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These days, people are quick to see tarnish on the Golden State. Overly glossy images of Lotusland have given way to overly dire visions of gloom. The truth, of course, lies in between. : California Dreaming

April 18, 1993|This story was written by Times staff writers Roy Rivenburg, Robin Abcarian, S.J. Diamond and Lynn Smith

OK, so we aren't all that healthy. Aren't we at least better-looking than people in other places?

Maybe, but we've had a little help. The number of plastic surgeries performed in California is far greater than any other state. Of the nation's 109,000 liposuction procedures in 1990, for example, Californians accounted for 21,400, according to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.

The standard of external beauty is so rigorous here that one local surgeon says attractive women often are sent to him by their agents (or husbands). These women may have no desire for plastic surgery, but their agents have promised them better roles if they get smaller noses or larger breasts.

Says Dr. Malcolm Lesavoy, associate professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UCLA: "I tell them to send their agent in and I'll give him bigger breasts."

Perception No. 4: The Automobile Is King in Southern California

These days the car is just a lowly serf--at least in comparison to other states. Although California ranks first in volume of cars sold, it's 22nd (way behind No. 1 Delaware) in new cars and trucks registered per 1,000 residents.

And when used cars are thrown into the mix, the Golden State sinks further, to 34th, says John Rettie of J.D. Power and Associates, an Agoura Hills market research firm serving the auto industry. Topping the list are Wyoming, Idaho and South Dakota, all of which have more vehicles than people.

At least some Californians can claim a better caliber of vehicle. Nearly one-third of the Mercedes-Benzes sold in the United States are bought in this state--and more Porsches are on the road here than in Germany.

And, even at 34th in the ratio of autos to humans, there are still plenty of cars to go around. Los Angeles County, for example, has 6.2 million registered vehicles, but only 5.6 million licensed drivers.

Subway? What subway?

Perception No. 5: Everyone Used to Want to Live Here; Now Everyone Wants to Leave

You know the stereotype: Driven west by April snowstorms and incredibly high heating costs, suitcase-laden cars with rusting undercarriages disgorge Easterners by the kajillions into our state every spring. And that, Grandpa tells Junior, is why these darned freeways are so crowded. Right?

Wrong.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, California continues to experience huge population growth, more than twice the national average.

But the increase in the state--as well as in Los Angeles County--has far less to do with transcontinental migration than with the high birth rate and foreign immigration.

From 1980 to 1990, the county population grew from 7.4 million to 8.8 million. During that period, the Anglo population dropped 8% and the African-American population grew by a single percentage point. The Latino population, however, surged 62%, and the Asian population fairly exploded--119%.

Recently, according to driver's license records, more people are departing Los Angeles than are arriving from other states. Now it is Angelenos who are searching for bluer skies, craning their necks primarily in Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Florida.

But we're still waiting to notice the effect of all the departures on those darned freeways. According to Commuter Transportation Services, the average one-way commute in the five-county area--Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside--is 36 to 40 minutes to go 17 miles.

Perception No. 6: L.A. Has No Rivers

There are several misconceptions about the Los Angeles River. Pick one.

* L.A. is a river basin.

* L.A. is a basin and a river runs through it.

* L.A. is a basin and a river ran through it but doesn't anymore.

The truth is that there was a river running through Los Angeles and, technically, there still is a river, but it's real different. Some call it a concrete ditch.

In the beginning, it was "a typical Southern California river--dry in the dry season, wet in the rainy season," says Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River. From the confluence of the Bell and Calabasas creeks near Canoga Park High School in the San Fernando Valley, the L.A. River flowed through the Hollywood Hills, downtown L.A. and several suburbs out to the sea.

It also rose periodically and flooded its banks--an inconvenience to modern settlers--so in the late 1930s it was--bit by bit--channelized (forced into a narrow channel) and concretized (paved). Now water flows to the sea quickly, making the banks less likely to overflow. In fact, more water travels down the river than ever before, MacAdams says, because "95% of the Valley is paved now," and the water can't stop and sink in.

The L.A. River (if that's still the right word) is 58 miles long, "all but 13 in concrete," says MacAdams. But those non-paved sections--a couple of miles in the Sepulveda Basin, eight miles from Griffith Park to downtown, another few miles at Long Beach--are thriving natural habitats.

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