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Is Los Angeles getting better or worse?

Is Los Angeles getting better or worse?
Los Angeles: The good and the bad. (Associated Press)

If you live in Los Angeles, change is a guaranteed part of the bargain. The Lakers rise and the Dodgers fall. Neighborhoods gentrify. World cuisines marry and food trucks spawn. Businesses flourish and disappear. People move here from places near and far, bringing fresh energy and presenting new challenges.

But if you had to sum it all up, would you say Los Angeles is getting better or worse?

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Depends on whom you ask, how they live, what they expect and the city they remember.

“L.A. is getting better,” said Jeff Hyland, a Beverly Hills real estate agent who grew up in Westwood and has watched Los Angeles become “a world-class metropolis.”

Hyland once showed me a $35-million house the buyer intended to bulldoze and rebuild.

“When everyone wants to live here,” he said, “it makes for a great real estate economy that trickles down to everyone who can still afford to own a house.”

Christmas decorations adorn Hollywood in the 1950s.
Christmas decorations adorn Hollywood in the 1950s. (Los Angeles Times)

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author, political commentator and longtime South Crenshaw area resident, just bought a house. But it’s in Sedona, Ariz., and he looks forward to the day when he can leave Los Angeles after half a century here.

“I’ve seen many changes, and I’m … not going to give you a glass half-full, glass half-empty routine,” said Hutchinson, who ripped off a litany of complaints about housing, transportation, civil rights regression, a deteriorating physical environment, segregation by income and race, the overall quality of life and the state of political leadership. “I think the glass is empty.”

So whose take is right, Jeff Hyland’s or Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s?

They’re both right.

Los Angeles, mocked for decades as a shallow, crime-ridden nightmare of a smog-choked, racially polarized city, is now a capital of commerce and high-energy cultural diversity. It’s a destination for the snobs who wrote it off, a food invention laboratory, a political outlier, a window on the future. And while it may not know what it wants to be, the uncertainty is part of the appeal. Entire neighborhoods have risen from the dead. Avenues once avoided are now thriving. Reinvention is currency.

And yet for all the prosperity and unbridled commerce, L.A.’s savage inequality is a crippling travesty, with tent cities as commonplace as million-dollar homes. You can emerge from a restaurant that serves $80 steaks, wade through the human catastrophe of sprawling homelessness, drive home to gated glory in Tesla luxury, but get stuck in traffic so bad you’d be better off traveling by donkey.

I began fixating on these contradictions after reading a story about whether the world is getting better or worse — a story that concluded that things don’t get better without complaints about what’s wrong. So feel free to send me your gripes and your fixes. And when I refer to Los Angeles, I mean the intersecting, overlapping metropolis strung together by a web of highways and framed by mountain, basin and sea, not just the city itself.

A driver fights the smog in 1970s Los Angeles.
A driver fights the smog in 1970s Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)

Is your quality of life better than it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago? Do you send your kids to neighborhood schools or have you lost faith in them? Do you feel safer? Is money in politics more corrosive than ever? Is population growth a sign of prosperity or reason to lock the gates and pull up the ladders?

Don Schultz, an 81-year-old Van Nuys resident, said he and his wife, Prudy, used to drive to Santa Monica on boiling-hot San Fernando Valley days. Traffic was light, parking was easy and a walk on the beach was pure air-conditioned pleasure.

“Now we can’t drive six blocks without going bumper to bumper, no matter what direction we’re going in,” Schultz said.

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This is all true. But let’s not forget that in the middle of the last century, the National Guard rushed in to quell race riots and people wore masks because the smog was so wretched. Forty years ago, Santa Monica Bay was a sewage treatment plant. We’ve come a long way since then.

On the other hand, if not for the spirit-sapping beast of ever-worsening traffic, I’d have a full head of hair. I wrote a column 11 years ago about empty seats at Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium — the result of Westside season ticket holders beaten down by the trek east.

It seems to only get worse. I have a son in Santa Monica and good friends on the Westside, and as long as I’m living near the Arroyo Parkway, there is no way to see them unless we meet at midnight, we buy a helicopter or Elon Musk stops yapping and actually builds a few tunnels.

We’ve laid down more train tracks in recent years, but it hasn’t helped. And many of us now live in shrinking orbits, fully aware that promises of traffic fixes are not to be trusted, and the only way to ease our burden is to move to Topeka.

Housing is cheaper there too. It’s cheaper everywhere, thanks to a simple equation in California — we’ve added way more people than new housing. Factor in the demise of mid-wage jobs in manufacturing and aerospace, among other industries, and Los Angeles has an economy that does not pay the rent. That is one reason, among many, that we are the homeless capital of the nation.

Smoke fills the sky from fires burning during the 1992 L.A. riots.
Smoke fills the sky from fires burning during the 1992 L.A. riots. (Los Angeles Times)

“Los Angeles is getting worse,” said celebrated author and former poet laureate Luis Rodriguez. “It’s becoming a city for the rich, with 58 billionaires and some 58,000 people living on the street.

“L.A.’s getting better,” Rodriguez continued, “in that it’s still vibrantly diverse.”

Local native Apryl Boyle, who’s with Heal the Bay, picked up on that theme.

“I absolutely LOVE my hometown,” she said in an email. “I’ve watched so many iterations of its identity. … Whenever I meet someone from another state, country, or continent I can relate to them because I’ve likely already encountered someone from their corner of the planet. Here in Los Angeles you can visit so many places … just by taking a short bus ride. Little Tokyo, Chinatown, K-Town, Olvera Street, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia … the list goes on. Los Angeles just keeps getting better.”

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For some people, sure. But not for everyone.

Cynthia Strathmann of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy said once-blighted neighborhoods may be thriving, but the cost is eviction, dislocation, displacement.

“In some ways, what we see is the physical manifestation of wealth inequality,” Strathmann said. “We’re going to end up with beautiful cities, but it’ll be like the ‘Hunger Games’ … with outlying areas of impoverished exurbs and suburbs, as we move all the poor people out to the Inland Empire or up to Palmdale, where there are no services and no political capital.”

Money, as they say, can’t buy happiness. But it makes for a nice down payment.

“Those who earn much above the average income feel much better about L.A. than those who earn a barely livable wage or less,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, who runs UCLA’s Quality of Life Index. “Where this shows up in sharp relief is in the category of housing costs.”

The city has plenty of dining options at night.
The city has plenty of dining options at night. (Los Angeles Times)

Countywide, on a scale of 10-100 points, residents rated their quality of life at 56, slightly down from two years ago. On the question of housing, Yaroslavsky said, those ages 18 to 29 rated their quality of life at 38, and those ages 30 to 39 gave an average score of 36.

“Income is the key that opens doors to climbing the ladder of opportunity,” Yaroslavsky said. “If you can’t make ends meet, you feel that opportunity is out of reach, hope becomes a fantasy, and that can easily turn to despair.”

In Los Angeles, you can make it career-wise and still not be where you want to be. David Song is in his 30s, he’s a college professor married to an architectural designer, but with two young children, they can’t afford to buy in Koreatown.

“The neighborhood is great, but I’m a renter,” said Song, who figures he’d have to move far from the city core to find a nice affordable home. But then he’d miss the advantages of city life, including proximity to transit lines, and he’d have one of those wretched commutes that convinces you there’s no doubt about it: Things are getting worse.

The view of L.A. has changed over the years.
The view of L.A. has changed over the years. (Time magazine)

“I don’t see a narrative of progress, but Los Angeles has always been a place of contradictions,” said Song, who would not miss everything about Koreatown if his family ends up moving. “I now walk through the neighborhood with two kids, and I see dog [poop] in bags on a refrigerator that’s been thrown out on a curb.”

City life is messy, especially in a place of mythical appeal, a place that draws masses of people who unpack their energy and problems upon arrival.

Los Angeles is a singular, inspired mess, paradise lost and found, prone to natural catastrophe and too chaotic and leaderless to be neatly assessed as getting better or worse. It’s always doing some of both, and like any work in progress, it’s in greater need of critics than defenders.

It could benefit from a discussion of what works, what doesn’t and what has not yet been imagined.

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