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July 17, 1994|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

Our optimism has always confounded the experts.

In an essay about Los Angeles in the depth of the Depression, novelist James M. Cain complained about bad food, nutty religions and economic stagnation. A "Gethsemane of woes," Cain wrote. Yet, to his consternation, he found the people behaving as if they were living in paradise.

Sixty years later, as they struggle through another round of misfortune, Los Angeles County residents are still in a surprisingly good mood.

A recent Times Poll makes it clear that, despite all that has befallen Los Angeles in the last few years, most people have not slipped into a slough of despond, do not intend to pull up stakes and fully expect the economic picture to brighten fairly soon.

According to the poll, 78% of Los Angeles County residents said they are satisfied with the way things are going in their personal lives, and nearly 70% expressed similar sentiments about the communities in which they live. And although concerns about crime and joblessness continue to preoccupy many people, 67% said they feel safe and 66% said their personal finances are secure. Moreover, a majority of people surveyed predicted that the local economy will be on the mend in a year.

The Times Poll, directed by John Brennan, interviewed 1,239 county residents between June 17 and 20. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

It's not just the lucky ones who are upbeat about living in Los Angeles.

In the space of a month, Ronald, an unemployed aerospace engineer in Chatsworth, lost his job and part of his house when the earthquake struck. Almost 60 and beginning to run out of savings, Ronald worries that his job prospects aren't what they once were. But he has every expectation of bouncing back.

"I'll get a job doing something," said Ronald, who asked that his last name not be used. "Painting, wall papering, flipping burgers if it comes to that. We've got enough savings to get us through to the end of the year. So I guess we are kind of close to the hairy edge. But I've been laid off before, and I've never felt like we're going down the tubes."

Ronald agreed with a large majority of people surveyed--77%--who said that their communities' most prized attributes, the things that drew them there in the first place, had not lost their value.

Proximity to work and the availability of affordable housing were the most oft-cited reasons people gave for choosing to live where they do. But when asked what was most appealing about their communities, the answers often had to do with the look and feel of a place: neighborhood peace and quiet, the climate, natural surroundings, parks and privacy.

"We have everything here that other places only tend to have one of--the mountains, the oceans and the climate," said Ronald.

Like many other people surveyed, he places a high value on the people who live near him. What distinguishes them, he said, is "an attitude that they can make it on their own, that they don't need someone to hold their hand."

The poll found that as residents think about the future of their communities and how to make life better, they tend to place a heavier burden of responsibility on themselves than on government.

Although most said they believe that local government bears the greatest responsibility for reviving the economy and improving transportation, more people look to families and individuals than to government when it comes to making Los Angeles safer from crime and to raising the community's moral values.

"I think that the parents have to teach the children what is right and what is wrong, rather than the school teaching them, or the television teaching them," said Tammy, who described herself as a 56-year-old housewife in the San Fernando Valley.

"Of course, the way you live yourself as a family sets an example. To a large degree, the way you live your life, I believe, is what teaches your children," said Tammy, who did not wish to give her last name.

When it came to recommending specific remedies for the city's economic, transportation and moral ills, people were not of one mind. However, a clearer consensus emerged when people were asked what they would do make Los Angeles a more livable place. The largest number of answers focused on hiring more police and sheriff's deputies and on cracking down on various types of illegal activities, including illegal immigration. Asked about illegal immigration in a separate question, 72%, including majorities of all four ethnic groups polled, said it is a problem.

The poll asked county residents to rate the quality of life in their communities in a variety ways. More often than not, the answers were positive, although people living outside the Los Angeles city limits tended to be more enthusiastic than city dwellers.

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