Reassessing Valley's Melting Pot

The Northridge earthquake struck Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1994, delivering a social as well as a seismic shock. When the trembling stopped, the region began the long, hard work of recovering from its most recent natural disaster, only to receive a geography lesson that it had not expected to learn. The Earth had shaken hardest in the San Fernando Valley, where white middle-class homeowners had replaced orange groves barely a generation ago. But in the aftermath of the catastrophe, Angelenos discovered that the epicenter of the quake had become home to a fast-growing concentration of newcomers from abroad. For anyone who still thought of the San Fernando Valley as Southern California's quintessential suburban enclave, the sight of thousands of immigrants milling in the Valley's streets and camped in its parks showed how profoundly the region had changed.

In this human scene one saw a reflection of the changing demographic reality sweeping through the entire Los Angeles region. As the first of America's leading metropolitan regions to arrive at a situation in which no ethnic group composes a majority, the five-county region--with Los Angeles at its core, and Ventura, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino on the periphery--heralds a novel pattern that is sure to appear in other areas. And this new world without any ethnic majority fully defines reality in Los Angeles County and still more so in the city of Los Angeles.

But the ethnic transformation of the L.A. region hits home hardest at the local, neighborhood level. A look at patterns in census tracts--small geographical units of 3,000 to 5,000 people, used by the census for counting people--tells us that white neighborhood dominance is now a thing of the past. As of 1990, whites composed 80% or more of the population in less than one out of every five census tracts in Los Angeles County. And although whites were a bare majority in about half of the county's tracts, the downward trend was unmistakable as of the 1990 census--which means that the white presence has almost certainly shrunk a good deal since then.

As goes Los Angeles, so goes the San Fernando Valley. Throughout the 1980s, change occurred rapidly in the Valley, although not everywhere at the same rate. In 1980, the typical census tract in the north-central Valley was almost 80% white; 10 years later, the typical census tract was 45% white, and by that time, whites were a very distinct minority in 20% of the area's tracts. The westernmost part of the Valley shifted less abruptly, with the white share of the typical tract declining from 88% to 78% during the course of the 1980s. But even this distinctively suburban section witnessed a substantial growth in the number of white tracts that were a clear minority.

So farewell to the homogeneous Anglo Valley of yesterday. But how can we describe the new ethnic world of today? One could say that the Valley is simply a more diverse place, with far more ethnic mixing than was ever imagined a decade or so ago. Of course, the mosaic is not uniformly diverse.

The most ethnically homogenous area encompasses the old Latino barrio in and around San Fernando. The southern hillsides, still largely white, have not yet gained a sizable inflow of newcomers. The Valley floor is an area of very great ethnic mixing, especially noticeable at the Valley's core. Mixing tails off as one moves east; although Burbank seems a bit immune to the trend toward diversity, Glendale is an increasingly heterogeneous environment.

But diversity may already be on the way out. In a sense, the analyst of Los Angeles' ethnic geography suffers the problems of the still photographer trying to capture a moving target. As of now, the residents of the San Fernando Valley live with neighbors of increasingly scrambled origins. But is today's diversity a stable arrangement? Or is it simply a stage on the road to a new type of homogeneity, in which most Valley residents will either be recent Latino immigrants or their children? The answer lies largely in the size and characteristics of tomorrow's immigrant flows. These are unknowns.

So the crystal ball yields no clear prediction about the future of diversity in the San Fernando Valley. But I suspect that ethnic mixing will prove a transitory phenomena, to be swept away by the large number of new Latino immigrants who are sure to come. The end result: Tomorrow's San Fernando Valley will look far different from today's.

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