The inner city not being exactly in his back yard, Manhattan Beach City Councilman Steve Napolitano waited through the debate over on-street parking and the annual 10K run before making his pitch to the conscience of suburbia.
"Only a fool ignores a problem in the hope that it'll go away," he began. "Our community should commit itself in some fashion, in some way, to the efforts to rebuild Los Angeles."
The silence was deafening. The item on the May 19 council agenda, as Napolitano put it, "died due to lack of interest." When he solicited constituent suggestions, he got six, ranging from a "pen pal program" with South-Central kids to a proposition that Manhattan Beach have "nothing to do with those people."
Getting the message, he put a pair of food and clothing collection barrels in the lobby of City Hall and quietly left it at that.
Just when urban Los Angeles needs them most, Southern California's suburbanites are more ambivalent than ever about the ties that bind--or perhaps \o7 shackle--\f7 them to the city core.
On one hand, there is the desire to do right by the urban poor; on the other, there is the instinct to flee them. The impulse to bail out the inner city for the greater good runs smack into the question of who will pay.
Los Angeles has always been a study in mixed emotions, straining to maintain an urban identity against the mighty pull of its own centrifugal force.
The worlds that separate gang 'hoods from gated estates can be bridged in a few minutes by freeway. The city limits encompass the homes of hundreds of thousands of Angelenos whose neighborhoods are, in all but geography, suburban. The shifts in demography that have rocked Lynwood and Watts have been no less keenly felt in Anaheim and Van Nuys. Were it not for the suburban yearning for privacy and security, Los Angeles could not grow; were it not for the city's gritty and glittering core, its satellite communities would not exist.
In the wake of the riots, the city is emphasizing the common ground, with suburbanite Peter V. Ueberroth of Laguna Beach calling on his neighbors for the bucks and votes many say will be a prerequisite for the inner city's survival. Those concerned about the region's overall economic health warn that the farther you get from Los Angeles, the more fuzzy the distinctions between its myriad communities become--particularly to potential corporate investors who do not distinguish the inner city from Irvine.
But rarely in the history of this megalopolis have the ties between city and suburb been so strained.
"It's not easy," said David Stein, a principal planner for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "Many of these people have left the city, and dislike the problems they left behind. They see (urban) Los Angeles as big and threatening, and stories of crime and bad education don't help."
Besides, says Orange County historian Jim Sleeper, suburban taxpayers "are tighter than bark on a gum tree. And the Los Angeles summer festival, as we down here refer to the rioting, was no incentive for us to cozy up."
Not that suburbanites felt much warmth for the cities before the riots.
In a 1989 Gallup Poll, only 19% of Americans said they would most like to live in a city. Another poll, done last year for NBC News and Newsweek, found that 51% of Americans opposed raising the taxes of suburbanites to help solve the problems of their urban centers.
"I've never been real crazy about L.A.," said Pasadena muralist Kenton Nelson. "I don't like fearing for my life."
Ditto, says Peter Weber, the mayor of Rolling Hills.
"I try to stay away from Los Angeles all the time," he said. "It's a big dirty city that's smoggy and hot, with traffic jams and expensive parking."
Double ditto, says Orange County's Scott Peotter.
"If I didn't have to go up there to meet business clients," said the Irvine architect, "I wouldn't go up there at all."
For these and other suburbanites, this year's violence reinforced their worst fears about urban life.
"For 18 years," said Richard Close, a Century City lawyer who lives in Sherman Oaks, "we used to go to Langer's Deli in MacArthur Park after the USC football games. Well, my family won't go there now. They decided a couple of years ago that it was too high-risk a place to get a sandwich after a football game, and the riots just cemented that feeling."
Such sentiments dismay people such as Inglewood businessman Mark Sinaguglia, who worries that his community has been lumped in the public mind with the most devastated areas of South Los Angeles.
Inglewood, he notes, was relatively untouched by the civil unrest, despite its proximity to some of the hardest hit riot areas. Yet suburbanites of all ethnic backgrounds perceived the riots as a minority uprising and will now avoid his mostly African-American and Latino community out of racial fear, Sinaguglia says.