COLUMN ONE : L.A.'s Turn as Urban Laboratory : Though a trend-setter, the city has long been viewed as a cultural aberration. Now it has become a Mecca for researchers studying growth and ethnic groups.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unprecedented waves of immigration from all parts of the world are fast turning Los Angeles into the nation's greatest urban laboratory.

Like a giant petri dish, Los Angeles is being examined and poked by a growing number of scholars, writers, scientists, thinkers and other researchers in search of ways to understand the changing character of America.

How do foreign-born groups coexist? Do diseases attack ethnic communities differently? What are the political ramifications of global immigration? These kinds of questions about Los Angeles are posed daily in a wide collection of think tanks, universities, libraries and testing grounds.

"There are dozens of us now who believe that if you can understand Los Angeles and how it works and how its people get along and how its people settle . . . you can, in fact, understand urban processes in a nutshell," UCLA demographer Leo F. Estrada said.

Like many of the scholars who are focusing on Los Angeles, Estrada is inundated every week with telephone calls, queries and visits from the nation's professors, political scientists, geographers and others who want to know more about the experiments being conducted here.

Scores of institutes and research centers have sprung up in recent years, dedicating a significant portion of their work to the study of Los Angeles and the exploration of some of the most arcane and unusual phenomena found within its boundaries.

Economists are using Los Angeles to study the way Korean entrepreneurs do business. Medical researchers are examining the cancer patterns and chest pains that afflict racial and ethnic subgroups. Sociologists are dissecting everything from the settlement patterns of Yemeni immigrants to the way Iranians set up local economic networks based on their religion.

And politicians from other nations, hoping for tips on how to handle their own immigrant issues, are looking at the way Los Angeles officials train and educate refugees.

Pyong Gap Min, a sociologist at Queen's College of the City University of New York, has been visiting Los Angeles regularly for the last five years to gather data on Korean immigrants. In more than 500 interviews, he explored the ways Koreans and Korean-Americans achieve economic upward mobility through self-employment and long work hours, at the expense of a traditional family structure. He also found a high level of economic segregation; 75% of the Koreans in Los Angeles are self-employed or work in Korean-owned businesses.

The information, Min said, is useful in understanding how a particular group settles, adapts and contributes to the American economy.

Min said he chose Los Angeles over his own New York because Los Angeles has the largest Korean population in the country and because of the unusual concentration of businesses, churches, residences and both recent and more established immigrants in Koreatown.

Los Angeles has long been seen as a place where trends begin, and as such has attracted the curious for some time. But it was largely dismissed as a somewhat bizarre cultural aberration. Now, following a decade in which nearly 2 million people--mostly immigrants--moved into the county, Los Angeles is being taken more seriously as a model of urban growth, a window through which to examine other American metropolises.

Los Angeles is regarded as a fertile laboratory in part because of the sheer numbers of people, nationalities and ethnic groups--all gathered in one place and within the reach of the researchers. Other factors, scholars and social scientists say, are the diversity of Southern California's economy and the swift pace of change.

"Scholars 30 years ago probably didn't study Los Angeles," said historian Thomas Jablonsky, who heads USC's Community and Human Diversity Project. "But increasingly you see the really bright, cutting-edge people . . . focusing themselves on Los Angeles. . . .

"L.A. has got the problems, the issues. It is indeed a worthy laboratory, and now it is being legitimized and accepted for that by the academics, intellectuals and professionals."

Los Angeles is hardly the first American city to come under the microscope.

At the turn of the century, Chicago was regarded as the quintessential American city. Unlike New York or Boston, it was a city that developed after the United States became a country, and in the early 1900s it was grappling with rapid industrialization and the arrival of thousands of immigrants seeking jobs.

Into that milieu, the University of Chicago recruited a unique collection of social scientists who over the years scrutinized the neighborhoods and people of Chicago. They used the city as a giant urban laboratory, honing the methods, concepts and theories that would dominate urban studies for the first half of the century.

Today, in the opinion of many experts, Los Angeles is becoming what Chicago once was.

Delegations of foreign politicians regularly consult Los Angeles as a way to solve problems at home. Most recently, a group of 17 German government officials--facing an overwhelming influx of immigrants--came to Los Angeles to examine the county's Refugee Training Program.

With a legislative analyst serving as an interpreter, the Germans boarded a chartered bus and were transported to a graffiti-decorated adult high school under a downtown freeway. There, they sat in students' desks and asked about vocational training programs, how to teach language skills, the role of schools, the disbursement of federal money for local refugee settlement.

"This happens all the time," said Joan Pinchuk, who heads the training program. "I've had Belgians, Bulgarians, Swedes, Japanese. . . . They want to see what we are doing so they don't have to reinvent the wheel. . . . We walk them through the process."

At Los Angeles' Research Center on the Psychobiology of Ethnicity, which was founded last year, researchers are looking at whether the physical changes caused by depression vary among Asians, blacks and Latinos, according to Dr. Keh-Ming Lin, the psychiatrist who heads the center.

The results, Lin predicts, will help doctors in the future to diagnose and treat depression using something other than the information gleaned by studying white patients. It is part of an effort, he says, to tailor treatments that are culturally appropriate.

That kind of research, he said, is made possible in Los Angeles because the laboratory is so ripe with subjects, all concentrated in one location and within easy reach of the scientists doing the probing.

"In Los Angeles, you have patients from all different kinds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds," Lin says. "They can be interviewed by the same interviewer, samples stored in the same place, analyzed in the same laboratory. You eliminate a lot of the uncertainties."

Geographers also are using the Los Angeles laboratory, in their case to test the traditional model of immigrant assimilation and absorption.

Sifting through tons of census data, James P. Allen and Eugene Turner, geography professors at Cal State Northridge, produced this year's "Atlas of Population Patterns" for Los Angeles and Orange counties. They identified the specific areas that are losing Anglo and African-American residents while gaining Latinos and Asians. The most dramatic shifts of ethnic composition, they found, are occurring in such places as Arcadia and Downey.

They hope to expand on the data and delve into the reasons some people move and others stay clustered in certain communities. Eventually, they hope to examine whether the census tract--the standardized way of dividing cities and measuring populations--is out of date.

"What we find will have implications for understanding immigrant settlement and residential segregation," Allen said. "I believe we can see trends here (in Los Angeles) first and more clearly."

For its 1990 survey, the U.S. Census Bureau studied ethnic breakdown and subgroups in Los Angeles to determine how to staff its field offices during the census-taking. The bureau worked with information developed by sociologist Pini Herman, a research assistant with the Population Research Laboratory, who identified 20 ethnic communities.

"By starting from the very beginning and experimenting with the data sets that we had, we were able to create a finer-grained description of ethnic groups than had been previously available," Herman said.

He is building on the methods used to study Los Angeles' population and will apply them to other cities to create a World Cities Database.

Scholars from around the world descended upon Los Angeles last year to compare notes on the changes caused by immigration here and in their native lands.

At the two-day "California Immigrants in World Perspective" seminar, professors from France contrasted the Paris garment industry to that of downtown Los Angeles. German scholars looked at the plight of immigrant women; a professor from Israel examined the entrepreneurial practices of newcomers.

Participants in the seminar were attracted to Los Angeles because California is considered one of the world's major immigration centers, said Ivan Light, a sociology professor at UCLA and organizer of the event.

"Other countries have something to learn from California, and vice versa," he said. "We are on the map and have become a major player in terms of world immigration."

Light heads the 4-year-old Immigration Research Program at the Institute for Social Science Research, a sort of clearinghouse for studies of different nationalities in California and related immigration issues. Light recently completed work on a study of Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles and discovered four separate economies within the community.

He found that Iranians from four religious or ethnic groups--Bahais, Muslims, Jews and Armenians--tend to form business partnerships and hire workers within their own subset. This in turn helps explain the dynamics of Iranian entrepreneurship, Light said, and illustrates the value of looking beyond the standard, broad ethnic labels and into more narrowly defined divisions.

Some researchers have found that studying Los Angeles forecasts the future.

Rebecca Morales, a specialist in urban planning, examined the working lives of immigrant women in Los Angeles two years ago and discovered a growing segment of struggling, working poor not traditionally included in counts of the underclass.

The economic problems that immigrant women were having foreshadowed the current recession in the region's overall economy, she said.

"The economic situations of immigrants were early warning indicators," Morales said. "We dismissed these as problems of immigrants, but it was in fact reflective of broader economic trends not specific to Hispanics, to the garment industry or to the region."

The research, she said, showed that the Los Angeles women's difficulties signaled what would become a national recession and highlighted widening income inequities between the richest and the poorest.

The phenomenon that makes Los Angeles a productive laboratory, experts say, is the fast rate at which immigration-generated change is happening.

"What we see in other places occurring over decades occurs here within five years," said Estrada, the demographer.

"People who work with cities . . . have studied the processes of neighborhood change for a long time, and you know what happens. You expect to study it over decades and see the emerging changes. But you don't expect to see it actually happen before your eyes."

With change so rapid, social scientists are developing new methods of study.

Researchers, rather than waiting for census data or other statistics, often find themselves walking door-to-door or studying garbage behind crowded apartment buildings to gain insight into how groups settle, live and move about.

The result, many scholars said, is a new brand of social science activism that requires researchers to get closer to their subjects and apply a more hands-on analysis.

Historian Jablonsky, who has written extensively about the Chicago experience, believes a new urban theory may eventually emerge from Los Angeles that will influence literature and thought into the next century.

"Only in the last 10 years has Los Angeles begun to move away from the attitude where people dismissed it as this cultural aberration," he said. "Now, I think we're just on the doorstep of real serious consideration of Los Angeles and its role in the 20th Century and in the 21st Century."

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