Waiting for Lefty

Reading The Next Los Angeles reminds me of a Mort Sahl joke about progress. “In 1776,” the political humorist said, “we had Washington and Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Adams. In 1976 we have Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. What does that tell you? Darwin was wrong.”

Within these pages there is the sinking feeling that, as in Sahl’s devolving republic, the forces and figures of positive change in Los Angeles are weaker and of lesser stature than they were when the city entered the modern age. The decades spanning the first half of the 20th century produced such figures as Job Harriman, Upton Sinclair, A.L. Wirin, Carey McWilliams, Charlotta Bass, Dorothy Healey and Bert Corona, to name but a scant selection of luminaries on the left. No major issue, either regional or national, was outside their grasp or vision. Men like Harriman ensured that Los Angeles retained municipally owned power, waging a WWI-era battle that spared L.A. from the depredations of the 21st-century energy-deregulation debacle. The ACLU’s Wirin traveled agricultural counties, like Imperial, getting tarred and feathered defending the rights of migrant workers. Bass, a black woman, forged ties across color lines to fight for public housing and lowered utility rates. Corona inspired a generation of Latinos who created such campaigns as Justice for Janitors. The spadework of an earlier generation led, decades later, to the elimination of restrictive housing covenants, the formation of the California Coastal Commission and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and the passage of the living-wage ordinance.

Not too shabby a legacy: a radical tradition that was coherent, founded on principles of fairness, decency, equality and justice. As one leafs through The Next Los Angeles, it quickly becomes plain, however, that these lofty ideals are largely eclipsed. The disconcerting truth is that since the left began to disintegrate in the late 1960s, lefty L.A. has been balkanized, and ruefully plagued by identity politics.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the authors ask, “Who could define a new vision for Los Angeles? Who could . . . forge a coalition to translate that vision . . . into public policy? Could progressive forces . . . sort out their differences, mobilize their constituencies, and contend for political power?” The answer in these pages, alas, is murky. We are told that our town is alive with “diverse movements convey[ing] a very different sense of place than the Los Angeles associated with the city’s real estate speculators, civic elites, diesel-belching freeway corridors, and concrete-encased rivers.” True. Yet, as the authors readily admit, these lineaments have failed to coalesce into the sort of movement, say, that in 1973 swept Tom Bradley into office. That liberal triumph, sadly, belongs to the past. This book is a good primer on the achievements of progressive L.A. and a heartfelt prayer for its re-emergence. It’s just that you’re left wondering how, and when?

THE NEXT LOS ANGELES: The Struggle for a Livable City | By ROBERT GOTTLIEB, MARK VALLIANATOS, REGINA M. FREER and PETER DREIER | University of California Press | 279 pages | $22 hardcover


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