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Redrawing Los Angeles to New Reality

September 14, 1986|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times City-County Bureau.

The Los Angeles City Council's reapportionment fight is much more than an arcane political-science dispute over district lines or a grubby scramble for survival by council members afraid of being thrown out of work.

It will directly affect city policy, making a difference in the lives of the city's residents as control of the council shifts to representatives of minority groups who are approaching a combined numerical dominance of the council.

On Wednesday the council finally passed a plan that redraws lines in a way that assures more Latino representation. Mayor Tom Bradley, unhappy with the way the San Fernando Valley was treated, vetoed the proposal, but the council on Friday enacted it into law over his veto.

The fight will continue after the 1990 census, which is expected to show continued large population growth by Latinos, and a smaller but steady increase in the number of Asians. The black population will remain stable and the percentage of Anglos in the multiethnic mix will decline.

That trend was shown clearly in a report this month by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, projecting that Latinos will constitute almost 40% of the Southland's population by 2010.

The council had tried to ignore the huge population revolution. But the U.S. Justice Department brought suit under the Voting Rights Act, charging that Los Angeles district lines were drawn in a manner that divided minority communities, preventing election of a minority council member.

The law requires another reapportionment after the 1990 census; city reapportioners will then have to redraw council lines completely to reflect a higher Latino and Asian population. Blacks, solidly in control for years of three council districts south of the Santa Monica Freeway, will have to fight to keep their share. And Anglo council members, in complete control less than 30 years ago, may be a minority.

To understand how that will change the city, this generation of Angelenos should recall that era. The 1950s council almost had a small-town air, as veterans recall, run by men prominent in their neighborhoods, all agreeing that Los Angeles was destined to be a residential city, dedicated to a postwar dream of backyard and patio.

There was plenty of development. Housing tracts and apartments multiplied, as did shopping centers, service stations (in a time of cheap gasoline) and even an occasional office building. But nothing like today's building splurge.

Life and politics became more complicated in the mid-'60s and '70s. The Watts riots showed Los Angeles that more than barbecues were smoldering, that the city was afflicted with serious social and economic inequities.

A mid-'70s downtown redevelopment law cleared the way for a proliferation of high-rises in a central city that had been peacefully decaying. The emergence of Los Angeles as a trade and financial center brought big office buildings to the Westside and San Fernando Valley. Population growth led to even more shopping centers.

Over the years, the council also changed. Black population growth allowed the election of three black council members. One of the first was Bradley, representing the 10th District. Latinos gained representation when Richard Alatorre was elected to the council last year, as did Asians when Michael Woo won a seat. Another Latino is expected to be elected next year as a result of the redistricting. A third may move into the council from the San Fernando Valley in a few years.

From the beginning, minority council members provided powerful political support to the economic interests who favored more office buildings, shopping centers and who envisioned a downtown stretching from the Music Center to USC, with other downtowns on the Westside and in the western San Fernando Valley. These buildings would provide construction jobs for blacks and Latinos who had been hurt by the decline of tire and auto-making and other basic manufacturing jobs.

The alliance between the city's richest--big corporations and developers--and the representatives of the city's poorest has become a powerful factor at City Hall. When minority representation increases, it will become even stronger.

The alliance provokes bitter debates, with overtones of class warfare, on development issues. When Westsiders Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky, for example, oppose big developments in their districts, black councilmen Gilbert Lindsay, Robert Farrell and David Cunningham make barbed comments about Bel-Air and Brentwood, wealthy Westside areas.

Such debate shapes the city. Council President Pat Russell, who is white but has strong alliances with Cunningham and Alatorre and represents an ethnically mixed district, is an advocate of the construction-jobs approach, reflected in her support of heavy development in her own district. Westchester in the Russell years has become much different from its birth after World War II as a prototype Los Angeles suburb.

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