By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
One could easily imagine the answer in 1950. Los Angeles then wasn't a particularly multiracial town; it was easy for pols, journalists and most of the white city to ignore the blacks, Latinos and Asians. Straight through midcentury, Los Angeles had the highest percentage of white Protestants of any large American city. It looked new and prosperous and surprisingly uniform. (In the '50s, American intellectuals worried about affluence and conformity.) As a result of the huge number of decent-paying unionized jobs in aerospace and other manufacturing industries, immense tracts of single-family homes were going up all over town. Home ownership and car ownership were increasingly common to both middle and working class, and income distribution in the land of smog and sun followed a classic New Deal bell curve.
Today, the bell curve is inverted, and any common economic destiny is a dim memory at best. Aerospace has up and left, unions have declined, and the middle of the L.A. economy has shrunk catastrophically. Today, roughly half of us are poor, while the wealthiest 10 percent of us have wealth and income soaring skyward, untethered to the fortunes of the rest of the city.
The greatest change, of course, is racial. The whitest big city in the U.S., straight through 1960, is now the least white. According to the 2000 Census, only 29.8 percent of Angelenos are white, while the percentage of Latinos hovers just under 50 percent. No major U.S. city has ever gone through so thorough a population transformation in so relatively short a time.
So it is necessary to state what should be obvious: This racial recomposition -- not declining services or the remoteness of City Hall -- is what secession is really about. If municipal services have now become an acute problem, when were they any better? According to the secessionists, they've been in decline since Sam Yorty's term in office -- but Yorty was only able to service the Valley by ignoring black L.A., which caused problems of its own (the Watts riots, for one). Have services kept up with the growth of the Valley? Of course not, but they haven't kept ä 26 up with the growth of any part of town -- and whose fault is that anyway? The same Valley homeowner groups leading the charge on secession led the charge in 1978 for Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13, a primary cause of chronic municipal insolvency in California.
There is no evidence whatever that city services have deteriorated just in the past few years -- the period of secessionism's birth and growth. Yet we are to believe that these concerns are what lie behind secession -- not the epochal transformation of L.A.'s racial and class composition, which is the one immense change that has coincided with secessionism's rise. Not the fact that the white, middle-class city that the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association remembers (or re-imagines) so fondly has become a city that is heavily Latino working-class, and an underpaid working class at that. To be sure, the new valley city would have a plurality of Latinos, but 68 percent of its registered voters would be white. For the moment, in fact, secession may have a number of Latino supporters who mistakenly believe it will split up the school district and may even make it easier to build more schools. But at bottom, secession is nothing but white identity politics. Its message is: "We're not them; they're not us; we're outta here."
SO THE L.A. STORY OF THE PAST TWO decades is one of civic transformation on a scale that transforms the entire nation: America's future is happening here today, just as 100 years ago it was happening in New York. But this description of our city only takes us back to 1985 or thereabouts. Before then, L.A. was a huge center of growth, but that hardly distinguished it from a hundred other cities. For decades, we set the model for horizontal growth -- for sprawl -- but for the past 20 years, we've grown inwards as much as we've grown outwards: The density of many immigrant working-class neighborhoods rivals the levels in New York.
If there is a through-line to our story, it may be the cycle of immigration, resistance and re-invention. Yes, all American cities have been home to immigrants, but only N.Y. and L.A. can claim that immigration was central to their identity, and prefigured a new national identity. But other waves of immigration have also given them distinctive characteristics.
Both cities have long been home to successive waves of internal immigrants, too -- blacks from the South Atlantic states to New York; Midwesterners, then Jews and blacks, to L.A. The writers, artists, musicians, actors and filmmakers so crucial to both cities came from all across the nation, and the world. Most important, it's been these two cities that have led, and helped, the nation in synthesizing new and old. New York was the place where the economic, social and political orders that encompassed the European migration were first built. For 20 years, the policies and politics of the New Deal were tried out in New York before Franklin Roosevelt took them nationwide.
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