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The Two Worlds of Los Angeles | The Nation

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The Two Worlds of Los Angeles

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Los Angeles

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Running from bank- and hotel-lined Wilshire Boulevard, up the glittering gulch of Rodeo Drive, past the slinky curves of Sunset and snaking up leafy Coldwater and Benedict canyons to the legendary top-of-the-hill stretch of Mulholland Drive, ZIP code 90210, and its opulence, are familiar psychic territory to just about any American with a TV set. But if anything, its namesake prime-time series understated its splendor--and its excess.

This past decade's high tide of uninterrupted prosperity has washed some fascinating cultural artifacts onto these gilded shores. A recent Saturday-morning excursion to this--one of LA County's wealthiest ZIP codes--reveals this patch of territory as a sort of theme-park tribute to the myth of America as Ever-Expanding Plenty. On lower Rodeo, just across from the Ermenegildo Zegna showroom (3-button suits, $2,195), within a ten-minute period buses from Gray Line, L.A. Tours, VIP Tours and Starline Tours disgorge their cargo of T-shirt-and-Bermuda-shorts-clad domestic and foreign tourists who, in 95-degree heat, trudge past the windows of Chanel, Prada, Ferragamo, Hugo Boss and Giorgio, faithfully recording their finds on videotape.

First stop is Via Rodeo, a Disneyesque re-creation of an Italian walk-street stuffed with jewelry stores and chocolate shops. A short walk away is the templelike structure of BMW of Beverly Hills, still expanding although it already covers two city blocks. (Having arrived by bus the tourists will, alas, have no need for the dealership's exclusive valet parking.) Then on to Canon Drive, where a Farmers Market has drawn a pulsating crowd of locals bedecked in the latest tailorings of Jones New York--the shabby-chic "Country" line. Who says there's no street life in LA? Among the stalls are such "farmers" as the trendy Röckenwagner Restaurant and Bakery, which has set up across from Gucci's local offices and is selling $3-a-loaf "peasant bread."

If you were to get the notion that you are not only in the wealth center of LA but also that of America, you'd be right on the money--so to speak. Los Angeles County, with 6 percent of its households boasting incomes over $150,000, has more high-income households than anywhere in the state or nation. A lot of them are here in 90210: The median household income in these confines is $134,000, more than triple the county median.

But barely a half-hour drive south, the world turns upside down. In South Central LA's ZIP code 90059--just five minutes from the high-tech Staples Center, which will host the Democratic National Convention--on this same Saturday morning, there is no Farmers Market. To be precise, there are no markets at all. No malls. Among a sea of liquor stores and razor-wire-topped auto repair and parts stores there are barely two or three fast-food outlets and one lonely, bunkerlike bank. Here the median household income is just over $20,000 a year.

Other contrasts are equally stark. In 90210, 84 percent of the inhabitants are white and 50 percent of them have four years or more of college. In 90059, 0.00 percent are white (48 percent are black, 51 percent Latino) and only 5 percent have four years or more of college; 53 percent haven't completed high school. In 90210, the median home value is $501,000; in 90059, it's about $100,000--still only $20,000 or so under the national median, reflecting LA's inflated housing market.

One final revealing contrast: As of last fall, inhabitants of 90210 had given about a half-million dollars in presidential campaign contributions. From 90059 only $250 had been raised--not enough to get you dessert at a DNC fundraising dinner.

These statistics and the growing gap between rich and poor led the usually cautious United Way to issue a tough-minded report last year with the pointedly provocative title A Tale of Two Cities: Promise and Peril in Los Angeles. "There is no city in America where the contrasts are starker both in relative terms and in the absolute numbers of the very rich and the very poor," says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "Nowhere else in America can you so quickly become a millionaire or so quickly become so very poor that you find yourself trapped in a structural system where you can't get out."

 

Honduras in Hollywood: A Colonial Outpost

There's no question that this divide rips through every aspect of the economic, cultural, social and political life of the city. Where one lives, works, goes to the movies and even which beach or park one chooses is defined by a constant and complicated calculation of what invisible boundaries can and cannot be crossed. Yet there is rarely any public recognition of the fault lines. If, as social historian Mike Davis argues, Los Angeles is the city of the future, then it is also true that the mythological baggage and collective denial that comes with the New Economy is most vividly and actively in play in this city. For while the neighborhoods of 90210 and 90059 are, admittedly, the extremes, the city's economic and social center of gravity is a whole lot closer to the bottom than the top.

Housing costs in LA are high enough that there are more renters than homeowners. More than 40 percent of those renters pay more than one-third of their monthly income for housing. A third of adults haven't completed high school. An almost equal number, 1.8 million people, are illiterate. A third live in poverty. Thirty percent of adults and 25 percent of children have no health insurance. If you include those families subsisting on the remnants of the "reformed" welfare system and those receiving food stamps, about 20 percent of America's welfare caseload lives in Los Angeles County. "Los Angeles is the nation's poverty capital with the largest number of poor of any metropolitan area," concludes the United Way report.

And, as in the rest of the country, but to a more acute degree, those mired in poverty are increasingly adults who are fully and regularly employed. An analysis released this summer by UCLA ranked Los Angeles County 100th among 318 US urban areas in personal income--down from 36th place only ten years ago. This precipitate decline, says Tom Lieser, executive director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast, reflects the transition Los Angeles has made from an abundance of middle-class and often unionized jobs in aerospace, manufacturing and finance to more and more low-wage, nonunion, service and low-end assembly jobs. The high-tech and entertainment industries continue to produce some high-paying jobs, but, he says, "we've lost a big chunk out of the middle."

Yet another report, this one from economists with the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute, documents that in 1999 almost 11 percent of Los Angeles workers were trapped at or near the minimum wage--a full 2 percentage points more than the national average. Most shocking, and a strong suggestion of just how widespread domestic sweatshop work might be, a fourth of those Los Angeles minimum-wage workers are employed in manufacturing. So they are getting the $5.75 per hour minimum not for flipping burgers or sweeping the floor of the ice-cream parlor but for grueling assembly-line work: building furniture, molding metals, sewing clothes or processing foods.

In other regions of the country, many such jobs were long ago exported to the Third World. But the unstoppable flood of primarily Mexican and Central American immigrants into Southern California--millions in the past two decades--has created a self-contained Third World labor market in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills. And it has attracted an entrepreneurial class--and a professional middle class, for that matter--only too eager to exploit it. Los Angeles looks ever more like a colonial outpost, a perfect social pyramid: a broad base of poorly paid, largely immigrant labor supporting a small caste of native Anglo rentiers.

The demographic shift of recent times has been tectonic. A city that was 70 percent white in 1960 is now only 31 percent so, according to Census 2000 projections. The black population is down from 15 percent to just below 10 percent. Asians are up from 4 percent to 15 percent. The Latino population has grown from 10 percent to 44 percent and is still growing. Go to virtually any site of employment in Los Angeles, whether it's a grungy junkyard in South Central, a trendy eatery on the West Side, a car wash in the South Bay, a chi-chi $7-a-shirt dry cleaner in the Valley, a labor-intensive garment factory downtown, a fast-food joint in Hollywood or your neighbor's weekend project to upgrade his landscape and, inevitably, those behind the counter, on the line, at the machine, on the register, in the trench and at your service are low-paid Latino workers.

 

'I Survive by the Grace of God'

Consequently, it is increasingly unnecessary to travel even the half-hour between extreme ZIP codes to capture the socioeconomic contrasts--and conflicts--of this city. Nearly everywhere nowadays in Los Angeles, the intricate dependencies between rich and poor expose themselves in ever more novel forms. It's been some years now since Mexican laborers broke the near-monopoly once held by Japanese-Americans on personal gardening services. As Latino gardeners undercut their Asian competitors and each other, maintenance costs fell. Today a middle-class homeowner often pays less per week to have his front and rear lawn mowed and his hedges trimmed ($15-$20) than to have his hair cut ($25). (Latinos have yet to crack that service market.)

As Latino gardeners earned less and less per house, they added more clients to their routes and devoted less time to each job. They relied heavily on timesaving, gas-powered leaf-blowers. But in the past few years, the creamy suburbs of Malibu and Santa Monica, upscale and predominantly gay West Hollywood and then--as a result of a "homeowners movement" born in its wealthiest quarters--the City of Los Angeles proper have outlawed the use of blowers, citing the noise and dust they kick up as environmental hazards. That the gardeners themselves generally live in some of the most polluted and toxic neighborhoods in America--and that they earn hazardously little--seems of concern to nobody outside a small handful of environmental justice crusaders.

Or consider this scene in seaside Santa Monica. On a recent weekday summer morning on Ocean Avenue at the head of the Santa Monica Pier, the world seemed infused with the bubble-gum-colored, Corona-flavored fantasy of Endless Summer. Tourists filed toward the pier's legendary carousel, while couples covered in sunblock and dark glasses lazed on the palisades park benches and gazed at the waves.

Postcard perfect. But all leveraged on the back of cheap labor, as soon became evident. Suddenly, some 300 mostly Latino workers and their supporters noisily materialized and, holding aloft puppets and banners reading End Poverty, proceeded with utmost discipline and precision to "seize" the intersection at the head of the pier. The participants in the event, organized by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11, staged a mock trial of the local Loews Hotel and, just before they were arrested without putting up any resistance, ruled the defendants guilty--guilty of contributing to poverty. Of the six coastal resort hotels in Santa Monica, only one is unionized. In the other hotels, all of which charge $350 a night or more for an ocean-view room, the mostly Latino work force earns an average of $7-$9 an hour--barely enough in one week to buy eighteen hours in a room they clean or serve.

For the past couple of months, Local 11 has targeted Loews in a unionization drive, and this demonstration was just one piece of a larger strategy. More actions might be expected during the Democratic convention, since the Loews president and CEO, Jonathan Tisch, is a major Al Gore financial angel. Also acting as a potential goad to action, members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are scheduled to bunk at Loews, as are members of the conservative Blue Dog Democrat caucus.

"We work very, very hard to make Santa Monica the beautiful place it is. But when we ask for a raise, we're told to shut up," says Brian Samuels, a "personal-care provider" in the pricey Ocean House retirement hotel nearby. Originally from the small Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent, Samuels has worked steadily at the same job now for ten years. He says he has come to march with the Loews workers because he believes strongly in a living wage and the need for unionization.

His own economic predicament underlines what it means to be part of the submerged working poor in today's Los Angeles. His decade of loyal service earns him $9 an hour. After taxes and other deductions he brings home about $1,100 a month. "My rent is $575 a month. My phone, my gas, lights, water another couple of hundred. I have health insurance, but medicines are not paid for," he says. His small apartment sits in central Los Angeles about fifteen miles east of Santa Monica, but he has no money for a car--not even for a monthly pass on a metropolitan bus system so overcrowded that it is under a judicial consent decree demanding improved service to the poor. "I can't afford to spend the $42 all at once for the pass," he says. "It's more expensive, but I pay the $2.70 per day." After paying for housing and transportation, Samuels figures he's left with $7-$8 per day for food, entertainment, clothing and extra medical costs. His employer provides lunch--at a reduced charge. "I exist and survive," he says, "purely by the grace of God." And this as a single person earning almost twice the legal minimum wage.

The hotels, meanwhile, are not reacting passively. In what is undoubtedly one of the most cynical political maneuvers in recent Los Angeles history, the resorts have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a campaign that will place an ordinance on the Santa Monica city ballot this November. Appealing to and exploiting the beach city's liberal sensibilities, the initiative is billed as a "living wage" measure. But it is a ruse. If passed, the measure would actually bar the city from decreeing an increased wage floor for the Santa Monica hotel workers. "This is a very pro-business, anti-labor initiative," says USC constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, one of the promoters of the living-wage movement in Los Angeles. "Voters are being asked to change the [Santa Monica] city constitution to take away the traditional power of government to protect the rights of workers."

But even the rules that exist don't protect many workers, who earn less than the legal minimum wage. In early July LA Times labor reporter Nancy Cleeland broke a stunning front-page story slamming major corporate supermarket chains for their practice of outsourcing janitorial work to shady labor subcontractors. As a result of that practice, the nearly all immigrant, mostly undocumented janitors who sweep and mop the most prestigious supermarkets in the city are sometimes being paid as little as $275 for a soul-crushing fifty-six-hour workweek. Worse, the payments are strictly under the table, robbing the state of payroll taxes and the workers of unemployment and Social Security protection. By utilizing middlemen subcontractors, the markets were able to feign ignorance until they were outed by the Times's searing, three-page exposé. And the undocumented workers, some of whom are still toiling to pay off the fee for being smuggled across the border, have no choice other than to docilely comply. "Sure we are exploited," 55-year-old janitor Guadalupe Flores, a father of six, told the Times. "We know that. But what can we do? What options do we have?"

 

Welfare Warfare

Fernando Guerra of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles argues that as the city's average wealth indicators have declined, the political establishment has utterly failed to provide an institutional response. "In every policy area it is assumed Los Angeles is still a middle-class city because those policies are made by middle-class people like me," he adds. "We don't want to use a class analysis or recognize the real level of poverty because it would lead to policies we don't like." The result of that denial is policies that either ignore or punish the poor--or both.

Bob Erlenbusch, who heads the grassroots LA Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness--a group that has shown great political effectiveness on unpopular issues--passionately agrees. Los Angeles remains the homeless capital of America, with 50,000-80,000 people on the county streets every night. "Just like fifteen years ago," he says. "The only difference is that nowadays no one any longer cares." He adds, "Every day the stock market goes up, the Nasdaq goes up, everyone watches Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and yet every day there are more homeless. The reaction isn't 'I think there might be a link between the two.' Instead, it's more like 'What the hell is wrong with those people?' Hence, you get the punitive policy."

And in Los Angeles, no policy is more punitive than that which regulates the General Relief program, the last, tenuous line of government assistance. Administered by the county--in this case by a putatively "liberal" 3-to-2 majority of LA County supervisors--GR, as the program is known, is available to indigent adults without children. If you are a penniless adult in Los Angeles, the county will grant you $221 a month, exactly one dollar more than the payment level of 1984--provided, that is, you perform twenty hours a week of workfare. Little additional compassion reigns in the CalWorks program, California's new "reformed" welfare system, under which a single mom with two kids is now granted around $630 a month--again, with a busywork requirement and plenty of new rules. Of the 160,000 families on CalWorks assistance in LA County, says Erlenbusch, at any given moment 30,000-35,000 of them are being sanctioned. "Because they are often homeless and have lost some paper or failed to file some report, or didn't show up to the Job Club, they are temporarily kicked off," he says. After five years, you are disqualified from further aid--forever. Erlenbusch points out that these limits first come into effect in 2003. He asks, "Just what is LA County going to do then when all these women and their children are timed out and dumped literally into the streets?"

 

The Politics of Poverty

 

Even if Erlenbusch's darkest fears don't materialize, the recent history of Los Angeles offers little evidence of a political class or a business community willing to recognize--let alone accommodate--the poor, who suffer what seems like a permanent crisis of representation. There was that moment of hope in the seventies when a cross-class, multiracial coalition brought a self-effacing black LAPD officer, Tom Bradley, into the mayor's office. But Bradley quickly made a pact with elite business interests and devoted his administration to forging a "world-class city"--focusing on downtown commercial development, the airport and the harbor. All this while Los Angeles was being stripped of its industrial base and of the union jobs that supported many African-American households.

By the end of his tenure in the early nineties, Bradley's presence had faded into little more than a ghostly rumor. It was under his administration that the city blew apart in 1992. In the midst of those riots, Bradley's multiracial coalition exploded too. His successor, the moderate Republican, multimillionaire Richard Riordan, seemed to have done more for the poor before he got elected--his charitable donations to schools had been significant. But elected on the rather martial post-riot slogan "Tough Enough to Turn LA Around," Riordan quickly turned his back on the bottom half of the city. City Hall fumbled and failed to secure federal grants set aside for post-riot construction. And the much ballyhooed Rebuild LA scheme, aimed at bringing billions of investment into scarred South Central, never materialized.

The global economy has even eroded what was once LA's visible native corporate elite, a development symbolized by the fact that the Los Angeles Times is now being run out of Chicago. As a result, the WASPish noblesse oblige toward the poor that marked downtown politics has vanished. While a business-based so-called Committee of 25 once acted as LA's invisible government, today a circle of fat cats--like developers Eli Broad and Ed Roski--has grown up around the Mayor. They regularly work in tandem with him, not on high-minded civic improvement projects but rather on juicy, self-serving business deals like the construction of the Staples Center and the funding of Riordan's various political causes. This led one local left-of-center pundit to yearn openly for a more effective ruling class. "Most cities have an elite that are financially and to a certain degree emotionally invested in their city," says Harold Meyerson. "But in Los Angeles the elite are different. They are disconnected from the physical center of the city, and they are absorbed instead either in their own pursuits or in national politics, which they find more interesting. I suspect there are more people in Brentwood who regularly call the White House than who call City Hall."

 

Cockeyed Optimismo

While the political void left by Bradley and Riordan has yet to be filled by a coordinated and articulate progressive political alternative force that can fight on behalf of ZIP codes like 90059, some hopeful steps in that direction have been taken [see Candaele and Dreier, page 24]. Still, organized white Angeleno liberals of the sort that voted for Bradley in 1974 have become nearly extinct, having retreated out of the city or behind the walls of mushrooming guarded and gated enclaves. Other middle-class white communities have been swept into various secession movements that, if successful, could further increase the economic and social apartheid of Los Angeles. Many lower-income whites, meanwhile, have fled to declining "crabgrass" suburbs and have no political champions.

The growing Asian community, for its part, has as many economically troubled pocket communities as it has glitteringly prosperous ones. But the Asian poor, apart from some positive but small stirrings in the Korean community, have yet to gain any political voice.

LA's black population--except for a sliver of professionals and well-paid government employees and teachers--is still shoehorned largely into the bleak cement labyrinths of South Central, which is in, and adjacent to, 90059. But these once all-black neighborhoods are now turning Latino. Even in 90059, in the heart of legendary Watts, epicenter of the 1965 riots, Latinos now slightly outnumber blacks.

Blacks feel the squeeze beyond real estate. There's a clear employer preference and bias for Latinos over blacks, and the latter now struggle to attain even the most menial of jobs. Much more than any CIA conspiracy, these hard economic facts are what allowed the crack (and gang) epidemic to become so strong in the southern part of the city.

African-American political clout reached its zenith in the seventies, helping to elect Bradley and a few black councilmembers. But the past twenty years have seen a steady and marked decline in both black political and economic power. The dearth of black leadership in Los Angeles has reached such a crisis level that the community's most prominent political figure is a multimillionaire developer--Danny Bakewell, who, with his shopping-mall deals and silver Rolls-Royce, hardly inspires much confidence as an advocate for the poor. And often, Bakewell on the one side and some elected Latino officials like State Senator Richard Polanco on the other have been the star protagonists in ugly black/Latino political confrontations over scarce government resources and political sinecures. "The black political establishment never lived up to its professed ethos of inclusion," says Joe Hicks, director of the LA Human Relations Commission and a longtime African-American activist. "As the city complexion changed toward Latino they never said, 'OK, we are going to represent everybody.' They continued to say, 'We are black political representatives.' This has generated a lot of anger and resentment from the newly arrived and often majority-Latino population."

Against this backdrop of a white community in flight and backlash and a black community in a state of defeat, any real hope for political change on behalf of the poor has defaulted to the rising Latino community. It is the only force capable of spearheading and leading a new multiracial progressive coalition, for two reasons: its sheer numbers and its own rising optimism and energy. It is no longer a question of whether Los Angeles is going to transition to Latino leadership. With 64 percent of LA first graders speaking Spanish as a first language, the transition is only a question of when--and how. There's already a palpable sense of the coming empowerment among the Latino population. Even within the bounds of their current unequal situation, LA Latinos express an optimism about their general situation that sharply differentiates them from the defeatism that affects blacks and the fears that haunt whites. In one poll after another, Latinos score five to ten points higher than others in expressing optimism about the city, its schools, even the elusive issue of police reform. New Latino/labor alliances have brought stirring organizing and political victories, further adding to the sense of rising expectations. Already 38 percent of the LA delegation to the state legislature is Latino. Two credible Latino candidates are running in next year's mayoral election.

"But identity politics can be treacherous," says Carlos Porras, executive director of the environmental justice group Communities for a Better Environment. Having butted heads repeatedly in the past few years with new Latino-dominated municipal administrations in the impoverished and heavily polluted southeast LA County suburbs, Porras says: "It's not just about the color of your skin. It's about your values, your principles."

The coming transition to Latino power offers no automatic solution to the current great divide. The challenge before the new Latino political class is whether it can be truly inclusive. Fernando Guerra, for one, is guardedly optimistic. "Most cities that have transitioned to black or Latino leadership have not done very well. But that's been mostly in bad economic times," he says. "With LA we have a chance to be the first city that does well economically as Latinos move into power. The question is, Can those new leaders come in with a new paradigm? Or do they just bring all the old stuff covered with a Latino face?"

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