Middle Class Despairs Over Its Paradise Lost : Demography: Shrinking white majority confronts vanishing jobs, falling home prices, rising violent crime.
For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, through good times and bad, the middle class and the San Fernando Valley were wed in a union everybody figured would last forever.
But half a lifetime later, the two have become estranged.
Welfare rolls are growing, home prices are falling, jobs are disappearing, storefronts even speak a different language--changes all so abrupt that when a lot of people talk about the good ol’ days, “they mean five years ago,” said William Bowen, chairman of the Cal State Northridge geography department.
Suddenly, it seems, the San Fernando Valley is in a midlife crisis worse than any faced by the baby boomers who grew up in this granddaddy of American suburbs. Once the benchmark of a stable, prospering middle class, the Valley has become dangerous and unpredictable, splintered into communities as diverse as the world map, with extremes of wealth and poverty.
“It’s like you woke up one morning and boom , everything’s changed,” said Darryl Stroh, 54, the longtime football and baseball coach at Granada Hills High School. “This is not turning out the way I planned. Society has become difficult and people have become difficult. I live in Northridge and seeing graffiti all around, it makes me absolutely crazy.”
An explosion in the number of poor and undereducated residents combined with declines in high-wage jobs has created an economic crazy quilt in a place known for its sameness.
Reflecting a national trend, the Valley is growing increasingly divided between haves and have-nots, a contrast of the college-educated and the semiliterate.
A demographic upheaval as subtle as an earthquake has buried the egalitarian character of the Valley. Rich and poor mix as customers and workers at the carwash and in restaurants but seldom as peers at schools or churches. They live in different worlds--sometimes only blocks apart--separated by gulfs of language, education and income.
This in a string of communities that once touted the good life for just about anybody with a steady job, an honorable discharge and a few hundred bucks.
The white majority--92% in 1960--dropped from 75% to 58% during the 1980s, with many of the generation who grew up in the Valley seeking newer suburbs to raise their own children.
In their place have come minority families seeking survival in a less forgiving economy, with fewer opportunities and greater peril.
“If you’re looking for the San Fernando Valley of 15 years ago, it has moved to the Santa Clarita Valley or to Thousand Oaks,” said Albert Landini, an associate zoning administrator for Los Angeles. “That is where the middle class has moved, for newer housing stock and better prices.”
The Valley’s remaining white communities are clustered in the foothill neighborhoods of Studio City, Encino, Tarzana, Woodland Hills and Granada Hills, areas where the median family income grew during the 1980s to nearly twice that of families in predominantly minority neighborhoods nearby.
Large numbers of white middle-class families in communities such as Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Reseda and Canoga Park have been displaced in large part because of immigration--mostly of Latinos, according to the U.S. Census and other measures.
More than 200,000 foreign-born residents--of virtually all nationalities--moved to the Valley between 1980 and 1989, an influx that accounts for one-sixth of the area’s population and explains the Valley’s growth despite the loss of thousands of white families.
Estimates of the percentage of those with legal residency vary widely. But no one questions the impact made by the growing numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from Mexico. Latinos have grown from about 5% of the Valley’s population in 1960 to nearly one-third in 1990, according to the census.
Even those numbers probably understate the actual number, experts say, because many illegal immigrants are not likely to respond to census questionnaires.
“It seems like nobody speaks English anymore,” said Peter Smead, longtime owner of Reseda Appliance. It is a commonly heard complaint.
A bumper sticker on his repair truck announces: “Proud to Live and Work in Reseda,” but he says he is neither. Like many, he believes that increasing numbers of poor people have hurt his neighborhood.
“The Valley is much more uptight,” said CSUN Chicano studies professor Rudy Acuna.
Acuna, who also lives in the Valley, said economic troubles and a sense that institutions such as schools and police are failing is hastening the exit of white residents. Acuna believes that much of their unease is the result of an increase in minorities living in the Valley.
“The scapegoat seems to be the immigrant,” he said.
Despite the changes, white voters control the outcome of city and school board elections. In the June mayoral election, for example, Valley voters casting ballots were 72% white, 10% Latino, 12% black and 4% Asian.
One reason is that about half of the estimated 385,000 Latinos living in the Valley are not U.S. citizens, according to a Times analysis of the 1990 U.S. census. Among Latinos 21 and older, the proportion exceeds 60%.
Homeowner groups, long the most powerful political voices in the Valley, retain their influence over public policy. But their territories are shrinking, their constituency aging.
Looking ahead, the pressure to migrate from Mexico to the United States is likely to increase over the next 20 years.
Mexico is just beginning its own baby boom, with a peak in the number of births predicted for the years 2010 through 2020, said Robert Valdez, professor of health services at UCLA and a member of the White House Task Force on Health Care Reform. The effect on immigration by passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement will probably not be known for years.
Latinos in the Valley are younger and more likely to have children at home than other groups, according to the census. In 1990, the median age of whites in Canoga Park and Woodland Hills was 37. Among Latinos it was 26. Similar differences between the two groups are found in every Valley community.
Those differences in age and childbearing rates suggest that whites will eventually lose their majority status in the Valley, perhaps before the next census, demographers say.
And neither sweeps by the Immigration and Naturalization Service nor stricter immigration controls are expected to reverse the trend.
A survey of city schools located in predominantly Latino neighborhoods of the northeast Valley show as many as 80% of the children enrolled are U.S.-born. Whether or not their parents have legal residency, and many do not, it appears that the majority of the Valley’s new residents are here for good, according to experts as well as the survey organized by Principal Yvonne Chan of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in San Fernando.
As a result, the landmark shifts measured in the 1990 census appear to be escalating, the result of higher-than-average birthrates among Latinos as well as continuing migration from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
In addition, there is evidence of migration to the Valley from other parts of Los Angeles, particularly neighborhoods south of Downtown, since the 1992 riots.
Sara A. Coughlin, the regional superintendent of the Valley’s elementary schools, said that during her visits to schools, many children tell her they have moved to the Valley from other parts of the city. “My sense is we are getting a lot of African American families and a lot more families from Central America,” she said.
The adjacent communities of Pacoima and Arleta are among the few in Los Angeles to increase their population since the 1990 census. Real estate broker Leo Adams has noticed more clients from other parts of the city seeking homes in Pacoima.
“I have to attribute it to a desire to move out of the inner city and to find affordable housing,” said Adams, who has owned Adams Realty & Loan Co. in Pacoima for 30 years. “I know there has been an increase since the civil unrest.”
The speed and magnitude of the Valley’s transformation has so far outstripped the ability of schools and government to keep pace. There are not enough Spanish-speaking teachers, police officers and elected officials, for example, to serve the one-quarter of the Valley’s 1.26 million residents who say they speak Spanish at home.
Retailers large and small have jumped on the foreign-language bandwagon, posting signs and billboards in Spanish and other languages throughout Valley’s commercial districts.
Those changes have created unease among many longtime residents who lament that they suddenly don’t recognize their own hometown.
Looking out their windows, they point to graffiti on Sherman Way’s stately palms, the blocks of run-down apartment buildings, the For Sale signs in every neighborhood, the security warning signs on lawns, the new fences and the chirp of car alarms--all symptoms of an underlying fear that for many is choking the promise of the American Dream. They fret over crime, over jobs, over schools.
Housing prices, based on square footage, have fallen by 25% to 33% in the Valley’s most prestigious neighborhoods between July, 1990, and July, 1993, according to Dataquick Information Systems.
Many Valley homeowners have gotten the bad news firsthand while trying to refinance their mortgages. The Valley’s housing market, once as secure as a Swiss bank, looks now like the last round of a Ponzi scheme.
“The appraisals are shocking,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. “It’s one thing to hear about prices falling and another to have paid $200,000 for a house and then have it appraised at $150,000. It’s the equity that’s disappeared.”
Still unclear, however, is what happens after the recession: Which changes are permanent and which are temporary? Will real estate rebound? How far? What about good-paying jobs? Few predicted these questions would ever be asked here.
Looking back, it was a serendipitous combination of events that allowed the Valley to evolve as it did--a near-utopia of modern capitalism.
The smell of raw lumber hung like a cloud for years after World War II. House by house, tract by tract, from east to west neighborhoods overtook wheat fields and citrus groves. An ocean of imported water fed lawns and gardens in a desert fit only for oak groves and scrub.
It was home to a generation of the 1950s and 1960s that attended model public schools, cruised Van Nuys Boulevard, went to drive-ins and aspired to college degrees.
Everybody spoke the same language, even if they were divided among Christians and Jews, Anglos and Latinos, professionals and working class. Similarities seemed to overcome differences, whether it was Little League or getting street lights for the block.
As a group, they defined the suburban middle class, a postwar phenomenon that evolved with the help of GI benefits and a steady, growing economy of real estate, retail, manufacturing, auto assembly and, later, aerospace.
Even without a college degree, there was usually a job to support a mortgage, a couple of kids and, typically, a wife at home.
There were rough neighborhoods, longtime barrios. But trouble was mainly confined to the poor--isolated and unseen.
The San Fernando Valley looked a lot like the Antelope Valley in those days, with tiny trees and dirt yards, said Joyce Rogers, who moved to a new Northridge home in June, 1951.
“The developer had put in some trees, but they died. I don’t know how many lawns I tried to put in,” said Rogers, who is 75.
Rogers’ two-bedroom house cost $9,800. Her neighbors were also young couples.
“Everybody was having babies, kids were running around everywhere,” she recalled. “People got together to dig post holes and put up the redwood fences in the back. We were having Tupperware parties and worrying about our wax floors. It was pretty corny, but we were all so optimistic even though nobody had much furniture and everybody was struggling.”
Rogers moved recently, selling her house for about 10 times what she paid for it but considerably less than it was worth three years ago.
Doubt troubles many who have stayed.
“I went to my 20th high school reunion four years ago, and I was surprised at how few people still live in the area,” said Mark Leonard, 41, a graduate of Canoga Park High School and CSUN. “They moved to Canyon Country or Thousand Oaks or Northern California.”
Leonard, who owns a music store in Reseda, said he has thought about moving his business out of the Valley for the same reasons that others are being chased away.
“There’s not a good retail climate here,” said Leonard, referring to the business district around the intersection of Reseda Boulevard and Sherman Way. “It has a preponderance of empty buildings, auto shops. The bottom line is that many businesses don’t want to be here. There’s not enough parking and it has become a shopping area for the lower middle class.”
Cary Dritz, principal of Moorpark Memorial High School in Ventura County, grew up in a west Van Nuys neighborhood but moved to Thousand Oaks to raise his own children.
“There were more than 40 kids on my block who were all under 12 years old,” said Dritz, 41.
And among them, the trouble was more innocent, Dritz said. “We fought with our fists or possibly a stick. You never thought about having a gun.”
Now, graffiti--whether by taggers or bona fide gang members--serve as a constant reminder of danger, of a culture that old-timers don’t much understand.
Police statistics show that the per capita crime rate remained nearly unchanged from 1981 to 1992, meaning that a Valley resident was equally likely to be a victim of crime at any point during that time.
What has changed, however, is the nature of crime in the Valley. The numbers of homicides, robberies, assaults and vehicle thefts have risen dramatically while rapes and burglaries have fallen.
Regardless of the measures, there is widespread agreement that the Valley has become more dangerous. The topic seems to be raised whenever people gather.
Barry Newman, an insurance salesman, moved his family from North Hollywood to a Cleveland suburb earlier this year.
“I didn’t feel safe walking out at night and I knew this was not the way other people lived,” he said.
After friends of his in the Valley starting moving to other cities, “I got the feeling that if I didn’t leave, I would be the last one left,” Newman said.
The increasingly random nature of recent high-profile slayings--a pregnant woman at a Sherman Oaks automated teller machine, a mother picking her daughter up from Bible class in Northridge, an 8-year-old girl killed by a neighbor in Woodland Hills--has heightened fears.
“There is not necessarily a direct correlation between amount of real crime and the hysteria about crime in a community,” said Lewis Yablonsky, a CSUN sociology professor who has written criminology textbooks. “It is the senseless nature of the crime that frightens people, and that has escalated.”
For Keith Lichtman, the last straw was the killing of a teen-age pizza store manager in Porter Ranch last winter.
“That’s the place we order pizza from, a place that we frequent. It was something that struck home,” he said.
Lichtman, general manager of a Pacoima clock factory, put his Northridge house up for sale last spring and then pulled it off the market in the fall after being unable to sell.
“It was a wonderful place,” said Lichtman, an 18-year Valley resident and the father of three school-age children. “But every year it seems like it’s gotten less and less safe. It’s scary now. You don’t want to go out at night to grocery shop.”
He added: “If I had a magic wand, I’d be in Moorpark or Valencia. They are a little more isolated.”
For the past 10 years, CSUN professor Bowen has assigned students in his California geography class the task of choosing a place to live outside Southern California. The idea is to make students think systematically about what they value--job markets, weather, housing costs, the shape and beauty of the land itself--as well as learn about other parts of the state.
“It used to be students would say, ‘I can’t do this, I would never want to leave Southern California,’ ” Bowen said. “But now, more and more are interested. And many times it is their parents who are especially interested.”
Times Director of Computer Analysis Richard O’Reilly assisted with this story.
Tides of Change
More than 250,000 foreign-born residents of all nationalities moved to the San Fernando Valley during the 1980s, bringing dramatic changes to neighborhoods, schools and the workplace. The growth came as thousands of white residents left the area.
Latinos account for more than half the non-citizen population in the Valley. Latino: 66% White: 19% Asian: 14% Black: 1% *
The number of welfare recipients in the East Valley increased 40% over a 16-month period, compared to 14% in South-Central Los Angeles.
East Valley S. Central March 1992 81,425 72,104 July 1993 114,633 82,535
The number of Valley residents on welfare more than doubled between January 1991 and July 1993. Jan. 1991: 79,800 July 1993: 174,285 *
In the 1980s, family incomes in Valley foothill neighborhoods were nearly double those of families in predominantly minority neighborhoods nearby. The highest and lowest: Encino-Tarzana: $64,652 North Hollywood: $32,514 Sources: 1990 U.S. Census, Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services
A Divided Community
Once the benchmark of a stable, prospering middle-class, the Valley has become splintered into communities as diverse as a world map, with extremes of wealth and poverty. The trend is accelerating between halves and have-nots.
The Income Gap
Family incomes in the Valley’s foothill communities nearly doubled that of families in predominantly minority neighborhoods nearby during the 1980s. 1990 rank by median family income:
Average Percent Income Increase Encino-Tarzana $64,652 +15.0 Chatsworth-Porter Ranch $61,930 +14.3 Sherman Oaks-Studio City-Toluca Lake $61,543 +24.6 Northridge $60,352 +6.8 Granada Hills-Knollwood $56,594 +17.8 Canoga Park-Winnetka-Woodland Hills $55,328 +11.5 Sunland-Tujunga $48,006 +21.5 Sylmar $42,903 +8.0 Reseda-West Van Nuys $41,563 +7.1 Sun Valley $38,487 +2.3 Van Nuys-North Sherman Oaks $36,271 +2.0 Arleta-Pacoima $35,475 +6.1 Mission Hills-Panorama City-Sepulveda $35,679 -8.6 North Hollywood $32,514 +3.1
Some 250,000 foreigners moved to the Valley during the 1980s. About half of the nearly 400,000 Latinos in the Valley are not U.S. citizens. Among adult Latinos 21 and older, less than 40% are U.S. citizens.
Citizenship by Ethnic Group
Non-citizen Naturalized U.S.-born Latino (All ages) 48% 11% 41% Latino (Over 21) 62% 16% 22% White 8% 7% 85% Black 4% 2% 94% Asian 42% 29% 29%
On the Welfare Rolls
Number of people and percent increase of those using Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, general relief and Medi-Cal.
Percent March 1992 July 1993 Increase Van Nuys-North Sherman Oaks 18,194 26,008 43% Arleta-Pacoima 18,337 25,498 39% North Hollywood 16,603 23,584 42% Mission Hills-Panorama City-Sepulveda 16,996 23,146 26% Sun Valley 11,295 16,397 45% Canoga Park-Winnetka-Woodland Hills 8,782 13,135 49% Reseda 9,145 12,190 33% Sylmar 7,357 10,028 36% Sunland-Tujunga 4,710 5,577 18% Chatsworth-Porter Ranch 3,186 5,451 43% Northridge 3,211 4,493 40% Encino-Tarzana 2,530 3,570 41% Granada Hills 2,455 3,011 22% Sherman Oaks-Studio City 1,583 2,197 38% Valley Totals 125,014 174,285 39%
A Younger Ethnic Group
Latinos, who now make up nearly one-third of the Valley’s total population, will continue to grow faster than all other groups. They are younger and more likely to have children at home. Median ages of whites and Latinos by Valley community:
All White Latino Arleta-Pacoima 26 30 23 Mission Hills-Panorama City-Sepulveda 29 33 24 Sylmar 29 34 23 Sun Valley 30 34 24 North Hollywood 31 34 25 Van Nuys-North Sherman Oaks 31 33 25 Reseda-West Van Nuys 32 35 25 Sunland-Tujunga 32 34 24 Northridge 33 36 25 Canoga Park-Winnetka-Woodland Hills 34 37 26 Granada Hills-Knollwood 35 37 27 Chatsworth-Porter Ranch 35 37 26 Sherman Oaks-Studio City-Toluca Lake 38 39 30 Encino-Tarzana 39 40 29
Sources: 1990 U.S. Census, Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services