More than two decades ago, the English writer Reyner Banham came to this region and found a strange, sunny new world where "mobility outweighs monumentality" and where "only the extreme is normal." He observed, "I share neither the optimism of those who see Los Angeles as the prototype of all future cities, nor the gloom of those who see it as the harbinger of universal urban doom."
PSYCHIC IMAGE: Much has happened since 1971 when Banham penned those words, but they still ring true. Almost from its founding, Los Angeles has assumed a large and usually exaggerated image in the world psyche, alternately painted as a palmy pastel paradise and as an urban disaster worthy of the apocalyptic fiction of Nathanael West. For now, the latter woeful vision predominates, even among many Angelenos. But the reality, as Banham suggests, is somewhere between. It is along this median strip of life that those of us who, by choice or necessity, live in or near Los Angeles must negotiate our daily existence.
It is to that end that The Times today publishes a special 16-page section, "The Next Los Angeles: Turning Ideas Into Action." It is meant to offer practical ideas to mend a scarred city; to help it move on. Rarely in American history has a major urban area been so convulsed as Los Angeles has over the last three years. Our mettle has been tested by fires, floods, deadly civil disorders, a deeply depressed economy and, most recently, the Northridge earthquake. Some have reacted by leaving for more placid climes. This special section is meant for the 15.5 million who have stayed and are determined to make this a better place to live.
It is striking that the Times Poll found that 69% of L.A. County residents overall remained satisfied with their communities, although the level of satisfaction varied with locality and stood below the national average. For all the troubles, Los Angeles still offers much of what drew the movie makers and millions of others over the last several decades: fine climate, beaches, mountains and deserts, quiet peaceful neighborhoods, good cultural assets, tolerance for eccentricity and non-conformance and economic opportunity.
CURRENT REALITIES: For all this, no progress is possible unless it is also understood that this region still has a great deal of work to do. It is not where it wants to be in race relations, though more has been accomplished here than in many other places in America. The economy is doing better but it is still far from recovered--and no doubt the tight times have blemished the region's record for tolerance of diversity by exacerbating anti-immigrant fever. Violence, street gangs and graffiti have combined with insufficiences in police staffing and police-community relations to make the appearance of crime greater than the actual reality. The ranks of the homeless are distressingly large; overwhelmed, too many schools are struggling to educate and socialize our youngsters.
The special section addresses these and many other issues, not just to provide yet another litany of woes but to offer practical solutions. In February we published a similar section in which experts were asked to think about a better future. Some of it was visionary, some highly practical. Today's section focuses on specific feasible steps that can have near-term tangible results.
Thus, for example, there is discussion of increasing student interchanges as a means of promoting racial harmony in a region that since 1980 has become both more diverse ethnically and more geographically segregated. And there is considerable discussion of nurturing small business and taking other steps to improve the economy.
Most of the ideas presented are not entirely new. Many of them could already have been implemented were it not for ossified state and local government structures that make innovation difficult. Clearly the region's city and county charters, dispersing so much power to local officials, need updating to deal with regionwide problems. But the section also strongly implies that individual actions, taking personal responsibility, can also make a big difference in solving many urban ills.
FUTURE POSSIBILITIES: The Times poll results show that crime and gangs rank well above unemployment and the poor economy as the chief perceived ills of Southern California. Concern about crime is certainly justified. But we should not lose sight of the larger reality that this region stands at an historic economic juncture. Our past glories were built, successively, on ranching, agriculture, oil, entertainment, manufacturing, aerospace and real estate. But we must recognize that our exuberant economic adolescence is over. While the new underpinnings of our economy are not yet clear, we must realize we have matured and must stand on our own feet. Certainly we can't complain that Los Angeles is not getting enough attention from Washington. In some ways the Clinton Administration is more responsive to needs here than Sacramento is. Fundamentally the real answers to our problems can be found here, especially if we are true to our history of sometimes freewheeling innovation.
In a valiant effort to find rationality in the seemingly random Brownian motion of Los Angeles, Banham 23 years ago reduced Los Angeles to four "ecologies:" Surfurbia, Foothills, the Plains of Id, and Autopia. He would have to expand that list today. But the underlying theme of Banham and other perceptive observers is that the history of Los Angeles suggests that anything is possible here. Let us not forget that.