Urban analyst and critic Joel Kotkin warns at Forbes.com that the upcoming reelection of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor should not be taken as "evidence that all is well in the city of angels." Quite the contrary, argues Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History" — and no fan of Villaraigosa in the best of times.
Whatever His Honor says to the media, the sad reality remains that Los Angeles has fallen into a serious secular decline. This constitutes one of the most rapid--and largely unnecessary--municipal reversals in fortune in American urban history.
A century ago, when L.A. had barely 100,000 souls, railway magnate Henry Huntington predicted that the place was "destined to become the most important city in this country, if not the world." Long run by ambitious, often ruthless boosters, the city lured waves of newcomers with its pro-business climate, perfect weather and spectacular topography.
These newcomers--first largely from the Midwest and East Coast, and then from around the world--energized L.A. into an unmatched hub of innovation and economic diversity.
As a result, L.A. surged toward civic greatness. By the end of the 20th century, it stood not only as the epicenter for the world's entertainment industry, but also North America's largest port, garment manufacturer and industrial center. The region also spawned two important presidents--Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan--and nurtured a host of political and social movements spanning the ideological spectrum.
Now L.A. seems to be fading rapidly toward irrelevancy. Its economy has tanked faster than that of the nation, with unemployment now close to 10%. The port appears in decline, the roads in awful shape and the once potent industrial base continues to shrink.
Job growth in the area, notes a forecast by the University of California at Santa Barbara, dropped 0.6% last year and is expected to plunge far more rapidly this year. Roughly one-fifth of the population depends on public assistance or benefits to survive.
Once a primary destination for Americans, L.A.--along with places like Detroit, New York and Chicago--now suffers among the highest rates of out-migration in the country. Particularly hard hit has been its base of middle-class families, which continues to shrink. This is painfully evident in places like the San Fernando Valley, where I live, long a middle-class outpost for L.A., much like Queens and Staten Island are for New York.
In such a context, Villaraigosa's upcoming coronation seems hard to comprehend.
Rick Caruso, who didn't run for mayor, tells Kotkin: "People feel it's kind of hopeless. It's a dysfunctional city...They don't think there's anything to do." Kotkin is executive editor of newgeography.com and a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University.
Busy month: In the latest Newsweek, Kotkin gets dire about California as well: "The odds that the Golden State can reinvent itself again seem long. The buffoonish current governor and a legislature divided between hysterical greens, public-employee lackeys and Neanderthal Republicans have turned the state into a fiscal laughingstock."