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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA has become richer and more powerful than most nations. And as the capital of Southern California, Los Angeles is experiencing strong, startling spasms of change. The powerful demographic, economic and generational forces that are changing the city are producing a new, unique power elite, one that reflects the shifting contours of the city. It is power that, more often than not, is exercised behind the scenes and rests not in one hand but in many hands; not in one community but in many communities.

Forty years ago, in his now-classic history, "Southern California: An Island on the Land," Carey McWilliams declared Los Angeles "an archipelago of social and ethnic islands, economically interrelated and culturally disparate." Nothing has happened since to diminish this insight. If anything, the islands have drifted farther apart.

Because of this drift and the isolation it brings, Los Angeles can be a frustrating city in which to get things done and a difficult city in which to measure influence: Power runs in too many directions, and the currents of influence intersect too often. Prominence in the entertainment industry can be meaningless downtown; City Hall politicians may go through entire careers without being invited to the political salons of Hollywood and the Westside, where senators sip cocktails with starlets, high above the distant lights of the city.

Few individuals have ever had enough influence to en compass it all. The last undisputed baron of the power structure was Asa V. Call, the legendary chairman of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. Call was not a man for the limelight. But for sheer behind-the-scenes clout, he was unmatched. Skill and endurance made Call an institution, a living link between generations. His first major foray into state politics came in 1934 when he joined with Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst and the rest of the state's business establishment to fund a ferocious and successful campaign against Socialist Upton Sinclair's bid for the governorship. Later, Call served as president of the state Chamber of Commerce, the Southern California Auto Club and the USC Board of Trustees. He was a leading fund-raiser for the Music Center and for successive waves of Republican politicians. Major political and civic endeavors simply weren't considered without Call's counsel. "He was a kingmaker," says Francis X. McNamara, former president of the Los Angeles United Way and now a fund-raising consultant for the archdiocese and other organizations.

Call was able to function as a unifying power not only because of his own gifts but also because he operated at a time when Southern Californians shared a vision of untrammeled growth. In the years immediately following World War II, the region's civic leaders saw in their still dusty and unformed surroundings the nation's future. Call declared, "California . . . has all the potentialities of a great economic empire" and he lobbied for the government activities--building the freeway system prominent among them--that helped create it. Men such as Call believed that Los Angeles' manifest destiny was to assume leadership of the West, and ultimately the nation. In a 1970 Times interview with Nancy and Bill Boyarsky, Call reaffirmed his creed. "I think Los Angeles will be the largest city in the country in every respect I can think of," he said with a prophet's insistence. Focused and confident, Call and the rest of the business establishment--the heads of the premier banks and law firms, utilities and corporations--worked with a succession of government and labor leaders from the 1940s through the 1970s to build Los Angeles into a world-class city. And their works, for better and worse, define our physical landscape.

But Asa Call has been dead for a decade now, and Pacific Mutual has moved its headquarters from downtown to Newport Beach. Call's role in the community has never been replicated. Nor could it be today. Los Angeles lacks the fundamental prerequisite for a single dominating community leader: a universally accepted vision of its future. The strains of growth have shattered the development consensus that drove the city for most of its history.

Today, there are many visions of the future, each with powerful advocates. "The Asa Calls--and even before Asa Call, because he was the last of a long line--had a common notion of what this place was and what it could become, so there was a consensus among the movers and shakers about what had to be done to get there," says Jane G. Pisano, president of Los Angeles 2000, an ambitious study chartered by Mayor Tom Bradley to examine the city's future. "We now have a situation where we have so many new players--not only reflecting our ethnic diversity but also the sprawling megalopolis we've become, with so many economic power centers--that you have a lack of common understanding about what we really are." And thus no consensus on where we should go.

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