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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."

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