The Men Who Made The City
Imagine a very long hallway lined with portraits. It’s Los Angeles’ corridor of power. At the far, shadowy end, in 1781, Col. Felipe de Neve, Spain’s governor, draws a little map of the town of Our Lady of the Angels. Behind him, Father Junipero Serra, controversial mission founder, seethes at this intrusion of secular authority. In the background, the elders of the native Tongva settlement of Yangna turn away, powerless.
That tableau appears over and over. In the foreground of nearly every portrait, there’s a man and a real estate deal. At the margins are the indigenous and ordinary people of Los Angeles.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 20, 2006
Power in this city was--is--divided and withheld.
In the Mexican period, there are dashing men on horseback, the original sprawlers of Los Angeles, lords of cattle and haciendas. (Pause for a moment before the beautiful Arcadia Bandini, born in 1825, the wife, in succession, of three busy Yankees. One was the largest landowner in Southern California, another was an early developer of Santa Monica, the last a leading San Pedro real estate owner. She died very rich and a symbol of where power in Los Angeles resided.) In 1847 you see the portrait of Lt. Col. John C. Fremont, who stands heroically over occupied Los Angeles while newly Americanized rancheros fade into debt defending the title to their haciendas.
Then, for 60 years, there are no portraits in the corridor, just pretty landscapes with a dusty, violent town sketched in the distance.
Only after the wild real estate boom of 1887 and the earthquake of 1906 (which broke the economic grip of San Francisco, where the real power had shifted, wielded by bankers dealing in land, railroads and political office) do more portraits--whiskered and grave--appear: Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times and a real estate developer; Henry Huntington, heir to railroad wealth, a transit mogul and developer; Edward Doheny, millionaire oil wildcatter; Alphonzo Bell, wildcatter and real estate developer; Abbot Kinney, tobacco heir and a developer with Progressive intentions; Gaylord Wilshire, developer and Socialist gadfly; Moses Sherman, transit mogul and one of the subdividers of the San Fernando Valley; and Times Publisher Harry Chandler, Otis’ son-in-law, builder of one of the largest fortunes in Southern California and founder of the contentious family whose power, even in its decline, still shapes the city.
In the background are “clean government” advocates such as John Randolph Haynes, Clifford Clinton and the Rev. Dana Bartlett; Upton Sinclair and other radical reformers; and radical populist the Rev. Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler. They wanted God or Marx or “the folks” to stand against the brute exercise of power. They wanted Los Angeles to be good.
A group portrait from the early 1960s is in tones of gray, the faces indistinct. It’s of the Committee of 25--like-minded executives, not all of them particularly rich or individually powerful, who picked mayors and their platforms and helped raze the houses of Bunker Hill and stymie postwar public housing to the benefit of suburban subdividers. They kept Los Angeles unfriendly to union organizers, people of color, Jews and other forms of big-city disorder. They wanted good government, just like the reformers, but they wanted growth and efficiency more. The committee included Republican operative and businessman Asa Call of Pacific Mutual Insurance, USC President Norman Topping, UCLA Chancellor Franklin Murphy, Times Publisher Norman Chandler (Harry’s son), attorney James Beebe of the law firm O’Melveny & Myers and entrepreneur Justin Dart of Rexall Drugs.
The panorama of Los Angeles behind them shows tract houses replacing farm and range land, restless factory workers and dazzled starlets arriving and lifted up on the piers of freeway overpasses, symbols of outright bigotry and forthright greed, of big dreams and lost opportunities. In the sky, merging with the smog, is smoke from the stacks of refineries and auto assembly plants, and then from the burning of Watts in 1965 and the burning of everything redefined as South-Central in 1992.
In the interval between those two fires, if you lived at the margin in Los Angeles, you were expected to understand force (personified by the Los Angeles Police Department); you weren’t expected to understand power. Whole economies rose and fell between the burning of Watts and South-Central--steel, rubber, aerospace, electronics and commercial real estate. A new Los Angeles, new in numbers and ethnic diversity, arrived.
Then sometime around 1999, in the middle of Mayor Richard Riordan’s second term, power no longer is pictured as businessmen meeting in a clubroom downtown where they name a slate of City Hall candidates or launch a campaign in The Times for something big.
The big things that such men do--persuade the NFL to bring a football team to the city, finish the Walt Disney Concert Hall, make the subway run to the sea--were now not getting done.
Riordan was better at leveraging a deal than leading a city. He had to be both stage manager and headliner, deal maker and front man. Banker, investor, real estate speculator, lawyer, civic cheerleader and philanthropist, he was nearly the whole show: a committee of one.
That was enough for a while. Riordan’s assemblage of friends, contractors, lobbyists, academics and the really rich began the reform of the city’s charter. They tried to change the school district. They saw to it that the Alameda Corridor and the Red Line subway were built. They didn’t have the epic vision of William Mulholland (and a freight line from the port didn’t have the mythic qualities of the Owens Valley aqueduct), yet they were able to achieve a few things that were publicly beneficial, and privately profitable to some.
But then the last of the city’s Fortune 500 companies drifted away, and the growth machine that once filled empty square miles with suburban houses stopped. The enterprise of Los Angeles began to seem unnecessary. And at the end of the corridor, in the present, you wonder where all the traditionally powerful men of Los Angeles have gone.
If the axiom is true that Money+Testosterone=Power, there should be plenty left. According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, which annually estimates such things, nine of the 10 richest people in Los Angeles are men. They control about $50 billion. If you subtract Barbara Davis from the Journal’s ranking (as the only woman named), the top 25 richest men have $82.1 billion in assets. At the head of the list is Kirk Kerkorian, with an estimated $9.3 billion. At the bottom, if that’s the right word, are William Randolph Hearst’s grandsons, David and George Hearst, each with a $1.6-billion share of the family’s wealth.
But the 25 richest men don’t all live in Los Angeles; the very rich don’t live anywhere specifically anymore. Even the men who are rich mostly because of their Los Angeles real estate don’t make the mistake of identifying their wealth with their city. Eli Broad is the iconic “last tycoon” who does.
The parallel to Broad is Cardinal Roger Mahony. If Broad is our last tycoon, the cardinal is the last prince, with no need for Broad’s deference to the egos of politicians or anyone else. The cardinal is a player in the Latino reconfiguration of Los Angeles, though he has only limited capacity to steer its evolution. His frustrations over the exercise of power are the same that Father Serra felt 225 years before.
Los Angeles willed itself into existence after 1887 with the mass marketing of the Southern California dream and all the longing it could inspire. To be desired by ordinary Americans was one kind of power. That should have made Hollywood, which manages desire on an industrial scale, the ultimate site of power in the city. But Hollywood power is only powerful in Hollywood, not in Los Angeles. And in any event, desire has gone virtual, as the machinery of celebrity has gone global.
Place doesn’t matter anymore. Los Angeles (or Hollywood) might as well be Bangalore. Power is supposed to have moved to this paradigm--moved off world, so to speak--into the no-place of the Net. If true, the story of power in Los Angeles until now reads like a late 19th century romance of health and happiness in the sunshine of a particular place. The men who had once gained power in Los Angeles felt that places mattered, and that their place was at the edge of something--the continent, a new century of consumer desire, the Pacific--and that there was no place else to go.
No one with a blog believes that there are any edges now . . . or centers.
In one way, in politics, place does still matter, which is why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s whirlwind celebrity within an increasingly Latino electorate is only part of his power; the mayor benefits just as much from a half-finished revolution of popular desire to remake the city. The question is what that city will be.
Villaraigosa has said he intends to be the mayor of a denser city, a greener city, a transit-oriented city, a middle-class city, a working-class city, a politically progressive city, a business-oriented city, a city where the mayor is in control of the educational system. There’s a refigured narrative of Los Angeles somewhere in there, but it’s hard to discern how the story will turn out.
Power in Los Angeles initially came from an almost perfect vacuum. The equation was Empty Space+Desire=Power. Although that’s still true downtown, through the lofting of so much empty vertical space, significant power can’t be wrested anymore from the unresisting landscape of Los Angeles.
What’s left is in-fill, the lesser power of Rick Caruso (retail centers) and Steve Soboroff (Playa Vista) to leverage development projects from NIMBY-ist homeowners, a touchy equity market and a balkanized City Council, where everything is divided by 15. Some spectators expect power to simply relocate permanently to places like Glendale, Burbank, Long Beach and other middling cities with more nimble local governments and more cranky individualists.
Might Los Angeles be that kind of city?
In the troubled Rampart Division around MacArthur Park and in K-town, entrepreneurial Koreans with a lot of education and some money have been reprocessing gang turf into profitable businesses since the late 1990s and, more recently, into booming residential neighborhoods that are drawing once-suburban Koreans back into the heart of the city. The next Huntington or Broad may be named Kim or Lee. But will they--or anyone--ever again make a whole life from tying their hopes and fortunes to Los Angeles?
Imaginations and loyalties are smaller now.
I don’t know whom history will nominate next for the official, final portrait of power. It could be a downtown loft developer, a Spanish-language talk-show personality, the owner of a new-media network or members of Heal the Bay.
Or maybe it will be a group portrait of all of these--their power rising from the multitude’s diversity.