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."
INDEED, HERE WE CAN GET GLOOMY again. Just as undeniable as the progress made at the person-to-person level in L.A. is the lack of institutional response to a changing city and its population. While L.A.'s crisis of political representation has eased somewhat with the growing inclusion of Latino officeholders, too much of local policy is still built on what you might call "middle-class assumptions." Mostly because those policies are shaped by primarily middle-class people unwilling to recognize the real levels of urgent economic need -- in jobs, education and housing.
If your tire goes flat on the Santa Monica Freeway, you pull over and change it. You don't replace your battery. But here in Los Angeles, no sooner had the smoke cleared from the 1992 riots than the city's agenda was hijacked by Valley secession. South-Central, Compton, even parts of Hollywood went up in flames, and we started talking about what? How to mollify the inflamed sensibilities of Sherman Oaks, Tarzana and Woodland Hills. Lay the blame not only on the claque of real-estate brokers, car dealers and would-be Babbits leading the secession movement, but also on the feckless city political establishment that consistently pandered to the Valley moaners. Now -- years late and on the cusp of a breakaway vote -- our soporific mayor claims he will lead the noble fight to keep us together.
Don't hold your breath. This city may blow apart again this November. This time by a ballot-box riot of suburban homeowners intent on burrowing deeper into a past that never existed, or at least will not come again. Or maybe the eruption will come this summer, or 15 months or three years from now, and once again from the poor. "Voices unheard, like dreams deferred, tend to explode," Mike Davis warns. Or maybe it will come not at all.
For the moment, we live suspended in the midst of Anna Deavere Smith's now legendary stage performance Twilight: Los Angeles. The historic cycle of social unrest runs about 20 to 25 years in this city. Odds are you're likely to get by for another decade without a major disturbance. Enjoy the limbo while it lasts.