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Our Town, Our Paper 

L.A. and the Weekly, in hindsight and foresight

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006
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’TIS THE FINAL COLUMN, the last Powerlines, and I’d like to use it to think back and forward about the city I’ve reported on and marveled at and hectored and prodded for nearly two decades.

My first gig at the Weekly, courtesy of founder Jay Levin and his then-new editor, Kit Rachlis, was to put on a conference and edit a special issue of the paper on the subject of remaking L.A., way back in 1989. The mainstream civic debate at the time concerned how much densification this horizontal city of ours should permit. It wasn’t a bad debate, but it missed almost entirely what had happened to black L.A. as factories had been shuttered over the previous decade; it missed the birth of the nouvelle sweatshop economy as the employer of first and last resort for the new immigrants; it missed the fact that the LAPD was still a racist force unto itself — at the top no less than the bottom — even as the city was becoming majority minority.

The Weekly in the late ’80s and early ’90s was an odd mixture of apocalyptic presentiment and social-democratic hope — Mike Davis, Steve Erickson, Michael Ventura and me all reporting, in our different ways, on the tremors disturbing the landscape. Not that we predicted the 1992 riots, of course, but the paper in general and Remaking L.A. in particular projected a somewhat dystopian future for the city unless it embraced a panoply of proposals we solicited from lefty academics, wonks and organizers, or that we cooked up ourselves.

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Both the conference and the issue prophesied a Los Angeles immobilized by its own congestion unless it heeded our crazy transportation ideas (rail? in L.A.?); both showcased a vibrant and polyglot if incoherent arts scene; both sought to convince the slow-growth progressives who’d become a major civic force by the late ’80s that a newer and radically poorer Los Angeles was forming that required not a slow growth but an equitable growth strategy. A lot of what Remaking L.A. predicted looks ridiculous today, but we did manage to state that the future of the city hinged on the mobilization of the new Latino immigrant Angelenos, provided that they found some grounds to make common cause with what was then the city’s unfocused liberal community (those of you who remember the largely themeless 1993 mayoral campaign of Mike Woo will know what I’m talking about).

In hindsight, both the apocalyptic fear and the social-democratic hope we voiced in these pages proved far more prescient than any of us really expected. The collapse of the old L.A. — the middle-class city that was home to giant, unionized manufacturers and a powerful business elite that ran much of the town — exceeded all rational anticipation. We didn’t know that the Cold War was almost over, that aerospace, L.A.’s largest employer, would soon close up shop. We didn’t know that unionized industries that weren’t moving away — construction, building maintenance, trucking — would fire their workers and hire immigrants for a fraction of what they’d paid their previous employees. We didn’t know that hundreds of thousands of the Angelenos who’d worked in aerospace and on union construction crews would move to Arizona and Nevada and Colorado, where it cost less to live, while 900,000 foreign-born workers would move into the county in the ’80s and ’90s to take the low-wage jobs that business so thoughtfully devised for them. And we certainly couldn’t even have imagined a Los Angeles such as the one that emerged at the bottom of the mid-’90s downturn, in which, from 1994 to 1996, the percentage of middle-class Angelenos — living in households making between $40,000 and $100,000 annually — would shrink by nearly 8 percent, to just 26 percent of L.A. County.

In time, Los Angeles recovered — unemployment fell to normal levels, and new industries arose. But the city that had been the model metropolis for the post–World War II mass prosperity no longer had an economic middle. The more the economy recovered, the more bipolar it became. The number of genuinely well off Angelenos boomed, the number of poor Angelenos exploded. But the middle class did not come back. Between 1979 and 2005, as the California Budget Project recently documented, the inflation-adjusted wage of the median worker in L.A. County fell by 6.4 percent, while it was rising by 5.9 percent in the rest of the state. The percentage of L.A. workers with health coverage provided by their employer also fell during those years from 71.1 percent to 50.5 percent.

As L.A. was collapsing in the middle, it was also vanishing at the top. The rich, of course, we shall always have with us, and thanks to the tax policies of our president and our soon-to-expire Republican Congress, the rich are richer than they’ve ever been. But all the signature L.A. businesses — the banks and oil and aerospace companies, the studios and TV stations and newspapers — were merged into or sold to companies based elsewhere during the past 25 years. ARCO, Douglas Aircraft, MGM, the Weekly and the Times have been swept up into companies headquartered somewhere else. No wonder Rebuild L.A., the civic project supposed to reconstruct the parts of the city that were torched in the ’92 riot, never got off the ground. Every marquee L.A. business but Disney was pulling up stakes. Richard Riordan devoted much of his two terms as mayor to trying to rebuild the business elite, and certainly persuaded his close friend, Eli Broad, to fund the rebuilding of much of the civic center. But, while individual developers and lobbyists remain powerful in civic affairs, a coherent business establishment with a vision for the city has yet to reassemble itself. In the absence of large-scale private-sector employers headquartered here, business can drive particular projects but cannot really set major policies for Los Angeles.

TO THE ASTONISHMENT OF ANYONE familiar with L.A.’s history, that role has chiefly been filled over the past decade by the city’s labor movement. Indeed, I’d argue that the most consequential Angeleno during the years that I’ve written this column was Miguel Contreras, the farm workers’ son who became the head of the County Federation of Labor in 1996 and who, using largely immigrant-dominated local unions as his spearhead, mobilized immigrant Los Angeles into a political force. By the time he died, suddenly, in 2005, the union movement had become the dominant electoral power in nine of the city’s 15 city-council districts. Capitalizing on the backlash to Proposition 187, labor transformed such venerable Republican strongholds as Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach into Democratic terrain — changing the political profile of the L.A. region, making California a solidly blue state, paving the way for Antonio Villaraigosa to become mayor.

Just as important, with the county fed serving as the muscle and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy serving as the brain, labor prodded city government to enact the kinds of growth-with-justice policies that the Weekly was calling for, however imprecise our suggestions, as far back as the ’80s. The steady expansions of both the living-wage ordinance (which may shortly be extended to cover employees at airport hotels) and of community-benefit agreements guaranteeing decent wages and benefits to employees at major new developments across the city are among the precious few policies that provide at least a modicum of upward mobility to a working class that is otherwise fighting just to stay even.

Contreras’ death was a loss not just to the city, but to his longtime friend, the new mayor. Villaraigosa has spent his first year in office promoting some of these economic-equity strategies, but they have taken a distinct second place to his battle to win control of the schools. That L.A. would benefit from a better-educated work force is beyond question, but a more plausible and far-reaching solution to our crisis of downward mobility would come from unionization and higher wage standards in service sector, retail, construction and transportation jobs that can’t be offshored. Local government can only do so much to foster such transformations, but Contreras was a genius at pushing local government to the max, and Villaraigosa could do more if he were pushed more.

That the labor movement of the past decade and the civic left that has grown up around it are flawed institutions is apparent every day, and this paper has always criticized them when they’ve gone off track. But they remain, at their best and even when not, the one force in Los Angeles with the creativity, muscle and desire to rebuild the middle class, and they’re a force — with thanks to my editors, colleagues and readers — that I’ve been fortunate to both chronicle and champion over the past 17 years. I’ll continue to do that in other publications, and I hope that the Weekly continues to do that here.

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