Tear Down Our Own Berlin Wall

Michael Dear is the director of USC's Southern California Studies Center and editor of the "Atlas of Southern California"; with H. Eric Schockman and Greg Hise, he edited "Rethinking Los Angeles" (Sage Publications, 1996)

When future historians look back at the current chapter in Southern California's story, they are likely to conclude that we faced a challenge equivalent to the unification of the two Germanys. The similarities are everywhere--in our struggles with growth and change, economic inequality, immigration and politics. And just like Berlin when the wall crumbled, Los Angeles can no longer afford to regard itself as a collection of separate, mutually antagonistic places.

The biggest lesson from the recently published "Atlas of Southern California" is that we need a new social contract--one that takes into account the region's interdependencies, its diversity and growing international presence. Southern California already has congealed into a single, integrated, regionwide megacity, incorporating Santa Barbara, the Inland Empire and even spilling over the Mexican border into Baja California. Yet by focusing on the separate pieces of this huge interlocking puzzle, Southern Californians have made--and will continue to make--decisions that are harmful to the whole.

For all practical purposes, the fate of the Southern Californian megacity is inextricably tied to a global system where economic and geopolitical influence is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to geography, we are already on the leading edge of the coming Pacific Century. With Asia now our biggest trading partner, Southern California is first in the nation in international trade. Yet our future lies not only in strong links with the East but also with the South. The most important geographical realignment now occurring in the nation as a whole may be along the urban powerhouse straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, from Southern California across Texas and into Florida.

If the globalization of Southern California brings enormous advantages, it also comes with urgent responsibilities. One in five Southern Californians lives in poverty. Our rates of juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy and high school dropout far exceed the national average. With near-record levels of residents on public assistance, the pending welfare reforms pose another threat. Over the next few years, California may lose more than $10 billion in federal welfare-related aid, and nearly half of that will be lost to Los Angeles County alone.

Just as Germany is learning to accommodate to the relative poverty of the former East, so must we address the increasing socioeconomic polarization that besets our region. The future well-being of the megacity is intimately linked to the fate of all sectors and all communities. When such interdependencies are ignored, social unrest and community breakdown are fore- shadowed.

And like the new Germany, we must learn to cope with massive movements of people and clashes of culture and turn diversity and multiculturalism into strengths. The health and success of our cities depends literally on the health and prosperity of our immigrants. Any significant reduction in immigration could cause the collapse of inner city housing markets, even the wholesale abandonment of many communities. It would also deal a severe blow to a regional economy that historically has prospered from a large reservoir of low-wage labor.

How effectively will we manage growth and change in the emerging megacity? The machinery of politics in Southern California is obsolete, parochial and fractured. The rise of secessionist sentiments is symptomatic of a political restructuring that could be just as dislocating as the economic adjustments which the region has just experienced. Our problems will be solved only by emphasizing our common stake in regionwide solutions.

Formal electoral politics will be transformed as naturalized citizens play a larger role as registered voters. These newly enfranchised groups will provide an infusion of much-needed energy to democracy at all levels of government. In so doing, they will irrevocably alter our politics.

Now, as nation-states in every continent are being obliged to renegotiate the terms of their nationalisms, so are Southern Californians reassessing the terms of the social contract that binds them together. The newly reconciled Germany has made a commitment to national unity. What we need now is an inclusive conversation on how our global future is to be secured.

The people of Southern California face the task of forging the nation's first regional Declaration of Interdependence.

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