By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
WATCHING HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of dollars roll in during a Westside fund-raiser for a completely worthy liberal cause last Saturday night, I was reminded how -- a decade after the 1992 riots -- Los Angeles remains starkly divided and often deaf to its deeper rhythms. In the park-sized back yard of a well-known producer's Mandeville Canyon mansion, under a massive rented circus tent, every table perfectly adorned with fresh flowers and gleaming press kits, liberal Hollywood reached deep into its pockets to fight the Bush administration's opposition to expanded stem-cell research.
No problem with that in itself. But try to organize a similar benefit for the 30 percent in L.A. who live in poverty, or the 11 percent who try to get by on the minimum wage and see what kind of a turnout you get. Better cancel the valet service and scrub the caterers. For in the Los Angeles of 2002, it's still sexier to politically organize around Soweto rather than South-Central, the Brentwood glitterati are still more likely to pick up a phone and lobby a Beltway-based senator than a local city councilman. And these are the liberals!
Author Mike Davis, crowned as the "millennial interpreter of Los Angeles" by historian Kevin Starr, still calls our city the "most undemocratic, most unreformed polity" in the United States. "There's been a consensus since 1992 not to dig deeper," says Davis. "But relative poverty has only increased since then." A report issued in 2000 by the United Way concluded, rather glumly, that "Los Angeles is the nation's poverty capital with the largest number of poor of any metropolitan area." A UCLA analysis released that same year ranked Los Angeles County 100th among 318 U.S. urban areas in personal income -- down from 36th place a decade before.
But social need plays out in Los Angeles like so many little earthquakes. If they don't hit your neighborhood, if they don't rattle your windows and shake your bookcases, they just as well didn't happen. On one end of Washington Boulevard, young families twist themselves into knots and spend sleepless nights obsessed with shoehorning their toddlers into topflight, $10,000-a-year nursery schools, lest little Dakota or Sage get bumped off the inside track before they are even potty-trained (choosing the wrong daycare may foil any future of slipping into Crossroads). On the other end of the same street, other families are equally sleepless, scared stiff that their children are being swept into a resurgence of gang shootings and killings.
Now, after hanging all that crepe, allow me to take some of it down. "Things have changed, but not enough," says former mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. "But to say nothing has changed is to deny reality." While most of the promises made in the aftermath of 1992 never materialized, one has to take a longer view of the evolution of Los Angeles.
THIS IS NOT -- FORTUNATELY -- THE SAME city of 30 or even 20 years ago. No need to rehearse here one more time the litany of demographic shifts. Those are obvious -- and still in motion. A decade ago, this place went up in flames after being convulsed by a rogue police department embodied in its swaggering chief. Today, we see a local black community once again roiled -- but this time because it wanted to retain the LAPD chief. The old laughable county sheriff hit his popularity when he ran for office from the grave. His replacement -- Lee Baca -- is a national model of enlightened law enforcement.
And when it comes to the city's poor, life is more complicated than statistics. "When one of these Latino immigrants gets up in the morning and brushes his teeth," says novelist Carolyn See, "I doubt if he looks at himself in the morning and automatically says, 'I'm one of the working poor.'" At least not every morning.
While L.A. African-Americans might sometimes seem a defeated community in danger of losing what political representation they have won, the ever-growing Latino presence seems infused with a midrange buoyancy. A Pico-Union janitor may in fact live a world apart from a Santa Monica architect. But he also lives much better than he did five years before as a Michoacan subsistence farmer. In one poll after another, Latinos score five to 10 points higher than other groups in demonstrating an optimism about the city, the schools, even that elusive thing known as police reform. Latino parents fought and won the battle for Proposition BB school bonds. And Latinos are on the frontlines of L.A.'s labor resurgence.
At the grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor level, there's a greater acceptance or at least a resignation that some agreement will have to be reached among different groups and tribes. "We don't have it all worked out yet," says self-declared optimist and civil rights attorney Connie Rice. "But we're kinda, sorta getting used to each other. We're starting to see some unlikely alliances. L.A. Republicans working with new allies. Blacks who are conservatives. There are conversations happening now throughout this city that weren't even thinkable 15 years ago." Rice says she's no longer so much concerned about a future collective racial conflict as she is about a "compound class conflict -- those left permanently behind."