high population density. Los Angeles can’t embark on another century of trickle-down housing without becoming, in reality, 21st-century America’s number-one Quartz City.

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