The Quality of Life in L.A. : A Times Poll Special Report

Kevin Roderick is a Times staff writer.

Los Angeles County, 1943, population 3.1 million and growing: Life magazine reports that "almost everybody who lives in Los Angeles believes that someday it will be the largest city in the world."

Los Angeles County, 1989, population 8.5 million and growing: Nearly half of Los Angeles residents say they have considered moving away in the past year.

The Times Poll, conducted between Feb. 11 and Feb 14, surveyed 2,046 Los Angeles County and city residents who were randomly selected and interviewed by telephone. A poll sample of this size has a possible error of 3% in either direction. Some interviews were conducted in Spanish. Ethnic breakdowns cannot list Asian respondents as a separate group because of the sample size. The Los Angeles residents whose profiles begin on Page 12 were selected for more in-depth interviews from among those surveyed for the Times Poll, which was directed by I. A. Lewis.

LIFE MAGAZINE'S SPIN on sunny, funny Los Angeles in the '40s was America's view for decades. Blessed with "a monotonous supply of sunshine," the area was "irresistibly attractive to hordes of people." It overflowed with young men who hitched rides here from Ohio and Indiana and found good jobs nailing up houses or assembling airplanes or writing movies, and sent home for their sweethearts and kinfolk.

Streetcars went everywhere. Why, you could ride from Santa Monica to Riverside and back on a pleasant Sunday. Houses were cheap. Winter was a rumor except on days when winds scattered the haze to reveal snow-frosted mountains. Crime seemed to occur on screen more often than on sidewalks.

Los Angeles was a phenomenon, and not just for white people. Many blacks--including the man who would serve as mayor of Los Angeles longer than anyone--found refuge from Southern segregation. Unlike much of the country, the culture also made a place for those whose ancestors lived in Mexico or around the Pacific, even if it didn't always welcome them. "Mister, this is dreamland," Life concluded.

But today, nearly half a century later, for many the dream is fading fast, the Times Poll has found. As the population grows, life is turning more frantic, more pressured, more dangerous in and around the No. 2 American city, heart of the largest metropolitan area on the Pacific outside of Asia. Los Angeles has become more sophisticated, more worldly, and people say it offers more entertainment and economic opportunities than in the '40s, or even the '70s. But, the poll found, people have become resentful of the price.

It seems this is no longer the cheerful paradise Life described. Six of every 10 people interviewed for the poll said they believe that the quality of life in Los Angeles has changed for the worse in the past 15 years. Only 17% of Los Angeles County residents said things have improved. Three-fourths said Los Angeles is a worse place to bring up children. Only 5% said it has become a better place for children. Nearly half--48%--of the 2,046 Los Angeles County residents interviewed by telephone said they had considered moving away in the past year--to San Diego, Ventura, Orange County, Northern California, even out of state. (But the dissatisfaction has not translated to political ferment. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appears headed for easy reelection to a record fifth term next week; there have been no changes in the County Board of Supervisors since 1980, and likewise there has been no rush to unseat other local city officials around the Los Angeles area.)

THE GOOD NEWS

Sun and Money: The poll did find abundant optimism and plenty that people still like about life in Los Angeles. A little more than half said "things are going well"--though only 6% said things are going "very well." To find just what people do like about Los Angeles, the interviewers read people a list of good qualities about Los Angeles, then asked which they endorsed.

Not too surprising, perhaps, the poll found that today's Los Angeles residents are pleased with the same attractions that drew earlier generations of immigrants here--climate and economic opportunities.

But the answers tended to depend on people's income and where they live. On the Westside of Los Angeles, in the more affluent coastal communities such as Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Venice, 66% said climate is L.A.'s biggest attraction. A third of Westsiders also praised L.A.'s "cultural diversity," while only 20% said it is the financial opportunities that make life in L.A. desirable.

In the San Gabriel Valley, far from the ocean, the motivations were similar but with a different shading. Climate was still ranked first, but by just 48% of the people. More inland residents mentioned opportunities--34%--than on the Westside. Only 25% in the San Gabriel Valley, a racially mixed area reaching from Pasadena to Pomona, said cultural diversity is one of the things they like best about living here.

As might be expected, older people placed somewhat more importance on climate; younger people and blacks more frequently stressed opportunities. Latinos placed more value on economic opportunities than anyone else, with 38% saying it was the aspect of L.A. life they value as much as the weather. But in whatever order, those two attractions were mentioned everywhere, followed by the area's casual life style, the outdoor life and its physical beauty. Two attributes sometimes thought to excite people about life here--glamour and living life on the "cutting edge"--were rejected by all but a few who answered the poll.

Fun and Culture: Also on the positive side, nearly half said they think that metropolitan Los Angeles has become a more entertaining and enjoyable place to live over the past 15 years. In that time, the city's downtown has begun to show the stirrings of a night life outside the Music Center. New museums and theaters have opened (although many other stages have gone dark). The center of culinary life has expanded from Beverly Hills and Wilshire Boulevard to hip new restaurants on Melrose Avenue, La Brea Avenue and Ventura Boulevard, to Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Malibu, and more recently to East Los Angeles and Monterey Park. Shopping malls with their multi-screen movie-plexes have turned into weekend entertainment centers in many neighborhoods.

Overall, 28% said they enjoy Los Angeles more because there are now more theater offerings, 17% said art museums, 11% shopping, 10% restaurants, 6% cable television and 5% movies.

THE BAD NEWS

That was the good news. But the downside of the poll's findings are much stronger. Although a little more than half of the respondents said they are pleased with Los Angeles life today, that is a sharp drop from 1985, when 70% said life was going well. The poll found that people are reacting badly to many of the changes in metropolitan Los Angeles life.

Women and older people felt more strongly than men and younger people that things have soured. Latinos were less displeased than whites or blacks, with 55% saying things were worse. But 60% of whites and 76% of blacks said the quality of life has declined. People who live on the Westside and along the beaches felt better about the recent past. But, even there most people said things have turned for the worse.

What is it about Los Angeles that bothers people most?

Crime: Without a doubt, crime is the fact of life that angers people most about Los Angeles. Asked to name the area's two biggest problems, more than three out of four people mentioned crime. It was the main reason residents gave for wanting to leave the Los Angeles area. And 69% of all the respondents said they would support using future taxes to add police officers.

In truth, the rate of many crimes is decreasing. Los Angeles police counted 11% fewer murders in the city last year than the year before. Yet more than half--57%--of the women polled and 55% of residents older than 40 said they do not feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods after dark.

Personal fear might be rising because of the county's increasingly bloody and visible gang warfare. Sheriff's deputies say gangs killed 452 people in the county last year, 65 more than the year before, and gangs are receiving more media attention than ever. Residents of areas with the heaviest gang activity are the most afraid, the poll found. Indeed, more than 20% of the people polled in the southern part of Los Angeles city said they feel unsafe even in their homes. In the more suburban northern reaches of the county--including Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster--only 4% said they feel fearful indoors.

Drugs and gangs were the most common reasons given by the large majority who say L.A. has become a worse place to raise children. The feeling that drug abuse is interfering more with family life was strongest on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, both areas that are seeing the growing population cause major alterations in the pace of life.

Traffic: It took even longer to move about by car in Los Angeles in 1943 than it does today. Traffic flow improved as the freeways were built and streetcar tracks that impeded drivers were torn out of county streets. But today, with more than 6 million vehicles registered in Los Angeles, the poll found that people rank the frustrations of moving around the county second only to crime on their short list of life's major concerns.

About 30% said traffic and other transportation problems are the facets of life they like least in Los Angeles. Overall, when people were asked to list their two or three pet peeves about L.A., 71% mentioned some problem getting around. For 24%, it was finding a parking place, and 22% said bad drivers. By more than 2 to 1, people believe that drivers are less skilled these days.

Potholes bothered 16%, and 18% cited dirty streets. The belief that traffic has become a major problem was strongest along the coast and in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, where traffic congestion is increasing measurably, and lightest in southside areas of the city of Los Angeles, which have largely been skipped over by the current development boom.

Traffic congestion is worsening mainly because there are too many cars and trucks on the road, 60% said. Far smaller numbers blame a shortage of freeways, poor public transit, lax enforcement of traffic laws or bad drivers.

Crowds: Not everyone considers crime and traffic the only leading problems of Los Angeles life in the 1980s. The growing population is one of the area's two most pressing issues, said 18% of those polled. Another 18% cited pollution of the environment, a by-product of growth.

About 8% said higher costs are their main reason for thinking of moving away, a slightly smaller number than the 12% who cite crime as their motivation to consider leaving Los Angeles County.

Asked to list not the most pressing issues, but what they like least about Los Angeles, respondents in the Southeast cities, in south Los Angeles and in central and eastern Los Angeles ranked pollution second only to crime. In the South Bay area, crime and traffic tie-ups were tied for least liked, but pollution was close behind.

More than half, 56%, said yes when asked if they believed that there are "too many" immigrants in Los Angeles (fewer than in a 1987 Times Poll, when 62% of Los Angeles County respondents said there were too many immigrants). Two-thirds of respondents also said the growing homeless population detracts from the quality of Los Angeles life.

The poll also asked people to tell their pet peeves about Los Angeles, and many of the answers fit the general subject of overpopulation and pollution. Waiting in lines bothered 15%; 14% cited littered beaches and 10% knocked the multiplying mini-malls. A smaller number complained of overpopulation, graffiti, overdevelopment and general ugliness.

Annoyances, Irritants, Aggravations: But what of the other lesser annoyances, the headache-inducing features of life in Los Angeles that bug people, but not enough to make anyone move away?

Rude people ranked high on the list of pet peeves. About 20% were rankled by rudeness, which women placed ahead of bad drivers or lack of space to park their cars. Not far behind on the irritation scale were panhandlers (14%).

Movie and restaurant prices were mentioned by a smattering of people, as was the low quality of local television news programs. About 22% of the responses to the question of pet peeves were assorted other complaints, certainly opinionated, but mentioned by too few people to be counted as statistically significant, in the jargon of opinion surveys. And 18 respondents, fewer than 1% of the sample, complained simply about "the people." Other, smaller groups cited poor political leadership, trendiness, a lack of community and declining morality.

For two people, pinning a succinct name on what peeves them most about Los Angeles was easy. "L.A. in general," they ad-libbed to Times Poll interviewers.

THE BEST OF L.A. What do you like most about Los Angeles?* Climate: 54% Economic Opportunities: 29% Cultural Diversity: 20% Casual Live Style: 17% Outdoor Life: 15% * Respondents were allowed two replies.

THE WORST OF L.A. What do you like least about Los Angeles?* Crime: 43% Transportation Tie-ups: 30% Air and Water Pollution: 28% Too Many Immigrants: 18% Poor Quality of Schools: 16% * Respondents were allowed two replies.

ON OUR NERVES What is Your PET PEEVE About Los Angeles? Bad Drivers: 22% Litter on Beaches: 14% Mini-Malls: 10% Movie Prices: 4% Panhandlers: 14% Parking: 24% Potholes: 16% Restaurant Prices: 3% Rudeness: 20% Dirty Streets: 18% Stupid Local TV News: 4% Waiting in Lines: 15% Other*: 22%

* Many respondents volunteered pet peeves not offered to them as choices by pool interviewers. Among the complaints were graffiti, housing prices and ugliness.

MOVING OUT

48% of Respondents Said in the Last Year They Had Considered Moving Out of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.

WHY would you move?

Asian & White Black Latino Other Crime 11% 19% 15% 6% Bad Place to Raise Children 6% 15% 10% 6% High Cost of Living 9% 5% 6% 14% Traffic 6% 2% 3% 3% Pollution 4% 2% 3% 4% Quality of Education 2% 2% 5% 1% Something Else 10% 5% 5% 14%* Plans No Move 50% 49% 52% 49%

*Anectotal breakdown on additional reasons

WHERE would you move?

Asian & White Black Latino Other Out of State 27% 35% 19% 25% Nor. California 19% 6% 11% 14% San Diego County 11% 8% 12% 13% Somewhere Else in L.A. County 6% 13% 19% 15% Orange County 6% 10% 7% 10% Ventura County 5% 2% 7% 2% Santa Barbara Co. 8% 6% 5% 6% Inland Empire 1% 10% 6% 3% The Desert 5% 1% 5% 1% Out of the Country 4% 1% 4% 4% Not Sure 6% 8% 4% 6%

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