What the Democrats Need To Know About Los Angeles 

A guide to a city that has everything but a middle class

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov (top) and Anne Fishbein ,

I. L.A. 1960

Forty years ago, when the Democrats assembled here to nominate John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles was a city on the verge of enormous change.

Republican Norris Poulson was mayor, a position for which he’d been drafted seven years earlier by a group of powerful local businessmen known as the Committee of 25 — but only after its chairman had assured Poulson that the job would come with a chauffered limousine. By 1960, however, the Committee — a formal but unofficial group of banking, insurance, aircraft and law-firm capos who controlled local politics at least partly to maintain the property values of their downtown headquarters — was already starting to look like a relic. L.A. long had been the whitest and most Protestant of America’s major cities, but World War II had changed all that, spurring a mass influx of Jews and blacks that was still going strong. In the year the Democrats came to town, though, the Committee was still all white, largely Protestant and, quite unlike the city, entirely Republican. Studio heads and other show-biz types — the Committee’s genteel way of designating Jews — were unceremoniously excluded. The savings-and-loan magnates and homebuilding execs who were busily transforming orange groves into the greatest expanse of single-family homes the world had ever seen — they weren’t welcome either, and for much the same reason. Too many of them were Jews, and, worse, some even gave big money to such up-and-coming Democrats as Jesse Unruh and Alan Cranston. By 1960, the city was outgrowing the Committee’s capacity to control it, as one look at the huge, multiracial crowd that filled the Coliseum to hear JFK’s acceptance speech made eminently clear.

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The city had grown in one other crucial way as well: By 1960, Los Angeles had become the very model of middle-class paradise. Other large cities prospered in the decades after the war, of course, but they were aging, congested and home to ever-larger ghettos. Los Angeles, by contrast, was just being built; it sprawled; and for a time it almost seemed that every man had his castle, every castle its back yard, every back yard its barbecue. With both middle- and working-class incomes rising rapidly, the city was an egalitarian boomtown, its own distinct version of a New Deal metropolis.

The giant aircraft and auto factories that ringed the city were entirely unionized, and the largest of L.A.’s housing tracts went up around those plants. As had been the case in Henry Ford’s and Walter Reuther’s Detroit, the combination of high-end manufacturing and unions yielded a working class that could afford its own homes — and, on occasion, its own backyard pools. Confident about their economic condition and prodded by the state’s visionary Democratic governor, Pat Brown, Angelenos supported and benefited from a wave of public investment that soon produced the best school and transportation systems in the land. And foreign visitors who came to America to observe the first majority middle class in the history of the world were invariably directed to L.A., where entertainment and science and a burgeoning youth culture came together to make something new under the smoggy sun.

It’s been four decades since the Democrats ventured here, to find the kind of city Jack Kennedy might well have had in mind when he observed that a rising tide lifts all boats. So, a warning to any delegates who were last here in 1960: You won’t recognize the place. The city that once epitomized the shared prosperity of the postwar era now epitomizes the stunning inequality of America today. Through good times and bad, Los Angeles has kept its role as a leading indicator for the nation.

The return of the Democrats to L.A., then, is an occasion to take stock of what Los Angeles has been, of what it is today, of what it may become. It’s a tale of rise and fall and, in a sudden Act III twist, the most unexpected kind of rebirth. For Los Angeles is well on its way to crafting — of all things! — a new urban progressivism, focused on the plight of the working poor. If the Democrats here to nominate Al Gore look closely, they’ll see a city becoming a latter-day version of the New York of 1900: a vast settlement house for immigrants, and a proving ground for a renascent American left.

II. L.A. 2000

In some of its fundamentals, of course, the city should still be recognizable to a veteran of the ’60 convention. The mayor is still (or rather, again) a Republican. The city’s entertainment, science and youth culture still, for better and worse, help shape the world. Yet another constant of Los Angeles life is the LAPD: In The Making of the President 1960 Theodore White, describing the airport security as Kennedy arrived for the convention, called the Los Angeles police “among the most efficient, if the most cruel, in the nation.” Today — well, you know about today.

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