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Racial Lines in County Blur but Could Return : Population: Times study of census finds communities far more mixed. Some experts fear new ethnic divisions.


The Los Angeles County documented in the 1990 Census is a metropolis in motion, a place where dramatic population shifts are breaking down old strongholds of racial and ethnic separatism but perhaps laying the foundation for new ones.

The traditional boundaries have blurred in a variety of ways. An expanding Latino population has begun to overtake black majorities in Watts and other areas of South-Central Los Angeles, while challenging Anglo dominance of several San Fernando Valley communities. Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants have poured into what were once all-white, middle-class neighborhoods in the San Gabriel Valley. The county's northern tier--cities such as Palmdale, Lancaster and Santa Clarita--has emerged as the last frontier of Anglo growth.

These conclusions are based on a detailed Los Angeles Times computer study of 1990 Census data conducted by Richard O'Reilly, director of computer analysis. The Times study looked at population movement and ethnic distribution in the county's 1,652 census tracts, units of population that contain from 2,500 to 8,000 people.

The study found that the breakdown of racial separatism--though far from complete--is especially conspicuous among blacks who have left inner-city neighborhoods in droves and established a growing presence in scores of traditionally white suburbs. The black population grew in more than 100 of the county's 163 communities. The proportion of blacks in predominantly black neighborhoods was only 13% in 1990 compared to 35% in 1980. The analysis also found a similar trend among Anglos; 30% are living in largely white neighborhoods as opposed to 47% a decade ago.

"In a span of one generation, the social landscape has undergone a transformation of major proportions as L.A. has emerged as a truly pluralistic society," Paul Ong, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, wrote in a recently completed paper on living patterns in the county. Ong reached conclusions similar to those of The Times in his own study of new census data.

Besides a leveling off of the black population, which grew by only 1%, the decade also saw an 8% drop in the Anglo population, a 62% increase in Latinos and a 119% surge in Asians.

The ebb and flow of ethnic groups has led to what appears to be a balanced distribution of blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos in several areas, from aging South Bay suburbs to new housing developments in the San Gabriel Valley.

The new census data, however, is subject to interpretation. Some demographers suspect that the decennial survey only reflects a temporary ethnic balance that may give way to a new era of segregation. This theory foresees expanding Latino and Asian majorities that will come to prevail in more and more communities.

Whatever the outcome, there is no question that Los Angeles County and its more than 8 million inhabitants are undergoing tumultuous change. Southern California always has stood for novelty in American life, but as waves of newcomers wash through such communities as Glendale, Walnut and Watts, two or three times in the same decade, the region has developed something of an identity crisis.

Relations throughout the county run the gamut from violence to romance, from Lawndale's Leuzinger High School, where Latinos and blacks have been going at each other with knives and screwdrivers, to the public high schools in racially mixed Rowland Heights where, according to school superintendent Sharon Robison, "everybody dates everybody."

A "Kosher Burrito" stand across from City Hall in downtown Los Angeles once symbolized the city's quirkiness; today it represents the mixed character of the entire county. Just down the street, a Japanese barbershop advertises hair styling for blacks. In Van Nuys, a Buddhist shrine has been erected in the parking lot of a mini-mall. In Long Beach, a Cambodian cultural center occupies a building that was a Latino community center and originally a neighborhood movie theater.

Much of this is in contrast with the community portrait sketched by the 1980 Census. Then, a Times analysis concluded that the county was one of the nation's most segregated. Sociologists Douglas S. Massey of the University of Chicago and Nancy Denton of the State University of New York at Albany reached a similar conclusion in an article on "hypersegregation," describing Los Angeles as one of the 10 most segregated metropolitan regions in the country.

The county's new ethnic mix is most apparent in suburban locales. The best examples are Duarte and West Covina, bedroom communities in the San Gabriel Valley where the ethnic distribution comes closest to countywide proportions--41% Anglo, 38% Latino, 11% African-American and 10% Asian.

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