Observing Los Angeles

Hector Tobar: LA's inequality hard to ignore anymore

homeless-virgil-avenue.jpgTent village on Virgil Avenue. LA Observed file photo.

In his periodic New York Times column about Los Angeles, the journalist and author Hector Tobar writes that "the paradox of increasing homelessness and rising prosperity has finally got Los Angeles talking about inequality….Los Angeles still has a much larger middle class than your average developing-world city. But privilege and inequality are spreading in all sorts of public places." Los Angeles is becoming a metropolis of the developing world, he argues.

Rich and poor have long suffered on the freeway together: Porsches and pickups alike, gridlocked. Now we have new toll roads; on some freeways, you can literally buy your way into the fast lane.

Dodger Stadium used to be one of the city’s most democratic entertainment venues. In 1962, the most expensive seat was $5.50, about four times the price of a bleacher (or pavilion) seat. These days, field-level seats can cost up to $1,000, more than 30 times the price of a bleacher seat.

Thirty years ago, a family of four at poverty level lived on about $10,650 — about double the annual tuition at the city’s top prep schools. The equivalent federal poverty line today, $24,250, would barely cover two-thirds of this year’s tuition at schools like Harvard-Westlake or Polytechnic in Pasadena.

In the cities of the developing world, class differences this wide are fixed. Homelessness is a kind of caste, and the poorest city dwellers live in permanent squatter communities. In Buenos Aires, where I once lived, their homes are often built with discarded bricks and tiles.

Los Angeles doesn’t have neighborhoods like that yet, but homelessness has become semi-permanent in many places.

Tobar cites Bill Boyarsky, the LA Observed political columnist, about the loss of LA's industrial base and the impact of 1978's Proposition 13 revolt, and this recent comment at Curbed LA about the spread of homeless camps across the city: “If it feels like there are people living on the streets and under bridges everywhere you look, it’s because there are.”

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